Awake to Now

Awake to Now

Sermon for Nov. 29, 2020. Advent 1B

Video is here.

Mark 13:24-37

[According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said:]

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

I remember when I came home from college one summer and discovered that I could no longer be a member of the church my family had been attending for years. They had updated their bylaws, including their Statement of Faith. As is common for Evangelical churches, signing the statement of faith was a membership requirement. 

While I was away, based on texts like the one we read today, and others, they had changed their statement to include a belief in the return of Jesus (which they took literally), before the 1,000 year millennium (which they took literally too) and before the great seven-year tribulation (also taken literally). Well, I was still an Evangelical back then, but my understanding of these issues had started to evolve. Anyway, I was not able to sign that statement, and so quietly dropped off the membership roles.  

Looking back, I think there are many levels of why that experience was sad, and by “sad” I mean, mistaken in a way that was unhelpful to anyone. 

One of the levels of mistake, I now believe, is to take all of those descriptions of what is going to happen in the future literally. 

Another level of mistake is to make believing things about the future into a membership requirement, as if it is up there with belief in God. 

On an even deeper level, when we look at the historical Jesus in the oldest layer of the synoptic tradition, we do not hear of Jesus requiring anyone to have a specific set of beliefs as a criterion for receiving God’s mercy, so I do not believe we should either. For Jesus, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, Canaanite women (non-Jewish) were all the recipients of God’s grace without needing first to sign a statement of faith.  

The Embarrassing Jesus

Speaking of the historical Jesus, one of the criteria used by scholars to determine whether a saying attributed to Jesus was authentic is the criterion of embarrassment.  If a saying attributed to Jesus would have been embarrassing to the early Christian communities, then, the fact that they included it in their developing collection is evidence that it was authentic. Even though it was embarrassing, they retained it because it was authentic, like, for example, telling Peter who became the leader of the church, “Get behind me, Satan.”

One of those embarrassing sayings shows up here in this text from Mark’s gospel. According to Mark, Jesus was explaining what his disciples could expect to happen in the future. He predicted a calamity which the church later interpreted in an apocalyptic way, believing that it referred to his literal second coming. He told them, 

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

To put it plainly, the apocalypse did not happen. Jesus had not returned, literally. And the fact that it did not happen was a confusing issue for the early church.  Paul addressed the problem of the delay of Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians. It must have been embarrassing for them that Jesus got it wrong. 

Not Apocalypse, but Disaster

Unless he didn’t. Unless it was a misunderstanding. Maybe Jesus was not talking about the far off future at all, or about returning, literally. Maybe he was saying that some of the current generation would still be around to see the tragic events of what happened in the year 70; the Jewish rebellion and the Roman army’s crushing response. 

You did not need to be a prophet back then, to see that the headlong rush to revolution, which was already brewing in Jesus’ day, would lead to a disaster. If that is what Jesus meant, he got it right, even if the church later misunderstood him. 

Cliché, Compelling Advice

Jesus expected that there was trouble coming. If trouble is expected, what advice do you give? I have heard that the most cliché thing you can say is often the best. Perhaps it has become a cliché because it’s true, like the advice to “get plenty of rest, exercise, and watch your diet.” Or “wear your mask and keep socially distanced.” 

Jesus’ advice may sound cliché, but I believe it is true, and can lead us to some profound reflections.

We too know trouble is ahead. Trouble is always ahead. Hopefully, not another pandemic, but we know that no previous year has been without its challenges, so there is no reason to expect perfectly calm seas ahead. So what is the advice Jesus gives his disciples as he anticipates national calamity ahead?  

“I say to all: Keep awake.”

The people of Jesus’ day who were asleep to the gathering gloom of war clouds approaching were asleep to them at their peril. When the Romans showed up to put down the rebels, ancient historian Josephus said that hundreds of thousands were killed. To be asleep and unprepared, was to be in mortal danger.  

Awake to the Spirit Today

My question for us today is, what are the issues we need to stay awake to? There are many, as always. 

We, in the Presbyterian Church, are awake to the climate crises, and we will continue to be. 

We are awake to systemic racial discrimination, and we will continue to be. 

We are awake to the issues of poverty, of hunger, of homelessness, and of at-risk children, and we will continue to be. 

But I believe there is one issue to which we have not yet become sufficiently awake. It is, I believe, a new movement of the Spirit in our times. It is the movement of God among sheep of “other folds,” as Jesus called them. It is a growing discovery, as The Second Vatican Council said that 

the…Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions.” 

There are indeed things that are holy in other traditions. We do not have a corner on the market of spiritual truth. 

There is now, a growing understanding of the truth that the Gospel of John puts on the lips of Jesus: that we humans are essentially one: one with God, one with each other. This is a mystical unity that is deeper than religion or race or politics. 

From Inter-faith to Inter-spiritual

We Presbyterians have been in interfaith dialogue for over half a century. By now, most of us are comfortable with the idea that God is the God of all people, not just us Christians. Most of us are used to the idea that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans and others, have a right to practice their faith and do not need us to convert them for them to be acceptable to God. 

It is now time to wake up to the beautiful opportunity to go beyond mere tolerance and acceptance, to a deep appreciation. That appreciation includes the liberating understanding that there are things to learn from each tradition.  

I believe the Christian tradition is rich with treasures to offer to the world. I will always be a follower of Jesus, whose spirituality was profound, whose ethics were revolutionary, and whose vision for God and humanity are compelling. 

I also believe that there are treasures in other traditions that can enrich my spiritual life. For example, from the Buddhists we learn about mindfulness; about staying centered in the present moment, and about the practice of silent meditation. 

Jesus practiced these ways of being, but his teachings only give us hints and guesses. If we were to practice “interspiritual mysticism,” that is, openness to the gifts and treasures of spirituality from other communities, we would find much in common, and much to take us even further. 

It is noteworthy that Hinduism and Buddhism include calls to be awake, just as Jesus did.

Those of you who are familiar with the work of Richard Rohr know that he has been teaching about the value of interspiritual mysticism. It is time we took this seriously. Rohr tells us about people who have gone before us on this path. He introduced us to the interspiritual teacher Bede Griffiths. 

Bede was born in England, became a Catholic after college, and later became a Benedictine monk. After almost twenty-five years in that community, he went to India in 1955. It was in India that Bede discovered a different way of thinking.  He wrote:

“The Western mind from the time of Socrates and Plato had concentrated on the development of abstract, rational thought which had led to the great systems of theology in the Middle Ages and to the achievements of modern science and philosophy. But India had been nourished from the beginning by the truth of the imagination, the primordial truth, which is not abstract but concrete, not logical but symbolic, not rational but intuitive. So it was that I was led to the rediscovery of the truth which the Western world has lost and is now seeking desperately to recover.”

https://cac.org/a-christian-ashram-2020-09-24/

It is time we realized that the Western orientation to abstract rational thought misses treasures of imagination and symbolism that the East can reveal. In fact, openness to a non-rational mysticism has given us new insight in our own scriptures, like the Gospel of John which resists literal interpretation on every page.  

We are people who believe that “all truth is God’s truth.” Just as God’s truth can be revealed by science, so God’s truth can be revealed by seekers of wisdom, poets with insight, and storytellers from many traditions whose creativity can open our hearts to God’s mysterious, amazing presence.  

Whatever trouble lies ahead for us, whether it will be medical, political or economic, psychological or relational, Jesus calls us to “stay awake.” 

Let us stay awake to all of the issues that we have already embraced, and let us be awake to the new things God’s Spirit is doing in our times.  

How to Inherit a Kingdom

How to Inherit a Kingdom

Sermon for Nov. 22, 2020, Christ the King Sunday

Video is here

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats is one of the most important texts in the Bible for me, and I believe for us today.  

But, as with almost anything important, there are problems with it.  There are problems internal to the parable itself, and problems with what the church has done with it (or, not done with it).  

Internally, we have the problem that the whole scene is a judgment scene.  Some end up getting eternal life, while others get eternal punishment.  That is problematic to me.  We will talk about that today.

The other problem is that throughout the history of the church, there have been a couple of competing ideas about what is needed for salvation, or eternal life.  Whether it was baptism, or good works, or faith alone, or correct beliefs, or some combination, none of them have agreed with this parable.  

In this parable, salvation, or eternal life is solely based on a person’s response to people in poverty or oppression.  

By the way, I include oppression because when the king says, “I was in prison and you visited me,” most likely he was referring to political prisoners or prisoners of conscience.   Some prisoners, in those days, would starve if no one on the outside brought them food.  

Realism or Story Fantasy?

So let us look briefly at the problems and then see why this is so important for us today.  First, the question I ask is, how much of this should we take as mere story-telling fantasy and how much as a description of a spiritual reality?  

There are many parables in which Jesus includes details just to make them interesting and memorable.  Last week we looked at a parable in which slaves were given millions of dollars to invest.  It was an absurd amount of money which everyone hearing it would have smiled at.  

The same is true in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus who have a conversation with Abraham after death.  It is not meant to be taken as realistic, but it helps make the point.  

In this parable of the sheep and the goats,  we have God represented as a king at the end of time, acting as great judge of all the nations.  Is that realistic? I know that is what has been taught for years, but does it square with the way Jesus taught us to understand God? I do not believe so. 

Jesus’ View of God

So, how did Jesus teach us to think of God?  Jesus taught us to know God as our perfect Heavenly Parent: Father or Mother.  Jesus taught us that God is concerned for our welfare, even more than for the welfare of the lilies of the field or the birds of the air which his creation provides for.  

Jesus taught us that when we get off track, like the prodigal son, that God is waiting to welcome us back with joy and a big party.  

