The Coming Floods

The Coming Floods

Greatest Hits of the Hebrew Bible #2

Sermon for June 26, 2022, Pentecost 3 C

Video will be available after the service at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.

Genesis 6—9 selected verses

6:5   The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.

11   Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of cypressa wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 

17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.

7:1   Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5 And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.

7 And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth. 

11. all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. 

7:17   The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.

8:1   But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;

8:13   In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. 

8:20   Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

22 As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,

summer and winter, day and night,

shall not cease.”

9:1    God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 

9:8   Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.  11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

We call the scriptures our “wisdom tradition” for a reason.   They are a treasury of wisdom passed down through the centuries.  But they are ancient, not modern, which means that understanding that wisdom is challenging.  

The ancient world had different story-telling conventions.  Sometimes the ancient stories incorporated legends and myths that came from surrounding cultures.  

In the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Sumeria, there were stories of catastrophic floods that threatened all life on earth.  

You may have heard of the epic of Atrahasis or of Gilgamesh. They tell of floods as the punishment of some of the gods for human behavior they disapproved of.  They include common elements like ordering a hero to build a large boat, coating it with pitch, and taking people and animals on board, ending on a mountain after the flood, opening the window and releasing birds, and offering sacrifice.    

Our Genesis account of the flood incorporates many of these elements, and yet radically changes others.  There is a discernible blending of several versions of a flood story into one, as we can see from the fact that one story has Noah gathering only a pair of every kind of animal, and the other has him taking seven pairs of clean animals and only a pair of unclean animals.  

Chronologically, even that distinction is odd, given that this story is set many generations before the law of Moses indicated those clean, unclean distinctions. 

One of the radical differences differences between the Genesis flood story and other ancient stories is the way in which God is described.  In Genesis, God is one, not many.  God is also morally good.  

In the Atrahasis epic, one of the gods is irritated that humans are making too much noise, and so decides to kill them all with a flood.  Another god intervenes to help the hero escape by giving him a warning and telling him to build a boat.  

But in Genesis, God is not trivially vexed and brutally vengeful.  Rather God is pictured as sorrowful.  Human evil, specifically violence, is so great that God is pictured as regretting creating them at all.  

God looks at the human race and concludes,

every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”   

I wonder what the author would describe God saying if he looked at the world today?  Violence escalates.  I fear for our world.  I fear for our country.  I am no prophet, but it does not take one to believe it is likely that a flood is coming.  

One thing is certain: floods is coming for all of us in many ways.  We all know that our lives will come to an end.  For most of us, our bodies will break down and we will eventually die. At least that flood is coming.  

Before that flood, other floods may come.  Relationships may come undone.  Economic calamity may come.  War is always a looming threat.  The earth is warming.  Many floods are possible, and some are likely.

The flood story is about a person who knows a flood is coming and who does something to prepare for it.  

Noah, unlike the others who ignore the obvious, makes preparations; he builds an ark.  If we know that floods are coming, the question is, what kind of ark are we building?  What are we doing every day to be the kind of people who can deal with the coming floods?  

The good news in this story is that there are things that can be done.  There is hope.  The basis for that hope is precisely the difference between how God is imagined in Genesis.  

The God of Genesis is personal.  God is pictured as having emotions.  God is regretful, God’s heart is grieved.  God is almost in tears.  It tears God apart that humans are so cruel to each other.  God sees the violence, the bloodshed, the lifted sword, and grieves.  

God hears the bombshells blasting people apart in their apartments in Ukraine and the gunshots hitting shoppers and school children in America and grieves.  This imagines a God who cares for people.

Now, we must admit that this story is also a horror story.  It is about genocide.  That is the structure of the story from the Ancient Near East that the author of Genesis used.  

I once read this story to my son who was a toddler.  The children’s bible I read from had illustrations in child-friendly primary colors.  On one page there were two men punching each other as a mother, holding a baby, looked on from her front door.  On the next page, the people were gone, and the house was under water.  My son asked, “Where is the baby?”  

But this is not a children’s story.  This is a story about people who allow conditions to get so bad that they are becoming unsurvivable.  But it is also the story of a God who cares, and a person who takes God’s perspective seriously enough to prepare for what is coming.  

Just as in other ancient flood stories, eventually the flood waters subside, birds are released, the boat comes to rest on a mountain, and finally, the hero emerges to offer sacrifices to God.  

In the Gilgamesh epic, the gods who have not been fed by sacrifices during the flood, are ravenous.  They gather around the sacrificial smoke in a feeding frenzy.  

By contrast, the God in Genesis is not needy.  God merely smells the pleasing aroma.  It is received as an offering of gratitude.  

God’s regret that humans were created in the first place began this story.  We are not told explicitly, but it appears that at the story’s end God also feels regret, this time about the flood itself.  God says that even though the inclination of human hearts are evil from their youth, nevertheless, that was the last total deluge.  Never again.  

God’s orientation toward humanity in all its lostness and brokenness is pro-human, not anti-human.  So, according to the ancient custom, God makes a covenant.  

A covenant was a solemn promise that bound two parties together.  In this covenant, God binds Godself to never again be the destroyer.  

Notice to whom God makes this vow: it is not merely to Noah, and not limited to Noah’s family alone, nor even to all humans.  This covenant is

with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you….”  

All of creation is God’s concern.  Animals are God’s concern.  The well-being of all living creatures is God’s concern.  Therefore, threats to endangered species are God’s concern.  Threats to viable habitats are God’s concern.  Environmental damage from a warming planet is God’s concern.  

To emphasize and illustrate God’s resolve to be pro-biosphere the author again imagines God as a human, subject to forgetfulness.  God will put a reminder of the covenant in plain sight.  God will make a symbolic weapon, a battle bow in the sky.  

The arch of the bow and therefore the direction of any arrow it might fire, is pointed away from the earth.  It is the perfect reminder; “never again.”

Floods are coming.  Many floods are coming.  They are coming both personally and publicly.  But we are people of the God of promise.  We are people of the pro-creatures, pro-people God.  

We are people who are of far more value to God than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air that Jesus taught us to take a lesson from.   We are people of the God who has bound Godself to us in an eternal covenant for our good.  

We are alive today.  There is still time to prepare to be the people who can withstand the floods, and perhaps even prevent some of them. 

Creation as Counter Narrative: The Vision of Distributive Justice

Creation as Counter Narrative: The Vision of Distributive Justice

Greatest Hits of the Hebrew Bible #1

Sermon for June 19, 2022, Pentecost 2C

Video will be available after the service at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR

Genesis 1:1-2:3

When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind and the cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humans in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all their multitude. On the sixth day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the bad things happening in the world.  I have the feeling of wanting to find an island far away to live on without access to news of any kind.  

I am not going to recite the list of current horrors and tragedies; we all know them.   They are so significant that they tend to obscure the good things that are happening too.  

But there are good things:  This is Pride month in which we celebrate all the progress that has been made in awareness and acceptance of the gay and trans. communities.  

And, this is June 19th, or Juneteenth, the day that celebrates the final ending of the 400 years of enslavement in the United States.  And even though homophobia and transphobia are still widespread, and even though racism still exists in our systems, nevertheless progress has been made.  The bad news should not drown out the good news. 

This summer I want to offer a series on what I am calling The Greatest Hits of the Hebrew Bible.  These will be reflections on seminal texts of the Hebrew Bible, the First (or “Old”) Testament.  

These texts represent the mental furniture of Jesus’ mind: stories that formed his spirituality and his conscience; stories that motivated his compassionate ministry.  As such these stories also form us as we reflect on them.   

We begin with a new look at the Creation story in Genesis 1.  This powerful story has the capacity to help us deal with all the badness around us by presenting an alternative vision.  

Instead of a vision of a world of violence, deceit, vengeance and oppression, the world of the evening news, Genesis gives us a vision of the world God wants.  

It is not a fantasy, like Disney World, but the truest truth behind the world as it is.   As such, scholars say it functions as an overture to the whole bible, laying out themes that will develop over the whole small library of biblical books.

The context in which this story was written is important for our understanding.  Scholars believe it came from the time when the Israelites were captives, in exile, in Babylon.  There, every year, they heard their captor’s creation myth at the new year’s festival.  

It would be helpful to know the details in full, but the essential summary is this:  There is conflict between the older gods.  Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, defeats Tiamat and lays out the cosmos using her corpse.  

