The Short Term and the Long View: the Virtue of Courage

The Short Term and the Long View: the Virtue of Courage

Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019 on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2A. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
  the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

How are we going to get through this? How am I going to get through this? Those questions can keep you up at night. Whether you are thinking about our country, our church, your health issues, your economic situation, or your personal relationships, the question haunts us: how will we get through it?

As a seminarian, learning Hebrew, I was struck by the way ancient Israelites referred to the future. They used the phrase, “in the behind of the days.” They faced the past that they could see, and backed into the unseeable future.  

Where is God in This?

Another question we ask ourselves, as people of faith, is, “Where is God in this?” Some think that God is the master puppeteer, orchestrating events from behind the curtain.  They think that God has a plan which is unknowable by mere mortals. The world would make sense if we could see it from God’s perspective,  they assure us. Even the Holocaust. Even child abuse. 

I personally cannot accept that view. To have a plan that included every crime ever committed would make the planner as monstrous as the people carrying out the plan.  God is not a moral monster, in fact, just the opposite. So that view cannot be correct.  

Well, then, if not a master puppeteer with a pre-set plan, then we are back to the question, “Where is God in this?” Is there a plan at all? This is a huge issue for all of us. We can only scratch the surface here, today. We will look to our wisdom tradition, to see what possible insights may help us get through all of this, and see where God is in it. 

Isaiah’s Vision 

We will start with a glance at the text from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Isaiah. You have probably seen one of the paintings by Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister, and artist, in which lions and leopards are sitting peacefully with lambs and little children near them. Hicks painted 62 versions of that painting called, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” He was grasped by that beautiful vision of a world at peace, where there were no longer predators, and no more victims. He was painting the vision of this text from Isaiah 11.  

But the question for Israel in the time of Isaiah was, how do you get there? How do you get from here to there? How do you get from the mess we are in, to that future state of peace, security, and abundance? 

The prophet imagines that the way will include new leadership. A new shoot will grow up from the stump of the ancient king David’s family tree.  

What can we expect of this new Spirit-inspired leadership? Some things are clear: this leader will be just; the poor will have the same standing before the law as the rich. 

But other things are unclear. Vagueness and ambiguity in the poetry make it difficult to know whether the way forward will include violence or not, as a means to get to the time of peace and harmony. 

The poet says, “He shall strike the earth,” but only with “the rod of his mouth.” He shall “kill the wicked” but only by “the breath of his lips.” Does this mean he will use only words, so that the striking and killing are metaphors for victory by persuasion? Or will there be blood on the ground? It’s not clear.  

So then how does this provide us with wisdom, if the message is ambiguous? At least one thing is clear. The end state we wish for is a time of justice, peace and abundance. We share the vision of Hick’s paintings. What we long for is justice for all the poor and oppressed of the earth; for a world in which every child is safe, and there is no fear of being hurt or destroyed, as the prophet envisioned.  A world in which there is enough for everyone.

John’s Take On It

So how do you get from here to there? Let us fast forward several centuries to the time of John and of Jesus. Everyone is still asking “How are we going to get through this?” And they are asking, “Where is God in this?” It’s a mess. They are humiliated, oppressed subjects of the Roman Empire, with no foreseeable way out.  

John still believes in the ancient vision. The Divine will is for that peaceable kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance. But John believes there will be blood on the ground before you get to peace. He anticipates the new leadership. He expects Messiah to come, striking the ground and killing the enemies of God. His imagery is violent. It involves the “wrath to come.” “The ax is lying at the root of the trees” ready to be wielded with force. Limbs will be chopped off. Whole trees will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus was part of John’s group. He was baptized by John. But Jesus eventually separated himself from John’s group. Details are scarce. New Testament scholars suggest that perhaps Jesus took a lesson from what happened to John and what failed to happen. 

John was critical of the current political leadership, so he was arrested. Herod Antipas’ troops got him, and Herod had him executed. God did not intervene. There was no fire burning down the trees that were bearing such evil fruit. 

Bad people were not prevented from doing bad things. That seems to be how it goes in this world. Children get abused. Nazi’s march and salute. Gas chambers run smoothly.  People who were sent back to Mexico to await asylum hearings are assaulted, kidnapped and raped by the hundreds.  