So, no, I do not believe that depicting God as the big judge in the sky is meant to be a realistic image.  But the story does tell us what is important to God, even if its importance is not actually about getting rewarded or punished eternally.  

The Story We Have Been Told about Christianity

The bigger problem really, is that the church, throughout history, as told people that the whole point of Christianity is like having a fire insurance policy; you need salvation from hell, we were told.  

I do not believe in hell for many reasons.  One is this: if God did not intervene, then after we die, we would just rot away as any other animal does. There is nothing automatic about life after death.  

So, God has to step in and do something, like raise us from the dead, otherwise we just decompose; “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  

But if God raised us up, only to judge us, then our biggest problem is God; salvation would mean being saved from God who could condemn us to hell.  If salvation means being saved from God, then something has gone seriously wrong in our theology.  But that is exactly the corner that the church painted itself into for many years.  

Having painted itself into the corner of believing that God’s job was to raise us up to judge us, the church then focused on what we needed to do so that we would not end up condemned and in hell.  

For some churches throughout history, being baptized is key, or at least the start.  Receiving the sacraments has played a large role for some. Doing good deeds, acts of charity, like alms to the poor or providing Thanksgiving baskets has been considered important.  For some, having an emotionally cathartic experience of being born again, including feeling guilt and remorse for past sins is key.  

For most, expressing faith, or belief in the statements of the creed has been the main thing. 

There has been a large consensus for many years that believing the right things is essential for salvation.  Some say formal creeds, like the Apostles or Nicene Creed, others have statements of faith that you have to sign, or at least say agree with.  

But whether recited formally or merely described, most churches have taught that believing the right things is crucial for salvation.  

Jesus, God, and Believing the Right Things

How did we get here?  When Jesus was no longer physically present, the early Christians tried hard to understand how Jesus related to God.  They all knew that Jesus was a deeply spiritual person who was in touch with God in a remarkably powerful way, but the question was, how was that possible?  

There were different views.  Some said that Jesus was a mere human, like us, but that at his baptism, God adopted him in a special way as God’s son and gave him special spiritual powers for healing and exorcism.  

Others said nearly the opposite: that Jesus was not really human at all, but was really God in the disguise of a human, merely seeming to be mortal.  

Did Jesus exist before being born of Mary, or was that the moment he was “begotten”? People believed differently.  The central question they kept returning to was about Jesus’ nature: was it human or divine?  

If Jesus had a divine nature, how do we understand God as one?  If there is a man, Jesus, and a Spirit, who are both divine, and a God to whom Jesus prayed, then there must be a Trinity.  Three in One.

But people had different views; they believed differently.  And if right belief was essential to salvation, then the ones who believe wrongly were heretics; unbelievers.  

Sometimes heretics were excommunicated.  At other times in history their writings were banned and burned.  Many thousands of heretics were tortured and killed.  

When the church made believing the right theological dogmas the main thing, it also criminalized believing the wrong things. 

Taking the Parable Seriously

One of the reasons I think this parable of the sheep and the goats is so important is that it gives the lie to that focus on belief as the main thing.  There is nothing about right belief in this parable.  

The sheep are not asked their views of the two natures of Christ nor about the Trinity.  The goats are not condemned for not believing in original sin or the virgin birth, or for not believing that Jesus pre-existed his earthly life.  

No; this parable, about what is important to God, is not about correct belief at all.  That fact should shock us.  

Many people have noticed that when make belief in the right dogmas the main thing, and when those essential dogmas are summarized in a creed that you are supposed to say “I believe in,” an odd thing happens: the whole life and teaching of Jesus disappears into the little comma between “born of the virgin Mary, (comma) and suffered under Pontius Pilate…”. In the creeds, Jesus was born and dies, but there is nothing about  his life and teaching.  Something is deeply wrong with that. 

The focus on right belief misses the essential message of this parable: that dedication to the issues caused by poverty and oppression are what matters to God.  In fact they matter so much, that God takes personally all acts of justice and compassion on behalf of the poor and oppressed, and takes personally every neglect of justice and compassion.  Listen again to how personally God takes it:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

This is shocking.  That God would look at every act of feeding the poor, of providing clothing and shelter, of tending the sick and caring for the incarcerated as spiritual acts done for him.  

When we think about doing spiritual acts on behalf of God, normally we think of religious actions: offering sacrifices, kneeling, bowing heads, shutting eyes, or crossing oneself; but here, the actions taken are all acts of justice and compassion.  

We should note that by prioritizing acts of justice and compassion over religious ritual,  Jesus was standing squarely in the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets before him.  They had long argued that God did not want to hear the noise of a religious festival if the poor were suffering neglect or abuse.  (E.g. Isa. 1; Amos 5; Micah 6)

Jesus was standing in a tradition that had taught that God was the source of everything: “The earth is the Lord’s”.  That God was the creator of every human being, including “the least of these” who bore the image of their Creator every bit as much as the “great ones.”  

But Jesus went even further.  Jesus said that every act of compassion, every action that promotes justice is a spiritual action, done for God.  And, on the other hand, every act of neglect or oppression, every time suffering is ignored, God takes that as tantamount to atheism.

This parable is quite challenging for all of us, me included.  The first thing I think of when I see a housing-challenged person is not “look, there is Jesus.”  

But that is why this text is so important.  It keeps calling us to that aspiration.  It keeps showing me how far I have to mature spiritually.  It keeps getting me back on the track of what is really important.  

We do want to be one of the people who “inherit the kingdom.”  This text shows us the way.  It is not by the things we can believe, but by the justice and compassion we show.  God is good.  And that is what God wants.  

What if the Earth Is the Lord’s?

What if the Earth Is the Lord’s?

Sermon for Nov. 15, 2020, Pentecost 24A

Video is here.

Matthew 25:14-30

[Jesus said:] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

Jesus was famous for telling parables. Most of them involve situations or plot twists that are absurd or ridiculous. 

For  example, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to fend off the wolves for themselves, so he can retrieve the one lost one; the situation is preposterous, even humorous. It gets people’s attention. It makes them think.

So, we just read an absurd parable. A talent of gold, historians tell us, weighed about 30 pounds, and was worth about 6,000 days labor; that’s over 16 years of wages. 

So, the first slave who received five talents has just been handed $2 million. In other words, Jesus is capturing his audience’s attention with a “fairy-tale” amount of money.

(Source: Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

His audience would also have their attention captured by anger. Everything about this parable makes them shake their heads in anger at a system they are trapped in that is essentially unethical and dehumanizing. You will see why in just a minute.

Luke’s Version

Luke records this same parable too, but with several differences. One difference is that he starts the parable in the context of political events of the day. In Luke, Jesus begins the parable saying, 

“A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.” 

Everyone hearing that introduction would know who Jesus was referring to.

In those days, one went to Rome to receive authorization to rule, before taking up power. In Israel, both Herod the Great and his successor and son, Archelaus, both had to go to Rome for authorization to be king (Herod the Great) or ethnarch (Archelaus). 

So the parable begins with the stark political realities of the day. Local authorities were beholden to Rome, and operated with Roman ethics.

Different Assumptions

I told you that because Matthew’s parable involves political realities too, which would have been obvious to Jesus’ listeners, but we miss them. We live in vastly different circumstances in so many ways. Our fundamental assumptions about economics are different. Politics and economics go hand-in-hand. 

For starters, this parable takes for granted something we find horrific: slavery. The man going on the journey has multiple slaves. Most of the people hearing Jesus tell the story would be identifying with the slaves. They were mostly poor, landless peasants, many of them day-laborers, clients of a wealthy patron for whom they worked. 

They were not literally slaves, most of them, but not far from it. Think of how that must have felt; they were Israelites living in Israel, but practically slaves of the Roman-empire-collaborating, land-owning aristocratic families.  Of course, they were angry.

Jewish Economics

Second, this parable is told to Jewish people who had completely different ideas about charging interest than we do. 

Everyone today takes for granted that we should try to save up money so that the interest we earn from it grows faster than the rate of inflation can erode it away. To put the money under the mattress is to watch it decline in value over time. We take it for granted that we can earn interest because the bank will loan money to others and charge them interest. It is how our system works.  

But the whole concept of charging interest on a loan was seen in an entirely different light by Jewish people. The idea in the Hebrew Bible is that if someone needed to borrow money, it meant that they were in trouble. Charging interest would be to take advantage of them and make their need even worse. So, the Hebrew Bible says, 

 “Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from [the people], but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. (Lev. 25:36–37). 

The prophet Ezekiel goes even further, calling interest an “abomination,” saying that the one who charges interest should die (Ezk. 18). 

The two versions of this parable in Matthew And Luke are the only two references to interest in the New Testament. In the Hebrew bible, interest is always bad. So the slave-owner is expecting the slaves to do something Jewish people were forbidden to do. He even rewards them for doing it, and severely punishes the one who didn’t. 

Jesus’ original audience would have been saying to themselves something like, “This whole situation is wrong. The whole system is dehumanizing, oppressive, and wrong.”  

The Wrong Conclusion

Not only is the system wrong, but the conclusion is also completely messed up. The take-away lesson is, 

“to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” 

What kind of world is that? How is that fair? The rich get richer by nefarious means and the poor get poorer by design. That may be how it works, but it is messed up. The whole system is dehumanizing, oppressive, and messed up.  

The Agreement on Character

We should not miss the fact that the slave who did not invest the money to earn interest gave an evaluation of the man’s character that the man himself agreed with. They both agree that he is a 

harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;” 

In other words, he is a harsh, greedy thief. He steals other people’s crops at harvest time. His harshness is illustrated by how he takes away what the one slave has and gives it to the one who needs it the least and commands the torture of the other.  

A Different Vision

By contrast, the vision of common life outlined in the Hebrew Bible is the opposite. It starts with every family having their own land to be responsible for, to work and to tend so that they have enough. 

