The Spirituality of Teachability: God’s Home School

Sermon on John 14:23-29 for Easter 6 C, May 1, 2016

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

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I remember as a young person puzzling over the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make any sound?”  Or this one, “Do colors exist, or is my experience of a color just the interpretations my brain makes on the basis of the rods and cones in my eyes as they receive part of the light spectrum reflected in different wavelengths by different objects?

Understanding Science – really?

Recently I heard a professor who asked the question, “Would a glass of water exist if I were not looking at it?”  Apparently, the answer, from modern physics, is only “potentially so.”  The reason for that involves quantum mechanics and is so complex I will not even attempt it.  I am quite certain I do not understand it.

If the physical universe is so difficult to adequately comprehend, how much more so the non-material world?   Think of all the great minds that have struggled, over the years, with questions like: What is love?  What is freedom?  What makes life meaningful?  What is my purpose in life?   As difficult to understand and talk about as they are, these are the kinds of abstractions that people live for, and are willing to die for.

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If these non-material concepts are challenging, how much more so is the concept of God?  I was listening to the Science Mike podcast in which he was answering a question about the different dimensions, besides space and time, that modern scientists speak of.  In his explanation he said that there is no way our brains can conceptualize these other dimensions, even if mathematical models indicate their presence.  Our brains just cannot conceive of them.  The only world we experience is the world of three dimensional space and forward moving linear time.

How much more difficult is it for our brains to conceptualize God?  We use words like “infinite,” but that does not go too far to help.  Infinite is a negative, meaning not finite.  We say “immortal,” but that too only means not mortal, not subject to death.  We say “invisible,” but again, it only means that we cannot see God with human eyes.

In spite of this challenge, throughout the world, and from our earliest origins as humans, we have been attempting to speak of the Divine – the gods, or of one God.  To speak of God is to use human concepts expressed in human language.

God-Language is Symbolic

This means that all of our language about God is symbolic.  This is a hugely significant thing to say: all of our language of God is symbolic.  At the core of our tradition as Christians, and at the core of Judaism is the essential mystery of God.

The closest we can come to naming God is found in the story of Moses at the burning bush.  God’s voice, in the story, says God’s name is Yahweh, or “I am that I am” which is either pure being or, probably more accurately, pure becoming – being, in process.  Well, that may be a name, but what does it mean?

So, every serious theologian and every religious tradition speaks of the ineffability of the Divine.  So when we speak of God, we speak symbolically.  We try to speak truthfully, but it is the truth of symbol.  We use terms like, “the Ground of Being,” or “the Depth dimension of life.”  John Calvin used the words “O depth” to speak of God as mystery, which I quoted not too long ago here.

Rejecting Inadequate God-conceptions
I believe that one of the biggest reasons we see a rise in atheism now is that many people are simply rejecting conceptions of God that are totally inadequate.

For example, if God is conceived of like a Superman, a being, apart from the wScreen Shot 2016-04-30 at 7.02.33 PMorld, who has unlimited power to act on the world, and sometimes does, but most of time just stands idly by, as evil and tragedy cause suffering and harm, then that God would be a moral monster.

Of course that kind of conception of God must be rejected.  I guess if that were the only possible way of conceiving God, then rejecting that concept might make you an atheist.  But perhaps it simply means that a new way of thinking about God  is needed, which of course, is the case.

So, for me, calling God “the Ground of Being” or “the Depth dimension of life” is an attempt at being more adequate than the idle Superman concept, but these phrases have a severe limitation.  They are impersonal.

God as Personal – at least

Whatever God is, God must be at least as sophisticated and complex aScreen Shot 2016-04-30 at 7.05.51 PMs we humans are, but of course, much more.  Just as plants are more complex than rocks, and animals more than plants, so we humans are complex enough to have consciousness.  We know ourselves as persons.  We have will and purpose.  We can communicate and have relationships.  God must at least have these personal capacities.  God must at least be personal, though much more so, at a level we cannot imagine.

The Symbol of Spirit as Personal Advocate

I say all of that because we need to have that background when we read texts like the gospel of John.  John’s community was a mystical community.  Remember it is in John’s gospel alone that we hear Jesus saying, flat out, “God is Spirit.”  So how do you speak of Spirit in human language?  You must speak symbolically.

So in John we hear Jesus speaking symbolically of God, of himself, and of the Spirit.  Jesus’ favorite symbol for God is to call him Father – very personal, very relational, even intimate.  Jesus speaks of himself as mystics do, as being one with the Father.  He understands himself as a vehicle for God the Father’s message.

But John’s community lived at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, and he was no longer present to speak with them about God.

Nevertheless, they still experienced God.  And their experience of God had a distinctively Jesus flavor.   The Spirit of Christ was still present for them.  So what symbol could they use to speak of this in human language?

In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus calling the Spirit, the Advocate.  In this symbolic language, Jesus speaks of the Father, sending the Spirit to us as an Advocate.  Advocate was a term that was relevant to their culture.  It just means someone that shows up to give you exactly the help you need in that moment.

Reminding and Teaching Further

What kind of help?  Here we learn that the Spirit helps by reminding the Christian community of what Jesus taught.  But more than that alone; the Spirit continues the teaching process further.

“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  (14:26)

So, if the Spirit both reminds and teaches, then our task is to remain teachable.  Our goal, as we try to follow Jesus in our culture, in our generation, is to keep open to the Spirit of Christ as he schools us.  Mature Christians practice the spirituality of teachability.

What have we learned?

And, over the years, we have, indeed, been taught.  We believe that the Spirit has taught us, after thousands of years of being unteachable, that slavery must not be tolerated. Jesus never said that, but we have been taught that by the Spirit.

The Spirit has also led us to open the doors of the church to the ministry of women, after all these years.  And finally, we have concluded that there is no basis for discrimination that finds any justification for the community that follows Jesus.  We are all and equally loved by God.  God’s grace is the one and only basis for our spiritual lives.  We have been taught to practice radical hospitality.

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So the Christ Spirit is the Advocate who shows up teaching us what it means to follow Jesus in our generation.  There is also a deeply personal aspect of the Spirit’s work as well.  By the Spirit, God is not just an external presence, but an internal reality.  The symbolic concept here is a home: God’s Spirit takes up residence inside us.

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

We live and move in God, so we could say that our home is in God, and here, we discover that God’s home is in us.  Some call this a “mutual indwelling.”  This is where even symbolic language utterly breaks down.  It ends in a paradox.  God in us, us in God.   But how else can human language say it?

What does this symbolic language mean?  It means, at least, that God is intimately involved in the moment-by-moment life we live.  God is living God’s life in the lives of each of us.  It means, at least, that God is there for us, as an Advocate, in every moment.  It means, at least, that God is for us, not against us.  It means, at least, that God is the name we give to that force in us, luring us towards love, towards the good, towards beauty and towards truth.  It means, at least, that the trajectory of compassion that Jesus set in motion, can continue in us.


And of course the personal effect of knowing that as we live in God, God lives, by the Spirit of Christ, in us, as an Advocate, a teacher and guide, can only be one thing: peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Peace, the opposite of anxiety and fear, is the product of a life of trust.  We trust that God is with us, spiritually, in us, helping us, and that we are not abandoned as orphans, nor merely the little people, running around like ants, observed by the idle, distant Superman.
This is the peace that continues even in times of suffering and pain.  Knowing that if God is at home in us, God is there, in fact suffering with us.  Not as an external observer of our suffering, but one with us as an Advocate in our sufferings, assuring us that we are not abandoned.  We will be alright.

