Passionate Compassion

Sermon for Lent 2 C on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35 for February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

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After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….”

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

Passionate Compassion

Most people around the world want to know what God is like.  Everyone is born into a particular culture, and every culture we know of has a way of understanding God, or, more often, all of the gods.  The way we humans understand things is through stories.  Our story of God is quite different from most other god-stories.  The differences are enormous.  Noticing them helps us understand our own story.

This morning, we are going to start a bit theoretically, but I promise it’s going to get really personal.  We all want to understand God; what God is like; what God wants from us.  The two texts we read are amazing and important on exactly this topic.

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But let’s start this way:  Most of the god-stories that various cultures tell are not set in any particular time.  The gods live up in the heavens, or down under the earth in the realm of the dead, but not in real-earth time.  Zeus is up there on Mt. Olympus, cavorting around, fathering other gods and goddesses, having conflicts, feasting.  The gods on Olympus all live in mythical time, with no beginning or end.

Our God-Story

Our story is quite different.  It begins with the creation of the world complete with a sun and moon to mark time into days and nights, together with stars to mark annual seasons.  Our story begins with a man and woman in perfect garden, at peace with all of nature, at peace with each other and at peace with God who they know and speak with in the time of the evening breeze.

So, what is God like?  Lets compare stories. The gods in most stories I’m aware of have super-powers.  They control nature.  Some gods get to throw around thunderbolts, others control the waves of the sea.  They bring fertility to crops and herds – that is, they may decide to bring fertility; it is in their power – if they are kept happy by the humans who serve them.

But it may go the other way just as easily.  The gods can bring drought and famine if they wish.   They can be petty, vengeful, spiteful, and malicious – or loving and kind.   You never really know.

So, the gods are like humans, only very big and very powerful.  It’s important to get them to like you so that you will be treated kindly by them.

But they don’t much care about your life apart from that.  It’s not really their concern how you live, if you are good or bad, if you beat your wife or exploit your workers, keep or break your promises.   In other words, morality – how we treat each other – was not their concern.

Consequences + Caring

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By enormous and significant contrast, our story starts out from the very beginning with a God who not only relates to the humans he made in his image, he is also quite concerned about their behavior.  He gives them a command and expects them to obey.  They do not, of course, since the quintessential human response to a command has always been “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do!”  They reach up, grab the forbidden fruit, and take a big bite.  God cares; there are consequences.

Our story includes lots of accounts of people behaving badly, causing pain and suffering to each other, right from the start.  Cain is jealous of his brother Able, and kills him.  God cares.  There are consequences.

But the consequences are not brutally disproportionate, and in fact,  they are mixed with God’s grief, and, amazingly, God’s continued caring.  Adam and Eve have to leave the garden, but not in naked shame; God clothes them.  It’s an act of post-punishment care.  Cain is banished, but yet God gives him a mark to keep him from being murdered; another post-punishment act of care.

All throughout our story – the bible’s story of God – we see repeatedly that God is concerned for our moral behavior – how we treat each other – and cares deeply about us.  If there is one huge, profoundly significant way in which our story differs from others it is that God cares.

When God’s people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, wind up in Egypt as slaves they cry out to God, and God hears their cries; God cares, and God responds.  Liberation from oppression is Israel’s number one God-story.

How did they know that God would care about their oppression and suffering?  Because they knew the amazing God-story that we read from Genesis 15.

God and the Loyalty Oath

God had called Abraham to leave his home country in Mesopotamia to go to a land God promised to give to him.   God promised him descendants – numerous as the stars in the sky.  And God promised that through these descendants he would finally work out his plan to bless all the families of the earth.  What a commission!  What a calling!  But it had to start, in those uber-patriarchal days, with a male child.   Abraham and Sarah were childless.

So God reassures Abraham – look at the stars; count them if you can.  That is how many descendants you will have.  But how can childless Abraham believe it?

In those days, treaties between rulers were enacted in solemn covenant-making ceremonies.  Most often the treaty was between the conquering ruler and the one he conquered.  The treaty included a solemn loyalty oath.

Here’s how it went.  Animals were slaughtered and cut in half.  The carcasses were laid out in two parallel rows, forming an aisle between them.  The conquered ruler would swear loyalty by walking between the pieces of the slain animals.