Jesus’ View

So, back to the same questions: “How are we going to get through this? And, “Where is God in this?” Jesus took a different view. He still believed in the long term vision of justice and peace, but he rejected violence as a means. So, with “the breath of his mouth,” he taught. He taught things like “Blessed, are the peacemakers.” And, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  

Was Jesus then, an advocate of passivity? Was Nietzsche correct that Christianity is “slave mentality?” Not at all. Though this teaching has been missed by the church, as so much of the teachings of Jesus have been, Jesus advocated neither violence nor passivity. He did not just roll over for the Romans. His way was a third way of non-violent, but active resistance. What do you think that demonstration in the temple was, the day he shut it down? The leadership got the message, and killed him for it. He had the courage to face even death, living for the vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, and abundance.  

What about Now?

So, back to the questions. How are we going to get through this? First, by doing what Jesus did: by holding onto the vision. We will refuse to allow the current situation we are in to vanquish our hope. We believe in justice. We believe that our liberation, our wellbeing, our “shalom” is inseparably bound up with the liberation and wellbeing of the poor and the oppressed.  We practice nonviolence. We are allies of and advocates for the poor and the oppressed, resisting systems of injustice.  

We believe that God is not the master puppeteer, but rather the master persuader, who has put the longing for justice and peace in every heart. God is present always and everywhere, not coercing us into a pre-planned outcome, but luring us towards the good. 

Where is God in this? God is right in the middle of it all with us, experiencing it with us — all of it — the joy and the pain, and offering us the possibility, in each situation, of the next right thing. That means that God is in relationship with us, with love and grace, enabling us to have the courage we need in the short term, to keep living virtuously toward the long term vision.  

It is Advent; Christmas is coming. How will we get through this time in our country? How will we get through this time in our church? How will we get through all the things we face in our personal lives? We will get through it, not alone, but with God, and with each other. 

God’s plan is for our wellbeing, our shalom. God’s plan is for the wellbeing, justice, peace and shalom for our society, and for our world. God’s plan is not static and pre-made, but dynamic and evolving with every moment.  

So, we will have the courage to keep painting paintings of the peaceable kingdom. We will keep practicing our daily spiritual disciplines, our prayers, and meditations. We will keep gathering in common worship, giving gratitude to God and being strengthened by the sacraments. 

We will keep walking backwards into the unseeable future, responding to the lure of goodness, cooking meals for the poor, making muffins for sack lunches, giving gifts to angel tree kids, providing a house for the DHS children, and reaching out to our community with courageous commitment to an ancient vision.  That is how we are gong to get through this.

Being Awake

Being Awake

Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44, for Dec. 1, 2019 Advent 1A

Audio will be here for several weeks.

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said:]
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

What in the world was Jesus talking about?  What could it mean that the Son of Man was going to come, bringing along such an odd string of events: two in the field, or two grinding, one taken, the other left.  

Sounds ominous.  Taken by whom?  Taken where?  Why one and not both?  What are we supposed to imagine is happening at this seemingly normal unexpected hour? 

A lot of ink has been spilled to explain this. Here are the questions that get asked:  Was Jesus talking about the end of time?  Or, was he talking about the Roman army invasion in 70 CE to crush the Jewish revolt?  Who does the cryptic “Son of Man refer to?”  That title could mean so many different things in the Hebrew Bible — a single person, the whole nation collectively, the action of God, using a human army.  Which one of those is most like the surprise coming of a thief in the night?  And what would any of that have to do with me, today?

Being Awake

The funny thing is, that we do not have to know the answer to any of those questions in order to get the point.  The point is: to be awake.  Don’t let life lull you into passivity.  Use the time before the flood, as Noah did, to prepare, because the water is already rising.

But, we need to ask the question: is there anything coming for us that we need to be awake to?  If the warning given was about a past calamity, as I believe it was, then maybe danger has passed and there is no need to be alarmist now.  

Well, consider this: if the calamity was already over by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, which I believe it was, why would Matthew want us to read about it?  

You normally don’t warn people that the barn door is open after the cows have left.  I believe it is likely that Matthew knew that it wasn’t the last calamity.  More is coming.  More is always coming.  It is always time to call people to wake up.  

It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked,

“My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

“No,” said the Buddha

“Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?”

Again the Buddha answered, “No.”

“Well, my friend, then what are you?”

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

“Buddha” means awake.  

I think that says it.  Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, lived the first part of his life asleep to the world outside of his privileged luxury.  Then, he woke up to suffering.   Eventually, he experienced a profound awakening we call enlightenment.  He became Buddha; awake.