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How do we experience this peace?  We experience this peace only as we are mindfully awake to the present moment.  If God is in us by the Spirit, living our lives in us, this can only be about the present moment we are living.

We do not live in the past; it is over.  We do not live in the future that has not yet happened in our experience.  We can only live in the present; in the moment.  So God’s Spirit is in the present moment.  It is in the present moment that we come to experience the peace that the Spirit gives.

How do we become more mindfully present in the moment?  Mindfulness is one of the fruits of practices like meditation.  This important and historic Christian practice almost dropped out of use by Protestants after the theological battles of the Reformation, but thankfully, meditation is being rediscovered by many today.

A regular practice of contemplative prayer, or mindfulness meditation, and other mindfulness practices such as yoga or mindful walking, produces the fruit of mindfulness in us, allowing us to experience the peace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.

Fingers pointing at the moon

Yes, all these words are symbolic.  And, as symbols, they are inadequate.  We acknowledge that fact.  But as symbols, they point to a reality, like fingers pointing at the moon.  The fingers pointing are not the moon, but all we can do from here is point, and give gratitude.

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

because, as we can only express symbolically, we have the Spirit, the Advocate, sent by the Father, at home in us, teaching us to follow the Jesus path, giving us peace.

It’s That Simple

Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35 for the 5th Sunday in Easter, C, April 24, 2016

Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:31-35
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When I was a child, it happened more than once that someone had the idea of making a Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 2.02.45 PMclub.  Our close circle of friends would swear loyalty to each other  and seal it with an oath.  We would say, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”  That is called an oath of self-cursing, or, technically, a self-maledictory oath.

These kind of oaths show up in the bible.  You may recall Ruth, promising to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi with the promise,

“The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”

Actually, circumcision is also an acted out oath of self-cursing.  It is symbolic castration.  It is saying, “May my family line, my name, die out and be forgotten in this community if I am ever disloyal to the covenant.

Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Abraham, according to the story.  It  was supposed to be a permanent practice for all future generations of the descendants of Abraham, those who inherit the covenant and its promised blessings.

Think about those exclusive clubs that children make with their loyalty oaths.  They are so natural and instinctive that there must be something deeply human about them.
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Probably it goes back to the very behaviors that we evolved to practice that enabled our survival.  We learned to band together in tribes, back on the African Savannah, and as a loyal group, we fought off predators, we hunted and gathered food, and we cared for our young.

So, gathering into exclusive groups was an adaptive advantage back when we were putting bones in our noses.  Whether or not it is still an advantage, the instinct remains, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”

Growing up

Part of what it means to become a mature adult is learning that instinctive behaviors can often be completely inappropriate.  How long does it take to train siblings not to fight with each other?  Years, right?

Brain scientists know that the primitive part of our brains, which they refer to as the “lizard brain” is where that automatic impulse to fight back comes from.  There is no rational thinking in that part of the brain; when we feel threatened, the part they call the amygdala fires, and we want to fight back.  But mature people discover and learn alternatives to violence, which is preferable to a lawsuit or jail time.

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I guess we should not be too harsh with the struggle they had in the early church to avoid the instinct to make an exclusive club out of being Jesus-followers.  At the beginning, they all were all Jewish; descendants of Abraham.  They had a long history of being distinct from he Gentile nations around them.

Circumcision not only made them distinct, it was also a serious oath of loyalty.  They were used to being distinct.  Moses added other practices that made Jewish people distinct as well, especially the kosher food laws, and the prohibition of all work on the weekly Sabbath.

But for those early Christians, it was complicated.  They were self-consciously trying to follow Jesus.  Jesus had been with them and had completely transformed their lives.  He had taught them a revolutionary way of conceiving of God.

Jesus taught them that they were children of God who could call him Abba, or Papa, without temple, without priest, and without sacrifice.   He taught them that they were not to think of themselves as impure, but perhaps only lost, in need of being found, and God like a Good Shepherd or like the Father of the prodigal son, was in the finding business.

And to top it off, Jesus took this message across the Mason-Dixon line; he took it to uncircumcised Gentiles.  He went to their side of the lake, to their towns, where he healed them, he fed them; for heaven’s sake, he loved them.  From the cross, with Roman nails killing him, he forgave them.

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In the sacred scriptures of the Jews, the Torah, there were strict laws about your obligation to your neighbor.  Jewish people were taught to understand that they were a covenant community with deep moral responsibility for their neighbors, especially the weak and vulnerable, “the widow, and the orphan.”  They were not even allowed to charge each other interest on loans.

But their responsibility to non-Jews was different.  They were not “neighbors,” in the strict sense.   This is why, when Jesus summed up the whole law saying “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor” the man asked him “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan which ends with the question turned around: “Who was a neighbor to him?

So, the early church had a complicated situation.  They had the human instinct to form an exclusive club, and the cultural and religious background to think of themselves as separate, as “the chosen,”  but they had been transformed by Jesus, whose life practice and teaching was completely non-exclusive.

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Maybe this is why, in the story that Luke tells of those early days, they were open to Peter’s perspective.  But I must say, they were going way out on a limb.  They had the Word of God from Moses on one hand, with strict, specific laws, and centuries of respecting those laws, and what did Peter have?  A vision, a voice, and a visitor.

Peter’s vision was amazing.  Imagine: coming down from heaven, a banquet tablecloth with sizzling hot ham, pork chops, and bacon, along with shrimp and lobster,  and a voice saying, “Bon Appetit”!  With apologies to the vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians among us, it makes your mouth water.   But not if you have grown up considering this kind of food horrible.  Think of being offered dog meat, for example – you do not even want to think about it for a moment.

So, the banquet table cloth had to be presented three times, along the message that stands in dramatic contradiction to massive amounts of scripture,

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Can one person’s mystical vision overturn chapter after chapter of sacred text?

Well that was not all.  Then came the voice and the visit.  Peter reports that three men, from Caesarea, arrived at the house and, he says,

“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So, here we have a mystical vision followed by a report of a message from the Spirit asserting the opposite of what the Old Testament teaches, saying: “make no distinctions.

But that is not all; it was not just a vision and a message, there were real live people there.  And when Peter went and told them about the Jesus message, they had a direct experience of the Spirit, just like the Jewish disciples did on Pentecost.

So it was their personal experience that made the argument solid.  God was doing something new.

None of this should have been a surprise for followers of Jesus.  Jesus himself had already broken the ice with Gentiles.  His whole lifestyle was one of openness and inclusion.  He taught that even if we consider them our enemies, we must love our enemies.

The way John tells the Jesus story, in the upper room, on the night of his arrest, Jesus gives a solemn “new commandment” to his followers:

“love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The only distinction that separates the followers of Jesus from other people is that they are famous for loving others – and of course – love makes no separations or distinctions.  Yes, it is a paradox.  It calls for non-dual thinking.