“Cross my heart, hope to die”

By walking between the pieces he was, in effect, taking on an oath of self-cursing.  He was saying, may the same thing happen to me as happened to these animals if I am ever disloyal to my conqueror.  It was like the way children say, “cross my heart, hope to die; stick a needle in my eye.”

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So what did we read?  God puts Abraham into a deep, dark, mystical sleep.  God appears to Abraham in a vision and instructs him to prepare the covenant ceremony.  Abraham makes the aisle out of the slain animal victims.  There is no doubt that he is thinking: “Okay, I shall walk between the pieces and swear my loyalty to the God who promised descendants to me, and let him kill me if I am ever disloyal.”

But that is precisely not what happens.  In that deep, numinous vision, Abraham watches as the flaming, smoking symbols of God make that solemn journey between the victims.  It is almost too much for human words.  God has just cursed himself, lest he ever be disloyal to Abraham!

What is God like?  Just about as opposite to Zeus as could be.  We could sum up in one word what God is like: God cares!  This is the God the descendants of Abraham can cry out to when they become slaves in Egypt; the God who cares!

Jesus’ Response to Threats

Now let us fast forward many years to our second story.  It is the time of Jesus.  Rome is now in control, and again the people feel like slaves.  Many of them are hoping for a revolution.  Sharpen the swords; prepare for blood.

But the people have been down this road before.  Now they can look back over their history and tell a long story.  Most of it, frankly, has been a tragic one.  They have been an independent nation; they have had a king, even a dynasty.  That did not work out so well for them.

Not only has it not worked out well for them, it has not helped anybody else, either.  There has never been any sense in which “all the families of the earth” have been blessed or  have gotten anything positive out of deal, as Abraham was promised would happen.  There’s a problem.

Jesus is deeply aware that the essential problem is not Rome.  The essential problem, the real enemy to fight is the same one that showed up in the Garden of Eden.  It is the darkness in the human heart that proclaims, “Nobody is going to tell me what to do!”  God may say, “Do justice, love mercy, look after the widow, the orphan and the alien.”  But we humans say, “Nobody tells us what to do.”

So it is what it is; a world of people causing pain and suffering to other people.  You would think that if this were the assessment, that the darkness in human hearts was pervasive, that God’s response would be anger, wrath and judgment.

But that is not what the God who has passed between the pieces is like.  The God who has cursed himself lest he be unfaithful to his promise to bless all the families of the earth is the God that Jesus shows us.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem”

So, even after Jesus hears oblique death threats, even after his repeated proclamations of the Kingdom of God have been rebuffed, what is the emotion that Jesus displays?  Vengeance?  Bitterness?  No!  It is caring!  You can hear the pain in Jesus’ voice as he looks at his capital city where so much has happened since the time of David and Solomon to the current days of king Herod, saying:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

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Picturing the way a mother bird gathers her chicks under her wings for protection from storms, Jesus looks at a nation heading for disaster and says, I care!  I still care.  Even after everything, I care!

I care, because the path you are on will only lead to more pain and suffering.  I care because God cares.  This is passionate compassion.  This is the heart of the God who passed between the pieces.

God Cares –We Care

This is exactly how God is; this is the way God looks at us; with caring, with love.  Yes with sadness over the times we say “nobody tells me what to do” like four-year olds, as we hurt ourselves and each other, but always hearing our pain-cries, and always caring.  What are you going through now?   God cares!  What are your sources of pain, or fear, or disappointment?  God cares!

This is our enormous comfort and hope, and our agenda.  God calls all of us to take up his care for the world and the people in it and to be his agents of caring.  Our mission, our mandate is to be authentic followers of Jesus.  That means that we are people of passionate compassion.

When we hear about people in need; we care, and we respond.  When we know that there are children who cannot keep up in school, we care, and we respond as tutors.  When we are aware that there are families who need food, we care and we respond with the Christian Service Center.

When we know that there are people falling through the cracks because of mental health issues, we care and we respond in every way we can.   When we hear about people who have felt excluded or left out of the conversation, we care and we reach out to them without pre-conditions.   We do what Jesus did; we do what God does: we care.