People are made from the blood of her partner Kingu.  Human’s purpose is to labor on earth so that the gods can rest.  

The contrasts with the story in the Hebrew Bible could not be greater, and those contrasts is where so much of the significance is found. 

First, the Genesis account like the Babylonian begins in chaos, but notice how the wind, or breath, or spirit (there is one word for all three) brings order out of that chaos.  

In two sets of three days, God brings forth a world of balance and symmetry, reflected by the balance and symmetry of the story itself.  

On day one, light is made.  On day four the lights in the sky are made.  

On day two sky separates from water, and on day five, birds and fish fill them.  

On day three, land is separated from water; on day six animals and humans are put on the land.  

The whole sequence reaches its climax as God celebrates a Sabbath of rest.  

Notice too that God is one, not many.  The lights in the sky are not gods for the Hebrews as they were for others.  They are merely objects created within the “sky” space.  

In fact, the words “Sun” and “moon” not named, but rather the lights are called “greater” and “lesser lights, “and some stars.” They are given functions: rule day and night, mark times and seasons.

There is no violence the Genesis story.  God has no opposition.  

Notice also that the physical world is considered good.  Plato’s concept of the body as the prison-house of the soul is ruled out.  Our bodies are not bad, but good creations of a good God.   

In fact, humans we are told, are not merely afterthoughts, made as a leftover consequence of a bloody war, but are intentionally created as the crowning achievement on the sixth day.  Humans are made in the “image and likeness of God” whichever gender they are.  

And notice that as the original beings, from which all others come, this story teaches a profound equality of all humans on the earth.  We are the bearers of God’s image, before racial or ethnic differentiation, before political or linguistic differentiation, before religious or ideological differentiation, and before any social or economic differentiation.  All of those differences develop, but none were original.  

Humans are not put on earth as servants of the gods but as agents who are given responsibility over the entire creation as stewards.  

In fact, humans are given a blessing by God as he puts them in charge.  Everyone has worth and dignity. As Walter Brueggemann has written,

God and creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This is the presupposition of everything that follows.

(Brueggemann, Genesis p. 22)

Brueggemann notices that in this story, the Creator has a purpose and will for creation.   Creation exists only because of that will.  Creation is addressed by the creator and is called to faithfulness.  

Fate does not control our destiny;  creation is free to respond with either faithfulness or ego-inspired self-assertion. 

At the zenith of the story stands the Sabbath.  Sabbath, as professor Crossan points out, is not created.  God did not say, “Let there be a Sabbath.” Rather, Sabbath is a state of being, a state of rest.  

As an overture for the whole bible, this theme of Sabbath will be developed as the story unfolds.  When the Hebrew people escape enslavement to the Egyptians, according to the story, they cross the Red Sea and come to Mount Sinai (or Horeb) from which Moses receives the Ten Commandments directly from the finger of God.  

Central to the way the people are to honor the God who delivered them is that they should observe the Sabbath day of rest.  Everyone rests from labor on the sabbath: sons and daughters, servants, resident immigrants, even animals rest.  Rest is distributed equally to all.  Why?  In the Exodus version, the reason is

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.”  

The reason goes back to the creation story.  Crossan concludes

The fair distribution of rest is, for the biblical tradition, the fundamental basis of distributive justice upon which all else—food, health, education, freedom—builds.

Crossan, John Dominic. Render Unto Caesar (p. 258).

As the Sabbath vision of distributive justice unfolds in the law that Moses brought down from Sinai, more detail is given.  Every seventh year is a Sabbath year in which the land rests.  All debts are forgiven and all enslaved people are set free. (Lev. 25).  The concept of distributive justice reaches its climax, after seven Sabbath years. In the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, all land returns to its original owner.  Any inequalities that have developed were reversed as land was redistributed justly.  

This is the vision of the world that formed Jesus’ spirituality and his moral vision, just as it did the prophets before him.  This is the vision that forms our moral vision.  We seek a world of distributive justice because that is the world God created it to be.  

We seek a world in which all people are considered worthwhile, all people have dignity; all people bear God’s image.  We seek a world in which enslavement of anyone would be unthinkable.  We seek a world in which gender, race, status, or any other condition is never grounds for discrimination.  

We seek a world of balance and symmetry in which creation is cared for by responsible people whose values are far deeper than a balance sheet.  

We seek a world in which everyone knows that the truest thing about them is not original sin, but original blessing; that we are indeed, as Dr. King like to say, God’s “beloved community.”  

We seek a world not soaked in the blood of violence but saturated with the beauty of peace.  Of course we celebrate Juneteenth and Pride month because we celebrate the God of Creation and therefore the God who made everyone beautifully and equally.  

The world as it is, is depressingly not like the one imagined in Genesis one.  It is much more like the world in which Cain kills Able out of jealousy.  It is like the world of Genesis four in which Lamech boasts of killing the young man who struck him for the sake of vengeance.  

Violence increases as civilization develops until we come to the flood story which begins with God’s announcement that “the earth is filled with violence….”  The Flood Story will be Greatest Hits of the Hebrew Bible number two, next week.  

The story of Creation in Genesis is not a description of the process of creation, but rather a theology of Creation.  It is the story of a good God who has a moral will, who creates a good world in which creatures have the freedom to make moral choices in line with, or against God’s will.   

That is why this story has to be the first of the Greatest Hits of the Hebrew Bible.  This is the vision we turn to again and again as a source of hope, and as an inspiration for action, praying as Jesus taught us to pray, that God’s will may be done on this good earth as it is in heaven. 

Evolving Explanations

Evolving Explanations

Sermon for June 12, 2022, Trinity Sunday, Year C

Video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR, following the service.

   John 16:12-15

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

How should we think of God?  The June Smithsonian magazine featured an article about the recent discovery 1,300-Year-Old Corn God Statue in Mexico.  

According to scholars, the Mayan people worshipped the maize god whose annual birth, death, and resurrection were “associated with the cycle of human life and the changing seasons.”

The Mayans, along with so many ancient peoples worldwide made gods out of natural elements.  It would be easy for us to feel smugly superior to them, but that would be inappropriate.  Life was precarious, uncertain, difficult, painful, and short for most people throughout most of history.  

Our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering in favor of settled agriculture, about 12,000 years ago, making a food supply more reliable, and enabling the development of cities and civilizations. 

But “more reliable” does not mean “guaranteed.”  The ancients had to deal with famines caused by droughts, pest invasions, disease, and war, without the help of pesticides, herbicides, or mechanical irrigation.  

So the sun, the rain, and the annual cycles of the earth had, for them, a god-like power to make food grow.  Terrifying lightning and thunderstorms, devastating floods, and earthquakes were all larger than life and life-threatening.  

The step from those facts to religious veneration is a short one. 

Besides nature gods, many ancients also had pantheons of deities.  They had myths to describe their origins and activities.  

The Babylonians had Marduk, who had become the chief god by his slaughter of Tiamat.  

The Greeks had Zeus and his Olympic family who came to power having overcome Chronos and the prior generation of Titans.  

These gods were often capricious, petty, vindictive and rapacious, if they felt like it.  But they could also be helpful, generous and supportive.  Humans sacrificed to them to honor them, curry their favor, and assuage their wrath.

One Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten, in the 14th century BCE introduced the idea of worshiping one god alone, or at least one as superior to all others (scholars debate which).  But shortly after his reign, Egyptians returned to polytheism.  

Other than that, Israel alone came to understand that there was only one God, not many; Monotheism replaced polytheism, at least officially in Israel.  The Ten Commandments famously begin by quoting God saying, 

You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol…you shall not bow down to them or worship them.”  

Exodus 20; Deut. 5

The prophets of Israel ridiculed and condemned idol worship, but the fact that they did so means people were still practicing it.  

Though the creed of Judaism began with the assertion, 

Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone (or, the Lord is One)” 

Deut. 6:4

the picture was a bit more complicated than that.  The One God sometimes was described as being surrounded by lesser deities, the “sons of God” (Job 1:6) or “divine council” (Ps. 82:1) whom God could send to accomplish tasks, like making sure the poor had justice.  But the concept of a heavenly council seems to have died away.

So God is one, but the Hebrew Bible has no problem speaking of God’s Spirit.  Genesis begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of chaos bringing light and order to the formerly formless world.   

