The Community that Calls Christ King

Sermon on Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and John 18:33-37 for Christ the King Sunday, Year B, Nov. 22, 2015

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
John 18:33-37

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 12.42.58 PMWe have been watching the PBS series called Wolf Hall.  It is about Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser to King Henry VIII of England in the 16th century.   It is full of court intrigue and betrayal.  There are spies, informants, and factions.  In the center is king Henry, a despot if there ever was one.  People get imprisoned, banished, and even killed by royal decree.  Cromwell himself, in the end, is a victim of Henry’s rage.  It makes me so happy not to live in the time of kings.

Re-imagining Kingdom

It is all the more fascinating to think that there were people who lived through the brutality of despotic monarchies, who nevertheless, could re-imagine the whole concept of king and kingdom.  There were a few spiritually insightful people who could imagine that a realm under a king could be a near heaven on earth, under the right circumstances.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.44.42 AMThe prophet Daniel had that kind of imagination.  After his apocalyptic visions of a succession of empires, which he pictured as beasts, really, monsters, anti-human figures of brutality, he comes to a final, climactic vision.

This time, instead of a monstrous beast, a figure like a human, a “son of man” comes into view.  In this vision, the human one rises on the clouds and goes up to the glorious fiery throne of the Ancient of Days – the King of Kings.

The Ancient of Days gives a kingdom to the human one.  It is a world-encompassing kingdom; a kingdom without borders.  It is a limitless kingdom that never passes away.

Soon after this scene, Daniel receives the interpretation of the vision.  The human one was a representative figure.  He stands to represent as he says,

“the holy ones of the Most High [who] shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

So it is God’s people who receive the kingdom that lasts forever.  From the beginning God’s dream for the world has been a united humanity; a kingdom without borders, where no one is a refugee, and in which there is no beastly violence nor oppression to flee from.

Jesus and Kingdom

Jesus came proclaiming the gospel, which is simply the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived.   So Jesus, like Daniel, was able to imagine an alternative kind of kingdom, to the brutal one he lived in.  And, amazingly, his announcement used the present tense.  The Kingdom of God is here.

There is nothing to wait for.  The kingdom of God is present wherever “God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Is Jesus, then, the king of this kingdom of God?   John’s gospel tells a story to help us understand.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.55.57 AMIn the story, Jesus stands before the representative of the powers of empire.   Procurator Pilate wears the insignia of the Roman Eagle.  He can call upon legions of sword-wielding soldiers to use overwhelming violence at his discretion.  This is the earthly version of a kingdom.

In front of him stands Jesus with no weapon, no army, and no thought of violence.  Pilate asks him if he is a king.  John tells the story this way:

“Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting”

Not fighting is the proof that the kingdom Jesus represents is not of this world.

Spiritual Kingdom: Earthly Effects

This is where it gets tricky.  Many have stumbled here and gotten Jesus wrong.  Does this mean that the Kingdom of God is an other-worldly matter for mystics and spiritualists without practical implications?

Resoundingly no! The spiritual kingdom of God has enormous this-world  effects.  This spiritual kingdom transforms lives.  It makes people live and act differently than they would have, since their allegiance is to God’s will on earth.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.54.07 AMInstead of imagining that life consists in the abundance of possessions, they share their bread with the hungry.  Instead of returning violence with violence, they turn the other cheek, they stop the cycle of violence, they practice forgiveness of enemies.

This is the kingdom we gather together to celebrate and to affirm.  We rehearse the stories of the one we are able to proclaim our king, the one whose life maps out the path that we believe is God’s will on earth: the Jesus path.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 11.01.05 AMBecause of all the discussions on the news this past week, I was reminded of the story Jesus told of the good Samaritan.  I remember the first time someone drew my attention to the danger that the Samaritan put himself in, as he stopped to help the victim on the side of the road.  There had been one robbery, one severe beating there that day; what was to stop a second?  Who could have known if the criminals were nearby awaiting a second victim or not?

But in spite of the danger, the Samaritan did the right thing.  He stopped and helped.  He risked his own safety to show mercy, to be compassionate.

That is the story our king tells.  That is the kind of kingdom we have given our allegiance to.  That is what informs our conversations about welcoming strangers from Syria, and not just the Christians from Syria!  This spiritual kingdom has enormous this-world effects; it calls for us to be a community that means it, when we call Christ the King.

Being the Alternative Community

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 11.03.23 AMBut this is not the consensus view.  This is an alternative perspective.  And this is why we need the encouragement of this community so much.  It is here, as we gather, that we are renewed in our hope, renewed in our passion to live as those on the Jesus path.  It is here that we are spiritually re-calibrated towards goodness, truth and beauty.  It here that we encounter God’s presence, a light in the darkness.

Someone told me that a person said something this past week that made me so proud to be a part of this community.  She had been hearing so much about people wanting to block refugees from Syria settling among us, but said that she came here, to this community, because she knew we embraced an alternative vision.  We do, it is called risk-taking compassion; the kind our King showed us by his life, and taught us by his words.

We need each other.  We benefit from this place in which we gather.  We benefit  from  these people and these services and classes and programs.

Affirmation of Faith

Let us affirm our faith in the words of the Iona Community of Scotland:
(source: Iona Abbey Worship Book, p. 179)

We believe that God is present,
in the darkness before the dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainty
where fear and courage join hands,
conflict and caring link arms,
and the sun rises over barbed wire.
We believe in a with-us God
who sits down in our midst
to share our humanity.
We affirm a faith
that takes us beyond the safe place:
into action, into vulnerability
and in the streets.
We commit ourselves to work for change
and put ourselves on the line;
to bear responsibility, take risks,
live powerfully and face humiliation
to stand with those on the edge
to choose life
and be used by the Spirit
for God’s new community of hope.


God’s Will is Peace

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 12.08.24 PMSermon on Mark 13:1-8 for Pentecost +25, November 15, 2015

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

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We had thought that ISIS could not do anything worse to horrify us and shock us, after all that they have already done.  But who was not taken to a whole new level Friday by what they did in Paris?  And that was just two days after the bomb they blew up in Beruit that killed over 40 people.

We stand with the people of France today.  We stand with the people of Lebanon.  We stand with all of the victims of violence.  We stand with the millions who have uprooted their whole lives and families to flee from violence in the quest of a place of refuge.