But the Law of Moses acknowledges that bad things happen, droughts, pests, premature death, and so people can get into trouble. They might have to sell their land. They might become so poor as to have to sell themselves into indentured service.  Nevertheless, every seven years, all debts had to be forgiven. Period. There could never be a situation in which the rich simply get richer and a permanent poor class gets poorer. 

And there is more. Every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, all land was returned to its original owner.  

“The Earth is” Whose?

The concept behind this was the controlling idea that, as the Psalms says, 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24)

All of our blessings are ours on loan. We had nothing when we were born, and we take nothing with us when we die. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.

But of course, Moses was not in charge anymore, and the Jews were living under the Herodian dynasty under the Roman Empire. They had no democratic voice or vote; no representatives to complain to.  

So what do you do, in that situation, if you believe that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it?” Jesus’ strategy was to form communities of people that lived differently. 

In the towns and villages he visited, Jesus established communities of inclusive table fellowship. Around those tables, the norms that kept people divided were ignored. Women sat and ate with men. People who had resources with people who were poor. Marginalized people sat and ate with people of status.  

These were tables of sharing. Some could bring much, some little, but all could eat and be satisfied. Everyone understood that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” They lived as if God were king, not Herod, locally, or Caesar in Rome. 

Jesus called it the “kingdom of God” which was already present among them and within them, for those who had eyes open to seeing it, and hears open to the message. 

These communities could not solve the systemic issues they faced, but they could and did assert the dignity and value of every human being that took part. By this practice, they made humans out of slaves and other marginalized people. That is our task too. 

According to Jesus, the “Lord” to whom “the earth belongs” was of a particular character, The Lord of the earth was opposite to the slave-owner in the parable. Instead of being harsh, Jesus taught us to believe that God, was “kind” even “to the ungrateful and the wicked.” 

Instead of being punitive and judgmental, Jesus taught us that God was gracious and merciful, like a perfect “Father in Heaven” who welcomes back the lost ones with open arms. Instead of being greedy, God was the giver of sunshine and rain, and equally so, and for everyone. This was the God that inspired the communities of inclusive table fellowship.

Getting a Reaction: then and now

Jesus’ parable was set in the conditions of exploitation, greed, and oppression. It was created to make people react. It was meant to push their buttons. It was meant to start a conversation about how messed up the whole system was. As such, it is a critique of all systems of injustice. 

If the earth is the Lord’s, and if the Lord God is a God of justice and compassion, then it is our calling to call out systems of injustice and oppression and confront them. 

If, in Jesus’ times, you could say that slaves’ lives matter, and day-laborers’ lives matter today we can say black lives matter; minimum wage earners’ lives matter; housing-challenged people’s lives matter. 

We can be thankful that unlike the people of Jesus’ day, there are things we can do to bring justice and compassion to our communities. We can vote, and we can advocate, and we can petition the government and protest if necessary. 

And when we do those things, we will do them with the conviction that

the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.

 Because Darkness is Coming

 Because Darkness is Coming

Sermon for Nov. 8, 2020, Pentecost 23A

Video is here.

Matthew 25:1-13

[Jesus – according to Matthew – said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

How old are we when we figure out that every day comes to an end? Nightfall always follows the day.  So too, morning always follows the darkness of night.  

How old are we when we figure out that this is how life goes too? No matter how well things are going, no stretch of good luck lasts forever. Something is going to happen. The darkness is coming. 

We all know that. If for no other reason, we know it because we know we are mortal. All our friends and family are mortal too.  And besides being mortal, before our final end of life on earth, we all are fragile. 

Things break, we break down, get sick, need medicine, and good health care. This is not news. Most of the time we recover; morning follows night. But not always, and we know that.  

Time to Prepare

This all sounds negative and depressing, but it is not. To know that darkness is coming is to have the chance to prepare for it. To recognize that there is trouble ahead is to be able to plan. 

I remember living on the Gulf Coast with hurricanes approaching. First, we stockpile water and non-perishable food. Then batteries and propane fuel for the camp stove. Then plywood for the windows. Finally, we pack up and head out of town ahead of the storm.  

Of course, the worst storms are the ones no one predicted. The bad diagnosis that no one saw coming. The sudden death of a loved one. Like tornadoes, you barely have enough time to head to the basement (if you even have a basement) when the house starts shaking. Accidents are like that; who could plan for them?  

More than “Be Prepared”

So where is the good news in all of this? We just read a text from Matthew’s gospel, a parable, about ten bridesmaids, headed for a wedding. The bridegroom has been delayed, which nobody expected. Night is coming, as it always does. Five are prepared for it with plenty of oil for their lamps, and five are not.  

The message of this parable cannot be as banal as “be prepared” — the Boy Scout motto. So what are we to learn from this parable, beyond that obvious truism?

Just this week, I read this poem by Mary Oliver, entitled, “We Should Be Well Prepared”.  By the way, if you are as unfamiliar with bird names as I am, it will help you to know that there is a species called plovers. I had to look it up. Anyway, the poem “We Should Be Well Prepared” says:

The way the plovers cry goodbye.
The way the dead fox keeps on looking down the hill with open eye.
The way the leaves fall, and then there’s the long wait.
The way someone says we must never meet again.
The way mold spots the cake,
The way sourness overtakes the cream.
The way the river water rushes by, never to return.
The way the days go by, never to return.
The way somebody comes back, but only in a dream.”

Our experience of life, she is saying, should make us “well prepared.” We all know that night is coming, and with it, darkness. In the dark, it is hard to know where you are. It is hard to know where you are going. It is dangerous in the dark. Life itself should prepare us to know that such times are ahead. Everyone knows that the oil runs out.  

So, how do we prepare for the dark days coming if we do not know when or how they will arrive? We don’t know if the coming darkness will be medical, or about relationships, or political, or economic, or geopolitical, or some combination, so how can we prepare?

I believe that the way we prepare for any of them, and all of them is the same. We prepare to be the kind of people who can handle sundown and nightfall. We prepare for whatever is coming in the dark by the kind of people we have become when it happens.

The Two Halves of Life

Richard Rohr talks about a concept that he credits Thomas Merton with teaching him: that there are essentially two halves of life. Not necessarily chronologically dividing our years in half, but rather two ways of understanding the lives we are living. 

In the first half of life, we work on acquiring a sense of who we are. To do this we start defining ourselves by characteristics that seem essential to who we are. Most of us identify with the gender we were called on our birth certificates. This is quite complicated for some of us, but most of us are content to know ourselves as male or female, and we see ourselves in the world that way. 

We do the same thing with our family name. Being from this particular family is who we believe we are. From there the circle widens out to include the country we are born into, the langue we learned from birth, the education we receive, the job we have, and the level of income we enjoy. 

Our identity includes the groups we belong to; sports teams, clubs, our religion, and our political affiliation. 

Nowadays, a large part of people’s identity comes from what category of victim they are in, or what combination of victim categories. This is not to disparage any victim, because the world is full of real victims who have suffered greatly, but just to point out that we use group classifications as building blocks in the construction of the home of our identity.  

These identity building blocks are at risk of the coming night. Calamities can threaten each of them. Jobs can end, relationships end, sickness, accidents, economic downturns, wars, all kinds of things can tear down the well-built homes our egos inhabit.  

Ego Attachment

And that is just the point. It is because our egos get attached to these identity blocks that the loss of any of them feels so devastating. 

This is why some take refuge in such stringent fundamentalisms, and why others wave the flag so hard; take away the support structures and the ego feels that the world is coming to an end.  

What can keep this from happening? What can help us face calamities with equanimity? What can move us from the first half of life in which we are building these blocks, to the second half of life, in which realize that the truth of who we are is deeper than any of them? 

Rohr says that normally, people move from the first to the second half of life only after great love, or great suffering. Something happens that turns the lights on. Something happens that wakes us up from our slumber.  

Most people I know have, at some point, encountered great love. Everyone I know suffers. So everyone has the opportunity to move from the first to the second half of life. Everyone, in other words, has the chance to be one of the bridesmaids on whom darkness falls, with a lamp with enough oil in it to see her through to the banquet.  

Our Deeper Identity

Great love, or great suffering, can do two things; it can reveal the truth of the insubstantiality of the blocks we were using to construct our identity in the first half of life, on the one hand, and it can reveal to us a deeper truth. 

There is an essence to us that lies deeper. There is a truth about who we are that cannot be removed by the failure of our political party or an economic depression. There is a rock-solid foundational fact about us that cannot be dislodged by cancer, nor grief, nor bankruptcy. 

It is that we are all creations of a loving God. We are beloved. We are, as Paul says, “the body of Christ.” This deeper self is what some have called the soul, others call it the spirit. It is deeper than our personality, deeper than our allegiances, deeper even than our gender identity. Our truest selves are who we are in God, and that is the point: that we live and move and have our being in God. 

So, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and many others have written and spoken about this at great length. But you cannot simply read a book or hear a talk and get it. It doesn’t work like that. The ego is too attached to those small self-identity blocks to let go by deciding to.  

The process is like everything else that contributes to a healthy and well-formed life; it is daily. Some call this the habit of spiritual disciplines. “Discipline” sounds difficult, so I have noticed that people are calling them spiritual practices. 

Just like the habits of getting enough sleep, keeping to a healthy diet, and getting regular physical exercise, it is the cumulative effect, over time, of regular spiritual practices that produces the long term effect. The effect is weakening our ego’s attachment to those small self-identities.  

Spiritual Practices

For me, by far the most effective spiritual practice is one of the ones that Jesus practiced, meditation. We only get glimpses of Jesus’ practice in the New Testament, but they are sufficient to show us that Jesus meditated. 

