Who is God, and What is Prayer Anymore?

Who is God, and What is Prayer Anymore?

Sermon for Oct. 20, 2019, Pentecost 19C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

As if we have not heard it often enough already, the Times Record, Friday, published an AP article about the decline in religious participation in America. What is most remarkable is this trend: “the portion [of the US population] that describes their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from17% in 2009” according to recent Pew Research polling.  The younger a person is, the less likely it is that they regularly, if ever, attend religious services.  And this holds true across denominations, Protestant and Catholic.  

But that is not the end of the story. Author Dr. Dianna Butler Bass has taken a deep dive into that Pew research and found a counter-narrative. Although participation in organized religion is in steep decline, nevertheless, Pew research found that 6 in 10 adults report feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing, at least once a week — not just psychological, but “spiritual peace and wellbeing.”  They are finding the Divine “in nature and in neighbor,” as Butler Bass puts it. So the acronym “SBNR” is being used for people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”  

Is this, then, good news or bad news? I think it is mixed. There have been times in which people have stood up and looked around and asked, “What is going on here? How did we get here? Are we on the right track anymore? Things need to change.”

We are close to the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which we celebrate on October 31. Martin Luther was one of those people who asked those questions and decided that things needed to change, back in 1517. Now, 502 years later, many scholars believe we are in another time of massive change in the religious landscape, as the Pew Research reveals.  

Luther, Calvin and the other major figures of the Reformation came by their call for change honestly. We are going to look at two texts today, both of which call for sea-changes in the religious landscape. Both Jeremiah and Jesus called for change. Now, perhaps, we are ready to listen.

Jeremiah Imagines a New Covenant

So, first to Jeremiah. If you have been here for the past couple of weeks you have heard that Jeremiah was the prophet who told his people that the Babylonian army was coming, unstoppably. Today, we pick up his story before the Babylonians got to the door.  

We are going to see that Jeremiah imagined a radically new way of thinking about God, and what God wanted. But he was also stuck in some old ways of thinking too. We are going to see how Jesus both picked up on Jeremiah’s innovations, and pushed them even further.

Jeremiah analyzed his country’s situation; how did they get to that point with the Babylonian invasion looming on the near horizon. What did Jeremiah think? That God was bringing the Babylonians as punishment for the unfaithfulness and injustice his people had been perpetrating. This is called the doctrine of divine retribution: like karma, you get what you deserve. The Hebrew Bible is full of this idea, so Jeremiah was not alone in his belief. But Jesus dismantled this on numerous occasions. Famously he said that God; 

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” which is the opposite of getting what you deserve. (Matt. 5:45)

But anyway, this is the important contribution Jeremiah made: even though he believed in retribution, he believed that punishment was not the last word. He believed that there could be a new chapter for his people with God.  

Long ago, God had made a covenant with Israel, according to the story in the Hebrew Bible. Moses had received the covenant in tablets of stone, written by the “finger of God” on Mount Sinai, according to the story (Ex. 31:18).  That covenant included the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses, and all the other commandments. People back then, as well as today, find keeping all ten challenging, to say the least.

But Jeremiah did what prophets do: he imagined a new day when things could be different. He imagined a time when there could be a new covenant. Now, that is a radical thing to imagine. How do you erase laws that have been written in stone? And what would God be like, who would, at one time, write divine commands on stone, and then want to erase them?

But Jeremiah imagined a new covenant without any laws chiseled into stone. He wrote:  

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant …It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… But this is the covenant that I will make…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

So the new covenant would be written on the heart, not on stone.  The new covenant would include forgiveness. Jeremiah, imagined God saying:

“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The point is that Jeremiah could imagine a total re-thinking of what was important to God. The people had gotten off track. It was time to re-think who God was and what God wanted. It went way beyond the 10 Commandments. What would it look like to have the law written on the heart under that new covenant? He got political, addressing the king saying:

“Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David…Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness,… do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow.…”

(Jer. 22)

Jesus’ Re-Imagining God

Now let us turn to Jesus. We can see that Jesus was standing in that same Jewish tradition of re-imagining God. That is exactly what he was doing, notably in the parables he told. Jesus’ parables were often both subtle and provocative. Provocation is what is happening in the parable of the widow and the “judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”

In this parable, we are supposed to identify with the widow. She has a problem, so she goes to the judge. Her appeal is similar to what we do when we pray. So who does that awful judge represent? God. I can just hear the people in the crowd as they listened to this story saying to each other, “Hey, you can’t compare God to a horrible judge who is both irreligious and unjust! God is not like that!  

And that is just the point; to provoke people to ask, “Well if not like that, then what is God like?” Most people would scoff at the absurdity of God being un-religious. But they would probably also say God is not apathetic to our concerns like that judge was to the widow. Furthermore, God does not respond to us just to get us off his (male) back, as that judge did. God does not get worn out by anything, especially by our prayers. “How can you even imagine God that way,” some might ask?

Jesus is being subtle, as well as provocative. Haven’t we all had prayers that seem to have been ignored? Have you ever prayed for healing for someone who died? I have. Have you prayed for a relationship that did not heal? I have. 

Judges are like Superman. They have the power to make things happen. They can grant justice to a widow or deny her claim. So if God is like that, wouldn’t that make God like Superman? He can “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” if he (male language again) wanted to, right? So why does God stand their like Superman with his hands in his pockets, instead of flying to the rescue, “faster than a speeding bullet?” Why do even children get cancer? Why let the Holocaust happen? Why allow evil of any kind if you could stop it?

Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge provokes us to re-imagine how we are thinking of God. The existence of evil and suffering in the world makes it necessary to re-imagine God.  

Finite Imaginations of the Infinite

But what can limited, finite creatures like us imagine? Some have said that anything we could imagine would be wrong, so perhaps we should not try. But we must try. “God is love,” the scriptures tell us. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the woman at the well that “God is spirit.” In Acts, Paul affirms the Greek philosopher who said that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” Theologians like Paul Tillich call God, not a being, like a Superman, but the “ground of being” — the basis for the existence of everything, its source, and sustainer.  

Here is the best that I can do: I believe that God is always and everywhere present to us; as Jesus said, “God is spirit.” Because I believe also, that “God is love,” I do not believe God is coercive. I believe God’s power is not the power of coercion, but of persuasion. God is at work in every moment, offering the possibility of the next right thing. God is active by luring us towards the good; coaxing us to what is right and true.  