Today also, we stand with the countless number of Muslims who have publicly denounced ISIS and their violence.  It is not true, as some media outlets have falsely reported, that Muslims are not speaking out.  They are.  Here are some examples given by an article in Belief Net:

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has said that ISIS has “Nothing to do with Islam,” but has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated.

Arab League: “Strongly denounced” the “crimes against humanity” carried out by the  so-called Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the country’s top religious authority, said that terrorism is anti-Islamic and said that groups like the Islamic State which practice violence are the “number one enemy of Islam.

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Yes, it is true that Islam does have an eschatology, that is, a version of the end times, that includes an apocalyptic battle.  It is also true that the vast majority of Muslims do not believe they need to do anything at all to start that battle.

It is also true that many Christians today believe the eschatology of the “Left Behind” series of books, which understands Revelation literally, and think that our world will end with an apocalyptic Armageddon.

And yet, thankfully, even the benighted people who read and believe those books, and buy their literal version of Revelation do not think that they need to go out and start the battle.   Some versions of Islam and some versions of Christianity are eerily similar in this respect.

Revelation does use battle imagery.  The wrath of God get poured out and people die.  There are four horsemen of the apocalypse, there are plagues, earthquakes, and a huge final battle.

I am, like so many people before me, including Calvin and Luther, uncomfortable with the book of Revelation and its violent imagery.  Even though it is completely understandable that the struggle between good and evil, that Revelation describes, seems like an eternal war, and even though evil feels like an enemy that must be put to death, nevertheless, attacking violence with violence is deeply problematic.

All of us share the same conflicted sentiment that we find in the book of Psalms.  We cry out against violence done to us, to our people, and we condemn the violent people like ISIS for being violent.  “How long, O Lord?” we pray.  But there is, within us all, a vengeance-bone that wants to fight back, to return blow for blow.  An eye for an eye.  Violence for violence.  “Execute vengeance” we pray.

The Origins of ViolenceScreen Shot 2015-11-14 at 4.55.45 PM

Brain scientists and evolutionary biologists can tell us where these violent urges come from.  We evolved to survive.  Survival meant fighting off predators that we could not flee from.  The urge to be violent is now in our instincts.  It comes from our “lizard brain.”  It is primitive.  It comes from a place in our brains that has nothing to do with reasoning or judgment.  It is simply reactive and impulsive.

It is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that people accept a violent response to violence as a given.  The ones calling us to reason, that is, to use a place in our brains that has the capacity to make moral judgment, seem to be the odd ones.  But they include the likes of Jesus.  And it is Jesus whom we seek to follow.

Jesus on RevolutionScreen Shot 2015-11-14 at 5.02.34 PM

You could be forgiven for imagining that Jesus lived in bucolic settings and in peaceful times.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  In Roman-occupied Palestine, many people were actively preparing for revolution.

They had plenty of reasons.  The Romans were brutal.  They crucified people by the thousands if they resisted.  They could be like ISIS on steroids.

But Jesus was completely opposed to the Jewish rebel struggle.  Jesus rejected violence as a solution to violence.

By the time Mark wrote down the story of Jesus’ life, some scholars believe, the revolution had already begun.  It has been suggested that Mark wrote his gospel in a year of pause in the fighting.

The Roman general, Vespasian, who had been sent to crush the Jewish revolt in the year 66, had to rush back to Rome because of the civil war going on there.  When the dust settled in Rome, Vespasian was the new emperor.  His son Titus finished the job of subduing the Jewish revolt in the year 70.  Hundreds of thousands died.  The temple was destroyed.

So, in Mark’s story of Jesus, we hear him say, as he looks at Jerusalem and the temple, from across the little valley, from the Mount of Olives,

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jerusalem had its “great buildings” – the palace, the temple; king Herod had spent years on renovations.  They were lavish.  And all of them were going to be rubble after the revolt.

Perhaps Jesus had a kind of prescience, but really, it did not take a prophet to see what the Romans would do in response to revolution; they would do what they always did.

But Jesus had an entirely different vision that guided him.  He did not believe that Moses’ ethic of “an eye for an eye” was the last word.

Jesus never used the term “cycle of violence” but he intuited its meaning.  He believed violence would continue unless and until someone stopped responding violently.  He said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,”  – violence in return only returns more violence.  Unless and until someone stops the cycle.  Jesus said,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt 5:9)

Jesus said,

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”  (Matt 5:38)

Jesus said,

 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  (Matt 7:12)

Martin Luther King Jr. learned non-violence from Jesus, saying,

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Called to Non-violenceScreen Shot 2015-11-14 at 5.05.38 PM

I believe we are called to practice non-violence.  This is not an exclusively Christian calling.  Hindus and Buddhists call it Ahimsa, and place it at the very core of all yoga philosophy and practice.  For them, it derives as a necessary corollary from the essential unity of all being.

Though our narratives differ, Christians trace all that exists back to one common source, God the creator.  Our creation story in Genesis begins with human beings made in God’s image.  The New Testament’s Gospel of John begins with the logos, the divine Word which is the source of everything.

Remarkably, and nearly unbelievably, this one Logos, John says, took on human flesh and dwelt among us.  The idea that God could so embrace humanity as to share human skin and bones says that to God, humans matter.  Life matters.  It is no small thing to do violence to a human.

The vision of the Gospel is a vision of shalom; a world reconciled.  It is the vision of the prophet Isaiah, of “swords beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”

Even Though it Works

Nonviolence has always been a hard-sell.  Even though Grandi was successful in convincing enough people to use it, that the British eventually left India, the brutal war that followed, as Pakistan broke away, showed how strong the urge to violence is, even in people who had seen non-violence work.

Even though the civil rights movement here in America produced so many positive results as Dr. King led non-violent sit-ins, boycotts and freedom riders, people still resort to violence.

Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended the cycle of violence the Apartheid system had created in South Africa, avoiding a massive race war, people still today treat advocates of non-violence as soft-headed, impractical dreamers.

I confess, I have no ready solutions to the violence of ISIS.  But I do know that each time we try to bomb our way to solutions in the middle East, things only get worse.

Personal CommitmentsScreen Shot 2015-11-13 at 7.54.28 PM

I do know, however, that violence begins on a personal level.  Each of us has that lizard brain that loves to fight, that enjoys vengeance, that responds instinctively to threats with counter-threats.

So, though I do not have a global strategy, I do have a personal one.  I believe we are all called to seek a non-violent path of life.  Because this is not our instinct, we have to learn non-violence.  We have to be spiritually formed in the practices that promote non-violence.