This practice has been discovered and taught by many diverse religious traditions all over the world for many centuries. Jesus never taught a specific method; perhaps because his life on earth was so short. 

But the method is not the point; the point is the practice. Meditation works because, during the silence, we keep saying “no” to the anxieties and ruminations that our ego-fixated minds keep throwing up to us. Each “no” is a little ego-death. 

After a while, we find we are more able to let go of ego, not just in the meditation practice, but in daily life. We do not feel so threatened. We do not get so angry. We do not need to be proven right, or seen as great.  We do not get so easily offended.  

Meditation is only one spiritual practice. Other practices are of great help. A regular gratitude journal helps. Daily reading of spiritual masters helps. Daily prayer for our concerns helps. Coming together for worship, when it is safe to do so, helps. 

In fact, Richard Rohr says that the point of religion is to keep reminding us of our truest selves, of our oneness with God.

The mistake of the foolish bridesmaids was to be unprepared for something everyone knows is coming. Darkness is coming. Darkness is always coming. That’s not the question. 

The only question is: when it comes, will we be prepared?  Will we have: kept track of our oil supply, put it on the shopping list when it got low, taken the time to go to the store and get it, filled up the travel flask, and make sure it is with us when we head out the door for the wedding?  

The Kind of People, Prepared

 Will we be the kind of people who know, when the calamity hits us, that nothing can destroy the immortal diamond that we truly are in God. We are loved more than the bridesmaids; we are, as the New Testament calls us, the brides. We are the temples in which God’s Spirit lives. 

When we practice the spiritual practices that help us to know that in our bones, then we are prepared to face the long nights.  

We do not believe that the darkness can have the last word. There is a banquet ahead. It is a wedding banquet when, at the last, we will walk through the doors of this life into Love, where we will truly be who we are, in God forever.  

Words on the Eve of Whatever is Coming

Words on the Eve of Whatever is Coming

Sermon for Nov. 1, 2020 All Saints Day

Video is here.

Matthew 5:1-12

 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We have a lot on our minds. Here we are, for some of us, back in-person for worship after seven months, so in that sense, there is reason for celebration. But we have a lot on our minds. 

On this Sunday of All Saints we are thinking about the ones we have lost this year, so this is a somber moment for us. 

We are also thinking about how extensively this pandemic has affected our lives. We are thinking about how strange it is, even for the few of us who feel safe enough to worship in-person, to do so with all of these new restrictions and limitations. Not singing — that alone is nearly inconceivable for Christians, plus the masks, the distancing, and all the rest.  

We have a lot on our minds about what is going to happen in two days. The voting will end, but we all worry about what follows. If no one wins by a massive landslide, will the vote be contested? Will it get tied up in the courts? Will either side concede defeat? If not, what then? We don’t know.  

Remembering

So, what do we need when we face times like these? We need to hear the words my parents used to tell me as I headed out the door for school: 

Remember whose you are.” 

Those are powerful words. More powerful than, “remember who you are,” as if your sense of yourself would armor you for whatever you were going to face. 

But, “Remember whose you are,” asks you to remember where your loyalties lie. You belong to something bigger than yourself. “You are not your own,” my parents were telling me. You belong to a community of a particular character. You have standards that your people uphold, whether or not they conform to the mainstream around you. So, “Remember whose you are.”

We are a community of people who have been called together by Jesus of Nazareth. It is his vision that inspires us. His prophetic critique of the status quo, of the domination systems of his generation, and the bold announcement that the kingdom of God was a living, present reality have grasped us; awakened us; inspire us.  

We can do nothing better, in this moment of uncertainty and angst than to go back to the fountainhead, back to the original mandate; back to Jesus’ words that Matthew has so artfully gathered together into what we now call the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically, to the Beatitudes. 

Back to this radical understanding of what God wants. 

Back to this clarion call to be different, to have different values, and different goals than the society around us. 

Back to this particular understanding of what constitutes a good life, a life worth living, a blessed life. 

A Fresh Take

The challenge is to hear these familiar words afresh, so that they can again inspire us, as they must have inspired the disciples the first time Jesus spoke them. So, to help us hear them afresh, I would like to offer these two alternative renderings. 

First, Eugene Peterson’s Message version:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and [God’s] rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. [God]’s food and drink is the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

It would be good to chew on each line and savor it slowly.  

The language of “blessing,” can inaccurately imply that there is some kind of reward, like a treat for getting it right; God blesses people who are like this, with special favors. That is not what was meant originally, but that’s how we use the word blessing today. 

So, this next version removes the language of blessing and replaces it with the idea that God chooses sides, and is on the side of people with a particular set of values and characteristics. This one is from Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, combining Matthew and Luke’s versions:

The poor, and those in solidarity with them –
God is on your side.

Those who mourn and feel grief about the state of the world –
God is on your side.

The non-violent, gentle, and humble –
God is on your side.

Those who hunger and thirst for the common good –
God is on your side.

The merciful and compassionate –
God is on your side.

Those characterized by sincerity, kindness, and generosity –
God is on your side.

Those who work for peace and reconciliation –
God is on your side.

Those who stand for justice and truth as the prophets did,
who refuse to be quiet even when slandered,

misrepresented, threatened, imprisoned, or harmed –
God is on your side!

Beatitudes or 10 Commandments?

It is more than ironic, it is in fact deeply troubling to me when the Ten Commandments are hung on the wall, or displayed on a highway billboard, or at the courthouse, as if they expressed best our Christian values. 

There are two reasons that I believe those plaques and billboards are a mistake. First, because in the Hebrew Bible, the first commandment does not start with the words, “Thou shalt…”. It starts with a summary of a story. 

Not just any story, it is a story of liberation. It is the story of a labor movement, as judge Wendell Griffin just told us at Presbytery. It is the story of an end to a horrific injustice: the injustice of slavery. 

In the Bible, the Ten Commandments are the grateful response of slaves set free. So the first commandment begins, in both the Exodus and the Deuteronomy versions, 

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod. 20; Deut. 5)

The Ten Commandments are set within the context of a God who cares about suffering, who responds to the cries of the slaves, and who liberates them from oppression.  

These are not the commands of a harsh taskmaster, but of a God of redemption who wills the good for the people, and so guides them to live ethically with each other: not to steal, kill or lie about each other; to look after aging parents and to keep your eyes off your neighbor’s belongings. 

So, the lack of liberation-context for those Ten Commandment plaques is my first objection to them. 

My second objection is even stronger. Jesus is the one we are following, not Moses. It is true that there would be no Jesus without Moses, but we do not stop with the Ten Commandments. 

If there are to be any wall plaques or billboards let them display Jesus’ beatitudes. Let these words be the ones we aspire to live by. Let this vision of the good life, the life worth living, the life lived as if God were king and God’s will was being done on earth as it is in heaven, be the words we see every day and take to heart. 

Whose We Are

On the eve of whatever is coming on election day and thereafter, in the midst of a global pandemic, with storms battering our coasts and fires burning down our forests, businesses and homes, in a year no one ever thought we would have to live through, let us recall whose we are. 

Let us review who’s vision we believe in, as we hear the rhetoric of power-politics. Let us remember who’s understanding of God’s will we trust in, as we hear people around us proclaiming their personal liberties regardless of how unsafe they are. We are the beloved community, God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture. 

As the year 2020 limps into its home stretch, let us be people of the Beatitudes; remembering always, whose we are. 

The Right God and All the Neighbors We Love

The Right God and All the Neighbors We Love

Sermon for Oct. 25, 2020, Pentecost 21A

Video is here

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Most Christians love it that Jesus summed up all 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible with the dual commands to love God and neighbor. 

The fact that Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day, like Hillel, came to the same conclusion is not surprising because the prophets of Israel had prepared the ground for that conclusion. They had long pointed out the absurdity of offering God adoration (love), through sacrifice and ceremony, while at the same time neglecting justice to the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. 

The love of God, shown by religious veneration, is not legitimate, if the love of neighbor, in the forms of doing justice and acting compassionately, is neglected. 

Micah famously asks if he should come before God with thousands of sacrifices, and concludes no: God has shown us, mortals, what is good and what God requires: to “do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6).  

You might think that the simplicity of the dual commands to love God and neighbor were self-evident and obvious, and hence, uncontroversial. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. 

Two issues make these simple commands anything but simple for us today. They are the loaded questions: 

Who is the God we are expected to “love”? 

And, similarly, Who is my neighbor to whom I am so obligated?  

Who is the God We Must Love?

Let us take the God question first. Some scholars who study moral reasoning say that we, in the industrialized Western world, are likely to think about morality, what is good or bad, using primarily two criteria: what is fair, and what is caring, or, to put it negatively, what does not cause harm. 

Other moral criteria, like sanctity (or purity) loyalty, and authority still play a role in telling us what is good, but they are subordinate to the criteria of fairness and not harming. This focus on these two criteria is a modern and primarily Western phenomenon. (See The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt)

Let me give an illustration. In former times, the moral criterion “authority” was far more important to people than it is to us today. If an authority figure, for example, the Bible says it or the Pope says it, or my Father says it, then it is right and good, and I am required to obey.  

But we in the modern West have concluded that authorities can get it wrong. The Bible, we believe, is our wisdom tradition, which we take seriously, but we understand it as a human product with obviously cultural perspectives, for example about owning slaves and the subordinate role of women in church and society. 

Similarly, some Popes, over the years, have been excellent but others have been horrible. Tyrants in power can do enormous evil. So, authority does not have the last word.  

But, by contrast to the criterion of authority, fairness is important across the board. So is not causing harm. 

When we become aware that a group of people have been treated unfairly or have been harmed, or both, we immediately conclude that we need to fix it somehow. 