The spirit came upon people, enabling them to prophesy, helping them govern, or accomplish God’s will in other ways. 

There is also the mysterious female character known as Wisdom who was with God in the beginning and through whom God fashioned creation.  (Prov. 8)

None of these evolving explanations seems to have given Jesus any sleepless nights.  He apparently accepted the position that Judaism came to, of God’s oneness, manifested in the world as Spirit.  

But Jesus never pressed this belief on anyone else.  When he dialogued with the woman of Samaria he discouraged her need for a theological discussion about who had the right temple, saying that question missed the point.  God, Jesus said, is Spirit. 

When Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant at a distance, he did not ask the soldier to forget Zeus or convert to Judaism. 

The same can be said of the Canaanite woman who came to him seeking healing for her daughter.  She was not asked to put away her Canaanite concepts.  

For Jesus, simple trust that there was a benevolent force, an Abba, a Father in heaven, as he liked to picture God, that was taking care of us, was enough.  

He told people that we could learn that, not from a smoking mountain in the Sinai wilderness, nor from a temple priest, but by looking at the birds of the air or the lilies of the field.  

What was God like, for Jesus?  Not like a scolding older brother, but like a father waiting every day for his lost son to return home, and throwing a feast upon his arrival.  

God was like a shepherd who searches for the lost sheep and rejoices when she is found.  

God is even like a lady who sweeps the house until she finds the lost coin, and finding it, then throws a party.  

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is pictured as assuring his disciples that when he is no longer present, nevertheless God’s Spirit, whom he calls the Advocate and the Spirit of Truth will still be with them, supporting them, guiding them.  In this scene, the fact that there is a lot that is left unknown is explicit.  We will need the Spirit of Truth, Jesus says, because 

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  

People don’t like leaving it there. We are uncomfortable with ambiguity.  We don’t like questions; we like answers.  

After Jesus was no longer physically present they had a lot of questions: what is going to happen in the future?  Why did Jesus, if he was Messiah, die at the hands of the Romans?  

But central among their questions was this one: How did Jesus relate to God?  Was Jesus really a god, disguised like a human?  Some of them thought so.  Was Jesus a normal human who was filled with the Spirit?  Some thought so.  Was Jesus a combination of the divine Logos with the human Jesus?  Some thought so.  And there were other views.

Eventually, the church was forced to accept one view, and one view alone. The Roman Emperor Constantine convened a council of all the bishops at Nicea in the year 325 and demanded they all agree on one creed.  Anyone who disagreed, and some did disagree, even after imperial coercion, was called a heretic, their followers were excommunicated and their writings suppressed.  

The view that the majority accepted was that Jesus was fully equal with God; that he had two natures: one human and one divine.  

If Jesus is equal with God, then is God One anymore?  What happens to monotheism?  The solution to this conundrum was the concept of the Trinity.  God is Three in One, One in Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The word Trinity is not in the Bible, but was developed to describe the view that became the consensus or orthodox belief.

The Trinity is called a mystery because it is not possible for human minds to adequately comprehend it.  But most of us do not come to our beliefs about God from philosophy, as the scholars do, but from our experience of God.  In this way, our approach is more like Jesus’ than like a theologian’s.  

Do we experience God as Trinity?  Well, we experience a feeling that there is a world beyond our senses, a world of the Spirit.  We also experience a sense of longing, an ache for a world we think of as home, but a world we only glimpse momentarily.  So we experience the existence of Spirit. 

We also have this sense of being upheld as we go through the bittersweet ups and downs of life.  We trust that all will be well, somehow, that there is a benevolent force for good in the world that lures us towards the next right thing.  We experience the heavenly Abba, the loving parenting of God.

And when we consider Jesus, his wisdom, his spirituality, his example of compassion, and his commitment to service, we see in him the face of God.  

In those ways, we do experience the Trinity.  This is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. 

The Spirit of Longing

The Spirit of Longing

Pentecost Sunday, Year C, June 5, 2022

Video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, AR after the service.

Luke 4:14-19

Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding region. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Today we are going to reflect on the Spirit’s role in the world as the Bible tells it, from Creation, through the story of Israel, including the ministry of Jesus, and finally in the church.  It is a story filled with longing for a better world that feels like a home we were made for, but separated from.

I wish the world were different.  All of us do.  It is beautiful, but it is also tragic.  We long for a world at peace, a world of safety, a world of plenty, of equity and harmony.  

The Bible begins by imagining a world that is not right.  In the beginning, it is deeply disordered.  It has no light.  It lacks purpose and meaning.  

But then, the Creation story describes the Spirit, or the breath, or the wind from God (the word can mean all three) hovering over the chaos, and methodically beginning to bring it to life.  

First light appears — are we to imagine a flash?  Could it have made a “big bang”?  (I’m being whimsical here).  

The story unfolds as six successive days in which separations are created: the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters below, the land from the water.  

Space is made so that life may burst forth, swarms of sea creatures, flocks of birds, plants bearing innumerable seeds producing vegetation.  The culmination is the creation of a garden, like the grounds before an ancient temple, lush and gorgeous, which sets the stage as worshippers approach the dwelling place of God.  All of this was the work of the Spirit of God that took a world-not-right, and made it good. 

That world was home to the man who was made out of the earth, and to his partner, the mother of life, as their names mean in the story.  Adam and Eve love their garden home.  But this sweet origin story becomes bittersweet as perfection gives way to temptation and temptation to transgression.  They overstep their limits.  Their egos wanted more.  They must leave their garden home.  

Longing for home becomes the leitmotif of the Bible’s storyline.  Abraham and Sarah leave their father’s family and go in search of a land of promise; a new home.  

Joseph will save the family from famine by inviting them to join him in Egypt, far from home.  

Moses will lead them, as they wander in wilderness for an entire generation.  

Exile forces them from home into Babylon where they hang their harps on the willows, unable to sing songs of Zion from a foreign land.  

Periodically, throughout their long history, unelected, unordained men, and sometimes women, enter the story, speaking words of analysis, of critique, and of hope.  These prophets understand themselves to be Spirit-inspired.  

They usually emerge in times of trouble; crisis times.   They often have harsh words for the powerful elite, but they also offer hope for a better future.  Even from exile they hold out the hope of returning to the home they long for.  Their Spirit-inspired messages keep the longing alive, saving it from decaying into cynical despair.  

The story of Jesus, as we have it, is told as a continuation of that same story.  It is told as a story of the Spirit at work in Jesus, pointing backward to the prophets before him, and forwards to a new, hopeful vision.  

He returns to his home in Galilee, Luke tells us, “in the power of the Spirit.”  In that power, he reads from Isaiah, announcing that the message that ancient prophet imagined, was being fulfilled.  Jesus reads: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me….”  

The word anointed is the root meaning of Messiah, in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek.  Jesus understood that God’s Spirit had anointed him for his ministry and mission.  

It began with an analysis of the not-rightness of the present.  It began by acknowledging that the existence of people who were poor, who were exiled, who were blind, and who were oppressed was a not-right condition.  

The poor needed the good news of a new Jubilee of debt forgiveness proclaimed to them.  The captives needed to be released from their bondage.  The blind needed to have their eyes opened.  The oppressed needed to be set free.  

The Spirit had not anointed Jesus to merely tell parables of the kingdom, the Spirit anointed Jesus to address the not-rightness around him in powerful, tangible ways.  

The story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the early Christians at Pentecost had the immediate effect of transcending boundaries of language and culture, as people from all over the ancient world heard the message in their own native tongue.  

The Spirit, Peter proclaimed, would put right the not-right condition of separation and division that has kept humans at odds with each other since the dawn of civilization.  

The Spirit would overcome the gender divide, as both sons and daughters, men and women would prophesy words of promise and hope, as Joel had imagined could happen.  The Spirit would even loosen the chains of the enslaved people, as they too received prophetic gifts, transforming these previously considered non-persons into full personhood.  

But these conditions are never fully achieved.  The progress that is made in one generation can be set back in the next.  The longing for a world-made-right continues in us.  That longing is the work of the Spirit that continues. 

This longing for a better world is kept alive in us as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, 

thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.”  

Yes the kingdom of God is present within us, but no, the kingdom of peace, reconciliation, and an end to all forms of oppression is still a distant hope.  Nevertheless, that hope lives in us by the Spirit.