Personally we believe in being practitioners of the Jesus way.  That means we believe in the necessity of practicing forgiveness, just as we have been forgiven.  That means that we  turn the other cheek when we are wronged.  That means that we practice personal disciplines that enable us to grow in peacefulness, like meditation, contemplative prayer, yoga, and mindfulness.

We pray for our enemies, as Jesus taught us.  Our goal is not vengeance, it is rather reconciliation.  Justice, for us, is not retribution, but restoration.  We long for the world of shalom, the peaceable kingdom in which the lion and lamb lie down together.  We long for a world that is not us or them, but us for them, as Gungor’s song proclaims.

This is the vision that this community gathers to proclaim; that the God who made us calls us to love each other the way God loves us.  Our prayer is simply, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth.  God’s will, is peace.

Watching Widows with Jesus

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44 for the 24th  Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, November 8, 2015

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

We are teaching our kids, on Wednesday evenings, about the Jesus path.  We were discussing the footsteps we make on the Jesus path, like kindness and compassion.  We talk about our essential identity as children of God, and about the practice of prayer.

So, last Wednesday I asked the kids to take our list of the virtues and practices of the Jesus path, and rank them in importance to them.  There are a couple of virtues and practices on the list that almost none of our middle-schoolers understood.  They all know what compassion and kindness means, but none of them understands what advocacy means, and no one understood the word stewardship.

I explained that stewardship means how we use our money.  One of the kids said, “Money is not important.”  They do not call it the age of innocence for nothing.

Our high school-aged youth assistant and I, simultaneously in reply, said, “Yes it is!”  By high school, you have completely lost your innocence about money.

Money and LifeScreen Shot 2015-11-07 at 12.06.05 PM

The amount of money you have makes a huge impact on your life.  It affects what you eat, where you eat, what you wear, where you live, and how healthy you are.  It most likely has an impact on what you think of other people, and how you think about yourself.  Not that it should, but that, without a lot of spiritual work, it does.

Money is spooky.   People are cagey about it.  Money and secrets seem to be a happy couple. Jesus said you had to choose between serving God or money, but that we cannot serve both.  Money is then, a spiritual fork in the road.

Money is spiritual.  Everything we do with money has meaning.  That is why it was important to Jesus.  As he taught his followers how to walk the Jesus path, he knew that they had to get the money issue right.

Money is important, not just for how it affects us, but even more so, because of the way our use of money affects other people.  That is what our text from Mark’s gospel is about.

The Widow’s Last Two CentsScreen Shot 2015-11-07 at 12.15.21 PM

I can just see the scene: in contrast to the priests, who are here, called scribes, wearing their elegant robes, seeking honor, which was such a big deal in that culture, here comes this poor widow.

How did Jesus know she was a widow? That is one of the details that make some people believe that this story started as a parable, like the one about the rich man and Lazarus, that became historicized.  Either way, it says a lot about Jesus,’ shall we say, “theology of money.”

Anyway, there she is, obviously poor, with her “two cents.”  That would just about be right in today’s currency.  Not only are these the smallest coins with the lowest value, they are also her last two cents.  Jesus says, as he watches her put them in the collection box, they are “all she had to live on.”

Parables often have shock value.  Sometimes it gets lost in translation.  The shock here is that these honor-obsessed priests took the last two cents from a poor widow.  The law of Moses is so clear: the donation should have gone the other way.  Widows were singled out, along with orphans, as the very people that the temple tithes were supposed to support.

In fact, every third year the tithe was supposed to go to the poor, the Levites, who had no land of their own, the aliens, that is, resident non-citizens, the orphans and widows (Deut. 26).

But, instead of supporting her, they took her last two cents.  “All she had to live on.”  They did precisely what Jesus accused them of when he warned:

“Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses”

Houses” here means estates; whatever remained of their deceased husband’s property.

Money’s Meaning

Money is powerful, both for good and for ill.  Money can save a widow from the wolf at the door, or it can seduce a priest into being the wolf.  In that way, it is like a window into the soul.

What we do with our money has meaning.  We all know that, and that is why we are nervous about it.  The way we use our money shows what we truly value.

I know you all value highly what we are doing here.  This is the place where we come to re-calibrate our hearts.  This is the time we get to focus on goodness, on truth, and on beauty.  This is where we are renewed in our hope.  This is where we find new strength to trust that God is alluring us, grounding our existence in love.

I know you value what our children and youth are learning here.  It is important to you that a new generation learns how to walk the Jesus-path; that they know that they are loved by God; that they practice compassion; that they learn words like stewardship and advocacy.  IMG_5695

I know that it is important to you that we are teaching our kids that they can matter to others.  Like the banner they made for the firefighters out west this summer; it actually  made a difference. They felt our love and appreciation.

It is important to all of us that we got involved in the refugee crisis, doing something good, learning to, at least, light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness.  Our kids were part of that; they are learning to be generous people who care about suffering, and respond as much as they can.

Because this matters to you, you give.  Many of you have given generously over the years.  You know that none of this is possible without money.

I know that it is important to you that we do not spend all of the money we receive on ourselves.  It is part of our identity as generous Christians that we support ministries like the Christian Service Center and the Presbyterian Children’s Home.    We reach out to our widows and orphans.

We, who have a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator and a decent place to call home, are grateful for all of that, knowing all of it is a gift.  And so, out of gratitude, we give back to help people in need.

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We do not give back from the bottom.  We do not give to the church the way we throw spare change in the jar.  We give, according to the pattern of giving Moses established for Israel, from the top, our first fruits.

We do not decide how much to give based on how much is left over.  We decide what level of giving is meaningful; what level of giving reflects our values; what amount expresses what is important to us.   Israel established the pattern of the tithe: 10%.  I use that as my  benchmark.

The New Testament has no strict rule for giving.  Paul told his people to do what they determine is right in their hearts, knowing, as he reminded them, that “God loves a cheerful giver.”  It is about joy and gratitude, not duty or coercion.

We adults here are not in the age of innocence about money.  We know how powerful it is, for good and for ill.  We know how it works.  We know how much it costs to air-condition and heat our homes, we know what it takes to live for a year.

Therefore, our giving to the church reflects our adult understanding of what it takes to have a church, a place like this, with these services of worship, these programs, these people, and these ministries.  Our giving naturally reflects adult realities.