A Conversation

So, perhaps a better analogy for prayer than a widow and a judge would be a child and a loving parent in conversation. I have sat beside my little son’s bed as he lay sick. I have watched him feeling horrible, with a fever. I have fed him the liquid baby Tylenol with the dropper. I talked to him; told him I loved him, told him I was with him. I suffered when he was suffering. When Jesus taught us to pray he said, say, “Our Father,” — prayer is a conversation with a loving parent.  

So, God is not Superman. God is not an apathetic Judge. God is not a concierge service. And prayer is not begging for things we want. God is the Spirit, with us, much like a loving parent, loving us, forgiving us, providing for us opportunities for the next good thing in each moment. Prayer is not begging a reluctant Superman; prayer is a conversation with the God of love, about our deepest longings.

We began by talking about the decline in religious participation in America, especially among the young. I think that at least part of what is going on is an awakening. People are waking up to the inadequate and even intolerable ways of imagining God that they have been raised with. The image of the big, old judge in the sky, handing out punishments, ham-handedly, as in storms, floods, and wildfires on the wicked, and sending sinners to hell is both wrong and misleading.

That image was false, and people aren’t buying it anymore. But they are spiritual; they have an awareness of the goodness and love that surrounds them, even if they are not religious in the traditional sense. Many of them have a longing that they know is spiritual in nature. They respond to the impulse to pray, even if they don’t pretend to understand who or what they are praying to.  All they know is that the God they grew up with hast to be re-imagined.

We can say that they are on a trail that Jesus himself blazed as he re-imagined the Divine and provoked his followers to do so also. We, in church, are religious. We have embraced this religious tradition which has evolved, over the centuries, into the form we have today. We do not claim any ultimacy or superiority to this form. It works for us, but it is not the only way. In the future, it may need to evolve into a different form. But the form is not and never has been the important point. The point is that we have a connection with a God beyond our understanding, who is present for the conversation about our deepest longings. 

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The Courage To Be Strange

The Courage To Be Strange

Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:11-19 for Oct. 13, 2019, Pentecost 18 C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

If you travel to a foreign country as a tourist, you notice all the differences between our country and theirs, and many are delightful. Different can be interesting, even fun, sometimes delicious. I remember a conference I attended in Northern Italy, the part of that country where they specialize in amazing cream-based sauces that no diet could survive.  

I went to Italy from Croatia where I was living. In Croatia, I was a stranger in so many ways. I dressed like an American, spoke American English, and looked people in the eye with a smile, which they found strange.  

One of the things I found strange — and when my Croatian friends read this, they are going to roll their eyes at my naïveté — was the way Croats saw themselves as so different from Serbs, and vice versa.  

Now, I am not actually naive. I know the significant parts of their histories; I know some of what each side has done to the other, over the centuries; I am aware of their primary grievances.  

Nevertheless, to my stranger’s eyes, they seemed so similar. Their language is the same, with only dialectical differences, their cuisine is substantially the same, their music sounds the same to my ears, and they both think that Americans are being phony when they meet you with a smile, as if you are long-time friends. They even share the same Christian religion, although one side is Orthodox and the other is Catholic, as if that were a big deal.  

But that is how it often is: your biggest disputes are with those most similar to you. Irish Protestants and Catholics, Rwandan Hutus and Tootsies, Pakistanis and Indians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Maybe we should even include middle class suburban American Republicans and Democrats? Ask a Kenyan if they can see the differences.  

Evolved to Survive

But that is what we humans have always done: we evolved and survived because of our propensity to be tribal. That is, however, only half of the story. We also survived because we learned to cooperate. Our tribes were able to grow into huge city-states, and states could grow into empires because unrelated people learned how to work together for common goals. 

But wars were a constant feature along with cooperation. City-states fought other city-states: it was Athens vs. Sparta before they were both simply Greek. Then it was Ottomans vs. Hapsburgs, and later, Greece vs. Turkey. We humans are constantly prone to an “us vs. them” way of looking at the world.  What does our faith have to say about that?

Healing the World

The Jews have an expression in Hebrew: Tikkun Olam. It means “healing the world.” That sums up the goal of Jewish ethics. I believe that is what Jesus was about.  I believe that if his message were heeded today, there would be substantial healing of the world. I believe Jesus came by this perspective honestly; he received it from his Jewish heritage.  

We are going to look at two texts, one from the Hebrew Bible and the other from the Jesus tradition, both of which share in common the theme of strangers. Heeding this teaching, I believe, is one of the keys to healing our world. But a warning is appropriate at the start: this teaching is not the majority view. Heeding this teaching will make anyone who does, a stranger to popular culture. So, heed it at your own risk. This will call for courage.

Jeremiah’s Radical Letter

First, let us look at the text from the prophet Jeremiah. Remember last week: Jeremiah survived the Babylonian Holocaust. He saw the aftermath.  I have walked through bombed-out villages in Croatia where no house had a roof, and most of them had less than four walls still standing. I imagine that the feelings I had then are similar to how Jeremiah felt, seeing and smelling the devastation.  

Many of his compatriots were exiled and were now living in Babylon as strangers. He felt inspired to write a letter to the community leaders. As a prophet, he felt that he was speaking the word of the Lord to them. What would you have advised? 

The natural response would be to advise them to close ranks. Build a ghetto. Stay close; have each other’s backs. Keep the language alive at home; don’t adopt the ways of the pagan Babylonians; keep Kosher. Your wellbeing will be found in keeping distinct and separate, until the day you can get out of that horrible place and go back home to Israel.

But that was not Jeremiah’s prophetic word. That was not the way to “Tikkun Olam” to heal the world. Rather, amazingly he said:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The word translated “welfare” is, in Hebrew, “shalom.” It is a big word. It includes well-being; very much like the Greek eudaemonia, human flourishing, the highest human good, the aim of ethical philosophy. That is what it means to seek the shalom, the welfare of Babylon.  

The reason Jeremiah gives for seeking Babylon’s shalom, is that, he says, in Babylon’s shalom, you will find your shalom. When the world is healed, everyone in it benefits. So pray for Babylon, your enemy’s shalom, for its healing, its highest good, because in its welfare, you will find your welfare.

But humans do not learn this lesson easily. We would rather pray curses down on our enemies than blessings. We may not go as far as the Westboro Baptists, but we can easily imagine whom God ought to hate, on our behalf. Just listen to our politicians describing their political opponents.  

Jesus’ Radical Inclusion

So, Jesus had to teach this lesson all over again. He tried to teach it in word and deed. He was constantly crossing the social boundaries between his in-group and the out-groups of his culture.  

In the scene we read today, Jesus is actually in a kind of border area between solidly Jewish territory and the despised Samaritan’s area. Luke described as “the region between Samaria and Galilee,” setting the story in geographical ambiguity, perhaps even liminality, where weird things happen.  

