The Right God and All the Neighbors We Love

The Right God and All the Neighbors We Love

Sermon for Oct. 25, 2020, Pentecost 21A

Video is here

Matthew 22:34-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is the God We Must Love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goodness(?) of “God”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We would call that genocide; ethnic cleansing.  

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

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

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

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

The Neighbor Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Further

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is,  

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

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

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

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

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

What Belongs to Whom?

What Belongs to Whom?

Sermon for Oct. 18, 2020 Pentecost 20A

Video is here.

Matthew 22:15-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Odious Symbol of Oppression

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

It paid for the palaces and banquets of the oppressors. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trick Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Artful Answer

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

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

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

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

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

Daily email Meditation

So how did he conduct this policy? Rohr continues, 

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

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

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

Our Times, Our Role

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

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

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

The “things that are Caesar’s”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some broke the laws of the Communists to worship God.  

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

The “things that are God’s”

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

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

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

we are the Lord’s”.  

As the 100th Psalm says, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This leaves many questions unanswered, like 

“What is the role of government?” 

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

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

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

The Invitation and the Refuseniks

The Invitation and the Refuseniks

Sermon for Oct. 11, 2020, Pentecost 19A

Matthew 22:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing the Versions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explaining Matthew’s Modifications

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

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

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

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

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

Was Matthew Right?

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

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

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

Jesus Rejected Retribution

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

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

(5:45).

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

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

(6:35). 

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

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

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

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

Why Tell a Dinner-Invitation Parable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Refuse a Free Dinner Party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Generous Invitation Remains

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

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

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

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

Unity In Mystery

Unity In Mystery

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

Video is here.

Ephesians 3:14-19

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

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

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

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

He continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ibid.

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

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

ibid.

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

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

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

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

The Aspiration of World Communion Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

filled with all the fullness of God.” 

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

Other Religions 

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

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

Interspiritual Mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither should we.  

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ibid.

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

Surviving 2020: The Bigger Picture

Surviving 2020: The Bigger Picture

Sermon for Sept. 27, 2020. Pentecost 17A

Video is here.

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Recurring Question of Authority

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

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

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

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

Jesus on Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Parable of the Two Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right Action and the Foundation of our Faith

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

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

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

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

Good News

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ First Fish Story

Jesus’ First Fish Story

Sermon for Sept. 20, 2020, Pentecost 16A

Video is here.

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Someone once said, “The Bible is true, and some of it happened.” I like that quote.  Some of it did happen, but I don’t believe the Jonah and the Whale story happened (actually, it’s not a whale, but a “great fish”). 

But I believe the story teaches something powerfully true. The reason I don’t believe it happened is not that I don’t believe in miracles. In fact, I believe the fact that there is a story like Jonah in the Hebrew Bible is its own miracle.  I hope that will be clear soon.  

I also believe that the story of Jonah was part of what formed Jesus’ worldview, which was so radically different from the worldview of the majority of people in his culture. 

Ironically, his radical perspective came from part of his Biblical tradition, as evidenced by the Jonah story, even if it was the minority report.  

I believe there was never a time we needed the truth that this story teaches more than today. The character, Jonah, hated his enemies, the Assyrians, whose capital city was Nineveh. He wanted their destruction, not their redemption. 

That same attitude of hating one’s opponents is alive and well today.  

The Plot of Jonah 

Anyway, Jonah is a great story, so let’s get into it. Our reading today picks up the story at the end. Many of us know the story well, but for those who don’t, here is the basic plotline. 

Jonah is an Israelite prophet. As such, he did not foretell the future, so much as proclaim God’s word to the people in his own time. The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh, and 

cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

 In other words, go proclaim the message that judgment is coming as the consequence of their wickedness.  

The Assyrians were infamously brutal, even by ancient standards.  The prophet Nahum called Nineveh a “city of bloodshed”. 

Most scholars believe the book of Jonah was written long after the Assyrians conquered the Northern ten tribes of Israel, and took the survivors away captive. There was a lot of bad blood between them. 

Hating the Assyrians was uncontroversial. This is why it is so remarkable that the story of Jonah was ever kept and became part of the Hebrew Bible, but it did!

Jonah Flees

So, you would think that it would please Jonah to go cry out a message of judgment against Nineveh, but he was not pleased. He got on a ship bound for a city in modern Spain — the opposite direction from Nineveh. 

The Storm at Sea

God had other plans; God made a storm come up at sea during Jonah’s attempted escape. The poor sailors try everything to save the ship, but to no avail. 

Finally, in desperation, they cast lots to see who is to blame for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah. He then comes clean. He admits that he is fleeing from God, and they must throw him overboard if they want the sea to calm. They don’t want to, but nothing else has worked, so eventually, they do.  

That is when God provided a “great fish” to swallow Jonah whole. The story says he was in the belly of the fish “three days and three nights.” 

Jonah then did what most people would do inside the belly of a fish — he composed an elegant prayer in Hebrew poetry, complete with vivid imagery and three stanzas. After three days and nights, the fish 

spewed Jonah out on the dry land.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time with the same message, and this time Jonah acquiesces. He goes to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh and tells the people, 

forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” 

I can see him making this proclamation with vengeful glee.  