The same longing that inspires our spiritual lives, the longing for God, the longing for a home that we were made for, but from which we experience such a distance from, that longing is the work of the Spirit in our lives.  

The longing only increases as our eyes are opened and we see the not-rightness of the world in deeper and deeper ways.  Once all we had were rumors of wars.  Now we have live video.  

Once we only heard the stories from the victims’ families; now we have body-cam footage.  

Once we were able to disbelieve our mothers who told us to finish our food because they were starving in other countries.  Now we can see the children’s faces.  

Once we only had warnings of the dangers of the wealth gap and how wages were not keeping up with prices.  Now all of our major cities, even our capital have the tents of the unhoused in plain sight.  

Once we could dismiss the inconvenient truths of climate scientists; now we have fires of nearly apocalyptic proportions. 

Our eyes are opened; we see the suffering, and we long for a world-made-right.  This longing is the work of the Spirit.

But we are not without hope.  That same Spirit that inspires our longings also fills us with hope.  Writing to his young Christian communities, Paul will pronounce this benediction on them: 

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

(Rom. 15:13)

He will tell them,

hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

(Rom. 5:5)

The Spirit of longing for the way home, and longing for the world to be made right is also the Spirit of hope.  

It is not the hope that we will escape the human condition, nor the hope that we will see in one generation the “Tikkun Olam,” the repairing of the world.  It is the hope that it is right and good to long for, and work for the world the Spirit points us toward.   A world Jesus wanted. 

A world in which the poor have good news to hear, the captives are released, the blind have their sight restored, and all the oppressed are set free. 

Oneness: Going Deeper

Oneness: Going Deeper

Sermon for May 29, 2022, Easter 7C.

Video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, AR. following the service.

  John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

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

There are many things we know are true, in spite of not experiencing them.  We know the earth is spinning at roughly 1,000 miles per hour, but we don’t experience the spinning.  

We know that the material world we think of as solid is made of atoms and molecules in motion, but that is not how we experience matter.  

We know that bacteria and viruses cause disease, but without a microscope, we cannot see them. 

Some of these truths don’t matter in any practical sense.  If we never felt the spinning of the earth, so what?  

Others matter greatly.  In spite of not being able to see germs, if we don’t wash our hands, we will get sick.  

In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking of our unity with God and with each other.  Which kind of truth is this: one that like the spinning earth doesn’t matter practically, or one like the invisible presence of germs that matters very much, every day?  

I believe it does matter.  I believe this sense of unity is what we long for, but most of the time feel incapable of grasping.  But grasping this truth would have profound effects on how we lived, how we thought about ourselves, and how we treat each other.   

I believe that the truth of our oneness with God and each other is important as we try to live faithfully in these times of tragedy, violence, instability, and frustration that we are all feeling.

Richard Rohr says that if our religion is not helping us to know our union with God, perhaps we need a new religion.  Thomas Merton, from whom Rohr learned so much of his spiritual wisdom said, 

Whatever I may have written, I think it can all be reduced in the end to this one root truth: That God calls human persons to union with [God’s self] with one another in Christ.”

Quoted in Finley, James. Merton’s Palace of Nowhere (p. 36). Ave Maria Press.

John’s Gospel has been called a “spiritual gospel” from the early days of Christianity, and this text is a perfect example of why.  Jesus’ prayer reveals a perspective that is shared by mystics from many traditions, including the Christian mystical tradition.  Listen again to how thoroughgoing the oneness Jesus prays for us to know:

“that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one

As we are one” — that is remarkable.  Could we ever know a oneness between each other that is as deep as the unity between Jesus and God?  Could we ever know a union with God as deep as Jesus’ union with God?  Could we ever know God as the one, 

in whom we live and move and have our being”?  

There is an irony, or perhaps a paradox at work in our inability to experience this truth of complete unity with God and with others.  James Finely who received spiritual direction from Thomas Merton at the monastery for over five years, has explained it this way: it is as if we were in a room searching for directions to the room we are in.  

He said, the present moment, just as it is, already is the perfect manifestation of the mystery we seek.  How could this be?  Because he explains, we ourselves are what we are looking for because we are looking for God, and we are God’s self-manifestation.  The oneness is already a fact.

That sounds heretical to say, until we consider that the Creation story in Genesis describes humans, male and female as literal icons of God; representations of God’s “image and likeness” in human skin.  

From the story of Moses at the ever-burning bush, we learn that God’s self-disclosed name is “I am that I am.”   God is being itself.  As Finley says, 

God is the beginning-less endless mystery of what it is to be.  Creation is reality itself, giving itself as all that is real.”  

from “Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere”, Audio Book, by Sounds True

We are then, living in God, in complete oneness already.  

But we do not go around realizing this divinity manifested in us.  Why not?  Because we tend to be obsessed with what we think is the meaning of it all.  

We walk around in fear, reactivity, and worrisome ruminations.  We live in what Merton calls our “awful solemnity.”  How could we not, with everything that is happening around us?  

But we are not always unaware.  Sometimes we are given glimpses of a reality more real than our memories or our fears for the future.  

Sometimes we have a flash of insight that pulls back the curtain for an instant and shows us the play going on behind the actors on the stage.  

There are moments of what are called contemplative awareness that we experience, for example, when stopping and noticing, as if for the first time, how blue the sky seems or how powerful the tides are.  

We receive these unbidden, unsought-after surprising moments of insight when noticing geese in flight, or hearing a passage of music that is so beautiful it almost hurts.  

In these moments we sense that we are at one with everything, with reality as it really is, which is to say, with God who is reality itself; with God as pure being, the “I am that I am.”  

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes these experiences as glimpses of the cosmic dance.  

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, …we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, … provide(s) a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation (pp. 302-303). New Directions.

In these moments of insight into the true nature of our oneness with God, with creation, and with everyone, we know we are experiencing something real.  It is not the experience of a dream or a daydream, but a self-authenticating reality that we cannot deny.  

And yet those real moments fade away quickly as we remember the next tasks we have to do, or where we are going and whether or not we are on time for it, or our attention is broken by the pain in our joints or the news we just heard.  We return to our “awful solemnity” quickly.  We resume our ruminating self.  

That is why we live with such longing.  We wish we could remain in the state of insight of oneness we have glimpsed, but the insight was fleeting.  As Finley says, 

The architect of our hearts has made them such that nothing less than an infinite union with the infinite will do.”  

So what are we to do?  There is no technique that will produce it.  There is no Merton method of spirituality that will lead us to experience the bliss of perpetual oneness.  All of our strategies, our theologies, are finite and so cannot lead us to the infinite.

But there are practices that, if we are faithful to them, will help.  Finley offers these three:

First, love is the key.  Love God, self, others, all things.  Love opens our hearts to the infinite love that loves us and all things into being.  Love of God and love of our neighbors, as Jesus said, sums up everything we need to do.  

Second, he encourages us to be faithful to some form of silent prayer, or meditation.  In wordless prayer, we stabilize ourselves in love-filled silence.  When we are faithful to a practice of intentional silence, the cumulative effect, over time, will be an increasing awareness of our oneness with God, creation, and each other.

Third, we allow ourselves to forget ourselves and join in what Merton called “the general dance:” in the rhythm of life itself.   We live in the concreteness of the everyday life we are living, with the sense that we know there is more, and yet without despair because we have glimpsed it and know it remains true, even in our disconnected experiences in time.  

Does it matter?  To me, it does because life is presented to us as so disconnected from this truth.  We live with evil all around us.  

We cannot believe the horror of Bucha and Mariupol.  

We cannot fathom that people in a grocery store in Buffalo could be gunned down out of racial animus.  

It is inconceivable that a young man could march into an elementary school and gun down innocent little children and their teachers.  

We are dumbfounded by the inaction of our political leaders.

We cannot understand that according to extensive surveys, in the name of Christian nationalism, people rank the right to own and bear firearms more significant than the right to vote, the right to free speech, and even above the free exercise of religion.  

And so, to be people who are not overcome by evil, but who “overcome evil with good,” to be people who are willing to get back up after every gut-punch of horror and to keep struggling to make a difference, we commit ourselves to renew our belief in our oneness with God, with creation, and with and all people which Jesus prayed we would know, and which, in those serendipitous moments of contemplative awareness, we do know. 

Hearing Voices

Hearing Voices

Sermon for May 8, 2022, Easter 4C

Video will be availble at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR after the service.