We know, from texts like this, that money matters to God.  What we do with it is spiritual.  Therefore, with full and grateful hearts, we determine, from the start, how we will use the resources entrusted to us, as faithful stewards.


The One that Matters

Sermon for November 1, 2015,  the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, All Saints Day on Deuteronomy 6:1-9 & Mark 12:28-34

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

I love it when the lights come on, and I understand something in a new way that makes sense of lost of formerly disconnected details.  One big idea suddenly brings clarity.  Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 10.40.14 AM

The one big idea that opened up biblical study for me was that every text is situated.  Every text has an author who lived in a specific time and place, and had a reason in mind for writing something down.  If you know that one big idea, then you can proceed.  Without it, you are lost.

There is something satisfying about a big idea that brings together many smaller concepts into one. We hold in high respect the people who are able to see unity where everyone else only saw diversity, simplicity replacing complexity.

Like Copernicus.  Copernicus’ big idea was that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system. It was revolutionary.Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 10.36.08 AM  We call it the Copernican revolution.   All those ridiculously complicated formulas that they came up with to try to account for the movements of the planets and stars around the earth could finally be tossed into the trash.  It is far more simple, once you know they all revolve around the sun, as Galileo’s telescope demonstrated.

Einstein’s big idea was E=mc2, meaning that matter is form of energy.  There is an essential unity to everything.  Of course that has all kinds of scientific implications.

We read a text about Moses’ big idea, which was that the Divine exists as Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 10.48.35 AMOne, not many.  We call that monotheism.    The great creed of Judaism that every observant Jew recites, proclaims that God, the Divine, is one.  Naturally then, we give our complete loyalty, or in the words of ancient covenant treaties, our “love” to that One alone. We are to love God alone.  To love Israel’s God alone is to be loyal to Israel’s God, and none other.

Of course a big idea has implications.  Moses, as the story goes, brought down a summary of those implications in a list of Ten Commandments.

Jesus’ Big Idea

Perhaps it was reflecting about those Ten Commandments that gave Jesus his big idea; that they way to love the one God alone was to love one’s neighbor.  The first half of the Ten Commandments, after all, is about God, and the second half is about our neighbors.  The first half begins, Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 11.01.10 AM

“You shall have no other gods before me”

and then the second half continues,

“you shall not kill….”

and so on.

To elevate the love of neighbor to the level of the love for God alone is a huge move.  It brings love of neighbor right next to the central and fundamental commitment to love God; this has enormous implications.  Now every person counts.

There are two sides to this coin.  On the one hand, this means  that every person I meet is an opportunity to show my love, my loyalty to God.  Every act of love, every kindness, every act of mercy and compassion, every cup of cold water given to another person is service to God.

Serving becomes spiritual.  Working for justice is spiritual work.  Ending all forms of discrimination and oppression are spiritual acts that God takes personally.  Helping a child with their homework, enriching a student’s life with the fine arts, and collecting kits for refugees expresses love to God.

The other side of the coin is that each one of us individually matter to God.  Each one of us is important to God, made in God’s image, and worthy of dignity and respect.  There are no exceptions.  You matter to God.

The Big Idea, the Kingdom, and the Family

Did you ever consider an odd conundrum in Jesus’ big idea?  It is that he spent most of his time talking about the kingdom of God.  He told parables about the kingdom of God, comparing it to a pearl, a treasure, a field growing grain.  He even told the scribe he was talking to, in our text, that he was not far from the kingdom, since he knew that love of neighbor what right up there with loving God.  Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 11.07.57 AM

And yet, most of the time, when Jesus spoke to God, or about God, he called God Abba, papa, or father.  That is different from calling God “his royal highness,” as you would a king. In other words, the king of the kingdom is part of the family.  The king is papa.

This turns the concept of a king’s sovereignty upside down.  Now, instead of a God as a king who issues decrees and enforces his rule with the threat of punishments, this king is papa who is all about providing daily bread.  The kingdom is a kin-dom; a family.

This is why Jesus did not teach people to be privately religious alone, but gathered around himself a group; what we today would call a church.  A group of people who matter to each other because they all matter to God, the father of the family.

Each Mattersphoto (85)

Each of us matters.  We just read the names of those who have died this past year, as we do on All Saints Day.  We remember what they meant to us.  I am sure you have noticed how each person present changes the group.  I know on Wednesdays when I am with our kids in youth group, I notice how different it feels if one is missing.  It changes the group.  Each one matters.  Each one brings ideas, perspectives, and a distinctive personality.

At a deeper level, each one of us has gifts to share that we all need.  In the letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he uses the analogy of a body; we matter to each other like each of the parts of the body matter; hands, eyes, tongues, all provide something distinct, something necessary to the whole body.  That is the way our spiritual gifts function. Some are teachers, some are better at administration, some have gifts of mercy and compassion, but everyone matters.

I read about a church which had a custom of waiting until Easter for baptisms, so several people were baptized on the same day.  Their custom was that the newly baptized would introduce themselves to the congregation, saying something about how they could matter to the rest.  They would say things like, “I’m Joe, and if you need help with your car, I’m your man.” Or  “I’m Mary, and if you need a casserole, I’m on my way.” And,  “I’m Sarah, and if you need someone to come sit with you for a few hours, call me.”

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It takes a lot for a family to make it.  There is a mortgage to pay, groceries to get, someone needs to cook the meals, there is always cleaning up to do.  In between the cooking and cleaning is the table.  That is where the family gathers and is fed.  Everyone has a place at the table.  Everyone is served.

At the table they process their experiences. They show caring concern for each other, they affirm each one’s own uniqueness.  They help each other grow into maturity.  That is how the church works.  Each one matters, and each contributes their gifts to the others.  This is a form of our spirituality, right along side devotion to God.  Loving God and loving neighbor as a family, a kindom.

We are able to be here now, as a family, because of the gifts given to this family by many people over the years, including the ones we named today.  Over the years, they paid the mortgage, served the suppers, taught the classes, fixed the toilets, and sat with the sick.

They prayed for the poor, and they started the Christian Service Center.  They built new class rooms, they dedicated stained glass windows, they made sure the electric bill was paid and the grass was cut.  They did everything that families do, making it possible for us to gather here as a family today.

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Now, this is our watch.  We are today’s family.  We do not take this lightly.  Everyone of us matters.   That is why we are not afraid to ask people to pledge in Stewardship season.  It is a matter of saying, “I’m in.  You can count on me. I am committed to this family.  It matters to me.”

