The Necessity of Doubt

The Necessity of Doubt

Sermon for April 11, 2021, Easter 2B

video is here.

Podcast is here.

John 20:19-31

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

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I often begin the welcome to our worship service saying that you are in god company here whether you have strong faith or lots of doubts and questions, or are somewhere in between. 

I wonder where you put yourself on that continuum? Do you feel settled and at ease when it comes to faith or do you feel like it’s a toss-up? 

This story from John’s gospel allows us to address the topic of doubt head-on. In some faith communities, doubt is frowned upon as if it represented a deficiency of character. Nobody wants to be labeled a “doubting Thomas.” 

But I believe that is a gross misunderstanding. I believe that this story exists to acknowledge the fact that doubt is part of the experience of everyone who is trying to be a follower of Jesus, especially those of us living in the years after his earthly life and physical presence.  

Jesus’ Doubt

I want to begin, not by looking at Thomas’ doubt in this story, which, by the way, I take as a parable, but rather at Jesus’ doubt. Yes, Jesus experienced doubt. There are at least three indications we have of Jesus’ doubt. 

First, Jesus came to doubt what everyone else around him believed about God. Jesus came to doubt what his Hebrew Bible said about God. 

In what way? They call it the doctrine of retribution, meaning you get what is coming to you. The Hebrew Bible teaches that if you do right if you are faithful to obey, you will be blessed by God. 

Alternatively, if you are unfaithful and disobedient, God will curse you. Many people still believe that today. Maybe you are one of them. I hope not.

Now, I want to acknowledge that this is not the only view expressed in the Hebrew Bible. The whole book of Job is about how that karma-like theology doesn’t always work out. Good people like Job should have been blessed, but he suffered horribly, so his friends believed he was being cursed by God for some secret disobedience. 

They were wrong. Job was righteous but suffered. So the book of Job represents an alternative view. But that is the minority voice that did not win the debate. Overwhelmingly, the Hebrew Bible proclaims blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. That is what God is like, or so it said.

Doubting Retribution

At some point in his life, Jesus started doubting if that were true. Why? The indication we have from the gospels is that Jesus concluded that that view of God simply did not match his experience of the world. 

When asked about whose fault it was that a man was born blind, the disciples assume there are two options: either it was the blind man’s fault — although that’s hard to believe since he was blind from birth, before he ever had a chance to do anything wrong. Or, it was his parent’s fault, although that too seems unfair. That’s why they asked Jesus the question: it was a puzzle for them.  

Suffering blindness must be a curse, so someone’s sin was the basis for it, but whose? Jesus’ answer reveals that he had doubted the doctrine of retribution to the point of rejecting it. Who sinned that the man was born blind? Jesus said, 

Neither” . 

(John 9:1)

He said it doesn’t work that way. Jesus said, 

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

(Matt. 5:44)

He also said, “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” . 

(Luke 6:35)

So Jesus doubted what everyone taught him about God, and came to a different conclusion based on his experience. 

Doubt in the Garden

The second occasion of Jesus’ doubt was more existential than theological. It was in the garden of the Mount of Olives on the night of his arrest. This is subtle, but I think we can see the doubt in Jesus’ mind and heart as he prayed for the cup of suffering to be taken from him. 

Maybe he was only doubting his own courage, but I think it went beyond simple fear. I believe he doubted whether God would be there for him. He overcame that doubt, but he experienced it. 

Doubt from the Cross

The third case is the most intense and unmistakable. The gospels report that on the cross, Jesus cried out,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

(Mark 15:34)

That is doubt, pure and simple. Yes, even Jesus doubted God. Jesus felt literally God-forsaken. If Jesus himself doubted God, then doubt is baked into the cake of Christianity.  

Suffering and Doubt

Of course, it is. Suffering is horrible. We don’t understand it. We ask why? and look for reasons. But sometimes there are no reasons, like when someone is born blind, or dies of Covid, or cancer. Who can explain why some people have mental illness or are the victims of gun violence? 

The explanation cannot be that God simply lets suffering, that could have been prevented, happen. That kind of God would not be good. That kind of God would not be love. That kind of God would not be the kind Jesus taught us to trust.  

God, I have come to understand, is not a being at all. God is the ground of being, that which makes existence possible.  God is Spirit. God is present always, everywhere, and to everyone. God is not controlling, because love would never seek to control the loved one. 

God is present spiritually, luring us, coaxing us, encouraging us to goodness, even after we have experienced suffering or evil. 

The name we give to this spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Some theologians call him the Cosmic Christ, because the Christ-Spirit is present throughout the world and throughout time. 

But because God’s spiritual presence is invisible and because suffering does happen, it is impossible to avoid times of doubt. It was impossible even for Jesus to avoid times of doubt. But doubt does not change anything. God did not abandon Jesus, and does not abandon us.  

John’s Dream-like Parable 

So John told a dream-like story, a parable, about Jesus appearing twice, inside a locked room after his crucifixion. Each time his message is “peace.” He commissions his fearful followers, sending them, just as he had been sent, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. 

He breathed on them, symbolically conferring the invisible Spirit of God into them, just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam, according to the Creation story. And doubting Thomas is part of the story because all of this can be hard to believe.  

But we can do hard things. We can believe things we cannot see. We can affirm that even despite local setbacks, 

the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” as Dr. King said. 

MLK

We can believe in the power of love to conquer evil, even though there are still mass shootings, even though people in this state refuse to pass hate-crime legislation, even when, for now, transgendered people are trampled upon and minority votes are cleverly suppressed. The struggle continues, and we believe that justice, equity, and inclusion will prevail. 

We have not seen Jesus with our own eyes or heard him pronounce his blessings on the meek, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for justice, but we have read and believe the blessing Jesus gave all of us when he said, 

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 Not that you will avoid all moments of doubt, but that you will take the risk that it’s worth believing, meaning trusting, even through times of doubt, just as Jesus did.

The Final Question

The Final Question

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

Video is here

Mark 16:1-8

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

Many years passed after Jesus’ earthly life before the celebration of Easter became an annual event. In the early days of the church, every Sunday was meant as a celebration of the presence of the risen Christ. 

Luke’s gospel tells us that when followers of Jesus gathered around a table, the risen Christ was made known to them “in the breaking of the bread.” So every Sunday’s Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper service was a celebration of the resurrection.  

So, by the time Mark wrote the story we read of the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning, probably around thirty or more years after Jesus’ earthly life, he was writing to followers of Jesus who had celebrated Christ’s risen presence hundreds of times. 

He wrote the story, not to people who needed information, but to people who needed to know how they were going to get through the next week.  

Somber Times for Mark’s Community

Mark wrote the story of Jesus in complicated and dangerous times. A Jewish revolt against the oppressive Roman Empire was either brewing and nearly boiling over, or had perhaps already started. 

Most of the early Christians were Jews, so now they were considered a rebel nation, subject to Roman retaliation. Hundreds of thousands died in that failed revolt, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.  

During that time, Nero, emperor of Rome, had begun a persecution of Jesus’ followers (they were not yet called Christians). Peter and Paul both died during Nero’s reign of terror. Followers of Jesus had previously been shielded because the Romans had considered them a sect of Judaism.  

But their lack of attention to Kosher laws and Saturday Sabbath observance led to a complete rupture, and the Jesus followers had been kicked out of the synagogues. Now they were exposed as an illegal religion, which was getting a reputation for refusing to call the Emperor “lord.” Mark was writing to Jesus-followers who were living in double jeopardy and fear. 

Mark ended this story and his whole gospel with the words “terror, amazement and afraid.” 

“[the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Our Sober Times

The somber emotional tone of the story matches the emotional tone of the early Jesus-followers Mark was writing for. It is the right tone for us as well. We have endured a whole year of a global pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans, some from among us. 

It has been a year of watching and rewatching the video of the slow-motion murder of a black man by a white policeman.  Ironically, today we celebrate Easter Sunday on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. 

It has been a year in which we have witnessed worldwide protest of the systemic racism in our country and around the world, which the murder of George Floyd emblemized. 

And now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolds, we see that video again.  We hear testimony from the people who watched the murder, filmed it, begged Chauvin to desist, even after Floyd had no pulse, and in the end, saw his lifeless body being removed. 

The mood today is somber. It is made all the more so by the fear of what will erupt in this country if Chauvin is not convicted — knowing that convictions of white officers who kill black men are rare in our America. 

So, the tone of the story is somber, but not hopeless.  Notice that Mark does not set this story in pre-dawn darkness as John’s gospel did.  Instead, the women set out early, but not too early. The sun has already risen. The problems they will face and the decisions they are going to have to make are made in the clear light of day. 

Remember, the Jesus-followers hearing this story read to them have celebrated the resurrection on hundreds of Sundays. It is not a question of whether or not Jesus is present to them, it is a question of what they are going to do about it. 

So, in the story, now that the Sabbath is over, on which they, being observant Jews, cannot work, the women go to the tomb. They take with them with anointing spices, expecting to find a corpse. 

But how will they get to the body? They wonder who will help them roll the stone from the entrance? They think the stone is their problem. Soon they will realize that they have misidentified the problem.  

The Messenger and the Task

When they get to the tomb, they see that the problem they thought they were going to have to deal with was not a problem. The stone had been removed. The real problem was coming. 