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.”

If we told a story today that began, “It was the fourth of July, 2000, and a man was speaking at the foot of the World Trade Center towers in New York,”  even if the story was not about the 9/11 attacks the following year nor about our national Independence Day anniversary, nevertheless those events, would be in the background.   

Even if what the man in the story was speaking about did not concern those events, by setting the story on that day, in that place, those events would cast a shadow over the story.   

And if the story had characters in it who were significant to America and our security, for example, the US Secretary of Defense, the shadow over that story would even be deeper.  

That is somewhat like the story that the author of John’s gospel is telling.  Writing after the failed Jewish revolt of 70 CE, the author is telling a story set at a temple that, by then, had been destroyed.  

Setting the story on the day of the Feast of Dedication, or what we call Hanukkah, makes it even more poignant.   Hanukkah celebrated the re-dedication of the temple after the Jewish heroes of the Maccabean wars liberated it from the Seleucid Greeks who had purposely defiled it.   

The portico of Solomon may bring to the reader’s mind the old bygone glory days of King Solomon whose temple was even grander than the ones the Romans destroyed many years later.  

So, there are some long shadows cast over this story.  The setting recalls glory days past, in the context of present dysfunction, from the vantage point that understands these were destined to be the last days before the next great debacle.

Need To Know

The story starts off with people who want to hear something that they believe they have a right to know, but say they haven’t heard yet.  They want to know exactly who Jesus is claiming to be.  They want to know if he thinks he is Messiah, which in Greek would be Christos; in English, Christ.  They want to hear him say it.  

But have they been listening?  Do they indeed want to hear what he has to say?  Or do they want to hear him like a detective listens, not to understand or be persuaded, but to collect incriminating evidence against him?

We have to pause and ask what their problem is.  Why should they have an issue with Jesus?  Nobody objects to people who go around preaching love and forgiveness.  

They may not take him seriously, they may not respect him, but preaching love and forgiveness never got anybody targeted.  Who are these people who have such issues with Jesus and who feel so entitled to answers?

John’s gospel calls them “The Jews.”  That is really unfortunate because it sounds anti-Semitic.  Actually, it’s the Gospel of John’s way of saying, the current Jewish leadership.  In other words, the people in charge at the temple where this conversation is taking place on that day of Dedication.  

Temple Significance

This story is set at the temple, so we need to pause and ask, what was the temple all about?  It was about many things at once.  Of course, it was a temple, meaning it represent the presence of God among the people.  The temple was the place (the only place according to the Law of Moses) where sacrifices could be offered and sins forgiven.   For faithful Jewish people, the temple represented the way they had access to God.  

Naturally, every Jewish person could pray, sing praises, and have a sense that the Lord, their Shepherd, was with them always, but the temple was sacred.  It was where God was enthroned on the mercy seat in the holy of holies.  

But the temple’s sacred role was complicated.  Was the high priest at the temple legitimate?  People had reason to doubt it.  He had been appointed by Rome, and was not from the family of Aaron.  

Many faithful Jews believed the temple was illegitimate.  Some even moved out to form communities out in the wilderness of the Dead Sea in opposition to the temple.  Jesus himself is never described as offering sacrifice at the temple.  

So the temple both stood for God’s presence and at the same time stood as an emblem of the dysfunctional leadership at the present time. 

And the temple was more than that.  It was also the treasury, the national bank.  It was where the records of debts were archived.  It was both the IRS and the Collection Agency.  

Many poor peasants had been forced off of their land by the unscrupulous lending and foreclosure practices of the aristocracy who ran the temple.  We know them as Sadducees.   

In fact, the Jewish revolt that eventually ended with the temple’s destruction started as a civil war.  Peasants broke into the temple, found the rooms with the records of their debts, and set them ablaze.  

When the Roman army came down to stop them, they united with each other and went to war against Rome.  The war lasted four years.  At the end of it, tens of thousands were dead and the temple was a smoking pile of rubble.  

So the ones who were demanding that Jesus state plainly whether he believed he was Messiah were the ones whose oppressive policies created the intolerable conditions that poor people rebelled against.   

So how did Jesus respond to such people?  He responded several ways.  First he told them that he had indeed already told them plainly, but they were not listening; why should he tell them again and expect a different result?  

Second, he said they could have figured out who he was by looking at his signs.   Jesus was famous as a healer; why was that not enough for them?   

Third, Jesus made a public demonstration against the temple by driving out the animals and the money changers, thus temporarily shutting it down.  But that is a story for another day.  

Jesus, in this context, goes on to say that the reason they did not listen to him is that they did not belong to his sheep.  He said, 

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

I have read that real sheep will not follow commands, but when their shepherd calls they know that food is coming, so they come.  They are not smart animals, but neither are they stupid, one sheep farmer wrote.  

That is not a bad analogy for people like us who are trying to be followers of Jesus.  At least we know that Jesus feeds us spiritually as we receive his teaching and example.  Buddhists say they take refuge in the Buddha.  We take refuge in Jesus when we listen to him and follow him.  

Early Christians and Jews

The focus of this text is the contrast between people who did not listen to Jesus’ words and those who, like good sheep do.  

The earliest Christian communities were all Jewish, and very soon they were mixed communities of Jews and non-Jews, or Gentiles. In the early days, they continued to practice Judaism, simply adding the belief that Jesus was indeed the promised Jewish messiah.  

But they became increasingly intolerable to Jews as their practices began to deviate more and more from Judaism.  Many stopped keeping Kosher, believing that Jesus had made all foods clean. 

They stopped offering sacrifices at the temple, believing that forgiveness was not dependent on priests or sacrifice. 

They believed that Jesus himself represented what the temple used to represent: the very presence of God among them.  

So eventually they were excluded from synagogue services.  Some even persecuted Christians. 

So the Christians started meeting in each other’s homes.  They ate together, they broke bread, shared the wine of communion, and remembered together Jesus’ words.  Their practice was already non-temple-centered when the Romans destroyed it in the year 70.   

I am sure that when that happened they remembered some of his words like

blessed are the peacemakers,” and

those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  

Words for Today

The question we are left with is how are we to listen to Jesus’ words today?  We have many of his words and early interpretations of his words in the gospels, and that is where we always begin.  

But many of our most challenging questions have no word from Jesus with which to answer them.  Jesus never spoke, for example, about abortion, LGBTQ, or trans-gendered issues. 

So how are we to be faithful to follow Jesus in these cases?  There is no cut-and-dried answer.  In John’s gospel, however, we are given direction.  When Jesus was in the upper room on the night before his arrest he told his disciples what was going to happen.  He said he was going away, but that he would not leave them orphaned.  He said the Holy Spirit would be with them and would continue to teach them after he had gone.  

He called the Spirit the “Spirit of Truth.”  So today, we, collectively, as the church, seek to discern what the Spirit is saying.  We know that as individuals we are subject to our own preferences and prejudices, so we believe we discern the voice of the Spirit best collectively.  It can be a messy process, but we believe we have seen it work.  This is how today we seek to listen to Jesus’ words: through the Spirit.

We have been led, we believe, by the Spirit, to open the doors of leadership and ministry to women.  This congregation has women in leadership.  

We have been led, we believe, by the Spirit, to open the doors of leadership and ministry to gay people.  This congregation has gay people in leadership.  

We have been led, we believe, by the Spirit, to open the doors of leadership and ministry to people of color, although our style of worship is pretty white.  

At least at a denominational level, we have people of African descent in leadership, like our Stated Clerk, our highest office, and the President and Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  One a man, the other a woman.

There are other issues on which consensus has been harder to achieve.  But as Presbyterians, we believe, as our Book of Order says, that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” and each person has the responsibility to seek to be as faithful as she can be to follow the voice of the shepherd.  

As Paul told his congregations who disagreed with each other over the practice of eating religiously tainted meat, and Sabbath-keeping,

Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”

(Rom. 14) 

So we respect each other when we differ.  We seek to listen to each other, to learn from each other’s experiences.  We try to see the world from the perspective of the ones we disagree with.  

We are especially attentive to experiences of pain, suffering, and marginalization, and we are suspicious of the perspectives of the wealthy and powerful.  

In the end, we try to have compassion, which is indisputably what the voice of our shepherd leads us to practice.  