Learning the Lesson: Meditation

How long it takes to learn this!  We have such a history of racism and discrimination – not just we Americans; this is a deeply human problem.  Anytime  you have groups of people who find reasons to think of themselves as “us” and others as “them” you have “us vs. them.”  It is as human as Cain and Able.  We find it natural, even pleasurable, to be in exclusive groups, from childhood to adulthood.

My experience of being in the Balkans has alerted me to the seductive power of the “us vs. them” message.  You can get yourself elected easily if you keep telling everyone how “us” is being threatened by “them” and their ways – their language, their religion, their views.

But friends, that is the opposite of love.  And it is the opposite of the way of Jesus.

So here is what I believe.  We must face the fact, without being in denial, that we all have this natural human condition within us.  We do.  It is there. It feels good to be in an exclusive club.   It is in our brain stems.   But we can change.

Which is exactly why we all need the very practices of Jesus to overcome our natural Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.44.01 PMinstincts.  Jesus was a “Spirit person” as Marcus Borg likes to say. He was deeply open to the Spirit; deeply in touch with the Divine.  As we know from the gospels, Jesus spent a great deal of time in contemplative prayer.  That was, we are told, his habitual practice.

The people who scientifically study this kind of meditation all agree that one of its powerful effects in the brain is to calm down that lizard part, where our instinctive desire to hate and fight come from.

As we practice the Christian habit of daily meditation, we begin to grow in our capacity for loving compassion.  Meditation, I believe, is indispensable today, more than ever.   There is something almost magical about what happens when a person develops the daily practice of sitting in silence for twenty minutes.  It produces a compassionate calm that is amazing.

Some people say that they cannot meditate because their minds wander.  All that means is that they  have not learned the one little mental tool used by people who meditate.  We give our minds a very small task to do, and bring our full concentrated attention to that task, as a way of anchoring ourselves in the present moment.  Some use a mantra word, some simply focus all attention on their breathing.

And yes, the mind wanders.  That is what all our minds do.  And it is okay.  When we become aware that our minds have wandered, we simply begin again, and re-focus on our anchor, on our mantra word, or our breathing.  That is all.  We sit silently in the presence of God.

But the point is that this daily practice of contemplative wordless prayer, or call it mindfulness meditation, is an indispensable Christian practice for those whose goal is to keep Jesus’ commandment  that we love one another.

It opens us to be able to love one another as Jesus did, crossing lines of gender, of race, of religion – all the lines that separate us into “us” and “them,” and make us want to form the kind of exclusive groups that the early Christians figured out they must not become.

The world needs us to be that community, famous for loving.  The deeper the divisions are in our country, the more we need bridge builders.  The more painful the wounds, the more we need healers.  The more angry the rhetoric, the more we need people of the gentle way.  The more hate there is, the more we need people like us to become experts in loving one another.

Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Sermon on John 10:22-30 for April 17, 2016, 4th Easter C

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

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I remember how bemused I was as a young person, when someone, probably my father, pointed out to me that the bad cowboys in the TV show we were watching wore black hats, while the good cowboys wore white hats.  That was my first introduction to the concept of symbolism in story-telling.

When John tells his version of the story of Jesus, six or more decades after the first Easter Sunday, he loads his narrative with symbols.

In this scene, the first thing we learn is the timing.  The action here takes place during the festival of Dedication.  If you are trying to recall when in the Hebrew bible you read about, do not bother; it is not there.  Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.11.41 AM

Rather, this feast commemorates a time of re-dedication of the temple that had been desecrated by the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV.  He had been trying to wipe out Judaism, and thought that by building a statue to either himself, or to Zeus (it’s not clear) in the temple, and offing a non-Kosher pig on the alter, he could ruin it for the Jews.

Long story short, he was so aggressive and brutal in his suppression of Judaism that he provoked a predictable response; the people revolted.  The violent Maccabean revolution began, and was eventually successful.  The Greeks were defeated, the temple was restored, and in December of 167 BCE, it was dedicated.  So Jesus is in the temple at the time of that Dedication anniversary.  In case we miss the symbol, John also tells us that this gospel scene takes place in the winter.

Jesus is walking in that restored, re-dedicated temple, just at the time in which everyone was remembering the violent Maccabean revolution of the past, and many were wishing for the new violent revolution to begin, this time, against the Romans.

Recalling Solomon

The symbols continue.  John tells us that Jesus was in the part of the temple called the portico of Solomon.  Again, a symbol.  It calls to mind several thoughts.  First that this re-dedicated temple was quite the contrast to Solomon’s temple.

The priests there were not descendants of Aaron, but were appointed by Rome, and therefore under the Roman thumb.  The present King, unlike Solomon, was not a descendant of David, or even Jewish.  If you are Jewish and respect the Torah, all of this is a nightmare of in-authenticity.

But calling to mind Solomon also recalls what kind of a king he was – oppressive, self-aggrandizing, rich, and ultimately responsible for the division of Israel into  North and South from which it never recovered.  Jesus is in Solomon’ portico, in the days before a new unraveling of the nation that will even be worse.

Are You Messiah?
Jesus head shot

So, in this symbolic context, the leaders of the people (which is what John always means when he says “the Jews” – not everybody, but rather, the leadership) challenges Jesus about being the Messiah (= “the Christ”).

Jesus’ voice, in John’s gospel is quite unlike his tone and manner in the other gospels.  The overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars is that in John, when Jesus speaks, we are not hearing the historical Jesus, but rather the Christian community’s decades-long reflection on the meaning and significance of this man Jesus, whom they experienced as the Christ, the Messiah.

In John, Jesus speaks in cryptic ways, sometimes awkwardly, as he does here.

So, they ask Jesus,

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

You would think that if Jesus wanted to be clear, this is his golden opportunity.  But instead, he answers:

“I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Jesus then tells them the reason they do not believe him, in spite of the works that he as done in the Father’s name, which should have convinced them.  Jesus says,

“you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

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Now to a Jewish person, the sheep and shepherd symbol is well known.  It is not just the 23rd Psalm that makes the idea of us being God’ sheep famous.  The prophets too used the symbol.  The people are the sheep, and the kings and leadership are the shepherds.

Throughout most of Israel’s history they were horrible at their job as shepherds, unless fleecing the sheep for all they were worth was part of their job.  Protecting the sheep is not what they were in it for.

So Jesus’ response could be read as a double insult to these leaders.  Instead of being good shepherds, looking out for the interests of the sheep, they were sheep themselves.  But instead of being good sheep, they were bad sheep.  Good sheep follow the shepherd’s voice, bad sheep do not.  Jesus says,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

And of course, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is looking out for his sheep’s best interest, as he says,

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Eternal life,” in John’s gospel, simply means the quality of life experienced by someone who knows Jesus as the Christ. (John 17:3) Then, Jesus says, as he only does in John’s gospel, a concluding sentence that seems to come out of nowhere,

“The Father and I are one.”

The Non-violent community

If you tried to read this scene as a literal historical moment, it would be odd to say the least.  But if you read it as John’s community reflecting on their life experience as followers of Jesus, who believe that the Christ is among them spiritually, it makes great sense.

This is a community which is trying to follow Jesus, who famously refused to fight back violently, even at the cost of his life.  This is a community that practices non-violence.  So they tell the story of Jesus in contrast to the violence of the Maccabees, even in the face of the successful re-dedication of the temple.  Violence is not justified even by  its success, as if might made right.