Spoiler Alert: They Repent

But here is where something as unlikely as being swallowed by a great fish happens: the Assyrian people hear the message and repent. Even the king repents, quite humbly. 

He proclaims a total national fast. Just to be thorough, he even decrees that the animals shall not eat or drink anything for three days, and they, along with everyone else, should be covered in the sackcloth sign of mourning. 

If you have ever seen sheep, goats, or cows out in the field, the idea that you could somehow keep all of them cloaked is absurd enough, but keeping animals from grazing would be quite a feat!  I believe there is some humor intended here.  

Anyway, God saw how they all 

turned from their wicked ways” 

and the text says, 

God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them and he did not do it.” (3:10). 

That was too much for Jonah. 

“He became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said while I was in my own country?  That is why I fled…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2). 

We should just pause here and note that this picture of God is highly relational. God is not like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, an unchangeable monarch in heaven whose word is written in stone. The God of the Hebrew Bible is reactive, responsive, and personal.  

The Forgiving God Concept

Anyway, where did Jonah get this idea about God? How did he become convinced that God was 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing?” 

He came by it honestly. It is a common belief today that the God of the Hebrew Bible was all wrath, judgment, and fury, in contrast to the God of the New Testament who is all love. That idea of two different Gods goes all the way back to the first century, and although it was considered a heresy (called Marcionism), it is still widely believed.  

The trouble is that the Hebrew Bible has several different ways of conceiving God, and they are not at all consistent. 

Yes, sometimes God is pictured full of wrath, judgment, and fury. But at other times God is pictured as Jonah said, 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” 

But which was more true?  

Jonah got it right. How can we be sure? The central story of the Hebrew Bible is the exodus story; Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to freedom. In that most central story, Moses has a direct encounter with God. 

In that encounter, up on Mt. Sinai, Israel’s God, YHWH, or “the Lord” discloses himself to Moses. A cloud descended onto the mountain where Moses was, and God proclaimed: 

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”  (Exod. 34). 

That same description of God is taken up and used repeatedly in several variations. It comes up in the prophets and many times in the Psalms of Israel.  

The Necessary Choice of Gods

I honestly do not know how you can have it both ways: how you can have a God who is full of wrath, judgment, and fury, and at the same time 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” 

I believe that Jesus came to that same conclusion — that it makes no sense to try to have it both ways. Jesus rejected the concept of God as full of wrath, judgment, and fury, in favor of the God who is 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.”  

So, that brings us to the part of the Jonah story we read. Jonah is angry enough to want to die. He hates the Assyrians. He hates the fact that God doesn’t hate them. He hates that they are going to get redemption instead of judgment. 

Look at how entitled he feels he is: he thinks he is entitled to vengeance. He thinks he is entitled to be shaded from the sun. And he thinks he is entitled to tell God what God’s job is.  

It is utterly remarkable to me — like I said, a miracle — that this book exists. The whole point of the book is that Jonah got it right about God’s mercy, but completely wrong about his hatred. His vengeance-quest was ugly, selfish, small-minded, and opposite to what God wanted, and even if it was what most of his fellow Israelites wanted.  

God’s Question; Jesus’ Answer

The book ends with a question that the God of mercy who relented from punishing asks the angry prophet, 

should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  

This is what formed Jesus’ view of God, and his view of other people. He accepted one of the perspectives about God, found in the Hebrew Bible, but rejected the other. Jesus did this explicitly. 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes exception to several of the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, saying repeatedly, 

You have heard that it was said,” 

and follows up with 

but I say to you…”. 

He said 

You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 

But he took the view that the book of Jonah teaches. Jesus said, 

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:44-45)

The Choice Before Us

That is not a popular view today. In fact, very few believe it. Very few, it seems, even aspire to it. 

So, we have a choice. We can follow the crowd of people who end up sitting with Jonah, angry, wishing vengeance on our enemies, or we can follow the Jesus-path of love and prayer for our enemies. 

According to Jesus, God does not, in fact, punish the bad guys. He sends sun and rain on the farms and fields of the evil and the good. Retribution, Jesus concluded, is not how it works. God is not like that.  

So what are we to do about the people whose words and actions we oppose, and even abhor? What do we do when we observe policies and practices by our leaders that hurt people, harm the environment, and mock at science and deny reality? 

I believe we are called to two kinds of responses: the very two responses that Jesus took in his day. 

First, we organize and nonviolently do everything we can to confront injustice, oppression, deceit, and discrimination. We are, as Jesus was, activists, who are not afraid to march, or donkey-ride, up to the center of power structures and systems of abuse and denounce them.  

But we do not act from motives of hatred or vengeance. We will not succumb to the temptation of vilifying our opponents as if they were not people whom God loves. 

We will wish, not for their harm, but their redemption. We will pray for them that they would be enlightened, that they would become compassionate, that they would consider the humanity of all people, and the special needs of the weak and vulnerable.  

All of this can be done if we would adopt the “lovingkindness” prayer for our opponents. We pray, 

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

We pray that prayer with the understanding that if they were happy, instead of fearful, if they were healthy in every way, including ethically and spiritually, if they were filled with kindness toward everyone and were at peace internally, with nothing to prove and no one to be superior to, they would be transformed people. 