There is a mysterious “young man, dressed in a white robe” sitting there in the tomb. He is not explained and does not explain himself. He simply functions in the story as a messenger from another realm. Perhaps he is supposed to be an angel, although we are not told. 

All of the gospel stories of Easter morning have strange, dreamlike elements in them, though no two of them are identical. 

Anyway, the message he reports has two parts. First, it is a reminder of something Jesus told them already, and second it a simple task they must accomplish. 

The reminder is that Jesus said that after his death, he would be raised and would meet his followers back in Galilee, where they were from. The simple task is that they should report this reminder to Jesus’ disciples, and specifically to Peter.  

Now, this is the ultimate question. Will they do it? Will they believe the reminder and report it to the male disciples? Or will they let their fear stop them? In other words, will they act as if they believe the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee, or is it all just too good to be true? This problem is bigger than the stone in front of the tomb.

The Ambiguous Conclusion

How did they do? The way Mark tells the story, it’s ambiguous. It looks as though the women’s fear was overwhelming. It looks like they went away and told no one. It looks like they did not expect to have the risen Christ with them as they went back home to Galilee to resume their lives, post-crucifixion.  

But of course, Mark’s audience, the Jesus-followers hearing this story, know that somehow the disciples did hear the message. So maybe the women found their courage. 

But as we hear the story, we imagine ourselves there, identifying with the women, asking ourselves: what am I prepared to believe, and how am I prepared to act?  

Denying or Affirming the Resurrection 

In Mark’s gospel, we hear the reminder from that mysterious young man in the empty tomb that Jesus said he would be found, after his death, back home in Galilee. How would they find the risen Christ there? Mark does not get specific. 

Fortunately, Matthew did. In his famous parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells people how to find him. He says that whenever we see someone hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, or in prison, we are seeing Jesus. And every time we provide food for the hungry, water to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing for the naked, and provide for the incarcerated, we are serving Jesus. The risen Christ is not only present by his Spirit, and made known to us “in the breaking of the bread,” he is also present in our own Galilee hometowns in the guise of the “least of these” as Jesus calls them.  

Irish author, philosopher, and Christian theologian, Peter Rollins, has famously said this:

 “Without equivocation or hesitation, I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. …

“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

“However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

So the ultimate question on Easter Sunday is will we affirm or deny the resurrection? It is the question the women on that first Easter had to face. It is the question we face every day. 

Will we affirm the risen Christ as advocates for the George Floyds of the world? 

Will we be allies for the Asian community? 

Will we resist voter suppression laws? Will we speak out against discrimination of the LGBTQ and transgendered communities? 

Will we demand action to stop climate change? Will we work to end cash bail? 

Will we organize efforts to expunge and seal the records of people who have paid their debts to society so that they can work, find housing and get educations? 

Here in predominantly Christian Arkansas the resurrection is being denied constantly.  A mockery is being made of the message of Jesus.   

Let it not be so among us!   There are so many ways in which to affirm the resurrection; to act on the basis that Christ is a living presence in us, and among us. 

So let us answer the ultimate question with courage. Let us take the risk that Christ is risen indeed, and he has gone ahead of us, and will meet us right here in the River Valley of Arkansas!

Mockery and Salvation

Mockery and Salvation

Sermon for March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday, Year B

Video is here.

Podcast is here.

Mark 11:1-11

When [Jesus and his disciples] were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is famously concerned about his image. Kiosks in Russia sell posters of him looking macho. He rides horses bare-chested, he scuba dives, he carries a hunting rifle with a scope, he is victorious in martial arts; clearly, he wants to be known as a man’s man: the very image of masculine authority.  

This is why his government outlawed photo no. 4072 which depicts Putin wearing makeup, false eyelashes, red lipstick. Authoritarian rulers do not take well to mockery. They never have.  

The United States has used mockery as a tool against our enemies. Part of our anti-Nazi propaganda effort in the Second World War included spreading a rumor that Hitler survived an attempted assassination plot. The bomb was meant to kill him, but merely blew his pants off. The mental image of Hitler with his pants blown off was a mockery, and planting that image in everyone’s mind undermined images of him in his stiff-armed, invincible-looking, Nazi salute.  

Palm Sunday Mockery

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, which is many things, including a mockery. Jesus rides into the city on a donkey. The crowds are his people; they are the ones that have been following Jesus in large numbers.  

They are on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Jewish Independence Day, which is what Passover celebrated: Independence from slavery to the Egyptian Empire.  

You can imagine that the authorities might be tense about large crowds of oppressed peasants commemorating the history of their liberation, especially since the Roman Empire was now their master.  

They were tense indeed. Every year, during the Passover festival, governor Pilate and a whole unit of Roman troops marched into Jerusalem on their big white warhorses to tamp down any thoughts of revolution, and so far, it was working.  

What was Jesus doing on that donkey, that day? This whole scene was not spontaneous, it was pre-arranged. Mark tells us all about the set-up with the donkey and its colt. In fact, most of the words in this story are about the donkey.  

Jesus was riding a donkey into the capital city accompanied by cheering crowds singing their hymns of praise. They are waving leafy branches as their ancestors had done in another historic occasion of liberation, and naming Jesus “Son of David, ” which sounds a lot like calling him the heir apparent. 

But he is on a humble little donkey instead of a big white horse. It looks like mockery. In fact, some scholars suggest that Jesus timed this humble entrance to coincide with Pilate’s pompous parade coming into Jerusalem from the opposite side. The contrast would have been obvious to all.

The New King Arrives

Everybody in those days knew what to expect, when a new ruler came to town. There was the grand entry parade, accompanied by cheering crowds. There would have been acclamations in musical hymns, followed by speeches of welcome by the local elite, who were positioning themselves to have power in the new administration. There would be a sacrifice at the temple as the newcomer takes power.  

Jesus makes the grand entrance, but there are no welcoming elites making speeches. The local aristocracy has long been allied with King Herod, the Roman client-king, so they share Rome’s anxiety about peasant revolutions.  

Jesus does go to the temple, but not to make a sacrifice. He goes to the temple and assesses the situation. Soon he will return to shut it down, at least temporarily, or, we could say, symbolically.  

What is going on here? Jesus, from the beginning, has been proclaiming the kingdom of God. Jesus has been preaching the gospel, or literally, “god news” that there is an alternative to Caesar’s kingdom and an alternative to Herod’s kingdom.  

Empire’s Deadly Reaction

Most historical Jesus scholars agree that it was that donkey ride, and what Jesus did at the temple, that got him killed. The Roman governor and the local elites both got the message that they were being mocked. The crowds were huge. They felt threatened.  

It appears that they took about a week to decide how to act. Probably they were trying to figure out if Jesus’ followers were armed for a violent revolt or not. Having concluded that they were not, all the authorities had to do was go after Jesus.  

In the case of violent movements, the Roman policy was that you have to find and kill everyone involved. For non-violent movements, you just take out the one at the top, as they had recently done in the case of John the baptist.  

According to the gospels, Jesus expected the reaction he got. He understood that an open and direct confrontation with the powers-that-be would be fatal. But he also believed that the oppressive powers had to be confronted. He did not let the prospect of death deter him. Last week we remembered that Jesus said that 

unless a seed is buried in the ground it remains alone, but if it is buried, it bears much fruit.” 

To quote from another protest movement, 

They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.

Buried Seeds

We are here to celebrate today. The empire of Rome has come and gone. The kingdom of Herod would not even have been remembered if it were not for his role in the story of Jesus, the story of the kingdom of God. Today we celebrate Jesus as our king.  

King and kingdom seem archaic, even quaint in the world of democracy. But the title is perfect as a direct alternative to a political power structure called a kingdom, as Rome was called. 

But if the kingdom of God is a kingdom, then it is unlike the kingdoms of the world. The king rides a humble donkey.  

The king, instead of living off the backs of the peasants, feeds the multitudes. 

The king, instead of making life harder, shorter, and more painful for the people, heals their illnesses with a compassionate embrace.  

Instead of walling himself off in a guarded palace, he walks among the poor, eats their food, blesses their children, and reaches out to them regardless of their gender, nationality, or their purity status.  

This is called love. This is compassion. This is God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.

You cannot love someone who is hungry, and not feed them. You cannot love someone who is a slave, without working for their freedom. You cannot love someone who is suffering, without asking why they are suffering. And once you know why, you cannot love without addressing the cause of their suffering.  

So it was not enough for Jesus to stay up in Galilee, teaching, healing, and showing the way of compassion. He had to go the source of the plundering of the peasants and to mock it, saying, we do not accept your authority. God is king, and God wills justice. God wills liberation.

God and Liberation 

God wills our liberation too, in all kinds of ways. God wills our spiritual liberation from guilt-based, shame-based, fear-based religion. Jesus taught us to know God as Abba, because God is love.  

God wills our personal liberation from discrimination, from exclusion, and alienation. Black or white, gay, straight or transgendered, successful or jobless, and homeless, God invites us all, without exception to the banquet table of an inclusive community, as Jesus demonstrated.  

God wills our material liberation from oppression, injustice, and violence. Why, after reading the huge biblical narratives of the exodus from slavery in Egypt did we not see this for so long? 

Why, after Jesus’ direct confrontation of Rome and of Herod did we think he was just about personal salvation?  

The empires of the world have one ultimate weapon: death. Jesus courageously stared down the power of empire to intimidate people into non-action, by walking, open-eyed, into the jaws of death. Without embracing their methods of violence, Jesus looked empire in the eye and said, “God alone is king.” 