So something weird happens. Ten lepers get within shouting distance of Jesus and company. Jesus has a reputation; he is a known healer. The lepers need Tikkun, healing. Can you picture it? If you saw the old film Ben Hur, you can imagine it looking like that. They have rags for clothing, they wrap up the skin that leprosy has made ghastly to see. They keep their distance, Luke says, but they cry out for healing. 

So, leaving out lots of details, Luke cuts to the chase and says that Jesus sent them off to the temple. Luke is playing with our expectations here. Jesus was on the way to the temple in Jerusalem, and we all expect that that is the direction the ten trotted off to, when they noticed that their leprosy had indeed, been cured. The Hebrew bible said when you recovered from a skin disease, you needed the priest to sign off on your purity so that you could re-join your community.  

Growing up in church, I have heard countless lessons, on this story, saying that gratitude is what Jesus is teaching. I have probably even taught that myself. One leper returned to give thanks to Jesus for his healing, and he is the good-guy, the  example, and we should all likewise, keep our thank you notes flowing.

That would be the point, if Luke had left out five words. How is the one returning grateful leper described?

And he was a Samaritan.” 

Maybe the equivalent, in our setting, would be something like, “And he was an Iranian.”  

Ah, so now we have to revise our mental picture of the healing story. When Jesus said “go show yourself to the priests”, at least one of them headed off in the direction towards the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, not towards Jerusalem.  

So, not only did Jesus tell a story in which the “good guy” was a foreigner, just like the parable of the Good Samaritan, he goes even further. Now we realize that Jesus did not specify which temple to go to, when he told them to show themselves to the priests. Did he care? Did he even know that one (or maybe several?) of the lepers were not Jewish? 

We are left to puzzle it out.  The most that we can say, is that Jesus did not raise it as a concern. What he did do, again, is cross the social border; the stranger is the hero.

 Are They Us?

How are we to think of people who are not like us? I just heard, on the news, that several prominent Evangelical leaders are upset about the administration’s decision to pull back troops from Syria. Why? Because many of the Kurds who are now under attack by Turkey, are Christians. Should we only care about other Christians in harm’s way? Is that what Jesus taught?  

What would it look like, for us, if our goal was “Tikkun Olam”, the healing of the world? Who are the people in our context who need healing, instead of other-izing?  Who are the people whose welfare, our welfare is dependent upon?

There are so many. Our American culture is 73

% white, 96% straight, 90% sheltered, meaning we have homes of some kind, over 70% Christian, and 80% of us speak English at home. The people on the minority side of those statistics are therefore strangers to us in those ways. Jeremiah would say that our wellbeing is bound up with their wellbeing; our shalom with their shalom. Jesus would provide healing without asking questions.  

I was just in a meeting of the “Neighbors on the Block” this past week. The downtown social service providers, religious leaders, and police meet each month to share information and learn from each other.  We heard about the homeless people here in Fort Smith. 

We learned that there is only one public toilet in our city. The Next Step Day Room rented a portable toilet for them, but one complaint to the city got it removed. So we live with the unhygienic consequences. Disease does not discriminate. Is my well being bound up with the well being of the homeless? My doctor says it is.  

Many of the homeless, we learned, are mentally impaired. When they get off of their medications, which often happens to unsheltered people, some get violent. Is my wellbeing bound up with the wellbeing of the mentally ill? The Fort Smith police say that it is.  

Courage Required

Are these social issues, or political issues? The New Testament says that we cannot love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our brothers whom we have seen. God takes this seriously. To me, this means that they are spiritual issues.

But if you start flying the flag for the homeless, if you stand up against discrimination of LGBTQ+ people, if you advocate for the mentally ill, expect to be considered strange. There are business interests downtown that want all the human problems to disappear to the other side of the railroad tracks behind the grain silos.  

One of the reasons I love this congregation is that I believe we are a band of courageous people, who are willing to be considered strange, as we reach out to the people on the minority of those statistics. We prepare and pass out sack lunches to people with food insecurity. We prepare and serve healthy, balanced meals for them and breath the air they breath. 

We believe that when we serve “the least of these” as Jesus said, in Matthew 25, we are serving Jesus. He had the courage to be thought strange. We stand with him.  

Faith, In Spite

Faith, In Spite

Sermon for Oct. 6, 2019, Pentecost 17C, World Communion Sunday, on Lamentations 3:19-26 and Ephesians 2:14-18. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

After the destruction of his nation by the Babylonians, Jeremiah pours out his lament to God.

Lamentations 3:19-26.  

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
   is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
   and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,  
   “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
   to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
   for the salvation of the Lord.

Ephesians 2:14-18

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 

We do not believe in unicorns or fairy tales.  But we do believe in things you cannot see.  We believe in compassion, we believe in courage, and we believe in love.  

We believe in things that we strive for, but know we will never perfectly achieve.  We believe in justice, we believe in fairness, and we believe in equality.

We believe in things that we hold true, in spite of all the evidence against them.  We believe in the presence of the kingdom of God.  We believe in the unity of all people as humans.  We believe in the special unity of all Christians in the Body of Christ.  

There is, we acknowledge, a lot of evidence against those beliefs.  How can the kingdom of God be present, when God’s will is not being done on earth, as it is in heaven?  How can we be essentially one, when there are  so many obvious divisions between us?  How can the church be one body, when we have so many denominations and differences?

The Importance of Lament

This disjunction between what we affirm and what we observe is why it is right to come together with lament, as well as with praise.  Just like Jeremiah, who wept over his destroyed nation, we too mourn for the current conditions we are living in.  We long for better days.  We long for the unity we proclaim on World Communion Sunday.  

I can picture Jeremiah.  He is sitting among the blackened ruins of his beloved city of Jerusalem.  The once-proud temple is a pile of rubble now.  The streets that used to be filled with buyers and sellers, pilgrims and peasants, are now deserted.  Dogs are scavenging for anything edible.  The stench of death is everywhere.   God did not intervene.  

The Babylonian army came in by the thousands.  The Israelites never had a chance.  The siege was long and brutal.  Thousands died.  They ran out of places to bury the dead in the city.  Bodies were cast over the wall into the valley below, lest disease break out.  

In the end, the walls of the city were breached.  In came the Babylonians.  Then the rest of it: the killing, the surrender, the looting and pillaging, the exile of survivors.  It was all that Jeremiah had said would happen, but no one had listened.  

Now he is sitting in the silent ruins, remembering, weeping, and pouring out a lamentation for what has been lost. 