And just like a family with children and with elderly people, everyone’s part matters, though they vary widely.  In this family we are not valued for our wealth our wisdom, or our abilities, but rather for who we are as equally Papa’s children.

For us, loving God means loving everyone in the family, they way parents love infants in the middle of the night; not just with warm feelings, but sacrificial love that gets out of the warm bed.  It is practical.

This is a great time to be in this family.  We are growing.  New programs are being offered, new people are discovering us.  We are so filled with gratitude.  Stewardship is a way we have of expressing our gratitude to God for each other, for this family.

Whether you are new to this family, or you have been here for years, one thing is true: we are in this together.  Together we nurture the children.  Together we encourage and guide the youth.

Together we are there for each other as complicated adults.  Together we make sure the family’s needs are met, from the bed time story to the mortgage.  Together we are there when it is hard, when problems come.  Together we celebrate our joys and transitions.

This is Jesus’ big idea in action; a community of people who have embraced the message that God is for us, that we are reconciled to God, that God has created us as his family in which every one matters.  How can this not fill our hearts with gratitude?


The Courage to See

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52 for Pentecost +22, Year B, October 25, 2015

Mark 10:46-52
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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I was listening to the Radiolab podcast this past week, and heard a story about a man named  John Horgan.  John has been doing a survey for years, asking people one question:

“Will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?”

What would you say?  The Radiolab hosts observed that that question gets to something really basic about us as people.  It really asks, “Do we feel we can change who we are?”

John reports that 80 — 90% , of people say “no.”  Most people believe we cannot change;  that we are hard-wired for war, because of our greed, our selfishness, our aggression, and our belligerence, and we will never change.

A Personal Change Story

Well, we just read a New Testament Gospel story about a man who changed.  He was blind, and after his encounter with Jesus, he changed: he could see.

So if this is a story about changing, one of the questions we have to ask at the start is, “Is this a believable story?”  Is there such a thing as personal transformation?  Do you feel that it is possible for you?  Would it take a miracle?

Now before we go further, let us ask if we are to take this miracle story literally or not?  Does it reflect a memory of the historical Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 6.57.24 PMJesus, or is it meant metaphorically?  Marcus Borg suggests that it may well contain a memory of Jesus, who, after all, was a healer; and there are reports of blind people being healed.  You are free to read it literally if you wish.

But Borg suggests, and I fully agree, that the way Mark tells us this story, from its structure to its details, he is writing metaphorically.  The many conscious echoes of the Isaiah text we read are one example (Isaiah 35:1-10). Source: Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 56).

Blindness is one of the most common metaphors I can think of. Certainly Jesus used it.  Remember when he called the Pharisees “blind guides” (four times in Matt 23)?   Blindness means you just cannot see what is right in front of you, staring you in the face.

So I think Mark wants us to ask ourselves the question: what am I blind to?  What am I not seeing, or not willing to see?  And then, what can be done about it?  Can I change?  What will happen if I start seeing things I did not use to see?

Following the Jesus Path

So let us look at this story together.   It opens with Jesus and his followers on a journey.  Mark is telling this story to teach about what it means to follow Jesus, or the Jesus-path.  So, they are making their way down from Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem.

They come to Jericho.  Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, comes to the first city that Joshua and the Israelites conquered by force, as they took possession of the  promised land.  Jesus is living in a revolutionary time in which many people want a new Joshua to lead them into battle against the occupying Roman army, to take back their promised land from the pagans.

In a text from just before the time of Jesus, called the Psalms of Solomon, (not written by David’s son, Solomon, but by someone writing in his name – a pseudepigrapha) we read a prayer for God to send the Israelites “their king, the son of David” who later is also called Messiah.  They want a military leader, to purge Jerusalem from the unclean Gentiles (Pss. Sol. 17:21 in Joel Marcus Mark 8-16, Anchor Yale Bible, p 1119).

Here, the blind man Bartimaeus yells out to Jesus, calling him the Son of David.  Jesus  calls Bartimaeus, to come, which he does, then asks him,

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 7.59.04 PMIt is the exact same question Jesus had recently asked James and John.  They had wanted to sit to the left and right of Jesus’ throne when, as the new Joshua, he conquered the Romans.  Bartimaeus merely wants his sight back.  Quite a contrast.

The Dishonorable “Son of Honor”

We should notice that people in miracle stories are rarely named.  In Mark, Jairus was named.  His name means “he will see.”  Bartimaeus means, Mark tells us, son of Timaeus.  Timaeus, Mark expects his Greek speaking readers to know, means “honor” (from timaō) so this dishonorable blind bigger is ironically named, the son of honor.

Jesus does what no one in the crowd expected him to do; he honors him with special attention.  Jesus characteristically reaches out to the dishonorable, the marginalized, the poor, the hurting, the suffering.

Reaching out to the suffering is exactly what it means to be on the Jesus path.  On this path, people encounter Jesus.  And when we do, our eyes are opened to the reality of suffering all around us.  And our eyes are open to the ways in which we can help bring healing.  This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God.

But it takes a miracle; the transforming, healing, encounter with Jesus, who calls us, just as he called Bartimaeus.  When we respond to that call, our eyes are opened in a brand new way.  We see suffering, and we do what Bartimaeus did, leave the old life behind and come and follow the Jesus path to Jerusalem.

What is ahead for Jesus, for Bartimaeus, and for all the others who follow the Jesus path?  In Jerusalem, they will confront the power structures at the temple who are defining blind people as dishonorable and unclean.  And in the process, there will be suffering.  But Jerusalem is the place of both death and resurrection.  It is where new life can come, after the trusting acceptance, that suffering is part of life.

A Parable

Peter Rollins recounts an old Buddhist parable that illustrates this perfectly.  It is about a young woman who gives birth to a Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.11.45 PMbeautiful baby girl.  But after a few weeks, the child dies.  The woman is distraught.  She wraps the child’s body in a linen cloth, and then wraps that body to her own.  She goes in search of someone who can resuscitate the child.  No one can; not the faith healers, nor the witch doctors, she talks to the tribal elders, but nobody can help.  Finally one of the elders says, “It is rumored that high in the mountains, away from everyone, is a holy man, who is so close to the divine, he can even raise the dead.  Perhaps, this is a myth, or maybe he is long-since dead, but there is no one here who can help you.”