Anyway, it was all for nothing.  By the time John wrote, they had had another violent revolution in which hundreds of thousands perished by the sword, and in the end, their temple had again been totally desecrated and destroyed.

In this context you have to ask the question, why did so many people not want to follow the Jesus path of non-violence?  Why are people still so in love with the sword?  Why are we so ready to justify every use of force for every far flung cause?  You still hear it today.

People calling for carpet bombing and killing families right along with the terrorists.  How do you explain our lust for blood and gleeful vengeance?  Our applause at “successful” drone strikes, even when collateral casualties are included?

It is hard to explain.  Maybe some people just have no intention of listening to this shepherd and belonging to his kind of sheep.

But maybe we are in a new day.  Just this week we learned that a Vatican conference was held in which bishops called for rejecting the “Just War” theory.  Arguing that this theory has been used to justify almost every war anyone wanted to fight.  They called for a complete re-thinking of what it means to follow Jesus.

One archbishop said that when Jesus, from the cross, said “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he was referring to all of us, and that “In this statement, he united the whole of humanity under one father.”

Ego and Violence

Where does this urge to violence come from?  From where this need to fight back, to inflict wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?

Clearly it is something we have within us.  It is natural, instinctive, and it appeals to our sense of entitlement.  Nothing celebrates the ego like vengeance.

And perhaps this is why John’s community concludes this scene with the awkward
non-sequitur from Jesus,

“The father and I are one.”

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John’s community was a mystical community.  They believed that not only was Jesus one with the Father, but that all of his followers are one with him, one with each other, and also at one with the Father.  There is a mystical union that connects all of us with each other and with God.  (John 17:20-23)

It is the tragedy of humanity that we do not know this.  It is not knowing, not understanding, not appreciating and living into our union with God that keeps us identifying ourselves as separate, as not-belonging, as not-his-sheep.

And from that mistaken sense of separateness, we feel that we must look out for ourselves.  We must fight back in kind.

Violence, aggression, anger, it all comes from the same source.  It is our ego.  Our sense of self, or what Richard Rohr calls the false self, or the small self.

We all have a sense of our identity – which we must have to be alive and healthy.  We get this identity from our family, our religion, our nation, our gender, our sexual orientation, the groups, and clubs and political parties that we join, and from our economic status.

As Rohr says, “Your False Self is what changes, passes, and dies when you die. Only your True Self lives forever.”  (From Immortal Diamond, p. 29. Kindle Edition.)

It is our false self that gets threatened, that gets defensive, that becomes offended, that gets angry, and in the end, is willing to be violent.

Your true self is who you are in God.  We are all, as the creation story says, icons of God – icon is the word image; we are made in God’s image.

God is the source of our being.  We live and move in God.  As a beautiful metaphor we could say that we are children of God the Father.  Jesus liked that metaphor.  Or we could say we are sheep in God’s fold, with God as our shepherd.  Or as Paul says, we are “in Christ.”  Or we could simply say we are one with God.  As Jesus said,

“The Father and I are one.”

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John’s community was a mystical community that understood this union.  Today many are re-discovering the ancient contemplative practices that are indispensable in awakening us to our true identity in God.   Meditation, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, mindfulness practices, yoga, are the tools we need.  Each of them silences the ego voice of anger, resentment, vengeance and ultimately, violence.

We need these contemplative practices now more than ever.  If nothing else, the current political climate should convince us of this.  But more personally, we are all probably convinced by our own internal conditions.

Who wants to get to the end of life a bitter, angry, resentful person?  Do we not all long to be people of inner peace, of calm contentment, and equanimity?

Contemplative practices, especially meditation, produces a fruit of compassion in us.  We become more and more aware of our unity with each other, and find new sources of sympathy and understanding for each other.  We become more kind and generous, more forgiving, in fact, loving.

We become, most of all aware of the sacredness of life – all of it.  We become aware of the present moment – the only moment we ever get to live in.  And most profoundly, we become aware of our true selves, our true identity; that we do belong, that we are beloved and forgiven; that we are children of a loving Father; that we are one with God.

This gives us the courage to be; to really be; to be alive to our lives.  It gives us the courage to trust that we are upheld in an ultimate sense.  To know that there is a Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep who listen to his voice, and follow his path.



Among the Living

Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 and Luke 24:1-12 for Easter Sunday, C, March 27, 2016

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 2.03.22 PMSalome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.   And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.   They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.   As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.   But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.   But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”   So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

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But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.   They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,   but when they went in, they did not find the body.   While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.   The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.   Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,   that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”   Then they remembered his words,   and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.   Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.   But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.   But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

When we were newly married we were poor as church mice, so we jumped at the chance to  house-sit for a year.  We were living in in Cincinnati, the headquarters for Proctor & Gamble.  A P&G engineer had been assigned to work at their plant in Brussels, Belgium, so he and his family packed up, and we were left to tend to their house.  I thought of them, as I considered that among the 31 dead after the ISIS attacks, two were Americans.   Somehow that memory helped me connect with the grieving Belgium people.

The people of Brussels have been doing what the people of Paris recently did, and what Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 3.03.13 PMpeople everywhere do after a tragedy; they are putting up make-shift shrines.  They bring flowers.  They light candles.  They post messages of solidarity.  They defiantly assert hope in the face of death.

It is a bit ironic.  Europe has become famously post-Christian.  Atheism is common.  One of the big reasons people give, is the problem of evil.  How could God allow the Holocaust, or any unjust suffering?  Mass death drives many away from belief in God.  So, it is ironic that in highly secularized Brussels, the instinctive, impulsive, urgent thing that people do, after a mass killing, is make shrines for the dead.

We all have this sense that our lives are grounded in a depth dimension that is hard to put into words, but we feel it.  There is something ultimate and good that makes our lives meaningful, even the lives cut short tragically by terrorism, or by accident or disease, or even by the tragedy self-inflicted means.

I believe that the shrines people make say something deep about ourselves as mortals who die but whose lives mean more than tragedy.  But shrines alone do not have any content.

Typically, the way we humans understand our lives and their meaning is by narratives.  We tell stories. The Christian way of working out what life means is focused on the Jesus stories.  The greatest of all our Christian stories is the story of resurrection.

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Today we read resurrection stories from two gospels.  Clearly they reflect two different perspectives.  From the perspective of the gospel of  Mark, at the empty tomb the three women are greeted by a single mysterious individual dressed in white who gives them a message about Jesus.

From Luke’s perspective, there are three named women plus “the others” who are not named, and they are greeted by “two men in dazzling clothes” who give them a message.

In Mark, the women go away in fear, not saying anything to anyone about the experience, as they were instructed to do.  In Luke, the women all go immediately and tell of their experience to the disciples who are reluctant to believe them.

The differences multiply when we read the other gospels, Matthew and John, showing again different perspectives.

Anyway, though these resurrection stories differ, they witness to a reality that Christians experience.  You can see it in the similar line that they both share. It comes in the words spoken by the one, or the pair of apparently heavenly messengers to the women.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” Mark 16:6

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In other words, Christ is not a feature of the past, but of the present.  Do not look for Christ among the dead.  But how then do we encounter the risen Christ?  Immediately, the messengers say one of the ways in which Christ can be a present reality for them, saying,

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee”  Luke 24:6

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We celebrate the presence of the risen Christ as we remember what he told us.  The  Spirit of Christ is present for us.  His words are alive in us.  They fill us with joy and hope.  We hold the teachings of Jesus as central.