We know next to nothing about Jesus’ early life, growing up as a poor laborer in the tiny peasant village of Nazareth, but the gospels record an experience that seems to have been a moment of awakening for him.  It was his baptism.  That seems to have been the moment in which he came to understand himself as God’s beloved child in a transformative way.  That baptismal experience is recorded in all the gospels.  

After that, his public ministry started.  I think it would be fair to summarize his quest as trying to awaken people.  Jesus tried to awaken people to the presence of the Kingdom of God and all that that could mean, both personally and publicly.  It meant awakening people to their essential identity as God’s beloved children.  That is the message we need to keep hearing until we believe it in our bones: that God loves us; God is for us, not against us.  We are beloved.  

Why is it so hard to internalize that message?   In other words, why do we so easily fall asleep to our belovedness?  Maybe because we live surrounded by so many messages telling us the opposite.  

That is why what we do here is so important.  This is the place where we come to hear the counter-message.  This is where we find the strength and encouragement we need for the next week, and, cumulatively, for the next calamity which will surely come.

So, I wanted to take the occasion, on the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the church year, to say something about how I understand the significance of what we do when we gather like this for worship.  Some of us have been coming to church all our lives.  It is easy to be on auto-pilot, but that would be a pity.  When we are awake to what is happening here, it can be transformative. 

Awaken to Worship

So, let’s talk about worship.  First, you showed up today: that is excellent.  You got up, got ready, and here you are.  Now, make sure to get everything being offered here.  To do that, stay present.  If you are like me, you know that you can attend something good, like a concert or a movie, and if your mind is somewhere else, you can miss out on the pleasure and power of the experience.  

It is common for people to think of worship as a performance.  Often, people think of God as the director. The minister and liturgists are like the actors on stage.  The congregation is the audience.  But that is actually mistaken.  

One theologian has suggested that worship is indeed like a performance, but we should imagine the roles differently.  The clergy is like the director, the liturgists are like the stagehands.  The actors are the people in the congregation.  The audience is God.  

Actually, the word “liturgy” itself means, “the work of the people.”  That is why you have so many active parts in our services.  You are not just an audience having an auditory experience, as you would be if this were a concert.  You participate.  Worship is the work of the people; the work of giving gratitude to God, of acknowledging our shortcomings, and of affirming God’s inexhaustible grace in words and songs.  Doing that work, if we are awake and present to it, helps us to believe that we are beloved.  

The fact that we do the work of the people together gives us strength in numbers: we are not in this alone.  When the next calamity comes for us, knowing that will be crucial.  

Sacraments

To help all of this to go from our heads down to our hearts, were are given the sacraments.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, because they involve physical things we can see and experience, taste and smell, help seal the message of our belovedness deeply.  

Our Presbyterian Church has gone beyond what the Bible teaches about how to celebrate the sacraments, giving a primary role, for the sake of order, to the ordained minister.  But the language of our Book of Order is permissive about most of the rest, if you want to read it that way, which I do.  

There is not one mention of the word “worthy” in the discussion.  It is about service; serving; which means that it is about being a servant, which is what we aspire to be for each other.  

God, is our audience when we do the work of the people in common worship. God is present in a powerful way as we gather like this today.  God becomes more present to us, more real to us, when we are awake to what we are saying and doing.  We leave here more awake to God’s presence in our lives.  God’s Spirit, we believe, is in all things, and everyone; staying awake to that reality changes everything.   

The Flow

Worship has a flow.  The large print in our bulletins shows the direction of the flow: from Gathering, to Proclaiming, to Responding and finally to Sending.  We begin by being gathered; we are called to worship, and we respond to that call with a celebration of God’s mercy and forgiveness in prayers and songs.  

Then we flow to the proclamation of the Scripture, our wisdom tradition.  We remember the words of Jesus and of the prophets and apostles.  We reflect on what they mean for us today in our very different context.  

We flow next to our response.  By receiving the sacraments, and by acts of giving and affirmations of commitment, we enact our desire to stay awake to what we have been called to do and be.  Finally, we flow towards the world outside the walls of the church as we are sent out as the beloved community, to the world, and for the world.

We do not know what the next calamity will be.  It may be as personal as a health crisis for us, or for someone we love.  It may be political.  It may be the effects of the climate crisis.  It may be terrorism or something another nation does; who knows?   Whatever it is, we need to live wide awake.  What we are doing right here, right now, if we are awake and present to it, will help us be awake and stay awake, prepared for it as part of the beloved community.  When the next calamity  comes, as it surely will, we will have each other. 