So, she packs some provisions and goes up the mountain in search of the holy man.  She eventually comes across a hut in the middle of nowhere, beside a crystal clear lake.  She knocks on the door.  After a few minutes, an old man comes to the door, and she begins to weep.  She says, “I don’t know if you are the one they talk about, and I don’t know if you can help, but my child is dead, and I must have her back.”

The old man takes pity on her.  He says, “I am the one you are looking for, and I can help, but I need to concoct a potion, and the potion requires ingredients.  And one of those ingredients is a handful of mustard seeds taken from the home that has not been touched by the black sun of suffering that has scorched your life.”  He tells her to go down into the village, find the mustard seeds, and then return.

So she goes down to the village.  She goes house to house, but she cannot find one family that has not been touched by suffering, death, and loss.  Yet, as she listens to the stories of other people’s suffering, and shares with them her own story, she gradually comes to terms with the loss of her child, and is able to bury her.

Being the Community on the Path

We are a community of the people on the Jesus-path.  The way of life on this path  is the opposite of a triumphalist, conqueringScreen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.25.17 PM of enemies, Joshua-style.  Rather, our eyes have been opened to suffering in a transforming manner by Jesus.  Jesus showed us the path that leads to Jerusalem, to resurrection, to transformation.  It is the path that, instead of heading away from suffering, actually notices it, and even accepts it, as Jesus did his own.

We are a community which makes space to tell our stories to each other, and to hear each others’ struggles, failures, griefs and losses, and to tell of our own.  And with eyes wide open to suffering, in the hearing and the telling, we are healed.

Having the Courage to See

But this is not a club.  With open eyes, we look around, as Jesus did, and notice where suffering is happening.  We notice the dishonorable who are being shut-up and shut-out.   We see children who need help with school work, some of whom come from families that know great suffering.  We see, with compassion, the refugees reaching Europe and we extend a hand to help.
Our eyes are open to the real suffering of people without adequate jobs, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, people suffering from depression or addiction, and we respond in every way we can.  We pray, and we act.  As Pope Francis has said,

“We pray for the hungry, and then we feed them, because that is how prayer works.”  

Can people change?  Can the blind see?  Yes, we must insist that transformation is possible.   Answering the call to follow Jesus, walking his path, as Bartimaeus did, is transformative.  It opens our eyes.  It fill us with compassionate vision.  And we experience healing for our own suffering, and become healers of others, with the courage to see.


The Depth Dimension

Sermon on Mark 10:35-45 for Pentecost +21, Oct. 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Today we will be reflecting about the depth dimension of life and what it means for us personally and for our community.  What do I mean by the depth dimension of life?  Well, we could examine it in a couple of ways.

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First, have you ever had that experience that I have, that you see yourself in the mirror, and at first you think, “is that really me?”  There is a moment of uncanny oddness, that we both know ourselves better than anyone in the world will ever know us, and yet,  a part of us remains a mystery.  Sometimes I get the same feeling looking at old pictures of myself.  Am I that person?  And yet, I am.  There is a depth dimension to my being that is both undeniable and unfathomable.

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The same is true of our experience of other people, even people close to us.  People surprise you; they are not who they seemed to be.  You discover that there is something beneath the experience of our impressions of them.  There is a depth dimension to everyone.

Our relationships with people reveal two qualities at once: both the amazing, life-giving, soul-filling power of people joined together, and yet the mysterious abyss that is the inner life of others, the depths of which we will never plumb in any complete sense.

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Nature itself is not what it seems to be on the surface.  We see trees and water, grass and sand, not molecules, nor electro-magnetism, and certainly not the weird quantum world.  We do not see mathematical properties or Boson fields.

There is a depth dimension to nature.  On the one hand, it can be terrifying in enormity and vastness, even dangerous and life threatening, and yet it supports and grounds our lives.  Of course, at a surface level, we take from nature the resources that sustain our lives, but that is not all.  We also encounter the vastness and beauty with wonder and awe.  That too is the depth dimension to nature.

In fact, is it not true that we experience a depth dimension in every aspect of our lives?  I think this is deep within our DNA.  We experience life as more than the sum total of individual moments.  Perhaps this is the experience of depth that gave our ancient pre-human ancestors the impetus to bury their dead.

The Depth Dimension in Suffering
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One of the ways we encounter this depth dimension of life is by noticing what has brought us to this present moment; what has made us the people that we are now; what experiences have shaped our lives.  Often, it has been the difficult straits we have passed though that have been occasions of growth.

Georgetown University professor John Haught, in his book “What is God?” suggests that after passing through great difficulty, there is often “a sense of contentment that transcends mere gratification” such that, people will report feeling grateful for having gone though the experience.

I do not mean to lump all suffering together and put a smiley face on it.  Some suffering traumatizes people and causes permanent damage.  Nevertheless, who has not had the sense that it was the struggles we went through, even the failures we experienced, that taught us, and formed us into the people we are today.  There is a depth dimension even to tragedy.

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Professor Haught suggests that this depth dimension is one way we should think of God.  God is the depth dimension of life.  Not directly experienced, but as the horizon of our experience.

Last week we spoke of the need to replace immature and literalist concepts of God, especially in this post-holocaust world, with more adequate concepts.  This is one direction in which we might go.  So, it is not that God is a being, separate and aloof from the world, but that the world exists in an through God, and God is known though the world of existence, as the depth dimension of that world.  Perhaps we could say that God is prior to the category of existence.

A Discipleship-Failure Story

Now, returning to the depth insight: that we grow and learn through failure and difficulty, we come to this small piece of the story of the life of Jesus.  This is what we call a discipleship-failure story.   What is going on in this story?  The disciples do not yet understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus has been teaching about.  They are still stuck in the literalist phase.  That is always inadequate, if not entirely mistaken.

So, thinking of a literal kingdom, they want top rank in the ruling cabinet.  James and John want to sit on the left and right of the throne.  This is so tragic on so many levels.  It is not just that they misunderstand the kingdom – that they do not get that the kingdom of God is already present, and everywhere present, precisely where God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven” – as  the Lord’s prayer teaches.

But at a deeper level, James and John make the classic mistake that, Jesus says, all the “gentiles” that is, unenlightened people, make.  They think that life is about power and status, prestige and control.  Jesus says,

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

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It is true, a great many people live their entire lives believing that their titles, their roles, their social standing and their assets are themselves.  They think their family, their tribe, their nation or race or religion define them.  These are the important to establish, to give us an adequate sense of our selves, but they are only the project of the first half of life.