So let us not follow Jonah in animosity, but Jesus who called us to love our enemies. Let us oppose their policies, but let us pray for their redemption, saying, 

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

The Looming Danger and the Christian Way

The Looming Danger and the Christian Way

Sermon for Sept. 13, 2020, Pentecost 15A

Video is here.

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Humans are complicated. We have rational minds, but we are capable of being wildly irrational. Even people with healthy minds can believe things that are not true. 

People often believe things about themselves that are not true, like that they are essentially bad, or unloveable, or unredeemable. That is tragic. 

Lots of people still believe that autism is related to vaccinations, even though the doctor that originally made that claim has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific and medical communities. 

We are going to talk about some untrue things that people believe today.

Our Capacity for Groupishness

Humans are complicated in other ways too. When things go well, we grow up in families in which there is love and support. We recognize our extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins, and so on. We generally feel a kinship with our extended families, as I said, when things are going well. Some animals do that too. 

But we humans have amazing capacities to group ourselves in far greater and more complex ways than merely family relationships. We can form organizations, religions, even nations. We can rally around a common flag or king or country. We can believe so strongly in our connections to that flag or king or country that we are willing to die for it.  

Pseudospeciation

But there is a dark side to this complex group-making that we humans are complex enough to accomplish. It is called pseudospeciation. 

It comes from two words, “pseudo,” which means false, as in the word pseudonym, and “species,” as in homosapiens species.  

We homosapiens are all of one species. “Sapien,” by the way, is a word that means wisdom. Our species is supposed to be distinguished by our wisdom. (Doesn’t that give you pause for thought?)

Even though there is only one homosapiens species that every human on our planet belongs to, our complex, sophisticated brains can create fictional species. We can invent species like the Aryans, and distinguish them from other fictional species like Jews. 

We look at cultural differences, or language differences, or skin pigmentation differences, or hair characteristics and decide that these indicate different species of humans. 

Nowadays, we are more likely to call those fictional species “races.” Once we do that, racism becomes inevitable. Once we believe the fictional story that there are different races of humans, we are most likely going to consider our race superior to the other races. Pseudospeciation leads to the dehumanization of the other. They can become the enemy.  

Serbs and Croats

Pseudospeciation is such a powerful mechanism, that it even works between nearly indistinguishable groups. I lived in Central Europe in which two groups of Christian Caucasians, who shared the same language group, and who had lived in the same country, who were geographically mixed and frequently intermarried, Serbs and Croats, went to war with each other with horrific consequences.  

This is not a new story. When Athens and Sparta went to war, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides observed,

The Greeks did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke the same language.” 

I fear that pseudospeciation could happen again here in America. We already know what we were willing to do with the fiction of the Native American species and the African American species. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and slavery have been a part of our national story. 

But now, I fear that the division between the red and blue political differences could reach the level of pseudospeciation. We simply see the world differently. We do not understand each other. We cannot talk to each other. We do not listen to each other. Where will this go? I fear to think.

A Christian Alternative

What I want to say, as a Christian pastor, is that I believe pseudospeciation is not a Christian practice. In fact, I believe it is an essentially un-Christians practice. We cannot and must not think of any other human as less than fully human. We cannot believe that we are superior to any other human. We are in this together.

The two texts we read from our scriptural wisdom tradition are based on the understanding that we are all in this together, and we have to find ways to work it out.  We are different, that is true, but that is not the truest truth. 

The truest truth is that we are all created by God, loved by God, and called to find ways to live together in peace.

The Diverse Church in Rome

So, Paul wrote to the early Christian community in Rome about how to do that. They were a mixed community if there ever was one. Romans and Jews were different linguistically, culturally, and, in their pre-Christian days, religiously. They had different holidays, customs, diets, and rules. 

So how were they ever going to come together as a new Christian community? Paul’s advice is, in my opinion, ethically revolutionary.  

Think, for a moment, about how deeply their views differed. Some believed that a good Christian could not eat any meat, because all meat was “offered,” at least by words and gestures, to pagan gods at the time of slaughter.  

Other people said that the pagan gods did not exist, since there is only one God, so have all the meat you can afford. Actually, the community was socially divided too. Meat was too expensive for poor people, so maybe poverty was in the background of the meat-avoider’s perspective. 

Anyway, the details of it are not the point here: what we need to see is how radically different their views were. The non-eaters considered this a serious moral issue.  

And that was not the only issue that divided them. In the text we read, Paul says

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” 

That is a monumental understatement. Jews kept the Sabbath. It’s in the Ten Commandments. The Jewish bible’s creation story said that even God rested on the Sabbath. It’s not an option. And it was not just a human holiday like Memorial Day: the Sabbath commandment came from God, according to the tradition.  

Be Convinced in Your Mind and Let it Go

What was Paul’s advice? Listen again:

Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

How could he be so flippant with those two major differences? I don’t believe he was being flippant, but rather that he had a belief in a value that went deeper than any set of practices about food or days. He said,

We do not live to ourselves.”  

That is the Christian way to think about it. It’s not about me. It’s not about me being right, having my way, getting the last word, or the correct view.

We do not live to ourselves.” 

One may be right about meat, and the other mistaken, but “We do not live to ourselves” so, he says, do not judge people who believe differently. We do not despise people who believe differently. Everyone is responsible to God, not to me.  