Faith and Hope, In Spite

But Jeremiah believed in things unseen.  He believed in God.  He believed that the last word had not been spoken, the last chapter had not yet been written.  There was going to be, he believed, a “future with hope,” shalom, because God was there with him, weeping with him, suffering with him, experiencing the pain he was experiencing.

So, in the middle of the smoking rubble, in the middle of his lamentation, he was able to say, 

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.”

He was right.  The exile came to an end.  The children of the survivors made the long journey back.  They rebuilt the temple and the nation.  Jeremiah’s hope was. not a fantasy, but a confident trust in the God of steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness.  

How does this help us?  It helps on two levels, I believe: the personal and the public.  

The Personal Level

On the personal level, we have all gone through tragedy.  We have all experienced loss.  We have all had the future we thought we would be living in foreclosed. What are we to do when our fantasy of being in control is exposed as false?  

We heed the ancient wisdom from Jeremiah who said, 

“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
   to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
   for the salvation of the Lord.”

We wait quietly in meditation, allowing the busy, fearful, anxious mind to become quietly centered in the present moment, where God is found.   “Be still, and know” the Psalms tell us.  

The Public Level

On the public level, where there is so much division between people, what wisdom can we learn?  That the last word has not been spoken, the last chapter has not been written; God has a future with hope that we are being lured towards. 

Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God, available to all who had eyes willing to see it and ears open to the message.  From that proclamation emerged communities, house churches.  Mixed groups of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, men and women together, experiencing reconciliation.  

We heard the letter written to these churches, which proclaimed:

“For he is our peace; … he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. …that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Our Living Sign

That is the vision we uphold.  That is the unity we seek. That is the future we work for, even if it remains unseen at present.  This is our faith, in spite of everything.  So we welcome everyone into our community without discrimination of any kind.  And by being an inclusive alternative, we are a living sign to the world that reconciliation is possible.  Everyone is welcome at our table, for it is the table of the Lord, in whom we all “live and move and have our being.

The Unthinkable “What if?”

The Unthinkable “What if?”

Sermon for Sept. 29, 2019, Pentecost 16C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

 Luke 16:1-13

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

We needed to update our church website, so I asked another pastor for a recommendation of someone who could help. I met with the man he suggested this past week, and in our conversation, I invited him to Beer & Hymns (which is tonight) and showed him a FaceBook video clip of us singing “I’ll Fly Away.” It turns out that he is a descendant of Albert E. Brumley who composed the song back in 1932.  

Everyone loves “I’ll Fly Away” but it is a depressing song, when you think about it. Brumley seems to have lived an awful life — which is not surprising for someone living through the Great Depression. Maybe he was in a bread and soup line, or on a train, trying to find a city with jobs when he wrote, “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away.” It is a song about longing for the afterlife when the problems of this one will finally be over. “Pie in the sky,” as they say. 

A Better Place

That idea, that the afterlife could be better than the present has been around a long time. The ancient Greeks had the Elysian Fields to look forward to, at least for the virtuous. The damned would go to Tartarus to suffer. There are many stories, in the ancient world, of the surprising reversal of fortunes after death, in which the virtuous poor end up in the good place and the wicked rich end up in the bad place.  

Jesus used that reversal of fortunes motif in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. But this story can cause all kinds of misunderstanding if we read it the wrong way. On the other hand, it can provoke us to think hard about important issues, so we will look closely at it today.

First, let us talk about one of the elephants in the room. Do the details of this story describe Jesus’ view of the conditions in the afterlife? No. As I have said, I do not believe in hell. But the idea that people in the “bad place” can talk to people in the “good place” and ask for favors is especially fanciful; maybe even humorous. 

But imagining it that way allows Jesus to do some serious teaching. The ones hearing the story are invited to imagine, along with him, “What if it were like that; would we live differently before we ‘fly away’?”  

The Cast of Characters: The Rich Man

So how would Jesus’ original audience have heard this? Let’s first look at the characters. From the beginning they hear how the unnamed rich man is described:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

There was no middle class in ancient Israel. When the Israelites told the story of their history, they imagined themselves as the descendants of people who had escaped years of oppression as slaves in Egypt, but who were led by Moses to the Promised Land. 

After Joshua successfully conquered the land, every tribe was given their own territory. Every family had their own land for farming and grazing, so that every Israelite could be productive and provided for.  

But everyone knows that bad things happen; war, disease, accident, pestilences, drought: anyone of those could drive a family into poverty. So, there were Laws in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah which provided for the poor. For example, landowners had to let gleaners have the corners of their fields. 

Some taxes were collected by the state for the sake of the poor, collectively known as “the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen.”  

But, by the time of Jesus, that was a long time ago. Now, most of the people who came to listen to Jesus were landless peasants who rented land from the few aristocratic landowning families. Or, they were peasant tradesmen, carpenters, fishermen, who eked out a living the best they could, probably singing songs as they worked, like “I’ll Fly Away.”  

So, Jesus told a story about a rich man dressed like royalty, feasting every day to that audience of peasants who automatically put him in the “bad guy” category. He was supposed to be helping the poor, according to Moses, not stepping over him as he walked out his gate.  

Lazarus

The poor man, Lazarus, was clearly suffering, in many ways. He was hungry — longing for falling crumbs. He had sores, which reminds us of Job who famously suffered for no good reason. And the dogs — don’t think of well-groomed family pets — these were mangy, flea-bitten creatures, unclean scavengers who would eat anything. They licked his sores; he was too weak to beat them off.  

The peasants hearing this story would have identified with the poor man. They would have taken great delight in the reversal of fortunes both characters experienced in the afterlife. It feels like justice when people get what they truly deserve.

The Conversation in the Great Beyond

But the story moves on to the conversation between the unnamed rich man and good old father Abraham. Calling him “father Abraham” means that the rich man was not some Gentile, he was Jewish. He should have known his own Jewish tradition about his obligations to his neighbor. 

He should have listened to Moses and the prophets. Moses was the one who, as the story was told, gave them the laws about the support they owed to the poor, which the rich man was ignoring. And the prophets were the ones who repeatedly called for justice, especially in the face of conditions of gross inequity between rich and poor. But the rich man had ignored them too.  

So now, the unthinkable has happened to the rich man. He has died without anyone remembering his name — a fate literally worse than death to an Israelite — and his situation is irreversible. 

Jesus is saying, “What if it’s like that?” Would you live any differently?  