The Goodness(?) of “God”

The reason I bring this up is because this perspective of ours has created a problem in the way we understand God. In the past, when we put a lot of emphasis on authority, if God did something, we assumed that it must be right and good. 

Now, please understand that when I say “if God did something” I mean if there is a story in the Bible in which God is described as doing something. 

So if, in the story, God sent the plagues against the Egyptians, that was good. If God knocked down the walls of Jericho, then it was good.  

But now, that way of looking at it does not work for us. The last plague on the Egyptians was the slaughter of all their firstborn. 

How in the world could that be called good? Was it fair to those infants or their grieving mothers and fathers? Was it right to cause all that harm? No, we conclude. The ends do not justify the means. 

And after the walls of Jericho fell, was it right that God commanded the slaughter of, as it says in the story, 

both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys”? (Joshua 6). 

We would call that genocide; ethnic cleansing.  

So, because our perspective on the moral importance of fairness and not harming is so important, we conclude that those stories about what God did or commanded to be done cannot be true. Our view of God has changed. As Christians, we have come to the conclusion that God must be at least as good and caring as Jesus was.  

This is a big reason why the very idea of hell is so repulsive to me and many of us. The concept of eternal conscious torment seems unfair and harmful in the extreme. God is not like that. God is love. 

Here is the point: when we hear that the greatest commandment is to love God, we must try to conceive of a God that is lovable. We conclude that although God is ultimately a mystery beyond human comprehension, the metaphors we use must be like Jesus’ metaphors for God: loving parent, good shepherd, welcoming father-of-prodigal-sons-and-daughters.  That is the kind of God we can love.

So, how do we love God? By sacrifice and ceremony? No; According to the prophets and Jesus, who, remember, never went to the temple as an adult, except in opposition to it, we show love to God best by fulfilling the second command: by loving our neighbor.  

The Neighbor Question

So, the only remaining question is, if we love God by loving our neighbor, who does that include? “Who is my neighbor” as the young ruler asked Jesus? To whom am I morally obligated? 

This is a serious question, because here too, we have had to part company with the perspectives of the past. Every normal, healthy person understands their own extended family to be their neighbors who deserver their care. 

Most people are happy to include all the people in their own ethnic group as their neighbors. 

The majority of people include everyone in their own nation as their neighbors. They will contribute to the common purse and rush to the defense of the people in their own nation. Is that where it stops?

Jesus was famous for challenging the understanding of neighbor as a bounded set. He pushed the category, for Jews, to include Samaritans as neighbors — as he did when he told the parable we call the “Good Samaritan,” in response to that question, “Who is my neighbor?” 

He also pushed the boundary of neighbor all the way to Roman soldiers and Canaanite women and children. In fact, it is hard to find any boundary on Jesus’ capacity to care for the well being of other humans. We progressive Christians talk about this a lot. We are often reminded of our need to be inclusive of “the other.”   

Going Further

Today, we realize that we must go beyond former generations in at least two ways. We now understand that the neighbors we are morally obligated to care for include the people who will be living on this planet after we are gone. Our children and grandchildren will inherit what we leave to them, including a climate in crisis. 

There is real, measurable harm done because of our behavior on this planet, and if we do not change it will get worse for our descendants. NASA scientists tell us, for example, that 

parts of the western United States and Mexico, Brazil, and East Africa now face wildfire seasons that are more than a month longer than they were 35 years ago.”

https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2315/study-fire-seasons-getting-longer-more-frequent/

People are losing their homes. Businesses are going up in flames. Some people die trying to escape; some die trying to control the fires. Great harm is being done. We are watching it happening right now in Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and other states, and the trend lines indicate it is only getting worse. 

Our neighbors are our descendants who will have to live on the planet in the conditions we helped to create. I believe we are morally obligated to do all that we can to address the climate crisis for their sake.  

The other way in which we are becoming aware that the definition of neighbor needs to be expanded is the entire animal kingdom. Now we know that animals have emotions. Any pet owner can verify this. We know that animals can experience joy, and that animals can suffer. 

We are dependent on animals for our existence, as we all know. It is in our self-interest to care for them. Even more so, we know that we can cause harm to animals by the way we treat them. 

Almost everyone opposes animal fighting contests and all overt cruelty to animals. But should we limit our concern to obvious abuse? Awareness of animal emotions leads us to consider our moral obligations to all animals. How should we treat them if they too, are our neighbors? 

If it is ever right to slaughter them, the methods should be as humane as possible. In the meantime, how they are raised matters; how they are housed, fed, and treated matters. If this is a new consideration for you, sit with it for a while and give it some thought.  

Conclusion

Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is,  

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  …And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

The dual commands to love God and neighbor, in the end, is liberating. We are invited to love a God of love, who loves us and who loves the entire creation. 

We are invited to know that our true selves are who we are in God; we are the beloved community. We have also been given the priceless treasure of neighbors all over the world, and in every corner of our community both human and animal (as if that is even a meaningful distinction, biologically). 

And we are not alone. The Spirit is present with us and in us, in every moment, luring us to the next right thing, coaxing us towards goodness, empowering us to make the right choices for the benefit of our human and animal neighbors, in this generation and in the ones to come.  

This is what we must never loose sight of.  This is the “main thing” for people trying to follow Jesus.  And, as has been said, “The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” 

What Belongs to Whom?

What Belongs to Whom?

Sermon for Oct. 18, 2020 Pentecost 20A

Video is here.

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It is common, in some cultures, for patriots to name their children after national heroes. For example, in Croatia, or as they call it Hrvatska, the name Hrvoje means Croat, a patriotic name. 

In the first century, in Palestine, mothers were naming their sons after the heroes of the Maccabean revolution, a century and a half earlier.  Familiar names from the gospels, like Judas, which is the Greek form of Judah, along with Matthew, John, and Simon, were some of those heroes.  

Those mothers were probably hoping that their sons would lead the people to the next revolutionary victory, this time, over Rome. 

Indeed, the Jewish people kept trying. The moment seemed ripe for a revolution in 4 BC when the despised Roman-client king Herod the Great died. Revolution broke out all across Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. 

The leader of the revolt in Galilee was another Judas — not the Judas who was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Apparently, Judas was a popular name, since, after all, it was the name of the nation of Judah, as well as a hero’s name. 

Anyway, this Judas, known as “Judas the Galilean,” led the revolt there. He rallied people to revolution by focusing on the single greatest tool of oppression that Rome used against them: the tribute tax.  

The Odious Symbol of Oppression

The “tribute” was a tax that Rome levied against its conquered people. It symbolized Roman authority, and, for that reason, it was deeply resented. The tribute tax paid for the soldiers and weapons of the occupation. 

It paid for the palaces and banquets of the oppressors. 

It paid for the Roman Army Standards with their golden eagles which stood within the precincts of the temple in Jerusalem, scandalizing the faithful.  

So, Judas the Galilean ordered his people not to register to pay it. He and his people went so far as to burn down the houses and steal the cattle of those who did, according to the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus. 

Predictably, the Roman legions came down en mass to crush that revolt, killing tens of thousands. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan says that the memory of that crushing defeat would have been the subject of endless conversation among the people of that area, like Mary and Joseph. 

The wound was still fresh. Everybody knew people who died; everyone had family members who were killed. Everyone had a story of their escape.  But everyone was again, paying the tribute tax to Rome.  

The tax had to be paid in Roman coinage. The silver denarius coin had the image of the emperor, Caesar, and included the inscription “Divi Filius,” “son of God.” 

The god Apollo, so the legend went, had impregnated Caesar’s grandmother, making his father a god; so Caesar was a son of a god.   

The Trick Question

The tribute tax and that coin are the subject of the text we read from Matthew’s gospel. They are behind the trick question brought to Jesus, to get him to incriminate himself. 

If Jesus advocates paying the tax which everyone resented, they will walk away from him. His support will dry up. 

But if he advocates not paying the tax, he could be arrested as a traitor, and possibly executed, like Judas the Galilean 30 years before him.  

Who were the ones trying to trip-up Jesus with this trick question? Matthew tells us they were an unlikely coalition. 

The Pharisees, or perhaps we should call them, the Puritans, since their agenda was to be hyper-vigilant about the purity laws of the Bible, had made common cause with the Herodians. 

Not much is known about the Herodians, but their name says it all. They represented the interests of king Herod, the Roman-collaborating son of Herod the Great, whose lavish palaces and lifestyle were supported by additional local taxes. 

Normally, Pharisees were completely opposed to King Herod and his godless ways, but, as they say, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” at least for the moment.  

The Artful Answer

The line that Jesus cleverly comes up with, that shuts them down, is certainly authentic, according to New Testament scholars. The same line shows up in all three gospels and in the Gospel of Thomas which we discussed last week. Jesus said, 

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

Jesus was not about to lead a tax revolt against Rome, but neither was he advocating passivity. Jesus’ tactics were intentional and subtle. 

Richard Rohr has recently written that some people, especially social activists, are disappointed that, except for his action to shut down the temple, he did not directly confront the oppressive structures of his day. What was Jesus’ strategy? Rohr says it was, 

a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems.” 

Daily email Meditation

So how did he conduct this policy? Rohr continues, 

His primary action is a very simple lifestyle, which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which I (and Paul) would call the “sin system.

Jesus never said his was the only legitimate strategy, but the one time he parted with it and directly confronted the system, he paid for it with his life. One week after that donkey ride up to the temple in mockery of Pilate’s processional, one week after he drove out the money changers and shut it down, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. 

So, we can see that his options under Roman oppression were severely limited. As long as he quietly refused to participate in the power structures of the domination system, he was safe. As soon as he confronted them, he was killed.  

Our Times, Our Role

We live in different times and circumstances in nearly every way. Our participation in the systems of government is assumed necessary by our system itself. 