The Risen Christ teaches us, through the remembered words of Jesus, to trust that the kingdom of God is here, now, wherever and whenever people live as if God were king, in other words, compassionately and justly.

Christ teaches us about God; to conceive of the Creator God of the universe, the ground of being itself, not like Aristotle’s emotionless, omnipotent, unmoved mover, but in the analogy of a loving father.  A father looking down the long road for the return of his lost son or daughter.  And upon their return, the father does not scold or shame, but embraces them with infinite love and mercy.

Christ teaches us, through the remembered words of Jesus, that we can live lives of trust, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, because our lives are grounded in God who is essential goodness.

Christ also teaches us that this grounding in goodness does not magically spare us from life’s pain and tragedy, but just as Jesus faced injustice, violence and death, with trust in God, so  we believe that God walks through our lives with us, even suffering with us, all the way to the end.

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As followers of the teachings of Jesus, the spirit of the risen Christ is present to us in powerful ways as we put his teachings into practice.  Christ becomes more present and more real to us as we have experiences of turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving to the one whose needs makes a moral claim on us.

We remember that Jesus taught us that we would encounter him, the risen Christ, in the guise of those whom we call, “the least of these”.  He said we meet him in those who are hungry, when we feed them, and thirsty when we provide clean drinking water for them.

Christ teaches and becomes present to us in moments when we forgive, even as we have been forgiven.  The Spirit of Christ is that force coaxing us towards the good, the beautiful and the true, luring us to love with infinite love, even our enemies.

Christ in Call and Redemption

In the Easter story as Mark tells it, the messenger then tells the women to remember something specific Jesus told them:

“But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.

Why back in Galilee?  Galilee is where the are from.  It is the place where it all started.  It is Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 2.39.02 PMthe place where Peter and the other fishermen first heard Jesus say, “Come, follow me.”  It is the place where Jesus said to the despised tax collector, “I am coming to your house today.”  Galilee is where Jesus scandalized the religious people when he, who was not a priest, and was not in a temple, said to the man, “your sins are forgiven.

In other words, Galilee was a place of calling and of redemption.  That is where the Risen Christ keeps meeting people.  That is what Easter is about.  I love the way the alcoholic, stand-up comic, cynical drifter, turned Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it in her book Pastorix.  She says Easter is about newness.

It looks like recovering alcoholics…like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it…like every time I manage to admit I was wrong…like every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway.  New is the thing we never saw coming—never even hoped for—but ends up being what we needed all along.” (p. 174)

There are a lot of people in this room who can attest to the Galilee moments we have experienced, moments of powerful calling, and moments of rescue and healing; moments of God “loving us back to life again” as Nadia put it.  We have encountered the risen Christ.  Each of us has our own version of the story, our own sacred story, just as the different gospel writers did.

At Table

So, we encounter the risen Christ as we remember his words, as we meet him in “the least Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 2.41.43 PMof these,” and in our Galilee moments of call and of redemption.  There is another way Jesus told us that we would meet him; it is when we gather around a common table, and break one bread, and share one cup.  As often as we do this, we do it, Jesus said, “remembering me.

This table enacts what we believe: that Jesus is real for us now.  The spirit of the risen Christ is here in this event.  As we break the bread we remember that Jesus was broken, giving himself in opposition to the domination systems of injustice and exclusion, both materially and spiritually.  Sharing this broken bread we acknowledge that we come not out of worthiness but we come together in our brokenness and pain, and find healing and redemption.

At this table we reenact what Jesus taught: an open table that excludes no one.  Where everyone has a place; a table for men and women, citizens and aliens, rich and poor, gay and straight, old and young, able bodied and challenged, all together on one basis alone: that we are loved in an infinite love by an Ultimate Reality we call God, and whom we experience as the living risen Christ.

So this is the Easter story that shapes our lives, that gives meaning to our suffering, to our mortality, even to our tragedy.  That we are held in an infinite love, as Jesus taught us.  That we are created to love and be loved, to be renewed and redeemed, and to reach out with justice and compassion.

Deconstructing with Donkeys

Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm Sunday, Year C, March 20, 2016

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
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    “Blessed is the king
        who comes in the name of the Lord!
     Peace in heaven,
        and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

We showed a video to our youth Wednesday evening – a clip from a film done awhile ago about Jesus.  The part we watched was the huge pilgrimage of thousands of people on foot, approaching Jerusalem.  They were headed there to celebrate Passover – the annual festival of freedom and independence from Pharaoh’s oppressive Egyptian empire.  In this film, you got the feeling of the claustrophobic crowdedness of the streets.

In the middle of the crowd was Jesus on the donkey.  People were waving big palm Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 8.27.14 PMbranches and laying their coats on the path for him.  Meanwhile big Marine Corps.-looking Roman soldiers stood looking down from the city wall, and someone I took to be an aristocratic citizen, from a dwelling high in the wall, scowled at the scene below.

The people were shouting:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!     Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

The Other Parade

What that film did not show was the other parade.  Jesus was coming with the pilgrims from the East side of the city, just across from the hill we call the Mount of Olives.  From Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 8.39.30 PMthe West, coming up all the way from his coastal headquarters about 60 miles away, Governor Pontius Pilate was coming along with a cohort of big, shiny, helmeted and shielded Roman soldiers.  Unlike Jesus’ little donkey colt, Pilate approached on a big war horse.

He and his soldiers did this every year at Passover.  There was already a garrison of Roman soldiers stationed at the Fortress Antonia further up the hill from the temple, keeping a watchful eye on everything, but for Passover, they always brought up reinforcements.  Passover was, after all, an independence celebration, performed by people who were not independent, but who had been conquered by Rome.

A show of force, the Romans believed, would tamp down any new thoughts of independence – in other words – revolution. It was not just an imaginary threat.  There had been big, bloody revolutions that Rome had put down with brutal force not long before.

So, there were two parades that day, both approaching the city from opposite directions, one with Governor Pilate representing the kingdom of Rome, and the other with Jesus’ supporters calling him the king who was coming in the name of the Lord.

Why no arrest?

One question you might ask is why Pilate did not simply have Jesus arrested right then and there?  It is speculation, since we do not know, but easy to imagine the answer.

This was a powder-keg moment.  A huge independence celebration with literally a couple of hundred thousand people already out on the streets.  Any move against a popular leader – who was not armed – would almost certainly have been the spark that would have exploded into open rebellion.  Pilate knew that, and so no arrest was made at the time.

But you have to ask – why would Jesus do that?  Why risk getting yourself killed?  What was the point of riding a donkey into Jerusalem at the same time of Pilate’s arrival.  The answer is that Jesus’ parade was a purposeful mockery.  It was an ancient version of street theater.

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We know that the Jesus parade was pre-arranged.  The beginning of the story shows that Jesus had pre-planned with the owner to borrow the donkey.  He had the  coded conversation already worked out in advance.  The disciples were to say, if asked, “The Lord needs it” and then they would get the green light.

It is also part of the plan that the donkey is a colt that had never been ridden.  I have been around horses as they are being saddle-broken.  Animals do not like things on their backs, not saddle blankets, not saddles, and especially not heavy adults.  They resist.  They react.  And once you get on them for the first time, they do not cooperate at all.