Wealth and Corruption

Jesus was serious about the corrupting power of wealth. Great wealth makes people turn a blind eye to the suffering right in front of them. I’ve heard wealthy people talking about homelessness recently. The problem was not human suffering, in their view, it was about how unsightly the homeless made the city. Instead of evoking compassion, for the wealthy, it seems, homelessness provoked contempt.  

I want to ask a question: why was there a sick man lying at that gate? Why wasn’t he in a home? Why wasn’t he on a bed, not starving for falling crumbs, but fed nutritious meals? Why was his society content to leave him there in misery? That begs the question: who was in control? What was their vision for society? Where were they allocating resources?  

Many people here probably know the answer. King Herod the Great had come to power by force, defeating the other competing aristocratic elites. He taxed the people mercilessly to support his lavish building projects. You can visit the ruins of some of them still, today, as I have. 

There was no attention to the needs of the widow, the orphan or the non-citizen. There was no attention paid to Moses or the prophets. There was no plan to come to the rescue of the Lazaruses lying at the gates, desperate for crumbs, dog-licked and hopeless. What brought Lazarus to that gate? Poverty did, in a society in which the wealthy looked the other way.

Making it Real for Us

How does this story touch us? In this room, none of us can identify with the characters in this story. We are not the super-rich, and we are not desperately poor. This story is from another culture and time. Nor are we helpless subjects of a repressive monarchy without voice or vote. 

We get to say what kind of society we have. We get to say what kind of leaders we have. We get to say how our resources are allocated. We get to say who is important to care for, and what services to provide.  

So who are the Lazaruses of our times? Of course, they are the homeless. Of course, they are the people who cannot afford health care and prescriptions. Of course, they are the mentally ill, the addicted, the unemployed and the working poor. We have many. 

Climate Refugees

And we are on track to have many, many more. In the future, there will not be one Lazarus at the gate, but dozens at each gate, maybe hundreds. Why? Because of things like the “Dry Corridor” in Central America, especially in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where they are experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last ten years with over 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to a United Nations report. It turns out that, “small scale producers and rural communities remain the most vulnerable to drought.

This situation sets up a process known as “step migration.” The first step is farm to the urban area. Poor farmers move to the cities looking for work. But finding drug-gang violence, crime, and little-to-no employment, they take the next step: migration to the doorsteps of the United States.  

Or take Syria for another example. Syria’s civil war has killed 250,000, according to the latest UN count, and millions more are displaced. Data from the study of tree rings by NASA and the University of Arizona has determined that Syria has been experiencing the worst drought in the last 900 years, with the past 15 years the most intense. Livestock dies, crops fail, and consequently, 1.5 million Syrians migrated to urban centers, like Homs and Damascus. Finding little help there, the rebellion against the government started and turned into the horror of civil war. 

Both droughts have been directly linked to climate change. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a “threat magnifier,” a factor that can aggravate already existing political fault lines. Syrian refugees, migrants from Latin America, are the Lazaruses of our day.  

Wealth and Denial

And just like in Jesus’ parable, the wealthy of today are part of the story. For example, for years we have known about the harm that burning fossil fuels does to our planet. But there has been way too much money on the table to stop mining for them, drilling for them, fracking for them, and burning them.  

But in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus, there are billionaires in our country who have “poured tens of millions of dollars into groups that deny climate science or work to block greenhouse gas cuts.” 

Some petroleum industry companies have even employed the very same Public Relations firms that were used by Big Tobacco to sow uncertainty about the connection between smoking and cancer, even though they knew the science. In other words, the money at stake was enough incentive for them to look away at the Lazaruses they were creating. 

As some have said, “there are no new ideas.” The rich men will always look away from Lazarus until the unthinkable happens to them. 

It is fitting that this story Jesus tells ends in death. Unlike the Good Samaritan who saved the victim, in this story, all the characters die. Death is universal. Death makes a mockery of the power of wealth. No number of billions of dollars can prevent it, and no one will take any of it with them. 

The rich man, after death, had no money to offer Abraham to encourage him to fulfill his requests. So, it begs the question: was it worth it? As Jesus asked in another parable about a rich man who died,

What will he give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26)

Time is running out for us, but we do have time to act. We must hold our leaders accountable. We must use every tool at our disposal. We have got to stop creating Lazaruses. We do not act out of resentment of wealth. Some wealthy people do enormous good. Rather, as people of faith, we believe that our Creator wants us to be conservative with our planet, and liberal with our love for the people who live on it, before it is our time to “fly away.”

The Moral Hazard of Mercy

The Moral Hazard of Mercy

Sermon for Sept. 22, 2019, Pentecost 15C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Sermon  The Moral Hazard of Mercy

General Motors is on strike.  The company made $35 billion in North America over the last three years, and now the labor unions think it is time to bring pay equity back.  GM probably owes its existence to the government bailout it got after filing for bankruptcy in the last recession.  

The bailout of the auto industry saved 1.5 million jobs in the United States, according to the Center for Automotive Research.  Nevertheless, some economists opposed it at the time.  They argued that when you bailout a company you create a “moral hazard.”   

I had never heard that term before the recession.  It means that when someone, or some business, does something bad, like taking unwise risks or making products that people don’t want to buy, they should suffer the consequences for it, even if it means going out of business.  Because, if they are let off the hook, the argument goes, they will do it again.  That’s the “moral hazard.”

But isn’t that what every case of mercy is?  Isn’t that what every “second chance” is?  We are going to look at a story Jesus told that is all about mercy.  It is a story about someone doing something bad, and being let off the hook; even being commended.  

This is going to provoke us to think about mercy and the moral hazard God is willing to create, according to Jesus’ understanding of God.  So, to the story.

The Weirdest Parable

Jesus told his parables in Israel; the Middle East in the first century.  It was common for a large estate owner to rent out his land to tenant farmers and to be paid in produce like olive oil and wheat.  That is what is most likely going on here in this parable.  Landowners were generally respectable people who cared deeply about their honor.  This story (all of Jesus’ stories) take place in an honor-shame society.  We will see how that becomes important.

The landowners kept careful records of the contracts for renting land specifying the amounts to be collected at harvest time.  Often they employed people to manage the business under their watchful eye. The managers had the authority to act in the landowner’s name, writing contracts and collecting the income.  In this parable, the estate owner comes to believe that his manager, was being dishonest.   

He has options: he can fire him on the spot, or he can have him arrested and imprisoned.  The owner decides simply to fire him.  He is being merciful.  But he demands to see the account books.  He says, 

“Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

The manager has to go retrieve the books.  This gives him a brief moment of time.  Where are the books?  How far does he have to go to get them?  How much time will it take to retrieve them?  Does he have enough time to call in the renters as he does in this story?  We don’t know.  We have to suspend our disbelief and imagine that he does.  Parables often mess with realism.