We can vote. We can lobby. We can write to our leaders and express our views. We can even peacefully protest by the thousands in the streets and hold up signs demanding change. If we are able, we can even perform oppositional comedy and build partisan cable news networks.  

So, what should guide our politics? What outcomes should we advocate for? Here Jesus’ clever answer is important. What could it mean to “Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? Let us take each part separately.

The “things that are Caesar’s”

What are those things that are the emperor’s? What can government legitimately require of us? I believe that this is an important question that every Christian in our country must wrestle with. 

I also believe that no one has the right to tell you what to do. We Presbyterians believe strongly, as our Book of Order says, that “God alone is lord of the conscience….” 

We are each individually responsible to use discernment and the wisdom we have been given, to make these decisions. For me, the guidance I look to first and foremost, is Jesus.  

Early Christians were advised by writers like Paul and Peter to keep their heads down and obey the laws of the land, given the political system they were living in. 

But the early church concluded that there were limits. The state could go too far and demand too much. When it did, as when the state required veneration of Caesar or the worship of Roman gods, Christians said “no.” 

We would call their refusal to comply “civil disobedience.” They called it “bearing witness.” Many who resisted became martyrs. The word “martyr” originally meant “witness.” 

Throughout history, Christians in various situations have concluded that obeying the laws of the land was incompatible with their Christian faith, and so have resisted. 

Some broke the laws of the Fascists to protect human life. 

Some broke the laws of the Communists to worship God.  

As the New Testament puts it, our ultimate citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, in which God, not any human Caesar, is the final authority.  

The “things that are God’s”

So, what does it mean to “give to God the things that are God’s”? What belongs to God? Every faithful Jewish person would immediately have the answer. In the words of the 24th Psalm, she would say, 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;” 

We call ourselves the “beloved community” because we believe that we have been created by God, loved by God, named and claimed by God. As Paul said, 

we are the Lord’s”.  

As the 100th Psalm says, 

we are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture.” 

What does it mean to “give to God the things that are God’s” if not everything? 

I believe this is what is meant by the word “surrender.” Surrender is the act of faith that says, “I trust that I am in God’s hands.” It is the non-anxious conclusion I reach when I can “be still” or to “cease striving” and know that God is God. 

I can let go of my ego, my defensiveness, my resentments, my selfishness, and grow in other-centeredness. 

I can grow in being mindfully present in the moment. I can grow in my God-consciousness. In short, I can grow in love as I “give to God the things that are God’s.”  

I believe that this will lead to action, even to public action on behalf of the values that motivated Jesus’ ministry. 

I believe this will lead to a heightened sensitivity to “the least of these” as Jesus called the poor and marginalized. 

I believe it will produce greater and greater compassion, especially to vulnerable people. 

I believe it will lead to involvement in service as opportunities are available. 

For me, and I hope for all of us, it includes political action on behalf of the people who were at the heart of Jesus’ concern. In our system, in which participation is assumed, I believe we are responsible to be involved.  

This leaves many questions unanswered, like 

“What is the role of government?” 

And, “What view should we have of the Constitution?” 

Each of us has to come to the best conclusion we can. Good people will differ. That is to be expected. But our common commitment as Christians, is to do all that we can to 

give to the emperor (only) those things that are the emperor’s, and to God (all) of the things that belong to God.” 

The Invitation and the Refuseniks

The Invitation and the Refuseniks

Sermon for Oct. 11, 2020, Pentecost 19A

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

A local peasant farmer, in 1945, found thirteen leather-bound books, hand-copied on pages made of papyrus. They had been buried in a sealed jar in a graveyard in the desert, located near tombs from the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt, on the banks of the Nile River, at a place now called Nag Hammadi. 

Among the books found there was a partial translation of Plato’s Republic and a document that we call The Gospel of Thomas. 

The Gospel of Thomas is in the ancient Coptic language, but appears to be a translation, perhaps originally from Greek. After the Coptic version was found, three Greek papyrus fragments were discovered.  

So what is the Gospel of Thomas, and why should it matter? The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, almost two-thirds of which resemble those found in the canonical gospels. 

These sayings are sometimes set in dialogues or parables, but there is no storyline, no narrative. There are no stories of Jesus’ birth or death or any others. It is a collection of Jesus’ sayings only. 

So, in that sense alone, it is quite different from our canonical gospels. But many scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas was written independent of the canonical gospels, maybe even before them, and represents another source of Jesus’ sayings. 

Scholars also believe, that some of the sayings contain evidence that they reflect the interests and issues of the community of Christians who preserved them. 

But that is not unique to the Gospel of Thomas. All of our gospels contain both memories of the historical Jesus and expansions on that memory which reflect the concerns of the communities that produced them. 

That combination of memory and expansion is evident in Matthew’s version of the parable of the dinner invitation we just read. There is a version of this story in Luke also, and another in the Gospel of Thomas. Comparing them is fascinating! 

I would like to suggest, following many scholars, that the Thomas version is the most original, Luke’s is second most historical, and Matthew’s is third. Development from Thomas to Luke and then to Matthew is easily discernible.  

What I want to do today is briefly look at that development, and how it reflects the issues of Matthew’s community, as distinct from the historical Jesus, and then take a look into the most original story.  

Comparing the Versions

First, in the Thomas version, the invitation is not from a king, but from a head of household, inviting guests to a dinner party, not a wedding banquet. So, it is set in simpler domestic circumstances. 

Second, after the invitations were declined, the master of the house instructs his servants to go out and invite whoever is found off the streets into the banquet. In Thomas and Luke, that is the end of the master’s reactions. 

But in Matthew, the inviter is a king who gets angry at this offense to his honor. He has his army go out and burn down the entire city. 

Then, Matthew adds the scene in the banquet which was being enjoyed by the guests who were invited impromptu, in which one does not have a wedding garment. The king has him bound hand and foot and thrown out into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

So the original story in Thomas, and the next most original in Luke have no anger nor judgment. No one gets killed, and no one gets thrown out into what sounds like hell.  

The question is, does Matthew’s version sound like the Jesus we know? The answer is mixed. In one sense, it sounds like Jesus when the invitation to the banquet is extended to the nobodies, the poor, the riff-raff, the marginalized. Jesus was famous for welcoming the lost and the least. 

In all of the versions, that is what the host does: he welcomes the marginalized. There is a great lesson there, that we in the Presbyterian Church have taken to heart. We are an inclusive, welcoming, affirming community. All are welcome at our table.  

But, is the angry, vengeful, even murderous King in Matthew’s version the way Jesus taught us to think of God? Jesus called God his “heavenly abba” – papa. 

He told parables like the prodigal son who, when he returned to his senses and came back home to his papa did not get punished or even scolded; he was absolutely forgiven. They threw a party for him. 

That was how Jesus taught us to see God; not as the judge, but as the loving parent who is more like a good shepherd than a king.  

Explaining Matthew’s Modifications

So what is going on that Matthew took a story of a dinner party and transformed it as he did? The answer is found in the historical setting of Matthew’s church community.  

At the time of Matthew’ gospel, as the author has become traditionally called (although we have no idea of his actual name) what had already happened? The Jewish revolt of 66 AD had happened. 

The Roman army’s crushing of that revolt had happened. Jerusalem had been sacked and burned, including the temple and the palace. Ancient historian Joseph said hundreds of thousands were killed.  

So Matthew has taken a story of a dinner party where the guests who originally were invited refused to come, and has turned it into an allegory of recent history. In this allegory, the consequences of their refusal are brutal. 

In Matthew, the King is God, the invitation is first given to the chosen people of Israel. Most of them refuse to believe Jesus is Messiah (the wedding banquet is a metaphor for the banquet of Messiah from the Hebrew Bible) and the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s judgment on them for their rejection of Jesus.  

Was Matthew Right?

That explains it, but was Matthew right? Was the Roman army sack of Jerusalem really God’s judgment on them for not accepting Jesus as Messiah? Is that how it works? Does God do that?

Our answer, in my opinion, is the answer the historical Jesus would give. The idea that God punishes the bad guys and rewards the good is called the doctrine of retribution. Good behavior is blessed by God, bad behavior is cursed. 

This is one of the dominant perspectives of the Hebrew Bible, not the only one, but the dominant one. As they tell the story of their own history, the Israelites tell the story of the rise of the monarchy, but then its fall into exile; they tell it as a story of getting what they deserved from God; retribution for their unfaithful behavior: specifically their injustice towards the poor and their religious idolatry.  

Jesus Rejected Retribution

But this is exactly where Jesus made one of his most striking innovations. He came to reject the doctrine of retribution. He specifically said, as even Matthew quotes him saying, that God, 

makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  

(5:45).

Luke adds another quote from Jesus in which he says that God 

is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (6:35). 

(6:35). 

Jesus told the parable of the wheat growing up with the weeds, making the point that judgment of evildoers is not our job and we shouldn’t do it.  

So, I believe Matthew’s church community was trying to do something good, but missed the point. The good thing they were trying to do was to ask, “What in the world is God doing?” 

The mistake was that they went to the Hebrew Bible for an outline of how God supposedly acts, instead of listening closely enough to Jesus. The irony is that Matthew’s gospel has Jesus saying that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” but then later forgets that point. 

Remember, one of Jesus’ central teachings is about the crucial importance of forgiveness, even to the point of forgiveness of enemies, which is the opposite of what the king in Matthew’s parable does. 

Why Tell a Dinner-Invitation Parable?

So, let us get back to the parable itself. It is about an invitation to a dinner. Why would Jesus tell that parable? And why would it include the unlikely idea that all the invited guests refused the invitation? 