How to Save Yourself

How to Save Yourself

Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 for Nov. 24, 2019, Christ the King C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

 Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I read a book about Jesus that explored a question I had never asked before. How did Jesus come to place such a high priority on forgiving? Forgiving is one of his most prominent themes. “Forgive us” he taught us to pray, “as we forgive.” 

There are stories of Jesus in which he says to someone he has healed, “your sins are forgiven” which scandalized people. They had thought that forgiving was God’s prerogative alone. 

Famously someone asked Jesus how many times he needed to forgive his brother. The man suggested seven times, which seems like a good Biblical number. Jesus put the number at seventy-seven times. I think I would need a smartphone app to be able to keep track.  

Jesus apparently never wrote anything down, but in one famous scene, he wrote in the dirt. That was while he was waiting to see what would happen after they had stood that woman in front of him, telling him she had been caught in the act of adultery, and that, according to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned to death. 

He told them that the one who was without sin should throw the first stone, then he bent down and wrote in the dirt and waited. When no one did, after they left, he told the woman that he did not condemn her. She was forgiven.

To repeat the question: how did he get there? How did forgiveness become so important to Jesus? The book I read offered an ingenious suggestion, but it was speculative. We simply do not know. What we do know is that Jesus was completely committed to forgiveness.  

The scene from the gospel that we read today, that we think of as a Good Friday text, is utterly amazing to me. I cannot imagine myself ever getting to the point that after being tortured and in the process of a long, slow death, I could say, “Father, forgive them.” 

There are people in my life that I have a hard time forgiving, and though they hurt me deeply, they did nothing remotely like what Jesus experienced at human hands. 

Nevertheless, as a follower of Jesus today, I do want to grow towards mature spirituality, which, as Jesus taught, involves becoming an expert in forgiving. That is what we need to consider today. We call this last Sunday in the Christian year, the Sunday of Christ the King. 

Although the inscription that Pilate had nailed to the cross, “This is the King of the Jews” was meant as mockery, and to deter other people from talking about a “kingdom,” we are sincere when we say that for us, Jesus is king; what he taught us is important; the way he showed us to live gives us our marching orders. So, we feel the call to be people of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is Fraught

But forgiveness is one of the most fraught topics in the spiritual-development world. There are so many things forgiveness does not mean that people get hung up on, it makes it hard to talk about.  

For example, forgiveness is not saying “It’s okay” after we have been wronged.  

Forgiveness does not pretend that wrong is not wrong, nor that the harm done doesn’t matter. 

Forgiveness is not about forgetting, as if you could ever make yourself forget something. 

Forgiveness does not mean that we do not believe people should be held accountable for wrongdoing; forgiveness does not eliminate consequences. 

Forgiveness does not mean you have to stay in an abusive relationship. 

Forgiveness does not mean we do not practice self-defense.  

I believe that one of the reasons it is hard to talk about forgiveness is that we so often jump to the most difficult cases. How does a victim forgive a perpetrator? How does an adult forgive someone who abused them in childhood? How does a survivor forgive someone who killed a loved one?  

When we keep the conversation about forgiveness on the level of deep and lasting injury, a huge part of the topic gets pushed off the table. 

How do you become a person who can say, “Father forgive them” to your enemies? I do not know, but I am certain that nobody starts at that level.  

Forgiving the Everyday

So let us ratchet it down to where we normally live. How do we forgive people who ignore us? How do we forgive people who insult us? How do we forgive people who upstage us or embarrass us? How do we forgive people for being cutting and sarcastic? How do we forgive dirty looks, snide remarks, or being treated with disdain?  

There are thousands of possible things we could encounter that hurt us, offend us, anger us, embarrass us, frustrate us, that are done to us by the people in our lives. That is where forgiveness starts.  

I believe that those relatively minor occasions are exactly the places where we learn the spirituality of forgiveness. It is in those cases in which we have a choice about how to respond that we learn. And what are we learning when we choose to forgive? Mostly, we are learning about our egos.  

Saving Yourself 

One of the criminals being crucified beside Jesus, Luke tells us, derided him by saying that if he was really messiah he should save himself.  I believe Jesus did save himself when he said: “Father, forgive them.”  

How? When someone hurts us, when our fragile ego is offended, insulted, if we do not forgive, then what are our options? We dwell on our hurt feelings, we get angry, we fantasize revenge or at least getting even. We want the other person to suffer at least the amount that we suffered. 

The longer it goes, the worse it gets. We become resentful, negative, even bitter. All of this is soul-killing. Nobody likes being around people like this, with good reason. They can become toxic and infectious. Whole groups or organizations can become toxic by their influence.  