So he calls them in, one by one, and asks what they will owe at harvest time, and drastically reduces the amount, without telling them why.  When they arrive, he rushes them to quickly adjust their contracts and go.  They don’t know he has been fired.  They think he still has the authority to make or adjust contracts.  They probably assume that the owner and he have talked about it.  

They are probably thinking, adjusting the rental price downwards would not occur to an owner to do, but the manager must have somehow persuaded him.  Both the owner and the manager are now loved by all the renters in the village.  Their honor status has just improved.  They will both be esteemed with gratitude.

How could the dishonest manager think he could get away with this?  When the owner finds out — and he will find out — won’t he have him imprisoned and punished?  Maybe so, but maybe not.  The dishonest manager is making a calculated gamble.  The owner has already shown himself merciful once by firing him without calling in the authorities; perhaps he can bet everything on him being merciful yet again.  

Why should he be?  Because now that their rents have been reduced, all the village loves him.  If he demands the original price now, he will be deeply resented.  He will lose honor.  And if he tells them that the manager had been fired and had no authority to change contracts, then it will be clear to them that he did not ever agree to the discount; he is not such a wonderful man. 

The landowner recognizes that this dishonest manager has been very clever.  Everyone will love them both, and this will work out well for the manager after he is let go.  So the owner commends the manager.  One New Testament scholar said that this is a David and Goliath kind of story; a peasant manager has outwitted the wealthy landowner.  Everyone would have loved it. 

How Much More?

So this is an example of what we call a “how much more” parable.  Like the widow getting justice from an unjust judge and a man getting bread at midnight from a reluctant neighbor, how much more so would God help his children in need?  “If this dishonest [manager] solved his problem by relying on the mercy of his master to solve his crisis, how much more will God help you in your crisis when you trust his mercy.”  (— Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, p. 105)

So this is a parable about the God of mercy in whom we trust.  And we will look into what it means that God is merciful in a minute, but first a word about the stark warnings that come next.  Scholars believe that Luke was perhaps worried that his audience, mostly Gentiles who were city people, who did not grow up in the land-renting farming Jewish communities of Israel might misunderstand this parable and mistakenly think that it commended dishonesty with money.  

So Luke inserted here a teaching of Jesus about money, linking it with the parable by the word for money, “mammon” which they share in common.  Jesus spoke a lot about money, about riches and poverty.  Some say that one in seven verses in Luke is about money.  In this context we hear the stark warning that it is impossible to serve both God and mammon.  

Clearly, Luke wants us to understand that the dishonest manager who seemed to be serving mammon is not being commended for that.  Rather, he is commended for betting everything on the mercy of the landowner.

Mercy and Moral Hazards

So that brings us back to the question of mercy and moral hazards.  Didn’t the landowner create a moral hazard?  Didn’t he make it more likely that the next manager he hires will also be dishonest?  And if this is a parable about God, and how God acts, when God is merciful, doesn’t that create a moral hazard?  If God doesn’t punish us, doesn’t that make us less likely to do right?

Well, I suppose that would be true if we assumed that most people operate at the lowest level of moral development, which is the level of fear and punishment.  That’s the way children reason, but most people grow out of that.  There are different ways of describing how most people grow up morally.  Lawrence Kohlberg said we move on from fear and punishment next to “if it feels good, do it” self-interested morality.  

From there we grow to become aware of social norms; it’s the good boy/girl attitude.  After that, we think in terms of authority; obeying the laws.  Many people get stuck there.  They think if it’s legal, it’s okay, and if it’s illegal it’s not okay, period.  No more questions.  

But many people realize that all laws are made by humans, the good is defined better by what the consensus of thoughtful people understand about it.   The pinnacle of moral reasoning, according to this structure, is coming to understand that there are universal moral principles that we are obligated to follow, regardless of what society, or the law says, or whether we will benefit or not.  

I believe this is how Jesus thought about it.  So, for example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a universal moral principle for guiding behavior that goes way beyond the Ten Commandments, and beyond all the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible.  

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

Let’s get back to mercy.  The New Testament teaches us that  “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  Jesus told this parable story about a man who risked his whole future on the hope that his master would show mercy, and he did.  

The point is that we can too.  We can risk everything on the God of mercy.  God is not out to punish us.  God is not keeping a record of our good and bad deeds to weigh against each other at the end.  

Rather, God walks through our lives with us, day by day, luring us towards the good because it is good, coaxing us on towards what is beautiful and what is true because it is beautiful and true.  In a non-controlling way, God is there, helping us love our neighbors, encouraging us to be open to others who are different from ourselves, seeking the common good for everyone and for all living beings and for our precious, fragile planet.  

Maybe that does create a moral hazard, but that is the risk that the God of mercy is willing to take, for our sakes. 

The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 for Sept. 15, 2019, Pentecost 14C. An audio version can be found here for several weeks.

 Luke 15:1-10

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

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The version of Christianity that I grew up with was pretty negative. There were a lot of things on the list of things we weren’t supposed to do. There was a silly rhyme I heard from back then: “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.” You had to be careful about the company you kept. There was a doctrine called “Christian separation.” It said that Christians were to be separate from all that was “worldly”. You would have thought we believed you could catch cooties from “worldly” people, or something.  

Well, Jesus would not have fit in well with my group, would he? Not at all. Jesus specifically hung out with “worldly” people. Back then, they didn’t call them “worldly” yet, they just called them “sinners.” But it was the “sinners” that wanted to come to hear Jesus’ teaching.  Why did they come to listen?  I imagine some were just curious. But I’m sure some were quite moved by Jesus’ teaching. It was novel. He seemed to be innovating on what they had been taught. They were attracted to his message.  

Is that how it usually goes today? Do the people who seem to have lots of personal problems, the people who have made some significantly bad choices, the rough crowd: are they the ones you find breaking down the church doors to get in? Not so much, right? Why not? What is the message that the church usually sends to them? Is it like Jesus’ message, or is it a departure?

Objecting to Jesus

Anyway, getting back to the story, I don’t think the scribes — that means the ones who knew the Hebrew Bible very well, and knew how to make copies of it accurately, and the Pharisees would have objected to the sinners showing up to listen to Jesus. You can’t stop someone from joining the crowd. No, it seems that their objection was that Jesus ate with them. They grumbled,

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Welcoming and eating meant you were okay with them. Back in those days, in the culture Jesus lived in, the people you ate with were carefully controlled. They had notions of purity and impurity that really did operate like cooties. You could catch impurity from impure people. And you wouldn’t be caught dead inviting them to your table.  