Of course, we get it, that the unlikely story sets up the conditions for extending the invitations to the marginalized. That is an important point all by itself. But I want us to think about Jesus’ idea to tell a parable about a dinner party and people not coming. I think there is more to learn here.

A dinner party is a good thing. Free food and beverages. Why that setting? Because that’s a great analogy for receiving the message, the “good news” of the kingdom of God, Jesus’ main theme. 

When we receive the message that the kingdom of God is, as Jesus said, “at hand,” “among us” and “within us,” what happens? We begin to live as if God were king. 

We consider ourselves citizens of God’s kingdom, or God’s empire, as some call it, or God’s kin-dom, playing off the word kin, since we are family. 

When we receive that message as children, in other words, innocently, sincerely, then we are blessed. It is nourishing like banquet food. It is satisfying to our souls. To know that we are beloved by God is a soul-feast to us.  

Receiving the kingdom also has the capacity to transform our communities. As we start looking at each other as equals, as children of God, we become compassionate and responsive to human need. 

We become agents of care for people in need. We become advocates for the marginalized. We become engaged in helping people of our generation and future generations, so we become people who are passionate about the climate crisis we are in. 

There are so many good, positive, beautiful ways in which the invitation to the kingdom is like an invitation to a great dinner party.

Why Refuse a Free Dinner Party?

So, then the question becomes, why is the parable not just about an inclusive invitation, but also about the large-scale refusal of it? Why would anyone not want to come to the banquet? Why would anyone reject the kingdom of God as a present reality?  

I do not really know; I can only speculate. The reasons given for refusing the banquet in Matthew’s version are concisely summarized; after being invited Matthew says, they “went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” That does not tell us much. 

We might get some more clues from Luke’s version. There, in more detail, we are told, 

The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’. (Luke 14). 

All the excuses seem flimsy, on the surface. All of them seem self-preoccupied. The first two of them involve economic concerns: purchases of land or oxen. The third is about the personal issue of a recent marriage, which seems inexplicably lame as an excuse. Still, we may find clues here.

Although the offer of a dinner party, or a banquet, seems to be unquestionably good, it is also true that there are some costs involved. 

Coming to this kind of a feast may mean you will have to sit down next to someone who is not your kind, not in your social circle, not of your race or your class, maybe someone who is not gender-conforming or straight. 

It may be uncomfortable to share a meal with someone you are holding a grudge against. If the cost of the meal ticket is offering forgiveness, maybe, for some, that is too high a price to pay, so they refuse the banquet.  

What about those economic concerns? Maybe the invited guests are doing things with their money that they know they will have to change if they embrace the idea that God is king. 

It may cost them to care for the “least of these brothers of mine,” as Jesus called them in Matthew. 

It may be expensive to change energy sources to protect the planet. 

It may cost money to feed, house, and educate everyone, and to provide adequate health care for them.  

Maybe they resent the very idea that some of their money might be used to pay for care for undocumented people, even if the cheap price of the chicken on their plates depends on their cheap labor.  

God’s Generous Invitation Remains

The original parable, unlike Matthew’s version, does not end on a sad note of judgment, but a happy note of inclusion, so let us end there too. 

God’s offer is generous. God, who is Love, invites all of us, not to breadcrumbs and room-temperature water, but to a lavish banquet of rich food and heavenly beverages. The invitation is unlimited. No one is excluded. 

The offer of a relationship with a loving God, a community of supportive, accepting people, and a common mission to extend compassion and mercy to the world is what this is about. 

Let us rejoice that the historical Jesus has given us this beautiful understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of God, and this beautiful call to mission.  

Unity In Mystery

Unity In Mystery

Sermon for Oct. 4, 2020, Pentecost 18A, World Communion Sunday

Video is here.

Ephesians 3:14-19

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

In Colin Woodard’s book “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America he tries to demonstrate that America has, as he says,

never been united, either in purpose, principles, or political behavior.”  

https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/novdec-2011/a-geography-lesson-for-the-tea-party/

He continues,

We’ve never been a nation-state in the European sense; we’re a federation of nations, more akin to the European Union than the Republic of France.” 

When I first heard that view, I had two thoughts: one was that it is obvious that we are a deeply divided nation now, but the other was that there have been times when we came together, notably during our world wars, but I also wanted to believe that we were together when we tried to end poverty, racism, and sexism after the upheavals of the 1960s; I thought we all agreed on those goals — or at least the vast majority of us did.   

Woodard’s thesis is that there were eleven identifiably different groups that comprised our country, at its founding, each in its own territory, and each with its own individual origins, mainly in Europe. He calls each of these regions “nations” and gives them names. 

For example, Yankeedom was first founded on Massachusetts Bay by Calvinists as a New Zion. Woodard says,

From its New England core, it has spread with its settlers across upper New York State, the northern strips of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, parts of the eastern Dakotas, and on up into the upper Great Lakes states and Canada’s Maritime Provinces.” 

https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/novdec-2011/a-geography-lesson-for-the-tea-party/

Yankeedom puts a high value on education — in fact, it boasted the first public school system in North America. It also values community empowerment. Those founding values continue to characterize Yankeedom to this day, in spite of immigration and internal relocations. The children of people who come into the region, or “nation” assimilate to the founding values.  

The same is true for all the other American “nations.” The nation he calls “Tidewater” has quite different values than Yankeedom. Settled first by the descendants of English gentry, they wanted to replicate a semi-feudal society run by and for aristocrats. The indentured servants of England were replaced by slaves in

the lowlands of Virginia, Maryland, southern Delaware, and northeastern North Carolina.”  

ibid.

We, here in Arkansas, he includes in the American “nation” of Greater Appalachia, which includes

south-central Pennsylvania… down the Appalachian Mountains and out into the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma and on down to the Hill Country of Texas.” Our founders, he says, were from the rough and tumble “borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands” who had “a deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty.”  

ibid.

He paints with a broad brush to make these sweeping generalizations, but as I read it, I could see that the values of the various regions he identified were still influential. And these different perspectives is one of the reasons for our deep divisions. 

He explains that our persistent differences, confound “collective efforts to find common ground” which is the bad news, but that these differences also subvert “radical campaigns to force one component nation’s values on the others,” which I take to be good news.  

So, if the United States has deep divisions that are hard to overcome, how much more the world? A moment’s thought is all that is needed to consider the vastly different perspectives and values of people in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Western Europe.

 So, is it pointless to talk about World Communion Sunday?  I hope not.  

The Aspiration of World Communion Sunday

Starting in the 1930s, in a Presbyterian church, the celebration of World Communion Sunday has been embraced, at least formally, by several other denominations, and by the National Council of Churches. 

No one is naive about our differences. No one pretends that we will ever have structural unity. But I believe it is important to hold up the vision of unity, at least as our aspiration.  

The unity we aspire to and talk about on World Communion Sunday is important, and we must always reaffirm it. At the core of our faith, we believe that we humans all have a common source in God. We believe that our Creator-God is what the writer of Ephesians said, 

the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

 There is only one human race. Whether we are from Yankeedom or Greater Appalachia, North America, or Tibet, we have all been created in the image and likeness of God. Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, we are all humans. We are all in this together. We share one planet. We literally breathe each other’s air.  

Enlightenment

Buddhists speak of enlightenment; an awakening to deep transformational truths. This text in Ephesians likewise is a prayer for enlightenment. The writer says, 

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend….” 

Comprehension is transformative. What do we need to comprehend? The enormity and extent of God’s love. He said, 

that you may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, … to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”  

In religious texts, you often sense that the writer is trying to put into human language ideas that transcend its capacity. How can you “comprehend” something that “surpasses knowledge?” He prays for us to know what is unknowable. 

Whatever that can possibly mean, it must include the fact that there is a love that is at the base of everything we call Reality which is more extensive and inclusive than we could possibly comprehend.  If we ever received enlightenment about the reality of that depth of love, if we were, as it says, “rooted and grounded in love,” we would be transformed.  

The transformation the writer speaks of includes another conundrum: that we would be 

filled with all the fullness of God.” 

Think of that: being filled with the fullness of God; not just filled like a cup is filled with water, but filled with all the water in the world: “filled with” not just some of God, but with “the fullness of God.” Language breaks down. The mystery of the God of love is beyond words, concepts, and compression.  

Other Religions 

Which is why it is also important, on World Communion Sunday, to speak not only of unity among Christians, but also about unity among religions. Again, we are not being naive about our vast differences, but we are taking seriously what we have just said: that when we speak of God, we are speaking without pretending to comprehend. God surpasses knowledge. We are finite, limited, historically, and culturally situated mortals; we cannot comprehend the divine. As T.S. Elliot says, all we have are “hints and guesses.”  (Four Quartets 3: v. 4 The Dry Salvages by T. S. Eliot,)

People around the world throughout time have been in the same boat: trying to name and describe the mystery. So, recognizing this, Presbyterians have long been participants in interfaith dialogue. We have sat down with Jews, Muslims, and Hindus to try to reach new levels of understanding between us. Many Presbyterians endorsed the document called, A Common Word Between Us and You written by prominent Muslim scholars, highlighting the fact that at the root of both of our faiths is the call to love God and neighbor.”  

Interspiritual Mysticism

I believe that we must move beyond simply finding interfaith common ground. Recently the Roman Catholic Franciscan theologian and author Richard Rohr has been highlighting “interspiritual mysticism.”

The late Brother Wayne Teasdale coined the term “interspiritual” to describe “the shared mystic heart beating in the center of the world’s deepest spiritual traditions.”

Interspiritual mysticism recognizes that the mystery of God is not the private property of any single religious tradition. Not only can we appreciate insights from other traditions, but we can also benefit from their attempts to grasp the divine as complements to our own attempts.  