So, if God is king, as Jesus taught us, then the standards of his kingdom can come true. It can be true that blessed are the poor; blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful, and those that hunger and thirst for justice. 

Blessed are those who work to make God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. If God’s care can best be seen in creation, by reflection on “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field,” then blessed are those who care for God’s creation.  

And if Jesus rode a mocking donkey into the capital city on Independence Day and confronted the powers that be, then blessed are those who courageously bear the fruit of the seeds they tried to bury by killing him. Blessed are those who today confront the powers that be when they work against the values of the kingdom of God. When they try to suppress voting; when they try to limit access to healthcare to people who are transgendered; when they try to enact any kind of law that makes life more difficult for people at the margins.

Today we celebrate the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. We still say, “Hosanna! God save us.” And we still say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  

The Ultimate Conundrum

The Ultimate Conundrum

Sermon for March 14, 2021, Lent 5B

Video is here

The Podcast is here.

 John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. I love all those stories and teachings that John gives us that the other gospels don’t have: the woman at the well, the water changed to wine at the wedding, the extensive teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, the Helper, the foot washing at the last supper, and much more. 

But John was written a long time after Jesus’ earthly life, and after a lot of time spent thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings. The author had time to distill the essence of Jesus’ ministry, see their implications, and time to draw conclusions — all of which make his story-telling awkward: everything is black or white, either-or, and the chronology seems whimsical.

In John’s gospel, odd things happen; people make requests that seem legitimate and direct, like “we wish to see Jesus.”, but get cryptic responses like “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” 

It’s also odd that people come to see Jesus — like these Greeks — and John tells us, in a detailed way, who they ask first, which is Philip. Then John lets us see to whom he reports, Andrew, and we see both of them telling Jesus about the Greeks. 

Then the Greeks disappear from the page. In fact, Jesus’ following comments do not have any obvious connection with those Greeks. It’s irritating. So, my love-hate relationship with the gospel of John.  

The Collage Gospel 

Did you notice what I just did? I did what the gospel of John does: I characterized my relationship with John’s gospel as black or white, love or hate; surely it’s more complex than that. 

And when I gave examples of stories I love in John, I did not list them in chronological order. So I should be easier on John for arranging his gospel as he did; he knew what he was doing, and we are meant to understand.

So, instead of thinking of this text as a documentary film, let’s think of it as a collage — very carefully constructed, but not according to a linear sequence in time or space. It is not a collage of memories only, but a combination of memories and theological reflection about the significance of those memories.  

We are going to see that John made this elaborate collage because he was passionate about issues of vital importance: life and death, meaning versus meaninglessness. These are exactly the same issues that are critical for every one of us here today.

The Meaning of Life

Nearly all of us here have fewer days ahead of us than the number of days we have already lived. We do not have time to lose. It is of vital importance that we can say, “my life had meaning; I was put on this earth for a purpose, and I am fulfilling that purpose.”

The gospel of John presents us with only two options; find your life or lose it.  Love your life or hate it.  John’s collage of Jesus’ teaching uses mostly blacks and whites; vivid contrasts; either-or with no middle ground.  

Maybe that seems naive; simple-minded, but we live that kind of life all the time. We make choices, and every choice in favor of one option forecloses another. 

We decide to marry, and suddenly the single life is over. 

We become home-owners, suddenly responsible for everything about the house. 

We move, we become parents, we vote – and each time we decide on one option the alternative ceases to be available. There are many either-or choices.

Find life or lose it; love your life or hate it; one or the other; both is not an option. The difference is not a secret mystery: it is summed up in Jesus. Follow Jesus, or don’t; it makes all the difference. 

Following Jesus, in this black and white collage, involves exactly one choice, the one the Greeks who “wished to see Jesus” made:

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

Where I am” may initially sound peaceful and calm — but  that idea is shattered quickly. Where is Jesus? Where will following lead? He says:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  

Holding On or Letting Go

This whole picture, from the Greeks who want to see Jesus, to the crowds who are confused, is about one thing: the meaning of life is lost if it is consumed with self; the meaning of life is found if it is given away. 

We are not here for ourselves; we are here to lose our lives on behalf of others. This is the ultimate conundrum. 

Hang on to that single grain of wheat, keep it in the closed fist, guard it against all risk — and it remains alone. But let it go, let it fall to the ground and get buried — and suddenly you have it back, only multiplied.  

This is exactly the path Jesus showed us. He poured out his life — to the point of being lifted up on a cross — and, according to John’s reflection, the hour of his crucifixion was the hour in which he was most glorified. 

He was the seed that was buried, and look at the fruit that has sprung up — a huge harvest.  

Where Jesus is, we follow; yes, even to the cross. Whenever Christians lay down their claims to living for themselves, we are making a value judgment against selfish, materialistic values. 

We are driving out the ruling idea that life “consists in the abundance of possessions.” Instead, John’s Jesus says:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

Now is the Time

This is not a future event: “now,” right here, today, the perspective that says, “life consists in having; in accumulating; possessing” is judged as false. 

The idea that the goal of life is to maximize comfort — our comfort, that is — and minimize our pain is simply false. The world that operates by those values is indeed a lost one.  

But the life that is lived embracing the pain of others, the life that dives into the soil like a seed, and buries itself in the ground on behalf of a suffering world, “bears much fruit.”

Embracing suffering is counter-intuitive. That’s why John brings into this collage the picture of the thundering voice of God from the heavens. The people hear it and know that this path — the path that led Jesus to the cross, the path of self-sacrifice and suffering — is the right one. The voice of God affirms: this is the life that glorifies God!  

The great pay-back of a life given away is that it is a found-life, not a lost one. Give a cup of water in Jesus’ name, and your thirst is quenched. Cloth the naked, and suddenly your closet feels full. Visit the prisoners and the shut-ins, and suddenly you don’t feel so lonely.  

Look back on your life: There are a lot of purchases you may regret, but do you regret one dollar you have spent on behalf of other people’s pain? We’ve all wasted lots of time in our lives, but do you regret one minute you have spent on behalf of other people’s suffering? 

No, in fact, it is just those dollars and those moments that we think of when we try to answer the question, “what has my life meant?”  

The answer is not that I lived with the ideal of the golden mean — never anything in excess — but rather that I dove headlong into the earth, into the soil of humanity, got dirty, spent myself recklessly. 

Jesus asked the question we all need to ask, and answered it for us:

..what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.

For this reason, we are here: not for ourselves alone, not to watch more hours of television, not to obsess about the weather or the economy, or politics, but to live meaningful lives that bear fruit. 

The fruit of compassion, the fruit of generosity, the fruit of advocacy, the fruit of ally-ship; the fruit of speaking truth to power, the fruit of standing up for people who have been knocked down, and speaking up for people whose voices are suppressed, as Jesus did. The hour is now.  

Looking into Love and Life

Looking into Love and Life

sermon for March 14, 2021

Video is here

Podcast is here

John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Jesus, in my opinion, was utterly amazing in his insights, innovations, and methods. But unfortunately, Jesus’ followers, starting with the original 12 have been less than amazing.  

One of Jesus’ most remarkable innovations is a thought that never before showed up in the writings of ancient Israel, in the categorical way Jesus said it:

 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

(Matt. 7:1 ).

That is a categorical prohibition against judging. There is a similar, but much softer idea that showed up in the teachings of the Rabbis that says 

judge not your fellow man until you have reached his place.” (Abot. 2:4). 

But there is no “until” in Jesus’ teaching. He simply said, “do not judge.” Why not? Because Jesus had concluded that the nature of God was “fundamentally merciful and forgiving.” (See Simon Joseph, The Nonviolent Messiah). In other words, God is Love.

We just read a text which announced that. God loves the world so much that he sent Jesus, not to c

not to condemn the world, but that the world would be rescued or saved

We are going to look at that text and how it coheres with other things Jesus is reported to have said in the gospels, and then we will turn our attention to one specific area of application that has become a critical issue in our day.  

Re-reading Jesus

Jesus’ utterly amazing insights and innovations, like the God of love without judgment, were, unfortunately, not always retained by those who came after him. In the words of one New Testament scholar, they 

did not share Jesus’ apparently ‘high tolerance’ for sinners.” 

(See Simon Joseph, The Nonviolent Messiah, p. 78).

Historical context matters. In quick succession, John the Baptist had been executed, followed by the executions of Jesus, then James, Stephen, Paul, and Peter. Then the horrors of the Jewish Revolt against Rome witnessed the deaths of at least 10s if not 100s of thousands. 

It is not surprising that the wish for a God who would get even, punishing the wicked with violence for their violence was a strong impulse for early Christians.  

We have noticed previously that the collection of sayings that are attributed to Jesus, which scholars call the “Jesus tradition” is a combination of both historical memories and expansions on those memories of Jesus. There are discernible layers. 

In the most authentic layers, Jesus said things like the Golden Rule, Love your enemies, love your neighbor as yourself, be merciful as your Father in heaven. He said that the invitation to the banquet was open to the marginalized people from the highways and byways. 

He rejected the category of people as “sinners” and instead, considered them simply lost, like a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a prodigal son. And he told us we should forgive others when we have been wronged, even if 70 x 7 times. 

All of this was based on Jesus’ understanding of God. We should forgive because God forgives. We must love because God loves. This is what the most historical layer of the Jesus tradition says.