It is simply not true, it never has been true, that these are enough, and thinking they are has only led to frustration and suffering.  All of those ways of identifying ourselves are what Richard Rohr calls our “false self” or our “small self.”  None of them goes to our core.  Except for the people, anything that we would loose if our cruise ship capsized, and left us stranded alone on an island are in that category of the false self.

The small, false self is the self that is forever comparing and competing with other selves, for approval, for recognition, and for control.  This is the self that gets offended.

As we grow, in what Rohr calls the second half of life, we become aware of the depth dimension of life.  We recognized that our lives are grounded in an essential way that would still be true on that island alone, still true on our death beds, still true in a tragedy.   That even without all of those other ego supports, there is an ultimate ground to our existence.   Religion simply names it; we call that ultimate grounding God.

Learning the Jesus Path

So James and John are still living in the first half of life, wanting control, and when the other disciples hear of it, their small selves get offended; it is all about comparing and competing for them, still, so Jesus has to gently nudge them towards a deeper understanding.

“whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus did not just come to help isolated individuals, he came to form communities.  Notice that the whole story of Jesus is the story of Jesus forming a community of people.  We call them the disciples.  There were twelve in the inner circle, but we also know that the circle grew and included women and children.  The story is told as a journey story.  They literally followed Jesus on his path, as he taught them what it means to be a fully alive, authentic person.

He taught them, as in this lesson, with words, but he also taught them by his life.  He was different.  Unlike others, and contrary to expectations, he was radically at home with people of all sorts.  He seemed to go out of his way to be a welcoming, gracious presence to the people who had been marginalized or excluded, to the suffering ones, the overlooked ones.

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All of this was a lesson in how the new community could be.  Instead of being a community of comparison and competition, this could be a community of self-giving service.  A community of people who recognized the depth dimension of life and knew that they were ultimately grounded in God, and therefore were free to love, to give, to serve, even suffer for each other.

It is exactly in those times of openness to each other and service to each other that we experience the depth dimension of the presence of God.  When two or three are gathered, when a cup of water is shared, when we use the gifts God has given us to serve each other, something of that abyss of the mystery of ourselves and others falls away, and we experience the divine.  When the least of these are served, the spirit of Christ is present.  When the stranger is welcomed as guest, God is there.

When people gather to share about their lives together, as we have been doing on Wednesday evenings, amazing things happen.  When people get together to paint a house, God is there.  When people step up and lead projects of mercy to the refugees fleeing Syria and other terrible situations, God is there.  When people share gifts of music or teach our children or help kids with their homework, or volunteer on a Habitat house, God is present.

The Jesus path is not trouble free.  Jesus tells James and John that they will drink a cup of suffering and be baptized with a baptism of pain; that is true for all of us.  But being grounded in the depth dimension of life, we can wait, in those times of suffering, with trust.  Being grounded in God, we can, as Jesus showed us, even face our death with the confidence that we are in supported by “everlasting arms.”

And as a community of God-grounded people on the Jesus path who trust in the depth dimension of life, we are there for each other in our times of tragedy, in our suffering, and even at our deaths.


Beyond Happy Thoughts

Sermon on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 for Pentecost +20, Year B, October 11, 2015

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Then Job answered:
   “Today also my complaint is bitter;
       his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
       that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
       and fill my mouth with arguments.
    I would learn what he would answer me,
       and understand what he would say to me.
    Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
       No; but he would give heed to me.
    There an upright person could reason with him,
       and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

   “If I go forward, he is not there;Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.28.18 PM
       or backward, I cannot perceive him;
    on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
       I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

    “God has made my heart faint;
        the Almighty has terrified me;
     If only I could vanish in darkness,
        and thick darkness would cover my face!

I cannot imagine being the parent of the student who was shot and killed at Northern Arizona University this week, or the parent of any of the other students who died recently in the senseless meaningless school shootings in America.   What would it feel like to hear the news about it?  I think I would be in denial at first.  Usually when we hear of something too tragic to believe the first word out of our mouths is “No!”

But then when we know it is real, we feel anger.  It is hard to know where to put the anger – so it often goes all over the place.  There is always plenty of anger to go around in a tragedy.   Somehow, we think, a blame target is what we need.

God is often in the bulls eye of that target.  Where was God when the gun came out?  Why? is the question.   If God knew it was going to happen, or at least, could see it happening, why did he not stop it?  Why not make the gun jam?  Why not make the shooter miss?  Why not do something?

In fact, it does not take a tragedy to get us to that place, does it?  Any evil we live through, anything that makes us suffer pain can bring up the problem: why didn’t God prevent it?  Where was God?  Is there a God?  Because, if there is, he would have done something.  Anyone with the power to do something, anyone good, that is, with the power to do something, would do it.

You do not turn your back from a child walking towards the curb.  What kind of person would just stand idly by?  Even hearing of tragedies on the other side of the world can bring these questions upon us with bullying force.

Every one of us adults has encountered that moment; that experience of the absence of God.   This is part of the human condition, to both experience the divine, the transcendent, to glimpse the sacred, and to feel abandoned; to doubt whether there is a God at all.

Homo Naledids_gurtov6

Recently scientists discovered a new species in the human lineage.  They named the species  Homo Naledi.  Bones of 15 individuals were found inside a cave in South Africa so narrow that it took a team of young women scientists to do the excavations.  Consider for a moment the thought that already, two and a half million years ago, the ancient ancestors of humans were already burying their dead.  They had some concept of life beyond this one.

We all have this internal conundrum that we live with: that somehow this is not all there is; that there is another world beyond our senses; and yet we are mortal.  We die.  Our lives are finite, in fact, fragile.

So humans have long been on a quest to understand the divine; to know what God ,or the gods, are like.  Every culture has religion of some sort: there are shamans,  for some, priests for others.  There are funeral rites, prayer practices, postures, sacred places, sacred times, and all kinds of sacred words.  We tell stories, narratives about the ways humans interact with the Divine.  There are mythologies, legends, epics and scriptures that we treasure and pass down through the generations.

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One of our ancient legends is recorded in the biblical book of Job.  And this story was told precisely to work out the problem we have been discussing: what does it mean to live in a world that includes a God, but one that allows great evil and suffering?