153 Large Fish

153 Large Fish

Sermon for May 1, 2022, Easter 3C

Video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, AR. after the service.

John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now, none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Why would you tell this story?  What are we meant to receive from it?  

I believe that the author is telling something about spirituality.  I believe that the essence of spirituality is awareness.  

Specifically, spirituality is the awareness of the presence of the infinite in the ordinary.  Some have called this an awareness of the depth dimension present in every moment.  

Now, we do not walk around with this awareness all the time, but we have all had flashes of this insight.  We have all had glimpses.  We have all had what James Finley, who teaches at Richard Rohr’s Center for Contemplation and Action, calls“moments of spontaneous contemplative experience” in his book on Thomas Merton. (Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere audiobook). Thomas Merton, was Finley’s spiritual director for several years at The Abbey of Gethsemani monastery.

Finley says, moments of spontaneous contemplative experience… involve serendipitously stumbling upon a holiness already in progress.”  

He uses this example: you are walking in the woods, enjoying nature, and you turn to see a flock of birds descending.  At that moment you are struck by something deeper than merely the elegance of flight and the wonder of a flock acting in symmetry.  

Finley says “your heart is quickened with a visceral sense of the holiness of the flock’s descent, and you intuitively realize that the holiness to which you are privileged to participate is a holiness that is already begun.”  

The depth dimension is always already there, but in those spontaneous moments, we are suddenly awakened to it.  

When that happens, we are filled with awe and gratitude.  In those moments, we do not feel that we need anything or want anything.  We sense a freedom or liberation from needing to add anything to that awareness of the infinite.  

When we see a sunset, for example, and take time to notice it, we never say, “same old sunset.”  We have all experienced the sense that the longer you gaze at it, the more there is to see as the colors change and the light slowly recedes.  It’s inexhaustible.  The infinite is present in the finite.  

There is a beauty about it that is deeper than simple pleasure.  C. S. Lewis wrote of the experience as pleasure so deep it is also painful. It comes with both a sense of fulfillment and longing at the same time.  

When those moments of spontaneous contemplative experience pass, (and they do pass) we are left with a sense of longing.    We have an ache in our hearts. Finley says that when the moments pass they leave an empty place in our hearts.  None of the things that we think we want fulfill this longing.  

This is the great gift, Finley says, of being awakened to the radically unsatisfactory nature of everything less than infinite love to fill us. There is no thing, there is no person, there is no circumstance that will fill our hearts.  

This awareness leads us to seek solitude and silence as a path to becoming aware of the infinite always and everywhere in the finite.

But how do you talk about it?  What are the words that can convey that moment of awakening?  What concepts are adequate to describe what is indescribable?  There are none.  

The best you can do is to tell a story that illustrates that moment of awakening.  A moment of awe and wonder.  If you are a fisherman, you tell a story of an extraordinary experience while fishing.  

This story from the Gospel of John, as all of the risen-Jesus appearance stories, has an ethereal quality.  Time seems non-chronological.  As the story goes, Peter and six other disciples of Jesus, after his crucifixion, are back in Galilee, doing what they did before they met Jesus; fishing.  It takes four days to walk from Jerusalem back to Galilee, but the story makes it seem like it’s the next day after they were in that locked room there with Thomas.  

Jesus will show up there on the shore and speak to them but they will not recognize him at first, even the sound of his voice.  It is odd.  The oddness comes from the fact that the story seems to be trying to tell us something beneath the surface level.  So let us think about the story.

 Those fishermen were professionals.  They know from years of experience where the fish would be and how best to catch them.  They are adults.  They have a sense of who they are and what they need in life.  They are fishermen and they need a good catch to stay in business.  

But they are not getting what they need.  In spite of all their expertise and experience, their nets are empty, even after fishing all night, in the dark.  There must be more to life than this.  The light has not yet dawned for them.  The sense that there must be more, there must be something deeper is the longing; it is the ache.  Before awakening, it just feels like emptiness.

Then, at dawn, when the light is beginning to fill the sky, Jesus shows up on the shore and calls to them.  “Children” he calls them.  Perhaps he is suggesting that these grown men are operating on an immature level, as if they have not learned something important yet.  

Have you no fish?” — again, mysteriously he somehow knows what they lack.  Jesus, in John’s gospel, stands for the presence of the infinite in the finite.  He is, as John tells us, the Word made flesh; the presence of divinity in the form of humanity.  Of course he knows what they lack.  

Oddly, they do not recognize him yet.  They have not been awakened to the reality that the infinite can be and is, experienced in the finite.  

So Jesus tells them to fish on the right side of the boat.  They have been fishing on the port side; they need to fish off starboard.  

Why?  Because when what you have been doing has not been working, you need to make a change.  If a life of concern about making it has left you empty, it’s time to make a change.  

They fish off the right side, and suddenly, where there was emptiness before, now there is abundance.  Now there is fullness.  

The disciple whom Jesus loved suddenly has his eyes opened: this is his a-ha moment.  This is his moment of spontaneous contemplative experience.  He recognizes the presence of the infinite in the finite.  He has been awe-struck.  

At that moment Peter also receives enlightenment.  He feels the pull to go to Jesus, but he is naked.  He has been exposed.  Remember his three denials of Jesus at his arrest?  His nakedness is now evident to himself as well.  Not only were his nets empty, but his own person was revealed as having nothing. He quickly put something on, out of respect for his encounter with the presence of the infinite.  

When they got to shore, Jesus now plays host and invites them to a meal of fish and bread.  Just as he had shared fish and bread in the wilderness, feeding the hunger of thousands, now he shares fish and bread to disciples who finally have awakened.  

All it took was 153 fish to give them a moment of spontaneous contemplative experience.  It is a transformative moment.   

Jesus will restore Peter, erasing his previous three denials with three affirmations of love.  He will commission Peter to continue his ministry of feeding sheep and tending lambs, providing spiritual nourishment for the community.

In this moment, Peter needs nothing:  no fish, no net, no boat, nor a reputation as a successful fisherman. In this moment of awareness, his heart is full.  He has experienced the infinite in the finite; the presence of Divinity in 153 fish.  

This story invites us to look back at our lives and to notice these experiences we have had of awareness. The times we have observed a flock of birds descending or a child at play, the sunsets we have gazed at, and to notice the wonder and awe they filled us with.  Remember the gratitude you felt for those moments, and the longing ache that followed as they passed.  

We are invited to know these moments of spontaneous contemplative experience as encounters of the infinite within the finite.  To know in a way of knowing that sometimes can only be described as unknowing, that these were glimpses of the really real, the holiness that is at the heart of everything.  To know that God, we and the world are eternally one.   

This is the spirituality we are invited to practice: awareness of the presence of God, in everything, and everyone.

Getting the Message

Getting the Message

Sermon for April 24, 2022, Easter 2 C

Video will be posted at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR. following the service.

 John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The stories of Jesus’ appearances after his death, some New Testament scholars have pointed out, have a dreamlike quality to them.  Jesus appears to people who knew him well, but they don’t recognize him at first.  He can appear and disappear, be in Jerusalem and the next moment in Galilee.  

But like dreams that reveal important truths, these stories told by the followers of Jesus, have powerful messages to teach; messages that the followers of Jesus then and now need to hear; messages that both nurture faith and challenge us to action. 

A Radically New Jesus

What are we supposed to make of a story in which someone, specifically Jesus, can suddenly appear in locked rooms, and yet has the marks of crucifixion on his body?  

The only conclusion that makes sense to me is that Jesus is being presented as a living reality, though no longer 

a figure of flesh and blood confined to time and space” 

as Borg and Crossan have written.  Jesus is still experienced, but 

in a radically new way.”  

Jesus’ Last Week, Borg and Crossan

But it is important that this experience of Jesus not be separated from what just happened: he was crucified.  He was an innocent victim of capital punishment.  

The Jesus who is a living reality for Christians has permanent scars.  He challenged the oppressive powers that be, when he shut down the temple on behalf of the poor to whom he had come to bring good news, and was killed for it.   

The Jesus we continue to encounter as a living presence was one who died fighting for justice. 

Like a repeating dream, this story has two parts that are similar, but with one exception: Thomas is absent from the first scene, but present for the second. Taken together, these two scenes include six messages of Jesus.  We will look at each of them and notice why we need these messages today.