We have been loved and cared for by a God who passed through the covenant pieces for us.  We know God through Jesus who spreads his arms in a huge embrace of us, in all our complexity and ambiguity, with love and healing.  And we  in turn spread out our hen-like wings as far as they will go, to gather all the chicks that need a safe, caring place.

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What Jesus Gave Up for Lent

Sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for 1st Lent C, February 17, 2013

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

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Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
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‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

What Jesus Gave Up for Lent

We have recently been reminded that Jesus asked us to consider “the lilies of the field,” as an alternative to worry.  The first thing to notice in this text is that there are no lilies.  The setting is the wilderness.  It’s barren.  There are no “green pastures” nor “quiet waters” either.

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The second thing to notice is that it’s lonely out there.  You are on your own in the wilderness; there is not even a child with a Happy Meal of “five loaves and two fishes”.  Its just you out there.

The role of “forty”

And as long as we are noticing things about wilderness, we might as well consider the role of numbers out there.  Forty seems to be the one to keep in mind.  Jesus spends forty days out there.  That’s one day for each of the forty years his nation, Israel spent in their wilderness-time, as they journeyed from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land; the time of the great exodus.

That time was a time of testing for the Israelites, we remember, when conditions were harsh, and the final outcome of reaching the destination was anything but certain.

Forty is also, probably not coincidently, the number of years in one generation, according to customary reckoning.  If you spend forty years in the wilderness, you’ve pretty much been there your entire life.

Action

Wilderness is lonely and barren, but it’s not a boring place.  There is action in the wilderness.  It is a battle scene.  There are no other people around, but remember, it was the Spirit that led Jesus out there, and the diabolical devil is there as well.    They have opposite agendas for Jesus. It’s a contest.  There will be winners and losers.  Nobody returns from wilderness unscathed nor unchanged.

And one more thing to notice about wilderness: we have all been there, we will all be there again, and at least in some senses, we are always there.  That’s part of the point of the “forty” number; it’s an allusion to the length of one generation; a lifetime.  Though there are specific  times when it is particularly difficult, in which we are more aware of being out there, nevertheless, the fact is that we are always living in wilderness, at least in some sense.

In what sense?  In the sense that we are always involved in a spiritual struggle between trust and despair.  In the sense that we must face our demons individually.  And in the sense that it is not apparent to us where the resources we need are going to come from.  We can see plenty of stones; but precious little bread.

So how do we handle living in wilderness?  We look to Jesus, of course; which is why Luke wrote this down for us.

Bread from Stones

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So, the first temptation goes like this:

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”   Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’

Jesus has been fasting, he is famished, and bread is a good thing.  This is not a temptation to do something bad per se.  This is a temptation to link our faith to outcomes.  We all have lots of needs, from personal health issues to relationship issues, to the well-being of those whom we love, to the uncertain future, we all have needs.

And we all pray.  We all ask God to help us with those concerns.  We pray for good outcomes.  Did not Jesus himself teach us to pray to our heavenly father, “Give us each day our daily bread”?  Yes of course.

But the point is this: there is no “if – then” condition that we bring to our prayers.  “If you are the Son of God, then prove it” the devil, in effect, says.  “If you are God, you will produce this happy outcome – heal, reconcile, vouchsafe, or whatever.”

Rather, Jesus models for us the life of faith that does not make faith itself conditional on happy outcomes.

Those who come to Bible Study on Thursday have just heard that Paul conceives of the entire Christian life, the life of faith, as a time of exodus.  In other words, a time of wilderness, complete with present conditions of suffering that test our faith.   And yet, hope is possible, even in the wilderness, that God’s future will be accomplished.

“…we also boast [celebrate] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,   and hope does not disappoint us…. ” (Rom. 5:3-5)

We are people of hope; God is working out God’s purposes and will finally accomplish good.  But between now and then, our lot may include sufferings, as Paul says.  Jesus marks the way through this wilderness.  We do not make our faith conditional on today’s happy outcomes.  We don’t live by daily bread alone.