Jesus on Forgiveness

Oddly, Paul rarely quotes Jesus. Paul wrote Romans and all of his letters before the gospels were written. But though he doesn’t quote Jesus much, he certainly absorbed Jesus’ perspective. 

Jesus tried and tried to get us to understand that it’s not about us, personally, it’s about us collectively

If there is anything that scholars of the historical Jesus are sure of it is that he instituted the practice of sharing common meals with people who were different. 

He intentionally broke barriers that had been socially constructed that kept people apart. He did not believe in the categories of “pure and impure”” people as his culture did. So, he invited to the table “tax collectors and sinners” as they were collectively known; riffraff. Scum. Untouchables. He considered them all loved by God, so it was essential that they loved each other.  

Jesus was not blind to the fact that humans make life hard for each other; we offend each other, insult each other, hurt each other’s feelings, wound each other’s pride, encroach on each other’s territory, and even do worse things. But he said we should forgive each other. When forgiveness breaks down, it just makes a mess. 

An Absurd Story

So, he told an absurd story. He often used gross exaggeration to keep people’s attention and to make his points. One man owed a huge debt, let’s say ten million dollars. But he begged to be forgiven, and impossibly, he was. Then he found a man that owed him, let’s say one hundred dollars, and did not forgive him with horrific consequences that followed. That too is absurd. 

But the lesson is clear: when forgiveness breaks down in a community, the consequences are catastrophic. So the story ends with him getting ratted out. Notice how after getting caught not forgiving, his debt forgiveness was also withdrawn. Now we have two families in debtors prison. It’s a disaster.  When forgiveness breaks down in a community, the consequences are catastrophic.

Memory and Expansions

I have said that the gospels are a combination of genuine memories of the historical Jesus plus enlargements on that memory by the early Christians. 

Historical Jesus scholars believe that that last sentence in which Jesus reportedly says that God will be like the man who was ready to forgive until things changed, then he was ready to have the unforgiving man tortured until he repaid the ten million. 

Matthew says that Jesus said,

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

God becomes the eternal torturer. Clearly, that was not the way Jesus thought of God.  

Forgiveness Again

But Jesus did teach forgiveness as a requirement for his followers. It’s even in the Lord’s prayer “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It’s not about us, our rights, our need to have vengeance, which is such an ugly, destructive emotion.  

This whole perspective is what Paul absorbed which gave him the courage to tell his Roman Jewish and Gentile Christians to stop judging each other and get along.  

This Jesus-perspective is my only hope for our deeply divided country. It is, if we practice it, the antidote to the poison of pseudospeciation, the dehumanization of people we don’t agree with. 

We are in this together; that is the truth. We breathe each other’s air and so we have pandemics. We all have to live on a planet that is fulfilling our worst fears about climate change: intensified hurricanes, flooding, monster forest fires. It’s not about being polite, it’s about survival. 

The Christian perspective on all of this is that

We do not live to ourselves.” 

Our Survival may depend on believing that.

Liberation and Love

Liberation and Love

Sermon for Sept. 6, 2020, Pentecost 14A

Video is here.

Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

It is often uncanny to me how ancient wisdom literature can speak to today’s issues. The lectionary gives us these two texts which are interesting and even challenging for our times. 

But both of them also present us with problems. Sometimes you need to clear away the weeds before you can see the path, so let’s do some weed clearing, and then see where the path takes us.

Passover Remembered in Liturgy

We will start with the Exodus text, which is about the night of the first Passover. The setting for the story is the evening before the Hebrew people escape their condition of bondage in Egypt and head across the Red Sea to freedom. 

This is just after the announcement to Pharaoh of the tenth plague: the death of the firstborn children of Egypt.  

It seems odd to me now, that I used to read this text at face value, uncritically. 

Today, I am horrified by the thought of slaughtering an animal and using its blood to mark my doorway. It reminds me of the Charles Manson inspired murders. 

I am even more horrified by the idea of God’s angel of death being sent out to massacre children.  

No To Both Horrors

Thank God, the days of animal sacrifice are long gone, and thank God that Jesus taught us to think of God so completely differently. 

Jesus taught us, by words and actions that God is love. 

That God loves the world. 

That every person is made in the divine image. 

That God is good. 

That God wants our redemption from all the ways we hurt ourselves and each other destructively, including the ways in which we wish for vengeance on our enemies, instead of their enlightenment.  

Back to the Passover story. This story is not recited as events that simply unfold, but is told by means of instructions for remembering them in a future time. In other words, what we read are the instructions about how to remember the Passover in the future, by means of a liturgy. 

The text taught the people that the way to remember God’s liberation, was by marking the door frames of their homes with a sign. The sign was the symbol of life, for blood carried life.  

The point is this: Never forget that God wishes for your freedom, your liberation. Remember it by means of a sign of ultimate value. 

So, I take this story as a parable that teaches that God’s will for people is their freedom from all conditions which enslave them. And God’s people will be visibly known by a sign of life. We will return to this in a moment. 

Matthew’s all too Human Community

The second text we read was from Matthew’s gospel. This text reflects a time in Matthew’s young Christian community as they tried to work out life together. Communities are made up of people, and people will never fail to step on each other’s toes, offend each other, try to control each other, and hurt each other. 