Richard Rohr began a week of emphasis on interspirituality by quoting Episcopal theologian, author, and mystic, Cynthia Bourgeault who said,

In our one small and interwoven world, the great spiritual messengers of all the sacred traditions are a universal human treasure, to be received and reverenced with… respect….” 

Rohr acknowledges that we Christians have been taught to be reluctant to engage in other tradition’s practices, but need not be. He writes,

Most Christians have been discouraged from exploring the teachings and practices of other religions, but I believe the loving and universal scope of Jesus Christ provides us with a model of how to recognize and celebrate truth on the many different paths to God.” He reminds us that Jesus himself “called forth the divine in Gentiles like the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Roman centurions…; in Jewish tax collectors who collaborated with the Empire; in zealots who opposed it; in sinners of all stripes; in eunuchs, pagan astrologers, and all those “outside the law.” Jesus had no trouble whatsoever with otherness.

https://cac.org/solidarity-instead-of-judgment-2020-09-20/?utm_source=cm&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dm&utm_content=summary

Neither should we.  

Conclusion

We began by looking briefly at the ways in which we are divided, even as Americans by the values and goals that our different histories have bequeathed to us. Then we took time to appreciate the profound, mysterious, incomprehensible love that is the source of all humanity; the One, who gives our aspirations of unity substance. Then we considered, with humility, the concept that other paths to God’s mysterious reality may be fruitfully engaged, even as we continue to identify our path as Jesus-centered; as Christian. The practical result of all of this theory, I hope, is a greater sense of compassion for all people. That is what all the great traditions proclaim, in word, at least, if not so much in practice.  

 Can we ever get there? Can we ever make progress on the road to unity? I believe we can at least take steps. But we need to be clear about the stepping stones on the path. Those stepping stones are, as Mirabai Starr reminds us both,

a discipline of inner transformation [and] a corresponding commitment to alleviating suffering in the world.” They are not, she insists, in treating the “spiritual life as another commodity,

https://cac.org/engaged-love-2020-09-22/?utm_source=cm&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dm&utm_content=summary

as we, who have grown up in our consumer culture are so tempted to do. Rather than merely sampling other faith traditions, like sips at a wine tasting, the steps on the path forward are taken by disciplined spiritual practices.  

When we have taken those practices seriously, she says, we find that our thirst for unity can find some satisfaction. Mixing the metaphor of a thirst quenching drink, with the depth of a well she writes,

authentic engagement with the perennial wisdom that lies at the heart of the well means we must leap from the lip of the vessel and dive into the unknown.

ibid.

Perennial wisdom is that which lies at the heart of all the world’s faith traditions. That which has its common source in Love, meaning in God, the God of mystery, the God of all people.

Surviving 2020: The Bigger Picture

Surviving 2020: The Bigger Picture

Sermon for Sept. 27, 2020. Pentecost 17A

Video is here.

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Sometimes, when I have had to go through a particularly difficult circumstance, I have told myself, just think, in 24 hours this will be behind you.  I have found myself thinking that way about 2020; there will be a time when we look back on this year and all its calamities. Let us hope that we will be in a better condition in the future than we are now.  

It is not just the year 2020 that is in a state of significant change, it is perhaps only one year in the dawn of a new era for the church. 

If that sounds grandiose, consider this: author and professor Phyllis Tickle, in her book “The Great Emergence,” recounted a metaphor offered by Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer who noticed that about every five hundred years, the church has had what he called, a giant “rummage sale.” 

By that metaphor, he meant this: at about five hundred year intervals

the empowered structures of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable [constraint] that must be shattered so that renewal and new growth may occur.”  

Here is a sketch of those five hundred year events. About five hundred years after the birth of the church, as the Roman Empire was crumbling, Pope Gregory the Great established the system of monasteries that were to prove essential in seeing the church through the medieval dark ages. 

About five hundred years later, in the eleventh century, there was, what we now call, the Great Schism, in which Western Catholic Christianity and Eastern Orthodox Christianity went their separate ways. 

About five hundred years later in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was born. We date the start of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle, calling for an open debate. We are now, as of 2017, five hundred years after that event.  

The Recurring Question of Authority

Phyllis Tickle noticed that at each of these critical moments of change, the question of authority was crucial. Who gets to say what is right and wrong? Who gets to define orthodoxy? 

During the Protestant Reformation, there were debates about authority conducted in essays by the primary protagonists. John Calvin famously carried on a debate with Cardinal Sadoleto. The Cardinal claimed that the Roman church had kept the faith for fifteen-hundred years. 

Calvin argued that it was the Reformers who could lay claim to a more authentic faith, precisely because their version was more ancient. Calvin traced it all the way back to Augustine as the correct interpreter of scripture. 

The question of authority was being argued utilizing antiquity: whoever could lay claim to the most ancient version of the faith was correct.  

Jesus on Authority

Authority was the question that Jesus’ opponents put to him. The timing is important. Jesus had just ridden into the city on that donkey colt, went directly to the center of authority, the temple, and shut it down, at least symbolically, at least for several hours. 

He was, by that action, taking on the High priest, the chief priests, and the ruling council, all of whom belonged to the aristocratic class. He had told them that they had made the “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves.” Thieves hid their loot in their dens; the temple was the central bank, the repository of all of the records of debts the peasants had acquired, and of all the taxes taken from them.  

So, the challenge to Jesus was: what right do you have to challenge our authority? Jesus cleverly answered their question with a question of his own. 

Jesus had been a member of John the Baptist’s movement for a while, and though he parted company with John, he had learned a great deal from him. So, he was in a position to know that the leadership, who was challenging him, were not among the crowds who came to be baptized by John, repenting of the ways they had been unfaithful to the covenant. 

John had been executed by Herod Antipas, but many of the people believed he was a prophet, sent by God. 

So Jesus challenged his challengers to put their cards on the table: John’s baptism — what authority was it based on? Was it from God or just a human invention? Crowd-consciously, they declined to say, so Jesus also declined to say where his authority came from.  

The Parable of the Two Sons

Then, Jesus told a parable that at first seems to be a non-sequitur, but, when you look at it carefully, does address the question of authority.  

It is about two sons. Their father asks them to work in the fields. One says “no,” but he changes his mind, and does do the work. The other says “yes,” but does not work.

Now, there is one thing we might miss about this parable. Both sons dishonor their father. Saying “yes” but not following through dishonors the father’s authority. Saying “no” also dishonors the father’s authority, even if you later change your mind and obey. So both have dishonored the father,  undermining his authority; neither is without blame.

But Jesus’ question is not, which of the two honored his father, but which of the two did “the will of his father?”  Clearly the second, who went and did the work. 

Jesus then applied the parable to his opponents. He said that the people who were actually doing the will of God were not those who could talk a good talk, but the ones who were faithful in their behavior.  

The contrast is between the people who, as he said elsewhere, “sit in Moses’ seat” who had places of honor in the temple, and alternatively, the lowly peasants. From the temple that he had just symbolically shut down, they read the scrolls of the law and quoted Moses, but were simultaneously defrauding the poor of their last denarius.  

Jesus pointed out that the “prostitutes and tax collectors” had believed John’s message and repented. Let’s think about that. Why would a good Jewish woman become a prostitute? Absolute economic desperation is the answer. 

What do tax collectors do when they repent? Return the money they have defrauded the people of.  The prostitutes can go back to being the people they want to be when reparations have been made and they can afford their daily bread again.  

But the point to notice is that Jesus emphasized right action, not right words as establishing a claim to legitimacy, meaning authority. One son said the right word, “yes” but his “yes” was vacuous. The other said the wrong words, but his actions were the main thing.  

Right Action and the Foundation of our Faith

Let us close the circle. We began by reflection on our times as disrupted times of change. Whether or not there is any substance to the idea of a five-hundred-year repeating pattern, nevertheless, it is obvious to everyone that we are in a time of change. I believe this is not bad news; at least not all bad news. 

There is good news here too. The good news is that we, in the church, are newly awake to the importance of right action. We see in a new and more significant way that following Jesus was never supposed to be comprised of merely repeating creeds correctly.  

Following Jesus was not supposed to be saying the correct “yes” but actually going out into the field and doing the work of God. And that work includes doing justice. Making sure the prostitutes do not have to resort to that vocation to put food on the table, and making it clear that oppressive systems, like defrauding the poor must not be tolerated.  

We are making the same argument that Calvin made to Cardinal Sadoleto, only we are pushing the question of antiquity back even further than Calvin did. We have come to see that the authentic faith is not defined by the theologians of the fourth century like Augustine, but is the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus himself proclaimed.  

Good News

That gospel is indeed, exactly what the word “gospel” means, “good news” because of the way it involves liberation. First: spiritual liberation. Jesus taught us that God is not honored by temple rituals or the reading of the right words, but by the spirituality of belovedness manifesting itself in compassion and the quest for justice. 

Jesus’ message is that even the prodigal sons and daughters, and the lost sheep are still objects of love by a Heavenly Father/Mother who watches over them. 

Let’s make it personal: the good news is that we are beloved by God, who is not out to condemn us, but to lure us to goodness, to encourage us to do the next right thing; to embrace each other without judgment, and to create beloved communities of mutuality across all boundaries that would divide us. 

The second liberation is that these spiritually liberated communities become the incubators of ministries of compassion and mercy, bridges of reconciliation, advocates for justice, and channels of liberation from oppression. The gospel is good news to the poor, the marginalized, and the excluded. 

Well, 2020 is not over yet; and what is ahead for us, we do not know. There is no guarantee that things will not get worse before they get better. But we believe we are part of a story that is longer than this year, and bigger than this nation. We are part of God’s story. So, let us take our place on our watch, in our generation, faithfully doing the work God has called us to, and in which we find our shalom, our deepest joy.