The whole scene would have been comic.  There is a full grown man on a little donkey who is trying to get him off, not obeying any commands, and certainly not cooperatively waking up the path, as it does in all the movies.

This is part of the mockery.  Pilate, coming in power on his big, well-trained battle horse, contrasted with a poor peasant-dressed Jesus on an ornery donkey colt.

Jesus was enacting precisely the words of the prophet Zechariah about a king coming into the city in peace:

  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
        Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
    Lo, your king comes to you;
        triumphant and victorious is he,
    humble and riding on a donkey,
        on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
    He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the war horse from Jerusalem;
    and the battle bow shall be cut off,
        and he shall command peace to the nations;

But Why Do it?

But still, we must ask, why do such a dangerous thing as mocking Pilate’s parade that way?

Because Jesus was deadly serious about his opposition to everything that was going on in Jerusalem and at the temple.  His opposition was non-violent; it was peaceful, but it was pointed and direct. Jesus was opposed to what scholars now cScreen Shot 2016-03-19 at 4.16.08 PMall the Domination System.

I wish I had time to go into detail, but let me just summarize the effects of the system this way.  Last week we had the youth take a circle, and make a pie-chart of where they thought their parents’ income went.  They estimated what they spent on food, the house, toys, someone even suggested toiletries as an expense.

Then we asked the to take another circle that was pre-divided into thirds and color in two thirds.  Then we asked them what would happen in their families if two-thirds of their parent’s money was taken from them each month?  They were horrified at the thought.  And they should have been.  Loosing two-thirds of your income would certainly leave you broke.  It is hard to imagine living that way for most of us.

The Domination System in Action

But that is exactly what was happening to the people – to the poor people, the vast majority who lived at subsistence-level.  The wealthy elite, including the high priestly families, the aristocratic Sadducee class, and the court of King Herod were collecting the heavy tribute taxes that Rome had laid on them, as they did on all their empire’s peoples.  On top of that,  they also collected a temple tax.

Now when you hear the word tax, please do not make the school-boy mistake of comparing it to our taxes.  These taxes did not build roads, schools, water systems and a justice system.  Herod was living lavishly, building whole cities with colored marble colonnades, and palaces in a variety of places, including the famous Masada.

The aristocratic families were gobbling up peasant farms, forcing peasants into debt-slavery, and turning already poor people into virtual slaves.  This was called the domination system because it completely dominated the lives of the people.  It was oppression; it was injustice; and it was an evil.

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By dramatic contrast, Jesus had learned from the Hebrew prophets that God wanted an entirely different state of affairs.  The prophets spoke of God’s vision of everyone living under their own vine and fig tree – in other words, on their own land, in peace and shalom, well-being, with no one making them afraid.

But the prophets of old were also highly critical, even oppositional to the kings and leaders who were unjust and oppressive.  Here is a tiny example among many like it.  These words are from Jeremiah who was specifically attacking those who thought that the temple, since God lived there, would keep them safe, and allow them to get away with almost anything.  Jeremiah said,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings…   Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,  if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,  then I will dwell with you in this place.… Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

Den of Robbers

“Den of robbers” – that is exactly what Jesus said when, after this parade of mockery, he went into the temple, overturned the tables, drove off the animals, and shut it down.  In a symbolic prophetic action, like the old prophets used to do, Jesus temporarily stopped everything.  He was saying that the whole system was corrupt and oppressive to the core, robbing the people blind, leaving them in misery.

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Jesus’ alternative to this was the kingdom of God; the world as it would be if God were king.  To people who can embrace that vision of a world of justice and righteousness, who can live as though God is king, then Jesus’ message is gospel: good news.

To those who feel threatened by justice, Jesus is a threat that must be eliminated.  Within the week, the forces of Pilate, representing Roman domination, and of the high priest Ciaphas, representing the Jewish aristocracy, will form a coalition, and Jesus will die.

The Two Roads, Diverged

As I was reading this story this week and imagining those two alternative parades with the thousands of pilgrims swelling the streets, I imagined a fork in the road.  I imagined the people who wanted to line up with Pilate heading off to the west, and the people who wanted what Jesus wanted moving to the east to join him.  That parting of the ways only happened in my imagination, but the choice is real and present.

What is life about?  What are we here for?  What is the great good that we are living for?  Is it wealth and power?  Is that what life is about?  If so, go join Pilate’s parade.

But if life is more than that, then consider falling in with Jesus’ parade.  Maybe it looks ridiculous – with the juvenile colt and the thrift-shop clad emotional peasants, but maybe it is God’s dream.  A kingdom of nobodies who know that God loves them, just as they are.
A kingdom of people who think that meekness is blessed.  People who do not want to dominate anyone, but who turn the other cheek, go the second mile, who will give you the shirt off their backs.

People who  want God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and so will forgive you 70 X 7 if that’s what it takes.

A kingdom of people who work publicly and even at risk to stand in the face of the domination system and assertively but non-violently say, “No more.”

A kingdom of people who know that “the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains,” and so, who will “render to Caesar what is his and to God what is his” – leaving Caesar wanting.

A kingdom of people who welcome everyone to the table to share a common loaf and a common cup, without qualification, without any precondition.

Today we celebrate Jesus, who brought us this vision, right from the Hebrew prophets, right from Torah, right from God.  Today we join our voices with the people on the Jesus parade saying,

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!     Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Mary on What Matters

Sermon on John 12:1-8 for  Lent 5C, March 13, 2016

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Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

First things first: all of the four gospels have this story (or one so much like it that it’s hard to believe it is not another version of this story) and there are differences between them.  Today, we are reading John’s version.  So, if you have in your head a version of this story in which the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume is a bad woman, even a prostitute, let that one go.

This is John’s story, and the woman is a good person, in fact a model person.  This is Mary, the sister of Martha, who sat at Jesus’ feet, learning from him (instead of helping to serve in the kitchen, which made Martha angry).

This is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who had enough faith to say to Jesus, when he arrived after Lazarus had died,

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

So Mary is a model.  She is what a follower of Jesus should be.  One who trusts that where Jesus is, there God is at work in powerful ways.

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But we all must admit that what she did that day could be called promiscuous, on several grounds.  Imagine the scene:  even today, if we were to witness a man, say reclining on a lounge chair, and a woman who was not his wife, with long hair, coming up to him and undoing her hair and wiping his feet – we would feel like we were witnessing intimacy.

How much more so in a culture that kept men women apart, especially unmarried ones, and in which women kept their hair covered?   No wonder that in other versions of the story she has a bad reputation.

But this is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, so this act of intimacy must be saying something that could be said no better by a less promiscuous act.  One NT scholar called it “deliberately sensuous.”

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She is also promiscuous in another way: by the lavishly expensive perfume she anointed Jesus’ feet with.  The anti-hero Judas pops into the story at this point, with his objection to the extravagance.  His estimate is that she just poured out 300 denarii, that is, for a worker, a whole year’s income, on a pair of feet.

John lets us know that his concern is hypocritical – he had his hand in the till.  Nevertheless, a year’s wages is a lot of money!  Especially on feet that will simply be dirty and dusty again soon.