But Jesus did. He both welcomed them, and ate with them. And it scandalized the separationists. He could see that, so he believed it might be a “teachable moment.”

It is fascinating to watch what Jesus did. His teaching method was storytelling. We call his stories parables. They were clever. They often had surprises or even absurdities that made people pay attention and wonder what they meant. That happens here.  

His first story was the famous “lost sheep” parable. It starts, 

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

That sounds so compassionate to us; of course, we would leave the group safely penned up and go out after the poor little lost lamb. But that’s because we are imagining the safety and the pen. But imagine the story taking place where Jesus described it; not back at the house where the pen is, but “in the wilderness.” That means open country. No pens. No safety. Shepherds had two basic jobs: lead the sheep to pasture and water, and keep them safe. Safe from predators, like wolves, and safe from thieves.  Everyone hearing that question, 

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

would be saying, “No way!” That would be a fool-hearty risk of 99 perfectly good sheep that you are responsible for. It would not be worth it to go after one. The value of the one lost sheep was nothing compared to the 99.  

But in Jesus story, the shepherd did just that, and when he found the lost lamb, he rejoiced, and called his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him, saying, 

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

Then, Jesus told a second story about the woman with the ten silver coins who lost one and searched until she found it. Poor people’s homes had no windows, so she lights a lamp and sweeps the floor until she is successful. When she finds the coins she invites her female friends (the original makes that clear) and has a party. Jesus said that is just exactly like what God does when a “sinner” “repents.”

“Repent” literally meant, “change your thinking” about something. See it in a new light. Look at it differently. Addicts who are in recovery call this the moment of clarity. We might say, “coming back to your senses.” There is no sense of groveling in guilt or shame — that kind of repentance was what the church wanted from people. It’s not what Jesus wanted.  

God as both-gendered

Jesus has just done two things, very subtly, but significantly in these two stories. He could have just told one story, about the shepherd and left it at that. The message is that God is like the shepherd who finds the sheep then rejoices.  But if God is like a man who is happy at finding what he had lost, God is also every bit as much like a woman. If heaven may be imagined as a man-party, it can also be imagined as a woman party. Jesus was able to imagine God as a woman! No wonder some of the women “sinners” were attracted to his teaching.  Why has the church taken so long to notice this? Jesus was way ahead of his times. For Jesus, just like in the first Creation story in Genesis, the image of God is “male and female.”  

Lostness as the new category

Jesus made a second subtle but significant innovation. He has come up with an entirely new category to put people in. The scribes and Pharisees called the rough crowd “sinners.” But Jesus told stories of lostness. For him, these people were not just “sinners,” people to be despised, people to keep separate from, they were merely lost. They had gotten off track. Therefore, they still had value. In fact great value. So much value that you would imagine yourself willing to leave 99 just to go out and search for one.  

Now, if you went out and found a “sinner” you might feel good about judging them, condemning them, maybe threatening them with punishment, maybe you would even tell them they were headed for hell. But, if instead of a “sinner” you found a “lost” person, you would feel compassion. You would want them to find their way back home. You would value them. You would believe that they were not defined by their worst day or their worst decisions. You would imagine them as so precious that God would throw her best party ever upon getting them back safely.  

Friends, this is the God Jesus taught us to know and love: the God that knows all of us get off track from time to time. All of us get ourselves lost. Some, severely so. But no matter how lost we feel, God is not up there condemning us, judging us, and waiting to punish us. Not at all! Rather, the God Jesus taught us to know and love longs for all of her lost ones to come home.  

Yes, God longs for our repentance — meaning that we see the light so we stop hurting ourselves and others. God does not want us to suffer at our own hands or cause the suffering of others. So, yes, God wants us to change our thinking about the strategies we have used to mask our pain, if those strategies are harmful.  

God is the great seeker. God is present in every moment, in every place, luring us back home; coaxing us, with non-controlling love, back to the path that leads to the house where the party is ready, the balloons are filled, and the ribbons are flying.  

This was Jesus’ message. To everyone, he could say, in effect, “you are a beloved child of God. You may have a hard time believing that but that’s what I’m telling you. You feel lost? Well, God is out to find you and when She does, she is going to get you home; you are that valuable.  

Do you need a sign that it’s true? The best sign I can give you is a big wide welcome to our table. Come! Sit with us! Eat with us. We want to be known by the company we keep.  We want to keep the same company Jesus kept. Everyone is welcome at our table!

“If you love somebody, set them free” — Sting

“If you love somebody, set them free” — Sting

Sermon on the book of Philemon for Sept. 8, 2019. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

 Philemon 1:1-21

note: This text is a letter from the apostle Paul, to Philemon, on the subject of what to do about Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus who has visited Paul in prison, and has converted to Christianity. 

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Back in the 1980s, I loved the band “The Police” whose frontman called himself Sting. I had all their records. For a long time, their most popular song was probably “Every Breath You Take.” It was about an obsessively possessive love relationship. Sting sang: “Every breath you take, every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you…. can’t you see? You belong to me.”  

Well, that sounds creepy to me now! Which may have been what Sting was trying to correct when, several years later, he wrote a song that repeated the line, “If you love somebody, set them free.” 

That sounds to me like a much healthier attitude. Love does not dominate or control. Love wants the best for the beloved, including their own personal growth and development, their freedom to be themselves and to have their own lives. Love doesn’t hold people back; love sets them free.  

“God is Love”

Let us put this in a wider context. We believe that one of the simplest and yet most profoundly accurate things we can say about God is what the New Testament says, “God is love.” 

If we start there, many implications flow from that statement, and one of them is that God, as Love, wants our freedom. God does not control us. 

Process theologians tell us that God’s love is not coercive, but persuasive. God lures us, coaxes us, encourages us, in an un-controlling way, towards goodness, towards truth, and towards beauty.  

This is the God that Jesus believed in and called, affectionately “Abba”, “Father”, or even, “Daddy.” But since the bible tells us that God is not gendered, but created both male and female in God’s image, we are free to also say, “Mother” or even, “mommy”. Mothering images are present in the scriptures in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.

Anyway, the point is that the God whom Jesus taught us to love is, essentially, Love.  And love is not controlling. God wills our freedom. 

The Apostle Paul was convinced of this too. He even said, “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). If there is any law we are obligated to obey, it is “the law of love.” In another place, Paul said, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom. 13:8)

Love and Slavery

So that brings us to today’s text and to a problem. How can you believe that God is love, and that love necessarily longs for freedom, in a world of slavery? 