Job, the author tells us, is a righteous man.  But in the heavenly court, an accusing spirit called the satan tells God that if he were not so blessed with such a good life, he would curse God rather than worship him.  So, in this story, God makes a wager with the satan.  “Go ahead; touch him and we shall see.”  So he does.

Job’s children die.  His fortune is destroyed, his health breaks, even his wife counsels despair, saying to Job

curse God and die.” (2:9)

In the course of this long poem, 4 men come to Job.  Each in turn argues to him that the way God works is by giving people what they deserve.  Good people are blessed, bad people suffer.  Job is suffering, therefore Job must have done something utterly unrighteous.  We call this the doctrine of divine retribution.  Blessings or curses; you get what is coming.   The Hebrew Bible proclaims this boldly.  The four so called “friends” of Job do have the bible on their side.   If you are suffering, you must deserve it.

Now, Job is a grown man.  A husband, father, and businessman.  It is quite possible that he is hiding unrighteousness.  He would not be the first person who looked noble on the outside to be hiding his immorality.  The author has told the reader that the men are wrong; Job is righteous; but in the story, they have no certainty that he is.  So they argue.

Job does not know why he is suffering.  He does not know about God’s wager with the satan – and in fact he is never told.  So, like all people, he never gets an answer to the question, “why?”.

It seems odd to me that Job, as he argues his case, does not bring up his own children who died, or the deaths of other children.  How do you make a case for retribution when little children suffer or die?  Are not the two words “pediatric oncology” alone enough to disprove the doctrine of retribution?

Demanding a Day in Court: Theodicy

But Job wants  his day in court.  He would be the plaintiff and God would be on trial.  Job says,

Today also my complaint is bitter;
       his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
       that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
       and fill my mouth with arguments”

He demands justice.  It is not fair that he, being righteous, is suffering. God needs to defend himself, to justify himself in the face of this evil.  This is what theologians call theodicy; the justification of God.

But where do you go to have your day in court against God?  What if God will not show up?    This is Job’s problem; where is God?

“If I go forward, he is not there;
       or backward, I cannot perceive him;
    on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
       I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

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Who among us has not asked exactly those questions?  And who has not been utterly frustrated by the same lack of answers?   This a common experience.  Since the 16th century, following the writings of St. John of the Cross, we have called it the “Dark night of the soul.”  Even Mother Teresa, her diaries revealed, spent years feeling abandoned by God, in the face of evil and suffering.

Where is God when evil happens?  Sometimes an answer begins in the question.  What do we mean when we say “God”?

From Plato and Aristotle we get a god some have come to call the “omni-god.”  The God of omnipotence and omniscience, all powerful, all knowing.  Recently Richard Kearney has called this the “alpha-god”.  This is the God Job believed he was appealing to.  But Kearney goes on to quote Elie Weisel who said that that god died in the hangman’s noose at Auschwitz, and adds, 

“After Dachau, Sobibor, and Treblinka, the notion that everything happens according to some Divine Plan was finally exposed as a cruel sham. The idea that God orchestrates good and evil alike was no longer tolerable.”

So where does that leave us?

Ana-theism: God after GodScreen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.51.40 PM

Kearny’s book is called “Anatheism”  Ana means again.  The subtitle explains: “returning to God after God.”  In it, he argues that there may be a possibility, to make a wager, just as God made with the satan.  Only this wager would be a bet that there might be a way to return to God, after letting go of the Omni-God of Aristotle.  But if there were such a way back to God, it would not come with proofs or certainty.  It would never rise above the level of a wager.

And if one were to wager that there may be a God, after the God who died in Auschwitz has been proven false, that God would have to make sense in our experience.   That God could never be known in any comprehensive sense.  There are simply too many unsolved puzzles, unaccounted for tragedies.

But why would anyone make that wager?  Why return to God after god?   The answer is found in our experience.  We humans bury our dead.  We humans have a sense that there is such a thing as “the good,” and that there is evil.  We have a craving for justice, even though none of us has lived in an entirely just world.  We have a capacity for caring for the weak and the injured that makes no sense in a strictly Darwinian world.  We experience beauty, even wonder.  And we will risk our lives, even die for something as intangible as love.

These are the glimmers and glimpses that give us what TS Elliot called “hints and guesses.”  And so, having left behind the first naiveté of youthful literalism, and having gone through the dark night of the soul, the loss of the alpha-god, we are willing to make the wager.  We make the gamble that there is a God to return to, on the basis of a second naiveté, in the language of Paul Recour.   In the second naiveté we come to understand that the language of faith is the language of symbol.  Its tools are myth and metaphor.

So we do speak of God as Jesus taught us, as our “Father in heaven.”  And we understand that this metaphor encodes something essential; it is a wager that we are upheld, somehow, in essential goodness.  That, as St. Julian of Norwich could say,

“All will be well; all manner of things will be well.” 

Encountering the Other in the otherScreen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.02.29 PM

We acknowledge that the God of whom we speak after this return is “other” and so, is encountered in “the other.”  When we practice hospitality by welcoming strangers, somehow God is present.  In the least of these, we encounter Jesus.  The miracle of goodness and grace happens when humans break bread together as equals, and share bread with the hungry.  When two or three gather, the Spirit of Christ is present.

This is at the core and the center of our faith.  Jesus himself, on the cross, was not rescued by the alpha-god.  And that was the God he was able to let go of, after asking,

“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

Was Jesus tempted in every way as we are?  That was his most profound temptation.  But returning to God, he was able to say,

“Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  

“All will be well.”

We do not pretend to certainty or to understanding.  We are content to live with mystery.

This is where Job ends.  God never answers Job’s questions.  But in the legend, God, instead, asks Job many questions like:

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
        or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?…
“What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
         or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?”  (Job 38)

And Job replies,

“I have uttered what I did not understand,
        things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Wonder and mystery is all that can be expressed.  This is the second half of the first line of the Lord’s prayer.  After addressing God with the metaphor of Father who is in heaven, Jesus acknowledges the mystery, saying “hallowed be (holy is; sacred is; divine is) your name.”

Then, in a simple second naiveté he is able to put his needs for daily bread into God’s hands.   And it was this simple trust that allowed him to face his death with equanimity; with shalom; with peace, and even with forgiveness.

This gives us the basis for our hope, that even in tragedy, even in the face of evil, and especially in the face of our own mortality, we can finally rely on the depth dimension of life that we cannot explain.  We pray:

“Into your hands, O God, we commend our spirits.”



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