So, here we have a scene of almost embarrassing intimacy plus lavish extravagance.  It seems surreal.  What are we to make of it?

Jesus’ Interpretation

In this story, Jesus reads her actions as preparation for his burial.  That explanation only complicates instead of explaining.  Think about it: Mary, believing that Jesus was about to be killed, which she well might have suspected, explains nothing.  You do not anoint a body for burial before it dies.  And you never wipe corpse feet with hair.  Calling it a pre-death anointing only makes it that much more mysterious; more surreal.


One more detail from the story will help us put these pieces together.  John tells us that this scene took place Six days before the Passover.   The Passover festival is one of the three annual Jewish pilgrimage festivals.  It celebrates the story of the original Passover, the night the Israelites, who had been slaves of the Egyptian empire, ate a lamb as a final meal before being liberated.  Passover, in other words, celebrated Independence.  It was the Israelite’s Fourth of July celebration.

So, Jesus was going to Jerusalem for this pilgrimage festival of Passover.  John has already Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.15.12 PMtold us that it was dangerous for him to do so.  There were people who wanted him eliminated; specifically the members of the aristocracy that were running the temple.  But in spite of the danger, Jesus was going to attend.  Passover  was less than a week away.

Jesus is aware that he will die soon, and clearly Mary believes the same.  The way John’s gospel tells the story, Jesus, whom he names, the Lamb of God, will die on the day of preparation for Passover; the day of the slaughtering of the Passover lamb.

Putting the Pieces Together

Here is how I believe we can put these odd story elements together.  First let us remember that John wrote his gospel six or more decades after Jesus’ earthly life.  But although Jesus had been gone, physically, that community continued to experience the very real, living presence of Jesus.  He was not a figure of the past, but of the present for them.  They knew that the Spirit of Christ was alive.  It is in John’s gospel that we hear Jesus say,

“God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” (4:24)

John’s gospel is by far the most mystical of the four gospels.  Jesus, in John, speaks of his complete unity with God, the Father, just as mystics speak of union with the Divine.  This is not an exclusive union at all.  Jesus prays that all of his followers would experience the same divine mystical union.  Jesus will soon pray:

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 1.27.05 PMAs you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, … The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”  (17:21-23)

What does it mean to be one with God?  One with the Divine?  To worship God “in Spirit”?

For starters, it means that our sense of separation is itself an illusion.  It means that our truest identity is that we are children of God.  It means that our truest selves are who we are in God.   This means that not even death separates us from God.  In fact the opposite.  Death is the door to a greater union.

Oneness vs. Personality

This brings us to a fundamental problem.  Mystics throughout the world, including the long tradition of Christian mystics, experience this oneness with God as a oneness with everything.  They experience the depth dimension of life and find there a connection between all beings.  In fact, the feeling of oneness, at-one-ment, is so powerful, the sense of the self, as separate from all other selves, seems to fall away.

But how do you talk abut the Divine who is the ground of all being?  How do you name this depth, this mystery of God who is Spirit?

It seems that John Calvin struggled with this.  After all his rigorous attempts to understand intellectually, in a famous passage in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” he says,

“I tremble at the depth. You can reason; but I will marvel. You can dispute; but I will believe. I see the depth; I do not reach the bottom.” (Book 3, chapter 23)

God as Personal

The Christian answer is that God is not just a nameless, faceless mystical Spirit.  God is personal.  God is not merely a person, as we are persons.  But God is not less than personal.  In fact in another place in scripture in which God’s essence is defined, we read that ,Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 1.30.08 PM

“God is love”

Love is entirely relational, entirely personal.

Telling the Right Story

So how do you tell a story about how a person who really gets it, who really believes it down deep, who models the relationship with God that Jesus reveals?

You tell the story of a woman in intimate contact, loosening her hair.  You tell of extravagant, lavish outpouring that is beyond financial reckoning.  You tell of the aroma of perfume, like a spiritual presence, filling the room invisibly, but powerfully.  You tell of her wiping the feet of the one she loves with her unashamed intimate totality.  There is no ego barrier to her love; no honor to protect, no reputation to maintain, no superiority to keep her from the feet that only a servant would touch.

This is beyond nameless mysticism.  This is personal.  This is what it means to be saved: to be a child of God, to know that this Spirit whom we worship as the source of goodness, truth and beauty is also personal, is love.

This is the God that Jesus reveals to us.  The God that can be trusted to ground our lives, each day of our lives, up to and including the hour of our death.  We can walk unafraid even in that final journey, just as Jesus did, knowing that we are walking into our final union with God.  Death has lost its power to frighten us.

The Challenges to Trust

Admittedly, this is hard to believe, and hard to keep believing.  We hear messages all the time that undercut our identity as beloved children of God.  We hear that we need material things to make us beautiful and acceptable, from clothing to cars, from fancy homes to fancy places to travel to, to get away from home.

We hear messages that entirely deny our unity with God and everyone, and all of creation.  We hear messages that tell us that we are on our own, that we are at risk, that we should live in fear. We are told we are surrounded by others who are different; different races, different religions, different languages, and we need to stay separate from them all.

These are the messages of ego.  The false self that is still stuck in the issues of the first half of life.  The self that is all about exclusion and superiority, all about acquisition and boundary maintenance.  We could call this self the Judas-self because of this text we read today.  The self that would rather have a hand in the till, to buy the things it thinks it needs, the things that money can buy, but has no idea what it means to be swallowed up in love, as Mary was, the love that no money could purchase.

The Practices of a Christian

Because of the onslaught of these messages we need regular practices of attending to our spirits.  We need daily disciplines that allow us to hear voices affirming the truth of union and love, to be a bulwark against the voices of separateness and anger.

This is why, in this season of Lent, we have suggested that our Lenten practice be to give up our most precious possession; our time.  To set aside regular time for spiritual practices.  To develop habits of silence and meditation.  To develop practices of intentional gratitude; deep appreciation for all of the goodness that surrounds us, for all of the beauty we see and hear and taste and smell.

Gratitude for all of the love we have given and received that has brought us to this moment.  Gratitude for the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God, who made us all, for whom there is no separation between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, for we are all one in the ubiquitous Spirit of Christ, whose fullness fills all in all, without limit, without exception.

Could we be Mary? Could we allow ourselves to believe that we are loved by God, personally?  Could we see ourselves responding extravagantly to that love with love in return?

This text invites us to live in the yin and yang of our faith: the Oneness with the divine the makes us one with all of being, and at the same time, the blessing of being loved personally by a personal God.


Jesus Path: Step One

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Lent 4 C, March 6, 2016

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 1.55.46 PMthe share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

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

The historical Jesus was a teller of parables; that is the consensus among scholars. He was quite good at it. For me, this is one of his best. It does what a lot of his parables do: it messes with our worlds. It challenges us to think in new ways.

The SettingScreen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.17.42 PM

The setting is important: some people are upset that Jesus both welcomes and eats with sinners. These folks understand that there are two kinds of people in the world; good people and sinners, pure and impure.

Good people, pure people, should not be enablers for impure sinners by making them feel good about their lifestyles, by welcoming their company, and especially not by eating with them. In that culture, the ones around your table are your tribe, your posse, the people you are okay with, the people you do not mind having around your children.

So, in response to the “shun the sinners” people who are upset with him, Jesus tells three parables: The parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. We just read the third, the one about the lost son. In each, the one that had been lost was found, and that was the cause of rejoicing.