People are people; we are human, and we all have both positive characteristics and dark sides, good days, and bad days. 

So, how should a community handle the behaviors that come from those dark sides on those bad days?  Well, a principle that they knew from the Jewish Law in the Hebrew Bible was that you never convict a person on the basis of a single testimony (Dut. 19:15). 

Whenever you hear a story from one person about another, always remember that you have heard one side of the story, and every story has more than one side. So, be slow to join accusations.  

The whole point is to try to work it out. Don’t rush to judgment. Try to get to a resolution, to reconciliation. In other words, keep your ego in check. 

The goal is not punishment, but the peace that comes from honesty. In order for this to work, someone is going to have to back down. Someone is going to have to admit fault. Someone is going to have to own what they did, stop making excuses for it, and apologize. 

Then, the other one is going to have to accept the apology and move on. Otherwise, what would be the point of talking about it?  

Ego Work

Both admitting fault and forgiving require ego work. We all have egos, meaning our sense of who we are and what we are entitled to. 

We all think everyone in the world owes us respect. We all want to be taken seriously. 

We all think our own perspective is right. 

We all want everyone else to give us the benefit of the doubt, to assume that we had perfect motives, and did our best, even when we didn’t. 

All those things are what we call ego. The Self, the ego, is that part of us that takes offense, and holds grudges. The ego is that part of ourselves that gets its feelings hurt when we don’t get what we think we are entitled to.  

Now, this is tricky for two reasons. We believe that Jesus taught us to live in such a way that we show respect to everyone, so, in that sense, everyone deserves respect. That is what we extend to others. But that is not what we are to demand for ourselves in the context of our community.  

The second way this teaching is tricky is that we are talking about life together in community. We are not talking about larger social issues. It is right for oppressed groups to demand justice and to be treated with respect. But inside the community, we are to turn the other cheek, and forgive “seventy times seven times.” 

Clearing Matthew’s Weeds

Now, I mentioned that there were weeds that needed to be cleared away from both texts. Here we come to the weeds in this Matthew text. 

The next part of advice, I believe, is not a memory of the historical Jesus, but an expansion on that memory from Matthew’s community. It is the advice about what to do if negotiations fail and the one at fault does not own it, back down, admit it, and apologize. Matthew says, 

“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”

I do not believe the historical Jesus said that, because of the way he treated Gentiles and tax-collectors. In fact, Matthew’s gospel tells us that the disciple named Mathew was himself, a tax-collector, and also that Jesus accepted hime, and that he was compassionate to Gentiles.  

The Community Gathered in Jesus’ Name

But the final statement in this teaching is the key. Matthew says Jesus said:

“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Two or three is the smallest community you can imagine, but it is sufficient. I wonder what Jesus would have thought about gathering virtually, as we have to do these days. I think he would understand. I think he would say, “When two or three gather around a common video of worship, or when they gather in a Zoom meeting, I am there with them.”

 When we gather, we gather in the name of Jesus. That means that Jesus is the basis for our community. The life and teachings of Jesus show us the way to live, including how to live together in community. 

We gather to remember Jesus and to let his words shape our lives. What we see, when we look at Jesus, is a person who demonstrated love at every turn. 

He loved his disciples, even when they failed. 

He loved people whom he called “lost,” whom other people wrote off as “sinners.” 

He loved people whom other people neglected, disrespected, or despised: sick people, Samaritan people, women, Gentile people, poor people, even children, which was counter-cultural at that time. 

Jesus was able to love because he had his ego under control. He did not get offended, even when he was being challenged. He did not need to be first, in fact, our tradition tells us that he washed the feet of his disciples; something only servants did. 

Jesus practiced the kind of spiritual practices, like meditation, or contemplation, that put his own ego in place. The community that gathers in his name seeks to do the same.  

Liberation from Enslavement to Ego

This is one of the levels of liberation we talk about: we can be liberated from slavery to ego when we practice the Jesus-way of living. 

We can be freed from the necessity of protecting our pride and defending our right-ness. 

We can be unshackled from the need to have the last word, be recognized, and be taken seriously by everyone. 

That is what Jesus saves us from, if we let him.  

So let us bring these two stories together. The Passover parable is about being liberated by a God who wants our freedom. The sign we wear to the world that we can spread, not only on our doorframes, but on our whole lives, is the sign that Jesus said would distinguish us as his followers: love.  

I cannot think of a time when we have needed this more than today. Our country is so divided; there is so much hostility, anger, arrogance, and derision — we all know it. Let us not be part of it! Let us be the solution. 

Let us be a community that models the Jesus-way of love; love for each other, and love for our enemies. 

All of our work for justice, equity, and inclusion is motivated, not by resentment and bitterness, but by love. Even when we have to confront systems of injustice and repression, we do it in love. Even when threatened, we respond with love. 

We keep doing the ego-work, keep our spiritual disciplines alive, we keep meditating, so that we can pray for those who oppose us, 

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

As our scriptural wisdom tradition teaches,

love covers a multitude of sins.

The Costs of the Kingdom

The Costs of the Kingdom

Sermon for Aug. 30, 2020, Pentecost 13A

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

There are several scenes in the Bible that show a person directly encountering God.  All of them are weird.  Odd things happen.  