The Popular God of Judgment

But, popular in Jesus’ day were writings that told a story of God’s coming violent judgment on the wicked. Apocalyptic texts like the apocryphal Book of Enoch and others pictured a God of judgment, not mercy; of violence, not compassion, of retribution, not forgiveness. 

Unfortunately, the Jesus tradition developed, and now contains not only historical statements from Jesus about a God of love, but also imaginative expansions in which God is very different. In other words, the Gospels, as we have them now, contain both layers. 

Jesus is pictured as saying that God is both loving and forgiving, and that judgment against the wicked is coming. Some scholars say that this is incoherent. Could Jesus have proclaimed both good news and bad news, salvation, and judgment?  

Let us not fault the early Christians too much for wanting it both ways. That same tension exists in the whole Hebrew Bible. God is both one whose “steadfast love is everlasting” and one who will curse those who are disobedient. 

But which is it? How could both be true? Well, Jesus took sides in that debate, and concluded that God is loving, forgiving, merciful, and compassionate. He said, 

Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.” And, “do not judge.”

John’s Gospel

So, when John’s gospel reports that God loved the world and sent Jesus not to condemn it but to give everyone the possibility of “life everlasting,” meaning a transformed life, that sounds like something the historical Jesus believed. 

But when John introduces the idea that judgment is coming to those who reject the light, he is introducing an idea that, while popular in his day, is a departure from Jesus.  

Jesus taught us that we should be like God. God loves, so we should love. God forgives, so we are to forgive. God is merciful so we should show mercy. This has been called the ethics of the imitation of God. Our character is to conform to God’s character.  

So we set our minds and hearts to do that. We practice personal spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation so that we can get our selfish, pretentious egos under control, so that we can become people who better imitate God. 

We organize ministries of compassion, caring for the sick, visiting the shut-ins. We participate in ministries of mercy, providing food for the hungry in several different venues. 

We engage in ministries of equity, inclusion, and justice, including ecological justice, legal justice, economic and racial justice. The goal is to love our neighbors as God loves.  

One Application on the Table 

When it comes to loving our neighbors, we need to get very specific because of current events in our State. There are many people, including most Catholics and evangelicals, who believe that our call to love our neighbors must extend to the unborn. 

Most of you know that I grew up in an evangelical community that strictly opposed abortion. I shared that view. 

Arkansas has many people who have been taught to hold that same view, and so the legislature has just passed and the governor has just signed a bill outlawing abortions, even in the case of rape or incest, except when necessary to save the life of the mother. Are they properly upholding the law to love our unborn neighbors?

The argument that used to persuade me that abortion is wrong, went like this: from the moment of conception, a totally new and unique DNA is created. 

This unique DNA is not the DNA of the father nor the mother, but is unique. A new person has therefore been created. So, from the moment of conception, we must protect this new life. It is a new person. A new neighbor we must love.

Some of you may believe that today, and you have every right to that view. We, in the Presbyterian Church, believe that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” You are not required to “tow the party line.” All of us are individually responsible to make the choices we believe are wise and moral. 

I Changed My Mind

But my mind was changed. I was in a class in seminary called Christian Ethics. Among the books we read was one by a Christian medical doctor on the subject of abortion, which he opposed. He took pains to explain the whole gestation process, from conception to birth. In so doing, he presented a fact I had never heard before, which shocked me. 

When an egg is fertilized we call it a zygote. The zygote will only become a viable pregnancy after it successfully attaches to the wall of the uterus. Here is what shocked me: up to 70% of zygotes do not attach successfully. The most conservative estimates say that an average of only 50% attach. 

In the vast majority of cases of an unattached zygote, the mother was not even aware that conception had occurred. The unattached zygotes are flushed away from her body as waste products. 

That amount of detail is necessary, I believe, to fully understand the argument against abortion. The argument is that God is the source of life, which makes life sacred, and we would all agree with that. 

It goes on to say that the life of a person begins with conception: the creation of a new being with a unique DNA. The newly minted person is not the mother. It has a separate existence as a distinct person. God made this system, so we must protect unborn life.  

But if at least half, and possibly as many as 70% of all of these uniquely created lives are simply waste products, could we call them sacred? Are waste products persons? 

Are we required to love them as we love God? 

Well, for me, I concluded that I could not come to that conclusion. The argument that sacred persons are created at conception fell apart for me, in light of the scientific facts.  

This line of thinking, we must admit, raises problems. At what point in gestation then, should we consider the fetus a person? Should it be at viability? Maybe, but when is a fetus viable? Because of medical progress viability keeps getting pushed back earlier and earlier in pregnancy. 

Some have argued that in the creation story, Adam became a living being at the moment God blew the breath of life into his nostrils: should it be at the moment the baby takes its first breath that we consider it a full person? There are no easy answers.  

Persons Will Die

We do know that banning almost all abortions will not protect all lives. It will have the effect of many women dying by trying illegal methods to end their pregnancies. 

We know that many women who become pregnant in circumstances in which there is no possibility they could responsibly care for another human life, will risk their own lives to end it, and many will die trying. 

There is no ambiguity about the status of these women’s lives. They are fully adult persons, and loved by God. How do we love these women as God loves them?  

This is a large topic, and one which we can only scratch the surface of here. So let us end where we began. The most historically reliable layer of the Jesus tradition teaches us that the God Jesus believed in was a God of Love, not judgment. 

We can say two things about that right now. First, the abortion debate is often conducted with a lot of judgment in it. Regardless of the position we take, let us not judge others. Let each one be 

convinced in their own minds,”  (Rom. 14:5)

and leave the judging out.  

Second, God loves the world, and God loves you. That is what Jesus taught us. God loves you unconditionally. 

Whether you have had an abortion or not, regardless of what other people may tell you, Jesus taught us that God loves you. Jesus did not come to condemn anyone. 

Rather, Jesus offers the way of life that is transformative; a life living as beloved children of God; a life of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, a life seeking justice and working for reconciliation.  

Jesus’ God and the End of Violence

Jesus’ God and the End of Violence

 John 2:13-22

The Passover… was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Vernon Jordan, civil rights advocate and advisor to presidents died this past week. Remembering him, the news media played a clip of a speech he made at an Urban League dinner after Jimmy Carter was elected. In it, with Carter in attendance, he said, 

Black people didn’t vote for Nixon, and Black people didn’t vote before they voted for Jimmy Carter. And it is not enough for President Carter to be just a little bit better than his predecessors.

Jordan recalled Carter wasn’t thrilled about that comment. Jordan said, 

And [Carter] said to me, ‘you could have told me that in the Oval.’ And I said, ‘if you think that, you don’t understand your job or mine.’”

A civil rights advocate’s job is not to model politeness, respectfulness, and good manners. She/he cannot be allergic to stepping on toes. In the quest for justice, sometimes the tables have to be flipped over and the animals moved out. 

From the text we read, we understand that Jesus did not consider his job to model politeness, respectfulness, and good manners.  If any Christian thinks that is what Christianity is about they do not understand Jesus’ job nor theirs.  

The Temple Action

What was going on when Jesus did what he did in the temple that day? All four gospels record this event, though sometimes they differ on the details of what happened. Clearly, the early Christians remembered that Jesus went to the temple one day and, by some means, made people and animals leave, at least for a while. In fact, scholars of the historical Jesus say this is what got Jesus killed. 

So, what exactly did Jesus do, why did he do it, and what did he think he would accomplish? Sometimes an action of Jesus was symbolic, like cursing a fig tree that bore no fruit. Some call that an “acted parable.” Well, if shutting down the temple for a while was an acted parable, what meaning did he expect people to take from it?  

The Temple as Marketplace

The place to start is to state the obvious: Jesus did not like what was going on at the temple. But what exactly was his objection? 

John seems to suggest that the activity of buying and selling sacrificial animals and changing the currency to make the purchases had the effect of turning the temple into a marketplace. 

But that cannot possibly be the primary reason for Jesus’ action. The Hebrew Bible said that if you lived too far from the temple to take your own animals, you may sell them for money, and come to the temple to purchase animals there (Deut. 14:23-25). That did not turn the temple into a marketplace, so what was the problem? 

John alone makes that marketplace comment, but the other gospels say that Jesus quoted Isaiah who said the temple should be 

a house of prayer for all nations.” 

(Isa. 56:11).

Jesus is quoted as saying, “but you have made it a den of robbers.” 

Some have suggested that the animal sellers and money changers were price-gouging the worshippers. Scholars have pointed out, however, that the den is not where the robbers do their robbing; the den is where they hide the loot. 

Objections to the Temple

Clearly, Jesus did not like what the people running the temple were up to, but we have to ask, was it simply a matter of economic corruption at the point of animal purchase, or did his objections go deeper? Jesus called the temple leadership “robbers” and was clearly upset about the economic injustice they were perpetrating, but something deeper was also involved.

 Jesus was not alone in objecting to the way the temple was being administered. Documents discovered in the caves of Qumran reveal that community considered the Temple “ethically and ritually impure.” They accused the priests there of bribery, injustice, violence, and “abominable acts that defiled the Temple” enriching themselves in the process. (See Jesus and the Temple: the Crucifixion in its Jewish Context” by Simon J. Joseph, p. 96, ff.). 

The Qumran community concluded that they didn’t even need a temple. The community itself could be a substitute temple as a place for prayer. Instead of sacrifice, a person could fulfill the law of Moses by a purified heart and mind. (Ibid.)