Peace be with you

The very first thing Jesus says, as he suddenly appears in that locked room on Easter evening, is 

Peace be with you.”  

Jesus says this to the very people who totally abandoned him at his arrest.  To the people who should have stayed with him, who should have stood up for him, who should have tried to protect him but instead, ran for their lives, he said, 

Peace be with you.”  

By those words, Jesus was putting into practice the very kind of tough forgiveness that he will call his followers to practice.  Though he had reason to feel resentment, he rejected resentment.  Though he had reason to make them grovel in shame and guilt, he did the opposite.  Though he could have demanded at least an apology, he did not wait for one nor ask for one.  He simply forgave them, saying, 

Peace be with you.”  

The message for us is that God’s orientation to us is positive, not negative.  We need not fear God, but rather understand that God is the source of our sense of peace and well-being, regardless of our circumstance.  

So I send you

Not only did Jesus forgive them, he still saw a future for them.  They had abandoned him, true, but they were not, therefore, damaged goods.  He still believed that they could be significant.   So he said, 

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  

You have a mission.  It is not about your past record; there are people who need your help.  There is still oppression: resist it.  There is still discrimination: dismantle it.  There is still hunger, disease, poverty, homelessness, loneliness, and mental illness: be an activist.  Risk everything, like I did, he is saying.  Go up against structures of injustice; be bold; say “no” to the status quo.  

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  

We hear in this our commission.  Followers of Jesus are not called to the couch; we are called to be active on behalf of a world that hurts so badly.  We cannot use the excuse that something in our past disqualifies us.  If people who abandoned Jesus can be commissioned to service, so can all of us. 

Receive the Spirit

But you cannot think you can do this in your own power. In a way that echoes the scene in which God breathed breath into Adam, making him a living being, according to the Creation story, Jesus breathed on them and said, 

receive the Holy Spirit.”  

What do we mean when we say Holy Spirit?  Many years before the church came up with the word“trinity” Paul seems not to have made much of a distinction between the Spirit and Jesus.   He often calls Jesus “Messiah” — or, in the Greek version of that word, “Christ.”  He says that the Spirit is both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. (See Romans 8)

That Spirit is both everywhere present, and also dwells within us. This means that the way Jesus is present to us today is through the presence of the Spirit.  And this Spirit, Jesus has called, the Spirit of truth that will lead us into truth, helping us come to know things that Jesus said we were not ready to hear in his lifetime.  (See John 14–16)

We are witnesses of this message.  In those days, they could not have imagined a world without enslaved persons.  Thank God the Spirit of truth has guided us out of that horrible institution.  

Back then, the idea that women should have equality with men, in the home, in eduction, in the marketplace and in government, was all but unthinkable.  

Back then, racism was rampant.  Classism was endemic. The poor had no protections.  Almost nobody could dream of a world that was different.  They had no understanding of sexual orientation or gender identity as we do today. The Spirit of truth has led us to see our world in a new way. 

Forgive

The Spirit has led us to be an open, inclusive, affirming community.  But we are imperfect humans.   We need each other in this community, but we make life difficult for each other.  So Jesus’ next message is, 

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  

I love Eugene Petersons’ rendering of this in his Message translation, 

If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”  

We have the power of forgiveness.  Just as Jesus said “peace” to the ones who abandoned him, so we have been charged with the mandate of forgiving each other.  It is the only way a community of imperfect people can flourish.  

Communities that do not practice forgiveness become toxic, even if they have a noble mission.  Communities that do practice forgiveness, as Jesus molded and taught, are communities of healing and restoration.  

Believe

Is this possible?  Sometimes it does feel like it is only a dream.  Sometimes the vision of a reconciled world in which everyone is respected, protected, loved and forgiven seems hopelessly idealistic.  

It seems like a dream to imagine a world in which there can be resurrections: love again, after betrayal; trust again, after abuse; hope after so much evidence of the capacity of humans to be evil.  So Jesus’ final message in that Locked room is, 

Do not doubt but believe.” “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  

In other words, hold onto the vision.  Keep telling the Jesus stories over and over.  Keep believing that, as Dr. King said, 

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

We may not be seeing it now.  We may not even see it from the perspective of one lifetime, but keep believing it.  Keep getting the Easter message from scarred but living Jesus:

Peace be with you.”  
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
“Do not doubt but believe.”
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  

They Remembered His Words

They Remembered His Words

Sermon for April 17, 2022, Easter Sunday, C

Video will be avaiable at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, AR. after the service.

Luke 24:1-12

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.

In Egypt, in December 1945, they discovered a buried ancient group of manuscripts,  including one they call the Gospel of Thomas which could be as old as the canonical gospels.  

It is a group of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus.  It includes no stories of Jesus, no accounts of his birth, death, or miracles, just a collection of words attributed to him.  Clearly, it was important for early groups of Christians to remember his words.  

There is another collection of Jesus’ words that scholars believe is embedded in the gospels as we have them.  Often the gospels quote each other word-for-word, in ways that show that they were quoting from the same ancient source, now lost to history.  

When you put those quotations together, you find that you have another group of sayings of Jesus.  Like the Gospel of Thomas, there are no stories in that source, only sayings.  The earliest Christians knew it was important to remember his words

In the heart of the Easter story, at the empty tomb, we hear the two men in dazzling clothes say to the frightened women “remember his words.”  And then, Luke tells us, “they remembered his words.”  

What does it mean for us today to say “Christ is risen?”  It means that Christ is not merely a figure of the past.  Christ is alive in us, and in our community, as we gather to remember his words.  

His words are living and powerful for us, just as they were for the first Christians.  His words give us comfort and hope.  His words inspire us and challenge us.  His words give us purpose and meaning.  

What could be a better way to celebrate the living presence of Christ among us today than to remember some of his words together?  

We have to begin where the gospels begin, though they each begin differently.  One of the earliest scenes in which Jesus speaks as an adult, in Luke’s gospel is when he came to the synagogue service in Nazareth.  He read from the prophet Isaiah who said, 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  

We remember Jesus’ words which followed, 

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  

Historians tell us that the category of people called “the poor” was not even used in the ancient Roman world.  They were simply overlooked as a matter of anyone’s concerns.  They were non-persons.  

But Jesus turned his attention to the poor, and in doing so, made persons out of non-persons.  We celebrate Easter every time we bring good news to the poor, that they are loved by God, and we put that love into action by finding ways to help them out of their poverty.  Because, we remember his words

We remember that the first thing Jesus says in Mark’s version of the story of Jesus is 

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent [that is, change your thinking], and trust in the good news.”  

We remember that the theme of many of Jesus’ parables was the presence of the kingdom of God.   No longer are we to think that God’s kingdom is a chosen people and a promised land belonging to them alone.  

The kingdom of God has no territory, no boundaries.  The kingdom of God, as Jesus described it, is not an ethnic kingdom but, as Paul will tell the Christians in Galatia, 

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.”  

The kingdom of God, according to Jesus, is within you.  The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is when God’s will is done, “on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God is as inclusively wide as the human experience.

Therefore, every time racial bias is exposed and dismantled, God’s kingdom has come.  

Every time gay and transgendered people are welcomed and loved, God’s kingdom has come.  

Every time the people who are food-insecure have plenty to eat, and every time unhoused people find safe shelter, God’s kingdom has come.  

Each time someone or an organization finds ways to reduce their carbon footprint, God’s kingdom has come.  

Each time forgiveness is offered, each time loving words are spoken, God’s kingdom has come, Jesus words are remembered, and Christ is present. 

We remember the beautiful and hopeful but quite challenging words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  

Blessed, he said, are the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for justice.  Blessed, he said are the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers.  

These give us a vision of life as it should be.  They inspire us to let go of ego-demands and selfishness so that we can live other-centered lives of compassion and service.  We remember Jesus’ words about forgiveness, even forgiving repeatedly if need be — remember “70 times 7”?; even forgiving enemies.  

As challenging as those words are, we know deep down that if we lived in a world that practiced Jesus’ teaching, it would be beautiful.  That is our quest, as we remember his words.

Most of all, we remember Jesus’ words about God.  Jesus talked about God in ways that celebrated one particular view of God that came from his Hebrew Bible tradition, but completely set aside another view of God from that same tradition.   

Jesus talked about the God who was the good shepherd that the 23rd Psalm pictures, but not the God of judgmental fire and brimstone.  