There is a dark cloud on mountain that is smoking and shaking and a blasting sound like a trumpet; there is a whirlwind that breaks rocks, followed by the sound of sheer silence; there are angels with six wings flying around saying “Holy, holy, holy” in the temple as it shakes nearly collapsing.  In this scene, there is a bush is on fire that does not burn itself out.  (Exodus 3:1-15)

How are we supposed to imagine God?  Are we even supposed to try?  Many theologians say no, but on the other hand, how can we not?   

What We Can Say About God

Even though these different direct-encounter scenes presents God differently, nevertheless, they share some common features.  God is overwhelming; awesome; bigger than nature.  

But God’s enormity, though scary, is not a threat.   God is good to humans.  God cares.  God’s overwhelming power is indisputable, but God does not coerce.  God wants certain things, but wants a human agent to do them.  God wants to set the Hebrew slaves free from Pharaoh, but he wants Moses to be the means.  

When Isaiah met God in the temple, God had a message for the people, but he asked, “Whom shall I send?” And then waited for Isaiah to say, “Here am I.   Send me.”  God needed more time to convince Moses, but eventually he does.  (Isaiah 6)

In the dialogue, Moses asks God his or her name.  God famously answers “I am who I am.”  I’m not sure that name explains anything.  

We are back to the question: are we even supposed to know?  Some scholars have suggested that the Hebrew behind that mysterious name could be translated, “I will cause to be what I cause to be.”  But again, God’s way of causing things involves humans.  

Jesus’ God

The stories of these divine encounters and the God they depicted were part of the Jewish tradition that formed Jesus’ concept of God.  God, for Jesus, was good; Jesus pictured God like a father; not a rough disciplinarian, but like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son: one that looked down the road every day for his troubled boy, and ran to meet him with a hug when he returned.  The boy was not scolded, but celebrated, to the chagrin of his older brother.  

Jesus also knew that God’s means of getting things done was through people, and he felt personally called to be God’s agent, God’s means.  

But he did not imagine the task was his alone.  Jesus called other people to follow him; to get on board; to be part of the team to announce the presence of the kingdom of God with all its implications.

God Without Guarantees

And although Jesus understood God as good, he knew that God’s goodness was not a guarantee of safety.  God’s presence would not shield Jesus nor his followers from suffering.  God, for Jesus, was present in his suffering (even though his confidence was shaken, on the cross) but not a magical protection from the pain.  

Embracing a mission that included costs was something Jesus did, and something Jesus called his followers to do as well.  

This did not go down so well, with the likes of Peter.  Peter, like the televangelists today who promise health, wealth and prosperity, wanted a victorious Messiah, not one headed for a cross.  His desire for triumph without trouble earned him the harshest rebuke recorded in the gospel.  Jesus said, 

Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

God Wants Liberation

It is very human to want to avoid suffering.  But there are times in which suffering must be accepted as the possible price to be paid for going up against forces that are hostile to getting God’s purposes accomplished.  

What does God want to accomplish?  One of God’s most obvious desires is for the people’s liberation.  That is what we learn from the story that started for Moses at the burning bush. God heard the cries of the people who were enslaved.  Being enslaved is an inhuman, unjust condition.  God wanted liberation.  God wanted justice.  

So Jesus knew what God wanted, but recognized that going up agains the Herodian-Roman domination system was going to be dangerous.  

We look back on what Jesus did, when he rode that donkey colt into Jerusalem on that Passover festival and call it his “triumphal entry.”  But nobody knew, on that day, whether or not it would end in bloodshed.  

Jesus was, after all, intentionally mocking Pilate’s grand entry into Jerusalem from the opposite side; Jesus’ peaceful donkey mocking Pilate’s war horse; Jesus’ palm branch waving supporters mocking Pilates’ heavily armed troops.  It could have been a massacre right then and there.  Jesus accepted that possibility.

Jesus took even greater risks than merely that carnivalesque ride.  He went to the temple, in effect, the central bank, and shut it down, at least symbolically, at least for several hours.  

It took the authorities about a week to figure out wether Jesus was leading an armed revolution or was a non-violent opposition leader.   When they determined he was non-violent, they knew they did not need to make their move against his whole support network, but only him alone. 

But they knew, one way or the other, he had to be stopped.  He had a goal, and that was to liberate his people from the oppression of King Herod’s dynasty, under the Roman Empire’s authority.  

His goal was  that the kingdom they would live in would not be Herod’s or Caesar’s, but God’s, in which the last would be first and the first would be last, the hungry would be fed, and in which no one was excluded.  

He knew that confronting the powers that benefited from that oppression would be dangerous, but he did not flinch.  Doing nothing was not an option, even though doing anything involved risks. 

Reading These Texts in our Context

How do we read these texts in our context?  It seems hyperbolic in the extreme to speak of taking up crosses, as if we had to fear execution.  Even if we practiced  the self-denial that Jesus spoke about, in our context it would be a far cry from the risks that Jesus called his followers to take.  

For example, while it is true that people have died protesting white supremacy and racism, but it is quite rare; at least, so far.  This is not 1964, thank God. 

So what should be our take away?  On the most obvious level, we can say that we are called to follow Jesus in the quest for for justice and for libration from oppression.  