It may seem surprising that a community of committed Jews could re-interpret the Law of Moses, which goes on chapter after chapter describing the ritual of animal sacrifice, so completely as to eliminate the entire sacrificial enterprise, but they did. Jewish people, including Jesus, did not look at the Bible the way many Christians do, as if it were an un-amendable constitution. 

For example, Jesus could refer to Moses’ easy divorce law which, remember, Moses got from God, on Mount Sinai, according to the story, and say, 

but from the beginning, it was not so.”  

Matt 19:8

From the Beginning

Jesus and others in his day thought about the Creation story deeply. They saw it as a way of describing God’s character and God’s purposes for the world and its people; a model for what God wanted for the future. 

The world of Genesis 1 and 2 was a world of peace. There was no violence in that world. The first humans in that story did not even kill animals for food. 

In the story, meat-eating began only after the flood, many years, and much blood-spilling later. The God of the Creation story was not violent.  (See S. Joseph “The Nonviolent Messiah” p. 229)

The Bible is not flat; it is quite lumpy. It contains various perspectives, theological debates, and ethical perspectives that differ from one another. The peaceful, non-violent God of Genesis 1 and 2 is quite different from the God that commanded the genocide of the people of Jericho. 

For some ancients, God was proud to be a warrior.  For others, beating “swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks” was what God wanted, and for people to “study war no more.”  (Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3). 

Jesus took sides in that debate. Jesus concluded that God was non-violent. 

From the beginning, it was not so…” he said. 

One leading scholar said it this way: 

Non-violence is a distinctive and characteristic aspect of the historical Jesus’ sayings and deeds. Jesus’ uncompromising imperative to love one’s enemies …undermines the biblical tradition of divine violence that repeatedly describes God as annihilating Israel’s enemies. 

It is difficult not to conclude that Jesus extended this imperative — based on his vision of God’s compassionate nature and unconditional love — to the Temple’s administration. The temple [worship services] trafficked in violence; the sacrificial system required an incessant supply of blood…. If Jesus concluded that God did not want, let alone need violence… then the violence of the Temple..would need to come to an end.”

(S. Joseph, “The Nonviolent Messiah” p. 161)

There is no record of Jesus ever going to the temple to offer sacrifice. The closest he came was going to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. But when he got there, instead of buying a lamb to slaughter, he cleared out the animal sellers and money changers, shutting down the business of sacrifice, at least temporarily.  

Was Jesus Violent?

But the question is, was Jesus using violence that day in the temple? Some have read John’s account as suggesting he did. John alone, among all four gospels, says that Jesus used a “whip” to “drive out” them all. But the “all” John explains means, all the animals, “both the sheep and the cattle.” 

Did he strike them or shoo them out? That is left to our imaginations, and our understanding of the character of Jesus. 

I personally find it impossible to believe that Jesus used violence against animals in order to make a point about God’s displeasure at blood sacrifice. 

The Gospel of John, let us remember is the furthest removed and least historical of the gospels. In fact, the action that Jesus took in the temple happened in the last week of his life, but John puts the scene dyssnchronously at the beginning of his public ministry in chapter two of his gospel for literary reasons. (See Simon Joseph, “The Nonviolent Messiah” p. 38)

Lessons Learned

What do we take away from this story of Jesus’ temple action? Two concepts are crucially important. 

First, God is not violent and God’s will is that the world would look more like the Garden of Eden, than the fields of Gettysburg.  

Forgiveness, not the annihilation of enemies is what Jesus taught, according to the earliest layers of the Jesus tradition (ibid.). 

The fact that after Jesus’ earthly life, Christians re-introduced the doctrine of the violent God and even put apocalyptic speeches on the lips of Jesus is a sad commentary on how deeply rooted violence is in our dark hearts. The God of vengeance and violence was not the historical Jesus’ God.

Flip the Tables

Second, there are reasons to flip tables over. There are conditions that are not okay and must be confronted. Jesus did not use violence, but he was not passive. He was an agent of change, a disruptor, a provocateur. Social respectability and politeness were not his job, nor is it ours. Making trouble, “good trouble” was part of his strategy.  

So it must be ours. Richard Rohr said we should ask three questions:

What should life be?” “Why isn’t it?” “How do we repair it?” When these are answered for us, at least implicitly, we have our game plan and we can live safely and with purpose in this world.”  

We have been given a vision of what life should be. It should be as God created it to be. It should be that

God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Lord’s Prayer

It should be the peaceful, just, equitable kingdom of God that Jesus invited us to believe in.  

Why isn’t the world like this? Because of human greed, pride, lust, selfishness, and violence.  

How do we repair it? Sometimes by flipping tables. Like flipping the cash bail system so that poor people who have not been convicted of anything don’t have to stay in jail like convicted criminals. 

Like flipping the way police records never go away, making it nearly impossible for people to get jobs, qualify for housing or acquire professional licenses. Like flipping over the efforts going on right now to roll back voting rights and voting access.

Right now, there is a new wave of state-level bills seeking to restrict the ballot which, according to Ronald Brownstein writing in the Atlantic,

constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.

(The Atlantic March 3, 2021,

He quotes Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP saying, 

This is a huge moment. This harkens to pre-segregation times in the South, and it goes to the core question of how we define citizenship and whether or not all citizens actually will have access to fully engage and participate.

(Quoted in the Atlantic article).  

We are called to follow Jesus. That means we are called to follow the path of non-violent resistance. We are called to be disruptors. 

We are called to pick up the phone, the pen, the keyboard, and take our places in public meetings, and sometimes in public demonstrations to flip the tables of injustice and harm. 

This is because we believe in a God of peace; a God of forgiveness, a God of compassion, not a God of silent respectability. 

We do not believe in the warrior God of Jericho, but neither do we believe in the limp God of Miss Manners. We believe in the passionate God of Jesus who went to his death for flipping tables. 

Beautiful Freedom

Beautiful Freedom

Video is here.

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

What would you be willing to do, to get your way? Would you lie? Some would. Would you file lawsuits? Some would. Would you go on social media to take down people who you think are in keeping you from getting your way? Some would. Would you be willing to use violence, even lethal violence? Again, we have witnessed such things in our country recently. Some people are willing to bring down our whole democracy to get their way. 

I have spoken previously about the fact that those who did some of these things, cloaked them in supposed religious respectability by public signs and symbols of Christianity. Texts like the one before us from the Gospel according to Mark show just how absurd that is.  

But let us not begin by being smugly superior to those people. The truth is that no one enjoys it when our hopes, our dreams, our goals, or even our trivial plans are stymied. We don’t even like being the second car at the red light. We certainly don’t like it when someone cuts in the line we are waiting in. 

In each of us is a dark side; a self that wants to assert itself, in competition with other selves. The difference between us and the Capitol insurrectionists may be more of degree, than kind, though the degree be huge. We will be considering those issues today as we look at the text from Mark.

The Russian author Dostoevsky wrote a novel entitled “Notes from the Underground.” I thought of that title as I was reflecting on this text from Mark’s gospel. In many ways, Mark’s gospel is written from the underground. 

Many scholars believe that Mark wrote in the tumultuous days leading up to or perhaps even during the Jewish revolt against Rome that ended in 70 CE.  

So, when Mark was telling the story of Jesus in those days, he was both recording what he had been told about Jesus and applying the meaning of Jesus’ message to his community.  So his gospel was like “Notes from the Underground” – something written to people in a tough situation in dangerous times.  

Mark’s Community’s Context

What would it have been like to be in Mark’s community? It would have meant trouble. In the early years, Christians in Palestine were mostly Jewish and thought of themselves as Jews who believed in Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. 

But the closer they got to a Jewish revolution, the more dangerous it was to be a Jewish person in the Roman Empire. Their situation was made even more dangerous because the central message of Jesus was about a kingdom – and it wasn’t the kingdom of Caesar or Rome, it was the kingdom of God — dangerous words.  

The Romans were not reluctant to crucify people who were suspected of treason. They believed in group punishment. They believed in making public examples out of insurgents. They believed that the more brutal they were, the less likely it was that there would be organized opposition. 

So they crucified people publicly, in huge numbers. They crucified them naked, which was meant to shame them. It was meant as a deterrent.

To make it even worse, they normally let the bodies remain on the crosses long after death – not even giving a chance for a decent burial.  

This is difficult to hear, but I think it is absolutely necessary to be reminded of what it must have been like to hear someone say, as in this story Jesus said:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That would have been a startling and sobering, even horrifying thought. 

Hearing it in Our Context

But we do not live in revolutionary times. We do not fear dying a violent death. We are not being targeted by the authorities. We are not living in the underground. So how do we read these texts from those days? How do they speak to us, in our context? Do we need “notes from the underground” anymore?

I believe we do need Mark’s version of Jesus’ message today – in fact, that it is crucial for us, in ways that are as deep and challenging for us as they were for Mark’s community.  

If we step back from the specifics of the context — the revolutionary times — and look into the deep meaning, we will see that we too need to hear this call in our context. Jesus’ words call us to consider our response – and it is a serious and sobering call. But it is not just that; I believe it is a deeply liberating call as well.

Life and Survival

Let us start by reflecting a bit about life. If we humans want anything, it is to survive. The survival instinct is hardwired into our brains. It is tenacious. When life is threatened, people can endure extreme suffering in the effort to survive. 