You have probably heard the saying that un-forgiving is like drinking the poison and waiting for the rats to die. If you want to save yourself, don’t drink the poison.  

Forgiveness stops the cycle of wrong for wrong. It stops the downward spiral of growing hostility. It stops the tumor of hatred from metastasizing inside of us.

What Forgiveness Is

We have looked at what forgiveness is not. It is time to talk about what it is — and remember, we are talking about the every-day kinds of issues. Forgiveness means that we do not wish for the suffering of the one who hurt us; instead, we wish for their well-being. We do not wish to get even, we do not wish for revenge. Instead, we wish for the ultimate good of the one who wronged us; their redemption.

Jesus was an amazing practitioner of forgiveness, and he taught us to be forgiving, as an end state to arrive at. But he lived a short life on earth and never developed practical methods to get us to that end state. I guess he left it to us. So I am going to suggest two practices that have helped me and many people.

Meditation Works

The first is meditation, or what some call contemplative prayer, or centering prayer.  It is wordless prayer. In meditation, we sit still, bring our attention to our regular breathing, in and out. We simply attend to our breathing. When we find that our minds have wandered away from our breathing, we simply acknowledge that, and gently return our attention to our breath.  

I do not understand why, but meditation practice helps us with our ego issues. It helps us realize, as a song says, we are not magnificent. But we are okay. Normal life is okay. 

Meditation helps us understand that the people in our lives who cause us difficulty are just like us, fallible human beings who make mistakes, sometimes behave badly, sometimes are hurtful, but we do not have to let them get to us.  

Meditation works. I wish everyone believed that. It is simple. The hard part is just deciding to do it. The recommended time is twenty minutes, but every minute meditating is helpful. 

New Testament scholars tell us that Jesus meditated; it was part of the practice of Jewish mystics in his time. He would go off and spend long hours in prayer, sometimes all night.  Perhaps that is part of why he got to the point at which he could say “Father forgive them.” Like all disciplines, the benefits of meditation are not instant, but cumulative.

Loving Kindness

The second practice to help with forgiving is saying a three-line mantra, or prayer when we have been wronged.  We picture the person who has wronged us, and we say, 

May they be happy. May they be well. May they be filled with kindness and peace.” 

Instead of wishing for their suffering, we wish for their redemption. Instead of wishing ill, we wish for their well-being. We come to understand that if the person who wronged us was happy, well, and filled top to bottom with kindness and with peace, then maybe they would not have wronged us in the first place. Maybe if they were happy, well, and filled with kindness and peace, they would not hurt anyone else either. This is called the lovingkindness meditation. It is a way of turning our inner dialogue from negative to positive. Again, this is actually healing for us. 

We can also wish this and pray for this for ourselves. 

May I be happy, may I be well, may I be filled with kindness and peace.” 

When I am happy, well, and filled with kindness and peace, I am less ego-focused. I am more willing to forgive. 

People who practice forgiveness, instead of bringing toxicity to a community, bring healing. They are people who have “saved themselves” from bitterness, and save others by releasing them from obligations.  

We may never achieve the spiritual maturity of being able to forgive enemies who are out to destroy us, as Jesus did, but we can grow. Every day we can make progress on the spiritual path. We can commit to spiritual practices that bring healing to our souls; practices that save us, and we can be healing agents of God’s kingdom in our world.  

Our Relentless Vision

Our Relentless Vision

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

Luke 21:5-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Followers and the Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doomed Temple

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

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

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

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

The Message version translates that line this way:

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

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

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

A Meaningful Life

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

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

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

An Early Christian Creed

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

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cross and the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

Being All-In

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

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

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

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

“How does it look to you now?”

“How does it look to you now?”

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

Haggai 1:15, 2:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Complicated Bible

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

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

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

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

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

Haggai, the Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asked those who remembered how the first temple looked, 

“How does it look to you now?”

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

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

Haggai’s Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope from God’s With-ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What “salvation” looks like, according to Jesus

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

Luke 19:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zacchaeus the Children’s Story

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

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

Bad” People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grumbling Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvation Looks Like This

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

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

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

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

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

Vito Corleone has become Bill Gates.  

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

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

Adult Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-thinking Goodness

Re-thinking Goodness

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

Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

What is Good?

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

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

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

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

Hearing the Parable Well

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

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

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

The Two Characters 

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

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

So, Who is Good?

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

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

Looking Past the Surface

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Categories

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

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

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

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