We have been mentioning recently that there is a huge cultural gap between our modern world and the world of the bible, and it comes up again here [spoiler alert: it always comes up when we read ancient literature]. 

Today, we live in a world in which we can imagine no slavery. The ancient world of biblical times, from Genesis to Revelation, was a world in which slavery was simply a fact of life, just like poverty, disease, and death. Nobody in the bible argued for the abolition of slavery. Not even Jesus. It was nearly inconceivable. 

Plato wrote that it was right for the “better” to rule over the “inferior”.  Aristotle called slavery “natural” — some people are born to be slaves. 

But, of course, those views are not the last word for Christians. The God of ancient Greek philosophy was not the God Jesus believed in.  

Philemon

Which brings us to the way this gets worked out in Philemon. Paul has planted a new Christian community in the city of Colossae. He has moved on, but got arrested and is now in prison somewhere. A man named Onesimus has arrived. 

Onesimus is a slave, owned by Philemon, a new convert to Christianity, back in Colossae. We have read Paul’s letter to Philemon about Onesimus. The issue is not that he is a runaway slave. It is that Onesimus too has become a Christian.  

Now it’s complicated. Paul has been teaching his new little house churches that as Christians, they are all equally members of “the body of Christ.” He has told them that they are part of the “family of God.” That makes them all sisters and brothers. He has told them that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). 

But a slave is a slave — perhaps even by nature, as the Philosophers said? Is there any other way to think about it? Clearly, this event, Onesimus’ conversion, has forced Paul to think long and hard about it, and, in prison, he has had plenty of time to do just that.  

But let us ask: how did Onesimus, the slave, owned by Philemon in Colossae, wind up there, at Paul’s prison door, as a runaway? The answer, according to New Testament scholars, is that there were different ways you could be a runaway slave. 

If you just wanted your freedom and hit the road, and you were caught, you would be subject to terrible punishment: flogging or branding or being sent to the mines, the galleys, the arena or even the cross. It would have been, as Crossan says, “suicidally dangerous to have gone anywhere near official Roman authority, let alone a Roman prisoner like Paul.” (J. D. Crossan, In Search of Paul, p. 179)  

But, on the other hand, if you had been treated cruelly by your owner and needed a temporary respite, for example, to give a hot-headed slave-owner a cooling-off period, you had two options: you could flee to a god’s temple, or flee to your owner’s friend, particularly a friend of the owner who was in a superior position to the owner, who could possibly plead on your behalf. 

Onesimus fled from Philemon to Paul, Philemon’s spiritual “father.” And this is Paul’s letter, pleading on behalf of the runaway slave, who is now, a fellow Christian.  

Set Him Free

What is Paul asking Philemon to do with Onesimus? Set him free. This is totally radical, so Paul uses all the rhetorical skill he has. He reminds Philemon that he is in chains, a prisoner for the sake of the gospel, that he is an old man — which in that culture meant a highly respected elder. Paul tells him that he could command Philemon to do his duty, but rather, he is appealing “on the basis of love.” 

To cap it all off, Paul says that when he gives Onesimus his freedom, he will have him both “in the flesh and in the Lord” as a “beloved brother.” 

Paul is quite clear that he wants the decision to be Philemon’s, voluntarily. He can say no. But he also asked that the letter be read in the house-church so that everyone will witness his decision. Everyone will be thinking, “if you love somebody, set them free.” 

And if you believe in a God of love who has made you a community, a family in faith, then what other choice could you possibly make?”

Let us just take a moment to let it soak in, how beautiful and radical this is. In a world where you could not imagine the end of slavery, Paul has had a torchlight lit in his head. He now sees that slavery is incompatible with love. A Christian simply could not own another Christian. 

The God of Jesus, the God of love, could never will anything other than freedom. It could actually be true in fact, as well as in theory, that in Christ “there is no longer slave or free.…” but rather, “you are all one.”  

Backsliding on the Vision

So, this insight was widely disseminated and accepted in all the churches, massive numbers of slaves were set free, and the whole institution of slavery was seen for what it was, a dehumanizing and oppressive practice which was incompatible with Christianity, and therefore abolished soon thereafter, right? 

Well, as you know, sadly not. Not at all. This is just too radical; too counter-cultural; even scandalous. Talking like this would not help Christianity seem attractive to your average Roman citizen, right?. 

So, quickly after Paul’s life, other advice was given to the early groups of Christians that was far tamer, that fit the hierarchical, patriarchal Roman family structure much more comfortably. Letters were written to Christian churches advising 

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, …Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly” (Col. 3-4; Eph. 6). 

The same thing happened with respect to women in ministry, by the way. Paul had women functioning as apostles, but after Paul, their ministries were severely restricted. Some ideas were just too radical for the time, I guess.  

The End of the Story: Our Story

Back to the book of Philemon: we do not know how the story ended. We do not know Philemon’s decision. We don’t know how much he had paid for Onesimus and therefore what it might have cost him to comply. 

But we do know that this letter was copied, and shared, and recopied and shared until eventually, it became part of the collection we call the New Testament. 

That meant that although the radical message of love and freedom was watered down, and eventually nearly forgotten by the Church, there must have been many in the minority who embraced it. 

There must have been people willing to swim upstream, against the current, willing to be criticized as radicals, even subversives, because they had caught the vision of a world which ran by the law of love. 

That is our calling. We are the people who have been seized by this beautiful vision that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” A world in which God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

We have been awakened to the fact that God is love, just like Jesus taught us. So we are the ones to take this liberating gospel into our much different world.  

That is why we pay so much attention to how we can help people become free of all the enslaving conditions that exist. 

For example, we make no distinction between men and women at every level of leadership in our church, both locally regionally, and nationally. 

We work to help people enslaved by addictions, homelessness, or simply by poverty, to at least have the freedom to eat decent, healthy food. 

We are radically inclusive here: we welcome everyone who has been enslaved by discrimination and judgment, and we speak up for all of them when their voices are not heard.  

We think it is also important to be free internally, personally. We consciously work to free our hearts and minds from slavery to consumerism and greed. We actively take up collections to support ministries of compassion and mercy, as we are currently doing for a poor family in Nicaragua and for relief for victims of hurricane Dorian. We believe that our very act of giving away our money helps free us, internally, from the power of Mammon.

We practice spiritual disciplines like meditation, which help to free us internally from slavery to ego. We seek to be free of that insistent critic in our heads, the constant need to compete or compare, the narrator of our personal preferences, the small self, that gets offended. 

We work on our ego issues so that we can be free to love, to have compassion, to be kind, to be experts in forgiving and understanding. To be free to be agents of a loving God.