I have been to the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau, and I have read the accounts of survivors like Viktor Frankl of what they were subjected to; millions died. But not without valiant efforts to survive.  

So when someone says, “this is worth risking your life for” they are saying something that goes to our core human motivations and instincts.  

Jesus: an Inescapable Truth

When Jesus said, 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” 

he was aware that he was asking people to look deeply into their hearts and reflect on what their lives meant. Jesus is teaching an inescapably true principle:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The very effort to protect your life will lead to losing it. The act of losing your life for the highest possible good will save it.  

The problem we all face is that our lives, no matter what we do, are impermanent. John McQuiston, in his book “Always We Begin Again” said it as well as I have ever heard it:

“… in the vast reaches and endless memory of the universe, our most profound idea is the merest fantasy; our greatest triumphs and our [smallest] actions are as lasting as footprints in sand.”  

Always We Begin Again

We all know that. Is that a sad, depressing, ugly thought? Or is it the kind of truth that makes us free? Our lives are not our own to keep indefinitely. We will all lose our lives as we know them now, in this plane of existence.  

How Should We Live?

So, how should we then live? The alternative seems to be either a lifestyle of desperately clutching and protecting this fragile life; trying to deny and forestall the inevitable end, or taking up the cross, by relinquishing the idea that life is all about the self and its insatiable desires and needs. 

In other words, the alternative is either a self-focused life or a life oriented to the highest possible good; a non-self-oriented life.  

The fact that life is impermanent as footprints in the sand does not make it meaningless or insignificant. Just the opposite. It means that every moment is unrepeatable and important. Everything matters. Again from McQuiston:

“Everything we think, everything we do, everything we feel, is cast in time forever. Every moment that we live is irreplaceable, therefore each moment is hallowed.”

Always We Begin Again

In every moment we can choose to live for ourselves or to lose ourselves for the sake of the highest good. I believe that is what Jesus means when he says “for my sake and the sake of the gospel.”  

The gospel is the announcement that the kingdom of God is here, now, present, among us, and within us, calling us to a life in God, which of course, calls us to a life oriented to the highest possible good. The kind of life that Jesus demonstrated.

We could put it this way: losing life, by denying the self and its vain quest for security and the avoidance of all suffering, in other words, denying the ego of its pretensions and self-focus, is actually the way to find our true selves. 

Our truest selves are who we are in God: beloved, blessed, and treasured. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we are we are “immortal diamonds.” Quoted in Rohr, Richard. Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self . Wiley.

Jesus said, 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The selfish self does not like to be denied. The voice of the ego that we all hear every day, that voice that narrates our lives to ourselves, making judgments about whether things suit us or not, whether things are as we want them to be or not, pleasing to us or not, good or bad concerning ourselves, that voice is relentless and insistent.  

 That voice is the ego-self, calling us to concern ourselves with ourselves — even when it is the voice of condemnation and judgment. That ego voice carries our shame. It tells us how we have failed already, and predicts our future failures.

Ego manifests itself in anger, in jealousy, in contempt, in un-forgiveness, in despising, and even in neglect of the needs of others. It is toxic to relationships and toxic to our souls.

Meditation and Ego

If there is to be any freedom from the soul-killing self, that ego-self must be denied; it must take up its cross and die. This is why the practice of regular meditation or contemplative prayer is so crucial. I know of no other spiritual practice that is more effective in turning down the ego voice than meditation.  

In meditation, we learn that our thoughts are not ourselves. Some of our thoughts are just random – we have no idea where they come from. We can let them go. In meditation, we learn to become centered and still. 

Meditation requires non-judgmental awareness of the present moment — whatever it is, so it teaches us to become non-judgmental in every aspect of life. 

Just like physical exercise, the hardest part of meditation is the start: sitting down and saying, “For the next 20 minutes I will be silent.” So the practice itself demands a kind of self-denial. But the results are amazingly helpful.  

There is beautiful freedom here. To be free from the constant need to justify ourselves and defend ourselves is true freedom. To be free of the anxiety that one day I will be completely forgotten is to know that this moment matters. 

To be free to relinquish the vain attempt to “gain the whole world” is to be free from the prospect of ending up with the world in exchange for the soul.  

To live a life oriented to the highest possible good, a life lived not for the self, but for others, life in which our highest quest is that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, is to live as a full and free human. 

It is the life lived for peace and reconciliation, for goodness and courage; the life lived for justice, the life of wisdom, the life of generosity and compassion. It is the Jesus way of living. It is to live in God.  

Jesus-Inspired Gospel-Shaped Hope

Jesus-Inspired Gospel-Shaped Hope

Sermon for Feb. 21, 2021, Lent 1B

Video is here.

Genesis 9:8–17

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

Mark 1:9-25

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In one of the daily emails I receive from theologian and activist Matthew Fox there was one of the most disturbing pictures I have ever seen. It was a photo of the lynching of a black man. I have seen pictures of lynchings before; we all have. 

I have seen pictures of lynchings attended by crowds of white people. But this picture horrified me in a new way. In attendance, within five or six feet from the hanging body was a white family. They were all well dressed, as if to go to dinner. 

One of the children, maybe eight or ten years old, was standing in front of her father, looking at the victim, and smiling. Other children, younger ones, looked on with fascination. 

The victim at that time was Rubin Stacy. The lynching was done in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on July 19, 1935. There were no hoods or hiding; it was not nighttime, because no one feared reprisals. It was a family spectacle, children welcome. That was Florida in 1935.

We just read the Hebrew Bible story of the concluding scene of the account of the great flood. Noah and his family, along with the animals on the arc, were the sole survivors. 

The reason given in the Bible for that genocidal flood, the author explains, was that when God looked at the wickedness of all the humans on the earth, besides Noah, the only conclusion God could draw was that:

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

(Gen. 6:5)

Only evil continually”. From the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia to the reality of twentieth-century Florida, that conclusion seems consistent.

Learning in Black History Month

Netflix has been streaming videos relevant to Black History Month, and we have been watching a number of them. We watched the series on Malcolm X. 

I have learned things I didn’t know before.  I was too young at the time to understand much of what was happening or what it meant. I had no idea why someone would use an X instead of his family name.  

Malcolm explained that his birth certificate displayed not his family name, but the name of the owners who had enslaved his ancestors. Their African family name had been stripped away and lost to history. 

Those slave owners considered themselves good Christian people. Is it any wonder that Malcolm would eventually find a way out of a life of vice and crime by heeding the teachings of Elijah Mohamed and the Nation of Islam? 

There, he was told that Black was beautiful; that his people could be respected, even be noble. He never experienced respect from the white community. He did experience the firebombing of his home, constant death threats, and eventually a public execution.  That was New York, 1965.  

The Black Church and Civil Rights

We have also watched the PBS series on the crucial role of the Black Church in the civil rights movement. In the Black Church people heard a strong counterpoint to the story told by many white Christians. 

They spoke and sang of a God of liberation who set the Hebrew slaves free from bondage. They preached a gospel of good news to the oppressed. The same God who had concluded that the thoughts in the hearts of humans were “only evil continually” wanted to start over with people. 

Selma, Alabama

After the flood subsided, God even put away his weapons. He discarded his arrows and hung his bow in the sky, pointing away from the earth as a reminder. This was a God who could make all things new.  

In the black church, they preached and sang about Jesus who, like them, was cruelly mistreated by the people in power, but who entrusted himself to God. God suffered as they suffered, and suffered when they suffered, never forsaking them. 

Dr. King preached that Jesus’ weapon against violence was love. He turned the other cheek as a form of nonviolent resistance. Instead of demonizing his oppressors, Dr. King taught that only love could conquer hate. Only light could drive out darkness. He taught that out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope could be quarried.  

That hope was based on the faith that God could and would do a new thing, even in America, even in the places where lynchings and firebombing went unpunished.  Even in places where it seemed that all of the thoughts in the hearts of the people were “only evil continually.” That faith was based on Dr. King’s understanding of the message and means of Jesus.

Jesus-Inspired Hope

We just read the beginning of the story of Jesus from Mark’s gospel. Without the fanfare of angels, shepherds, wise men, or even a virgin birth, Mark simply presents Jesus as an adult.  

In three rapid-fire events, Mark tells us everything he thinks we need to know. In just 130 words, we learn that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, tempted in the wilderness, and began proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom in Galilee. 

Why are those three events all we need to know to understand the Jesus-shaped hope we have? First, Jesus’ baptism: as he came up out of the water, Jesus had a visionary experience. He saw the Spirit descend upon him. He heard a voice that named him God’s beloved child. 

From this, we understand that in our baptisms we too have the Spirit of God empowering us. We too have been named as God’s beloved children. This is the source of our lives of faith, and nothing can change it. God has named and claimed us. Gods’ Spirit is upon us. Our true family is the family of God. 

Wilderness, Beasts, and Angels

But the Spirit that came on Jesus is not like a passive and harmless silent dove. The Spirit, Mark tells us “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. He needed to learn something only wilderness could teach him. 

In this eerie vision, Mark tells us that Jesus was out there with “the wild beasts.” What could that mean but that wilderness is dangerous? The dangerous temptation of wilderness is to despair. There are no road signs in the wilderness. There are no roads to have signs for. Wilderness is not knowing the way you should go, but knowing that your life is at stake. 