It sounds like a neat and tidy triad of stories, but Jesus is messing with the world these people were living in in some amazing ways. So, let us look at them.


If there are two kinds of people in the world (and whom among us does not usually think in such binary ways?) what are the people-categories? Righteous people and sinners? Notice that Jesus totally rejects that binary, replacing it with another. For Jesus, the two kinds of people in the world are lost one and found ones.Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.19.45 PM

Now, that changes the whole picture. Is a sheep bad, for being lost? A coin? How about a son? Should the sheep be left to suffer the consequences it brought on itself for getting lost? Should the coin be left on the floor? What about the son?

Anyway, Jesus’ story begins in a way that Jewish people would all recognize:

“There was a man who had two sons.”

This is familiar territory. Adam had two sons, Cain and Able. Abraham had two sons, Ismael and Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Come to think of it, these two-sons stories often involve big trouble, if not catastrophe. Cain killed able. Ishmael was driven away to die by Isaac’s mother. Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and had to flee for his life. Perhaps Jesus’ two-son story will end badly too?

The Horror In the Story

The story begins with a dysfunctional family in which the identified patient, the rebel son, asks for his share of the inheritance so he can go live without the inconvenience of family obligations.

Now, this sounds modern, in fact, almost common. The family has a rebel teenager. But to Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.33.09 PMhear the story the way Jesus’ audience would have heard it, we need to remember that family was everything. You would die for your family, not run away from them.

And Father was not just “dad” as he is to us. Father was a position of honor. You showed respect. In fact, not showing respect, dishonoring father would bring shame on everyone, on yourself, on your father, even on your whole family. And then, to ask for the inheritance from father before he died was to wish him dead already.

In other words, everything about this younger brother’s actions would have horrified everybody hearing this story. And we have not yet even got to the point where this good Jewish boy ends up eating with pigs. He is not just a sinner; he is an abomination! What he needs, according to conventional wisdom, is the worst punishment you could deal out.
Being Lost

Unless what he is, is lost. For Jesus, he is simply lost. What he needs, is to be found.

And who of us is not lost? At some level, we are all lost souls. We hardly understand Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.24.01 PMourselves, and we know no one in the world totally gets us. We feel both at home in this universe, and somehow alien to it. We are mortal yet we cannot conceive of ourselves coming to an end. Most of us feel the lure of a world beyond our senses that we long for, a home to come back to, but where is it?

When the runaway lost son finally hits bottom, he has a moment of clarity. An “ah-ha” moment. He becomes mindfully aware that his “temporary autonomous zone” is a dead end. He says those words that have become famous:

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘

Now, at this point, I think the audience of people who are angry at Jesus for welcoming and eating with sinners starts to laugh their heads off. What a ridiculous thought that any father would ever let that happen! He thinks he will get back in the family? No way!


And this is another moment in which Jesus messes with their world. Not only are their people-categories wrong, their entire God-concept is wrong. God is not honor-obsessed. God is love-obsessed, just like all hurting parents of lost children are.

So when the son’s hopeless, ridiculous plan is implemented and his father sees him from a distance, he does what no self-respecting, honor-conscious older man would do, he Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.39.10 PMmakes a spectacle of himself: he runs! He disregards his son’s pig-stained impurity, and throws his arms around him. He was, Jesus said, “filled with compassion.”

Compassion, not honor, is God’s defining characteristic. Compassion sees people as lost, not impure. Compassion seeks, and finds, and then rejoices in each finding. The people who lack compassion, who want Jesus to stop eating with impure sinners are not going to like it that this story ends with a fatted calf and a feast.

The Other Lost Son

So, it looks like a happy ending is coming at this point. Unlike the other stories about a man with two sons, this one ends well. The lost son is found. Or at least it would, if this were the ending. But it is not.

The older brother is not at all happy about the return of the prodigal. He feels slighted. He feels envious. He believes he is not getting what he deserves. And to be honest, if his reporting is accurate – that he never even got a birthday goat, then perhaps he is a bit justified.

But he has taken that bit, and become resentful. He has been a good son, but he has gone from good, to arrogant about his goodness. And arrogance is the opposite of compassion.

So, instead of going inside to join the banquet celebrating his brothers return, he stays outside. This gives rise to yet another totally shameless move on the compassionate father’s part. Jesus says,

“His father came out and began to plead with him.”

The father going out to where the arrogant son is – unheard of! And pleading instead of Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 2.52.38 PMcommanding? Utterly impossible! Where is the honor there?

God is not honor-obsessed; like any father of lost children, he is love-obsessed. And now he knows he has another lost son to care about. The older son’s unwillingness to sit at table with his brother has left him outside the family.

The parable ends there, with him outside; lost. So, as we expected at the start, an unhappy ending for yet another story of a man with two sons.

Being a Child of God

There is one more tragedy in this parable. It comes from what so many of us have made of it.

When I was in high school, I attended a youth group in which we learned a musical version of the son’s speech to his father.

“I shall arise and go unto my father, and shall say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son.”

It was a three part round, so we would sing it over and over – and it was beautiful. But it ended with sinful unworthiness every time. And that is tragic.

Jesus was trying to overturn the category of unworthiness and to replace it with the category of lostness. God, like the compassionate father, did not want a big repentance speech, in fact he cut it off before the prodigal son could finish. He never got to hear the son say,

“treat me like one of your hired hands”

The Father had already resolved to treat him as what he was: a child of the family!

We are teaching our youth here at church to follow the Jesus path. We have taught them that step one on the Jesus path is knowing this: I am a child of God and nothing can ever change that.

Nothing can change that; not getting lost, not loosing my way, not making mistakes; nothing. The only condition of lostness, in the end, is unwillingness to know what it means to belong to this family. This is the family that looks with compassion on everyone who is lost.

This is the family that has a place at the table for everyone who will lay down their arrogance and come inside. The is the family that understands and practices forgiveness as the very center of our life together.

It is tragic to sing a song that ends with “I am no more worthy to be called your son.” This has to teach us that worthiness has nothing to do with it. We are children of God, and nothing can ever change that.

Compassion for EveryoneScreen Shot 2016-03-04 at 9.00.48 AM

There is yet one more way this parable messes with our worlds. If we are able to imagine ourselves as lost ones, and if we are able to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God, people with seats set for us at that celebration banquet, that is wonderful.

But then, we are imaging ourselves as the people inside, feasting on flavored tofu, or fresh catfish – or fatted calf (depending on your diet). How does that make us feel about the arrogant older brother outside the door?

If you are like me, it is hard to feel compassion for him. I do not like him. He seems smug, angry, resentful. Not much there to love. For a person with Christian values, arrogance is pretty ugly.

Can I feel compassion, as the father did, for the arrogant older son too? Can I long for him to be found, for his redemption? Can I feel compassion for those who display no compassion?

Can I hold out hope that like their younger brother, they too may someday have a moment of repentant clarity and come home to Papa? Perhaps it is here that this parable messes with my world. This is where it challenges me.

Amazingly, even if and when I get lost in my own judgmentalism about people who lack compassion, I believe I can be found, even there, and be brought back again. As singer, songwriter Timothy Coons say,

“I just keep being found. I just keep being found. I just keep being found.”


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