In our day, that means being allies for any and all oppressed groups.  Justice work is spiritual work because it is God’s work.  Most likely, the costs to us are going to be social, not physical.   

People may take offense when we march against racism.  They may not think much of us when we advocate on behalf of gay people or trans people, but we accept that price.  We know that God wants justice, and wants people to be the means to achieving it.

Life Worth Living

But let’s go deeper with this text.  The people who resist the notion of suffering are trying to save their lives.  But how far will they go in an effort to keep themselves on easy street?  Jesus, after his rebuke to Peter, asked, 

what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

In the older translations, the question Jesus asked was translated, “what shall a [person] given in exchange for his soul?”  The word soul literally means your entire being; not the soul, as if distinct from the body.  

That older translation gave rise to the expression “selling your soul.”  The idea is that there are people who “sell their soul” cheaply.  

Some sell their soul to their jobs, and ruin their families and their own health.  

Some sell their soul to a political party, and so are incapable of holding people in it accountable, even when what they do is unacceptable.  

Some sell their soul to their nation; they will defend anything the nation does, even when it is obviously oppressive.  We see this going on around us all the time.  

In our day, there are people who refuse to be inconvenienced by  wearing a mask, even if would protect the vulnerable from a life-threatening virus.  Perhaps they have sold their souls to a version of personal freedom, even at the risk of causing death.  

There are people who will not be inconvenienced by avoiding plastics or recycling, not to mention supporting a carbon fee, even if it means contributing to climate change which causes warmer oceans which produce larger, stronger hurricanes.  Who could they possibly hurt?  Ask the people in Louisiana and Texas.   

The conclusion that Jesus came to was this:

those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The self-seeking life is not worth living.  The self-centered life is not worth living.  The self-aggrandizing life is not worth living.  

But the life lived for the things that matter to God is worth living.  The life of service is worth living.  The life of sacrifice is worth living.  

The life of seeking the common good, seeking justice, seeking and end to oppression and discrimination is worth living.  This is the life of love; our highest calling.  Justice is what love looks like in public.  

Blessed are those,” Jesus said, “who hunger and thirst for justice.   For theirs is the kingdom of God.”

The Story of 2020

The Story of 2020

Sermon for August 23, 2020, Pentecost 12A
Video can be found here.

Isaiah 51:1-6

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
   you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
   and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
   and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
   but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
   he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
   her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Listen to me, my people,
   and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
   and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
   my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
   the coastlands wait for me,
   and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
   and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
   the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
   but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.

The stories we tell matter. Someday they will tell the stories of 2020. It will have been the year of the global pandemic, of course, and also the year of an American presidential election. 

It will have been the year of national protests over the way black lives have been treated as if they did not matter, by the institutions whose duty it was to protect them. 

It will, at minimum, have been the year that the first African-American woman was on the ticket of a major party, in the intersection of the one-hundredth anniversary of the attainment of women’s suffrage, and in the national embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

But we are in the middle of 2020 now. We do not know how the story will end. We are living in the days of mask-wearing, curbside pickup, take-out dining, social distancing, and, for many, isolation. 

All of this is new for us; it is inconvenient, and stressful. It creates heavy emotional burdens. People with pre-existing emotional or mental underlying conditions suffer most. 

This is also the year of increased drug-addiction and domestic violence. It is too early to tell if it is also the year of increased suicide rates, but who would be surprised if it were?  

Telling Ourselves Stories

How are you handling this whole thing? To a significant degree, the stories you are telling yourself every day — in fact, every moment — affect how 2020 is going for you. 

We, humans, tell ourselves lots of stories. We have a mental narrator that is framing our experiences, judging them as likable or not, happy or not, helpful or not. So, what is your narrator telling you right now?  

We do have control over our mental narrator, though, in our culture, we are not brought up to know that, or to use that control. Controlling it takes mindfulness, but we are not taught about mindfulness nor about meditation which enables it. 

Most of the time, we simply listen to our mental stories, with all their judgments going on subconsciously, accepting them as true. But the stories we tell ourselves are not true in any deep sense. They are judgments that may or may not be based on reality.  

For example, I have a friend who had a bad experience as a child with a scary dog. Now, even as an adult, dogs make him fearful. His mental narrator tells him they are a danger to him. That is not true, but he feels fear.

An Alternative Story

There is a story we could be telling ourselves in 2020 that could help us, not just survive this year, but actually thrive in it. It is an alternative to the story of us as victims of forces beyond our control. It is a story rooted in something unchangeably true, which has the power to give us hope.

Let us start with another story, which will then take us to our text, the wisdom tradition of the prophet Isaiah, and then bring it home to our day.  

The story starts with people experiencing depression. Just like the way the people of Beirut felt, looking at their city after the explosion, the people of Israel, whose parents had survived the Babylonian invasion of their country 70 years earlier, returned to find the temple and palace in ruins, the walls destroyed, and few resources. 

The story they told themselves was that they were victims. They told themselves that there were forces beyond their control that they were powerless to confront.  

But the prophet Isaiah knew that there was a larger truth that they were living in. There was a deeper identity they could embrace with the power to subvert the victim-status they were wearing. 