Wilderness is Florida in 1935. It is Selma, Alabama in 1965, before the Voting Rights Act. Wilderness is a time in which everyone can see cell phone videos of the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. Wilderness is a time of global pandemic before we get the vaccines. Wilderness is the church facing an unknown future in a rapidly changing world.

 But that is not the only thing true about wilderness. Mark says Jesus experienced the angels waiting on him, serving him.  What can that mean but that despite the lack of certainty, despite the danger, he was cared for, upheld, ministered to by God? 

This is what Dr. King learned. This is what we must learn, if we are to have hope: that God has not abandoned us, even in the wilderness of uncertainty. God was not absent from Florida or Selma or Ferguson or Minneapolis. God is actively present in the pandemic. And God is with God’s church, even in the midst of great change. God’s empowering Spirit is present, encouraging us and luring us toward the next right thing, giving us gospel-shaped hope.

The Good News

With those lessons learned from his baptism and from his wilderness experience, Jesus is ready to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived. It is good news to the poor. It is good news to the oppressed. 

The kingdom of God means that the kingdoms of this earth, whether they be racist, discriminatory, unjust, or oppressive will not have the last word. Pharaoh cannot keep the Hebrew children in chains forever. The floodwaters will subside. God can do something new. There is a rainbow reminder. 

As Dr. King said, a rock of hope can be quarried from the mountain of despair. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Love can conquer hate; light can drive out the darkness.  

As we watched the videos of the black church in America we learned something else. After the impressive achievements of the 1960s and 70’s the church that inspired Dr. King and so many others with the gospel of liberation began to send a different message. The church struggled with the role of women as equals. It struggled to find a message of liberation to the LGBTQ community. As a result, it lost its prophetic voice for many young people.  

The lesson for us is clear: the church must never take her eyes off the inclusive message of the kingdom. The church that proclaims all of us as people named by God, as beloved, cannot make some of its people feel that X is their real family name. The church that has the power to withstand wilderness must not drive anyone into exile or despair.  

In fact, the opposite must be the case.  The church, the “beloved community” must open its arms to everyone.  We are the place of refuge, of welcome, of healing, and of loving community to everyone who has been wounded by the beasts in the world’s wildernesses.  

We may not know what the future holds, but we know we will be upheld in the future, as long as we remain faithful, as long as we, in the Reformed church, keep reforming, as long as we keep listening, as long as we keep repenting, because the kingdom of God is at hand. That is indeed good news. That is Jesus-inspired gospel-shaped hope. 

The Dream and The Vision

The Dream and The Vision

Sermon for Feb. 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday

Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.

Video is here.

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

In his speech on August 28, 1963, at the famous “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced to the thousands there, and to the entire nation, “I have a dream.” 

Dr. King’s dream was his vision of a world as it could be, as it should be, and as it must be. It was a dream because it was far from the world as it was, and in many ways, still is. His dream was of a world in which people would 

not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

In that dream world, there would be no such thing as endangering yourself because you were “driving while black” or looking at your cell phone in your back yard while black, or walking down the sidewalk wearing a hoodie while black.  

Five years later, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, Dr. King spoke of another vision. Dr. King referenced the biblical story of Moses, who was at the end of his life when he went up to the mountain on the wilderness side and looked out over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. It was land that he would never set foot on. Invoking that moment in the story, Dr. King said, 

I’ve been to the mountaintop.… [God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

In the Bible’s story, the journey through the wilderness into the promised land took longer than one generation. So it was with Dr. King. Like Moses, he did not get there with his people. 

The vision he saw of a land of equal opportunity has not yet been fully achieved. The effects of the legacy of slavery in America that started in 1619 are still being felt in our nation. 

Here in Arkansas, a bill was just proposed that would have banned the use of public school funds to teach the 1619 Project in Arkansas schools. It failed to make it out of committee. But the fact that such a bill was introduced at all shows that the legacy continues. The dream has not yet become a reality. The vision awaits full realization.

Telling a Vision Story

It is fitting that Transfiguration Sunday should fall in February, the month in which we celebrate black history and remember Dr. King’s vision. The Transfiguration story is also about a vision. 

Mark’s gospel, which came first, does not explicitly call it a visionary experience, but when Matthew re-tells it, he does. 

Last week we noticed that Jesus and the early disciples practiced mysticism. We noted that visions are accepted as part of mystical experience. 

Jesus had several that have been recorded: the vision of the Spirit descending on him at his baptism, the vision of “the Satan” tempting him in the wilderness, and here, another vision in which he is transfigured before his disciples.  

Why would you tell a story in the form of a visionary experience? Why would you do what Dr. King did: set forth your agenda as a dream? Because you want people to see what is possible, even though it has not yet been achieved. You want people to imagine a specific future. You want, not just to give people hope, but to have a clear picture of the shape that hope could take in the future.  

There is another reason. You present your agenda in the form of a dream because you do not want your people to have the wrong destination in mind. 

Dr. King’s dream was of a time when black people in America would never be guilty of being black, but that everyone, blacks included, would be innocent until proven guilty by a just and impartial legal system. 

In other words, he made that dream clear because he did not want them to dream of a different future: a race war or a reversal of racial superiority, as some in his day were advocating. The dream form lets you show the future you want, and take off the table the option of other futures. 

Those same goals of setting out the right future and, at the same time, removing the wrong future in a dream story is evident here in Mark’s gospel. In the vision, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. That alone is a dream-way of asserting the importance of Jesus for the Christian community. 

There was no equal in Israel to the figure of Moses who, as the story goes, spoke to God face to face and received the Torah, the Instruction, the Law from God. 

Similarly, there was no prophet in Israel greater than Elijah who confronted the false prophets of Baal at the risk of his life, and who spoke truth to the wicked king Ahab. 

So this vision asserts that Jesus is at least as important for the Christian community as the Lawgiver and the Prophets have been to Israel. The three are together on the mountain.

But then, the voice from the cloud singles out Jesus as most significant, saying, 

This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 

The message is clear. The right dream is of a world in which Jesus is listened to. The vision of a world as it could be, and should be, is a world in which Jesus’ words and teachings set the agenda. 

The dream is that people would embrace Jesus’ vision: that the good news is that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” “among you” and “within you,” as he taught.  

But there is a possible misinterpretation of this vision that could cause it all to go wrong. This is where Peter’s part comes in. In this story, he is the mouthpiece for the wrong dream; the wrong future, the wrong way to understand Jesus in relation to Moses and Elijah. The wrong way for the Christian community to value him.  

Peter says, 

Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

The word “dwellings” sounds like he was suggesting putting up private homes. The word is literally “tents.” Not camping tents, but the portable tent shrines you could set up in which to venerate a religious object. 

In other words, Peter is voicing the idea that the best way to remember Jesus in the Christian community is by adoration; veneration; worship.  

The Irony of Honor

There is a great irony involved in giving someone honor. Women, for example, in some conservative communities, are highly honored, at least verbally. On occasions like Mother’s Day, they are told how special they are. They are put up on a feminine pedestal of virtue and praised for their contributions to the family, the church, and service projects. 

But in those same communities, women working outside the home is frowned upon, and the topics of equal pay and glass ceilings never come up. Women are honored, but they are out of power. They are on a pedestal in those communities, but they are not permitted at the table when decisions are made. Women cannot be ordained. They cannot teach men.

The same irony has existed in many church communities concerning Jesus. Jesus is revered, worshipped, pictured in stained glass, and celebrated in song. But his teachings about non-violence, his insistence on practicing forgiveness, and his laser-focus on the needs of the marginalized, the poor, the sick, and the outcasts are seldom preached. 

He is honored, as if he were in a shrine on a mountain but not listened to.  

So Peter’s idea of what the Christian community should do to honor Jesus is wrong. Mark makes sure we get the point, saying 

He (Peter) did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” 

He was speaking nonsense.

The right future state to dream of, the correct way to honor Jesus in this community, is to do exactly what the voice from the cloud said to do: 

listen to him.” 

Listen: Jesus is the one who said, 

Blessed are the poor.” 

Are we listening in our nation? How are the poor doing in our country? Why is the obscene gap between rich and poor growing exponentially?  

Jesus also said 

blessed are the meek” 
the peacemakers.”
 “love your enemies.” 
 “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” 

Is he being listened to? Consider this: 

A survey released Thursday by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) found that …nearly 40 percent of [the people in one party] think political violence is justifiable and could be necessary. Those…respondents justifying violence said they agreed with the statement: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” 

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/02/aei-poll-40-percent-republicans-conservatives-political-violence.html

And that was their opinion even after the events of January 6. We have a long way to go, but the vision, the dream of a world reconciled is one that we are committed to. That was Dr. King’s vision; that was Jesus’ vision.

The Burden of Buildings 

There is one more implication of this Transfiguration story and Peter’s mistake that we need to think about. Peter’s idea was to build places of worship. 

Jesus’ response was to ignore that suggestion. Rather, he took them back down the mountain, where people were suffering, to serve them. 

We, in the church in these days, need to give careful consideration to the nature of our mission and the role of our buildings.  

Over the years, we have built large churches, beautiful worship spaces, educational spaces, and spaces for fellowship. In the past, when we were a larger community, these spaces were filled and facilitated our mission. Now, however, we are a smaller community. 

The spaces stand vacant much of the time, even when we are not in a pandemic. The buildings are aging. The upkeep is expensive. Utilities are costly. We must keep asking the question of the relationship of the buildings to our mission.  