For Jesus, the Creator-God is the One who is concerned for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and if so, how much more does God care for us?  God, Jesus said, cares for us to the point of numbering the hairs of our heads.  

When we get off track, God does not go after us to punish us, but seeks for us as a shepherd seeks for a lost sheep, and rejoices upon finding her.  

So with this understanding of God, we can let go of fear and anxiety; we can simply fall back into arms that uphold us every day, trusting that God is with us.  This is the confidence we feel when we “remember his words.” 

When we remember Jesus’ words, that God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the fields of the evil and the good, without distinction or judgment, we are set free from the belief that our suffering is God’s punishment.  

Rather, according to Jesus, God is like the father of the prodigal son who keeps looking down the road for his return, and when he sees him coming, disregards his dignity and runs to meet him.  He doesn’t even let him finish his rehearsed confession speech, but orders a feast for him.  

That is the beautiful vision of God that Jesus taught us.  Remembering Jesus’ words fills us with joy, knowing that God is for us, not against us.  

We remember Jesus’ teaching the golden rule, as nearly every religion teaches in one form or another, and we know that a world in which everyone treated each other the way they wanted to be treated would be a near-perfect world.  

We remember Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan that challenges us to self-sacrificial service on behalf of people in need, while at the same time calling us to reject racial and ethnic prejudices.   

Remembering Jesus’ words, we dive into ministries of compassion like feeding the hungry and ministries of advocacy for the ones who get trampled on in our culture.  Christ is present in every act of service on behalf of the ones Jesus called “the least of these.”  Service and advocacy is what we do when we “remember his words.

We remember that Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.  We do not see Christ with our physical eyes, but when we break bread, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter evening, our spiritual eyes are opened.  We celebrate the Lord’s Supper because Jesus said, “do this remembering me.”  

Back to the story, Luke tells us that when the women reported everything they had just experienced, the male disciples did not believe them.  Peter had to see for himself.  

Luke said that when Peter arrived at the tomb and looked in, all he saw was the linen clothes by themselves.  His reaction?  Luke says, he 

went home, amazed at what had happened.” 

We should be amazed too.  A carpenter’s son from a no-account village of peasants on the fringes of the Roman Empire has spoken words that still live today.  

His words have the capacity to transform us and the world.   So it is right that especially on Easter Sunday we do what those women did: we remember his words.  And we respond like Peter: we are amazed.  

By This

By This

Sermon for April 14, 2022, Maundy Thursday

Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.

John 13:1-17, 34-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

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.”

I heard about a condition that people with certain brain injuries experience that makes it impossible for them to realize that someone is not telling the truth.   Normal, healthy brains have the capacity to notice micro muscle movements in the face that indicate the tension someone feels when they are saying something that is not true.  

Basically, we can tell when people are lying to us much of the time.  

At what moment did Jesus and maybe other disciples realize that Judas was not who he was pretending to be?  Clearly by that night in that room, Jesus had already figured it out.  Nevertheless, there he was, in that room with them.  

This is a story about love, but it is also a story of betrayal.  This then, is a story about a love so great as to overcome anything, even betrayal.

I picture a dimly lit room, only candlelight.  I picture the people there feeling tired at the end of a day spent on their feet.  Now they are hungry for supper.  

They take their places reclining at the low-lying table, propped up on one elbow facing the table, feet stretched out away, like spokes of a wheel.  Those feet are dusty and bare.  No servants have washed them because they have no servants.  This is not that kind of community.

This is an honor-shame culture.  There are roles that people play according to their station. 

In this culture, they have learned since childhood that there are places people may take around tables that reflect their status. 

This is not a community without internal leadership, Peter, James and John are leaders, but leadership in this community has been complexified by the community’s often strangely-behaving chief leader, Jesus.  Tonight it gets even stranger.  

Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, puts a towel around his waist. At this point, I picture the disciples starting to get uncomfortable, even embarrassed.  

Let’s try to imagine how they felt.  We can picture how odd and off-putting it would feel if someone knelt before us, took our hand and kissed our ring; we would pull back that hand in surprise and feel quite uncomfortable.  

That must have been how they felt when the chief leader of their community stripped down and donned a servant’s towel.  They are about to become even more uncomfortable.

Jesus did the unthinkable.  He poured water into a basin, moved around to each pair of dusty feet, cupped his hand in the water, lifted it up and poured it over those feet, then dried them with the towel in his hands.  

He actually did it.  

There must have been awkward silence; no sounds in the room but the dripping, splashing water. 

Peter cannot take it.  He objects, as we would have objected.  It just doesn’t make sense.  It breaks protocol.  

He gets angry like we do when we feel outmaneuvered and perplexed.  How far is this going to go; all the way to the bath?  He is being hyperbolic; reductio ad absurdum.  

Jesus is not drawn to counter-argue.  He simply states verbally what he has just stated symbolically: 

I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

There are ten commandments that occupy the attention of the faithful Israelite.  Ten “thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” that govern life.  Ten rules for living sum up our obligations to God and our neighbor.   

But with deep insight, Jesus has distilled them down to two: love God, and love neighbor.  

At this moment he goes even further.  He condenses these two even further into one. With that original set of ten commandments in mind, Jesus now adds a new one.  This is the new, distilled mandate, (“mandate” being the word from which we get the name Maundy for this Thursday of Holy Week):

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.

The insight Jesus was expressing by making the command to love each other the one, final distillation of God’s will is that loving God essentially means, as Richard Rohr has written, loving what God loves.  

What does God love most?  People; us.  God loves the people God has created! So, loving what God loves means loving people, just as Jesus did.  

Loving them all, even betrayers. Loving them to the point of being willing to break all social conventions, all expectations, even scandalously assuming the role of a servant to soothe their tired, dusty feet and to help them feel respected, even honored.  

That is the model.  That is the degree to which Jesus was calling his followers to love.  That extent of love is not just for good times, or even neutral times, but for the hard times too.  

That’s why that kind of love involves forgiveness, even 70×7 occasions of injury.  That’s why it involves absorbing violence and turning the other cheek and going the second mile.  

How do you get there?  How do we ever become people with this kind of capacity to love? How do we overcome our ego defenses that make us resist humility?  

How do we overcome our tendency to take offense at the slightest whiff of insult?  How do we get past our defensiveness when we or our group feels threatened?  

How do we become open-hearted to that extent?  How can we possibly follow Jesus’ example?

John drops in one hint of explanation.  As Jesus gets up from the table, John lifts up the curtain so that we can see behind the action. He gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ motivation saying, 

knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table…

Jesus had become convinced of two facts that allowed him to shun convention and take the role of a servant to show the model of sacrificial love.  

First, he knew that God had given all things into his hands.  We too, have everything we need from God.  God has given us the Spirit that is with us in every moment, luring us towards the good.  

God’s Spirit is with us, as the Divine Presence, experiencing the unfolding of life, offering possibilities to act in humble loving ways.  God’s Spirit is the Spirit of the Good Shepherd that walks with us, even through “the valley of the shadow of death” so that we need not fear the evil around us.  

Jesus, on the following day, even in his hour of deepest suffering, will be able to say, 

into your hands I commend my spirit”  

concluding that God was there, suffering with him.

There is a second motivation that Jesus had as he poured the water into that basin and put on the servant’s towel, John says he knew that, 

he had come from God and was going to God.”  

If we too can say that we know that in our bones, then we have the ability to act in humble love.  If we know that what is deepest in us is not opposed to God, but longs for God, if we know that we are made lovingly in God’s image, and will return to God at the end, then we can be free to love.  We can be free to risk loving.  

When we have sat silently in meditation as a regular practice, as we know Jesus did, we, like him, can come to know that we come from God and are going to God.  

When we practice the kind of ego-denial that is part of the process of meditation, as we refuse to let random thoughts dominate, as we focus on the present moment, accepting it just as it is, we become aware of our deepest selves in God.  

We feel relieved of the burden of self-justification or vengeance.  We come more compassionate and loving because we spend less energy thinking of ourselves. 

When we know that God has given us all we need through the Spirit, and when we know that we are from God and will return to God, then we will love one another.  

And by this, the world will know that we are Jesus’ followers.  They will not know it by our beautiful buildings.  They will not know it for our perfect polity.  They will not know it by the sophistication of our theology or the elegance of our liturgies.  

By this everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples; that we love one another.