It was a specific identity, grounded in a story that included God. Not just God in the abstract, but in a particular way of understanding God. Let us look at the text. To those depressed, discouraged returnees, Isaiah said, 

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
 Look to Abraham your father
  and to Sarah who bore you;”

The Abraham and Sarah Story

The story of Abraham and Sarah began as a “call narrative;” a story of people who came to understand that God was calling them to set out on a journey to an unknown land. 

God took the initiative.  Not because they were seeking a call, not because they had done anything to earn it, nevertheless, on God’s own initiative, for God’s own reasons, they were called to make that journey into an unknown future. All they did was say “yes” to that call. 

“Look to that story,” Isaiah says. “We are their descendants,” he says; both descendants in the family, and descendants of that particular faith-tradition.  

Abraham and Sarah’s story was not made for Disney. There were successes and failures of faith along the way. But they were never abandoned by God. In fact, the opposite. After failures of nerve, after fathering Ishmael by Hagar, still, God was faithful. And from that one son, Isaac, they had become many; proof of God’s faithfulness. Isaiah points this out:

“for he was but one when I called him,
  but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah says, in effect, “Yes the Babylonian invasion was brutal. Yes, the destruction was immense. Yes, the task ahead is difficult, but look at who you are: you are the people God called. You are here today because, after all these years, God has been faithful to bless you. 

Look at that, and stop telling yourself the victim-story. You are the blessed people of God; start wearing that identity. Make t-shirts that say it, if that will help.  Wearing that identity, telling the story that way will then become the basis of hope.” Isaiah says:

For the Lord will comfort Zion;
  he will comfort all her waste places,
 and will make her wilderness like Eden,
  her desert like the garden of the Lord;
 joy and gladness will be found in her,
  thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Comfort” here means restoration. There is hope for the future. There will be an end to depression. There will be joy, thanksgiving, and the voice of song.  

The God of the Light of Justice

The hope is not just a facile happy-wish, as if you could just think positive thoughts and your troubles would go away. The hope is based on the kind of God that Abraham and Sarah learned that the God of Israel is. This God is a God of justice. Isaiah said, 

Listen to me, my people,
  and give heed to me, my nation;
 for a teaching will go out from me,
  and my justice for a light to the peoples.

Let us unpack that. God’s teaching, or instruction, is going to be a light to the peoples, meaning a new way of seeing. In what way new? Seeing with eyes open to justice; eyes that see injustice and see what needs to be done to set things right.  

Hagar’s Rescue: God is Just

According to the story in our tradition, Abraham and Sarah learned that God was both faithful and just. 

Remember the part of the story in which Sarah got jealous of Hagar after she gave birth to Ishmael. Sarah demanded that Abraham send her and her son away. Abraham did. 

In the story, they would have died out in the wilderness without water, but God intervened and provided from them. God looked at people who were suffering unjustly, and provided for them. God’s concern was for compassionate justice. 

That is the lesson to learn. Isaiah says, look to Abraham and Sarah’s story. Let it help form your concept of God. God seeks justice. Let the lesson broaden out from a personal context to the political horizon. When nations champion justice, the light can shine into places that were dark.  

Our 2020 Alternative Story

So, let us bring it back to our context. Yes, the stories of 2020 will be stories of the pandemic, disruption, protest, and politics, but that is not all. The identities we embrace can go beyond seeing ourselves as victim to forces beyond our control, to people who are part of a larger story. 

We are characters in the Great Story of what God is doing in the world. In this story, like Abraham and Sarah, we too have been called by God. God took the initiative with us. God loved us before we could even say the word, God. God created us, just as we are, for a purpose bigger than ourselves. God called us, like Abraham and Sarah, to a journey into an unknowable future. 

Our story with God will not be one of unmitigated success after success. We too will have a failure of nerve at times, but God will remain faithful; God will not abandon us, no matter what.  

We may not know the specifics, but we know that the mission God has called us to is to spread the light of justice. We turn on the lights and see where injustice has caused suffering, and we become activists for justice. 

This means we educate ourselves. We read important books. We join reading groups like the Monday Morning Seekers or Bridges so we can understand issues in-depth, not just the level of the evening news, but at the level of lived experience. We watch documentaries, we listen to podcasts where experts are called in to teach us things we did not know about our country’s history, about the role race has played in determining who has access to power and who is able to accumulate wealth.  

We learn how lucky we white people have been, how many doors swing open to us that are locked for others. We learn how much we have taken all of this for granted, and expect to have an open door, a seat at the table, a voice and a vote. 

We listen to the stories of people of color, with openness and empathy, and learn that our experience of life in this country has been quite different from theirs.

 What stories are we telling ourselves? Let our story be the one Jesus told. It was about the God of Abraham and Sarah who is still active, even in circumstances of oppression and injustice, like the Roman occupation of Palestine. 

His was a story of answering God’s call that, for him, meant proclaiming that beneath the surface of the story of the Roman Empire was the deeper story of God’s kingdom, present within and among everyone who was willing to respond. 

It was a story of a God of faithfulness and justice, providing for the hungry, ministering to the sick, crossing all boundaries of race, gender, class, and identity to show compassion. 

Let that be the story we embrace in 2020. Let that be the identity we wear under our virus-prevention masks. Then, when we look back on this year, we will be able to tell a story of God’s faithful presence to us, his children. It will be the story of how God used us, to bring the light of justice and compassion to our world in our time.