We are people whose desire is to “listen to” Jesus. Our vision is Jesus’ vision. Our dream is, as Jesus prayed, that God’s kingdom would come; that 

God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

How much and of what sort of a building do we need, for us to accomplish that mission? Let us recall that the church existed for 300 years as a house movement without other buildings. 

That was then; this is now; a lot has changed. And a lot is changing still; the future will be different from the past and the present. 

The question before us is how will we be able to accomplish our mission as the church of Jesus-followers who “listen to him”

Will we need to unburden ourselves of buildings that have outlived their usefulness? 

We all need to pray for discernment: which is another way of saying, we need to keep listening to him.  

In the meantime, we will keep focusing on the dream. We will keep the vision before our eyes. We will trust that, as Dr. King said,

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

We will keep going into all the world and proclaiming the gospel — letting people know that

the kingdom of God is at hand” — “baptizing them and teaching them to observe all of [Jesus’] teachings,”

confident that he is

with us to the end of the age.” 

De-Mystifying Mysticism

Sermon for Feb. 7, 2021. Epiphany 5B

Video is here

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In our Monday Morning Seeker’s class, we were listening to a talk delivered by New Testament scholar, the late Marcus Borg, in which he asked the question: how was it that nearly all of us who were raised in the Chruch never learned important aspects of Jesus’ teaching? 

For example, we never learned in Sunday school that Jesus taught non-violence, and that for the first three hundred years, Christians were pacifists? They believed that following Jesus was incompatible with killing people, even in war. That is one illustration of something that we were never taught.

Missing Jesus’ Mysticism

Here is another: Why were we never made aware of the extent of mysticism practiced by Jesus and early Christians? Even though we read texts in which Jesus and others had powerful visionary experiences, like at Jesus’ baptism, the period of temptations in the wilderness, and the transfiguration, we are not taught to recognize them as the vision experiences of people who practiced mysticism.  

In today’s text, Jesus goes off to spend pre-dawn hours in prayer, and even though the gospels tell us that this was a common practice for Jesus, we were not taught to recognize that practice as mysticism. 

It is odd that although Jesus called his disciples to “follow” him, meaning learn from and imitate him, we were not taught to be mystics. We were not brought up to have a regular meditation practice. 

In fact, in the Reformed tradition, to pass Confirmation class you had to learn the answers to a catechism, like Heidelberg or Westminster. We have been down this road so long that today, many people are even put off by the word “mysticism,” as if it belongs to New Age people or to Eastern religions.  

This is really a pity. It is like growing up in a family that never served vegetables. We have missed something vital to spiritual health and transformation.  

Three Types of Spirituality

According to one author who has studied spirituality deeply for many years, there are three types of spiritual experience (Shinzen Young). First, there is the Spirituality of Thought. This is centered around concepts, belief systems, and creeds.  

The spirituality of thought is word-centered. This is what the catechisms teach. This is also characteristic of fundamentalisms in many religions Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others. Thought spirituality is not wrong, it is just woefully incomplete.

Next, there is the spirituality of feeling. This is the spirituality of devotion, piety, the heart; feeling of awe and mystery, and love for God. Devotion goes beyond the spirituality of thoughts. It involves us at a deeper, emotional level. But there is more.

Beyond the spirituality of thoughts and feelings is the spirituality of mysticism.  Mystical spirituality is characterized by non-discursive prayer, the prayer of silence, or what we call meditation. 

Even though our Reformed tradition has not paid much attention to the spirituality of mysticism, nevertheless it was a part of the practice of Jesus, and has always existed throughout church history. It shows up in things like the 14th-century book of instructions called “The Cloud of Unknowing” and in the 16th-century classic, St. Theresa of Avila’s  “The Interior Castle.”  

The Interior Castle Metaphor

In The Interior Castle Theresa spoke of the spiritual life as a series of stages, similar to the three levels of spirituality we have been discussing.  

She used the metaphor of a Castle made of Crystal. The Castle is the soul. It has seven rooms (she calls them “mansions”) leading from the cold, dim external rooms to the center where God dwells in light and magnificence, awaiting our journey to meet him/her. 

Our souls are the castle we are in. This is how she develops the metaphor:  She says 

there are many ways of ‘being in’ a place. Many souls remain in the outer court of the castle, which is the place occupied by the guards. [These people] are not interested in entering further, and have no idea what there is in that wonderful place, or who dwells in it, or even how many rooms it has.”  

People content to stay in the outer court of the castle, she says, have they grown accustomed to living with “the reptiles and other creatures” to be found there, which is astonishingly sad, given that we are all “so richly endowed as to have the power of holding converse with none other than God Himself, (Herself).” 

How do you make progress from the outer courts to the inner experience of God? She says,

the door of entry into this castle is prayer and meditation.”  

St. Teresa of Avila; Peers, E. Allison. Interior Castle (p. 18). Wilder Publications. Kindle Edition. 

We could say that the outer mansions are occupied by the people who only practice the spirituality of thought. The inner rooms leading to God require the spirituality of feeling and the spirituality of mysticism.  

The Patterns to Follow

The story we read from the Gospel of Mark shows a similar progression. I believe that Mark wrote his gospel, in part, to show us the life of Jesus as a pattern for us to follow. 

This story falls naturally into three movements, each of which answers a question that followers of Jesus need to understand. First, what is the pattern of discipleship? What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus? 

Second, what is the pattern of ministry; why do we do what we do as followers of Jesus? 

Third, what is the pattern of spirituality that sustains ministry?

In the story, Peter’s mother-in-law is sick, and Jesus heals her. When we begin to follow Jesus we come as unhealthy people in need of healing. We come as broken people. We come as people who have wounds and scars, and the Jesus-path is healing. 

Understanding that we are children of a loving God is healing. Practicing forgiveness is healing. Community is healing. Spirituality is healing.

The pattern this story shows us is that when we start getting well, we naturally do what Peter’s mother-in-law did: we find ways to get up and serve. Everybody has service they can perform that the community needs. 

Surprisingly, in a patriarchal society that is used to undervaluing them, even women can get healthy and find significant ways to serve. The pattern of discipleship for everyone is healing, followed by serving.

The next scene in the story answers the second question: what is the pattern of ministry? It seems odd to our Western minds: Jesus casts out demons. Today, we are prepared to hear about vaccinations and medical treatments, but not so much about demons. 

But there is a point here that should not be missed. We can think of demons as metaphors for the power of evil which can be overwhelming and oppressive. We can think of the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, bigotry, poverty, and discrimination, for example. 

After overcoming the evil forces that are oppressing people, after casting out their demons, as the story goes, Jesus does not allow them to speak. Why not? For Jesus, it is not about getting famous. 

The pattern of ministry that Jesus shows us is that the point is the healing, not the fame. Jesus is not in it to get more likes on his page or subscribers to his channel. The point is to help people escape the evil that has been dominating their lives; the point is not to get his own name up in lights. The pattern of ministry is to keep the focus on the healing, not the fame.

The final scene answers the third question: what kind of spirituality sustains ministry?  Mark’s gospel tells us, 

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” 

The pattern of spirituality that sustains ministry is mysticism.  Prayer, or we would call it, meditation, is communion with the Source. There is no such thing as sustainable service without the renewing, restoring strength that comes from mystical practice. Why? There are several reasons.  First, because, in meditation, we learn to put our own ego in its place.  

Mysticism and Ego

The ego, that voice in our heads that is so self-conscious and so self-concerned, and is always sending us messages. It asks us “How am I doing? Are people liking me? Am I getting credit? Is my side winning? Did I get the last word? Am I being respected, admired, appreciated?”  

The ego is always on the lookout for threats. The ego is ready to get offended at the slightest whiff of insult.  

But the voice of the ego does not have to be believed. It does not even have to be listened to. In the mystical practice of meditation, we learn to let go of those ego-centered thoughts. They no longer have power over us. We can learn to laugh at their pretensions. It is utterly amazing the amount of calm that this can bring to our otherwise chaotic lives.  

This is so crucial; there are groups that organize themselves for service — to address poverty or hunger, to address human rights or to promote great social causes, or to fight climate change, but they can become toxic. If the people in the group, no matter how high-minded the goals are, do not know how to deal with their own egos, they can poison the entire enterprise. Sustainable service needs the spirituality of mysticism. 

Mysticism and Mindfulness

There is more. When we practice mysticism, when we meditate, we become more mindfully aware of the presence of the Divine in us, and all around us. We become more aware of the Divine Presence in other people. We start to see them as icons of God, as Genesis says — that is what it means to be made “in the image and likeness of God” — we are living, walkings icons of God’s presence. 

Of course, this leads us to love people more, to forgive people more easily, to work for their healing and wholeness, for their liberation from oppression, and for their place in the beloved community. 

We grow in compassion and we grow in our passion to see justice done; to establish equity so that no one is undervalued or harmed.  

The Invitation to Mysticism

It is possible to keep religion on the level of the spirituality of thought. It is possible to stay in the dim, cold outer rooms of the crystal castle with the guards and the reptiles, but who would want that? Especially when so much more is available?  

It is possible to be content with the spirituality of feeling, because awe and wonder are at the heart of experiencing God. But there is still so much more on offer. 

When we, like Jesus, practice the spirituality of mysticism, we grow closer and closer to the inner mansions of the castle where God’s love and warmth radiate with grace and goodness. Who would want anything less?