All the Kingdoms: Control

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The second temptation starts with a look at all the kingdoms of the world.  The devil says to Jesus:

“If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

“All the kingdoms”: let’s not think about England, Germany, Italy and France.  Think about the Roman Empire and all the other historic empires: the Babylonian, the Assyrian, the Egyptian.  These were not democracies.  They were all about control by force.  Think: Stalin.

How many lives have been made miserable by control-issues?!  How many relationships ruined, how many groups of people have been made toxic and destructive?

From committees to whole organizations, from non-profits to churches and businesses – when there are people who have got to be in control, to have it their way or no way, it ruins it.  The project goes from nobel – a marriage, a team, a cause, to ignoble; from a kingdom of God project, to the opposite.

God is in charge, and we are not.  None of us is wise enough to know how to run our own lives, let alone running the lives of others.  We are not always right.  We do not have or understand all the facts.  We couldn’t possibly foresee all the possible outcomes.

People of faith are called to let God be God.  To accept the things we cannot change, to bend in the wind, as the lilies of the field do, instead of huffing and puffing back at it.

If worship means anything, it means acknowledging that God is God, and I am not.  So, Jesus shows us the response to the control-temptation:

“‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

“Catch me”

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The third temptation in wilderness comes from the top of the temple, where the devil says to Jesus,

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,”

This is the temptation to fox-hole faith.  “God, get me out of this one, and then I’ll believe; then I’ll trust you.”  This is especially poignant for situations we have gotten ourselves into.

We want God to magically fix relationships that we have helped poison with  hostile words, bitterness, and failure to forgive.  We want God to take away years of bad diets, make up for years without exercise, and to make the anxiety-control capacity in our brains like the ones in the brains of those who have prayed and meditated for decades.

But that kind of last-second intervention would make a mockery out of real life.  God does not force us to be good.  God does not make us live well.  Rather, God graciously invites us to make use of the means of grace: daily prayer, scripture, meditation, silence, public worship, and the sacraments.

God invites us to live grateful, responsible, disciplined lives, walking lightly on our planet, being good stewards of our bodies, nurturing relationships, doing justice, and loving and accept ing love in return.

This is how the life of faith is lived, as Jesus showed us, daily entrusting ourselves to our heavenly Father.  Quite the opposite of rushing to God like a stranger in a self-inflicted crisis.  We refuse, as Jesus taught us to refuse, saying,

“you shall not put the Lord our God to the test”

Happy Endings?

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Well, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness came to an end, and the devil, Luke tells us, let him be,

“until an opportune time”

The opportune time came when the devil goads Judas into the control-temptation.  On the night of the Last Supper, he leaves to betray Jesus.

That evening does not end well for Jesus.  He prays to have “the cup pass” from him, but he gets a “no” for answer.  Jesus suffers that night.  The stones do not become bread; the Roman lash comes down on him, what –  forty times?

Jesus demonstrates the life of trust, not only when the temptation passes uneventfully; Jesus trusts God completely, and ultimately, right up to the point of death.

Trust in God is not at all a fairy-tale trust in magical deliverance.  Trust means the assurance that God is with us in the entire journey, through suffering, and with us still, to the very end.

And we live lives of trust not as hopeless people, but as those who are content to let God be God; putting our finite, mortal lives in God’s good hands, every day.

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The Four Essential Conversions

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, C, on Luke 9:28-36 February 10, 2013

Luke 9:28-36

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Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

The Point of Power

I make several assumptions as I stand up here on Sundays.  I assume that we are here because we know ourselves, at some level, as disciples of Jesus and we want to become better disciples.

I also assume that we give a lot of our time and attention on Sundays to listening to the gospels for that very reason; because they teach us who Jesus is and what he wants from us.  We get to see the original disciples in action and we find ourselves in that story along with them – both in their failures and in their success as disciples.

I also assume that we believe, at some level, that our lives really are more blessed, more meaningful, more significant when we grow as disciples of Jesus.

Well, if you are with me in these assumptions, this text is for us, so we will look at it together in the quest to be better, more faithful disciples of Jesus.

This text recounts two stories; the one we call the Transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, followed by the story of the healing of the boy with the demon.  I believe they are best told together.  But this text begins,

“Now about eight days after these sayings…”

which clearly shows that we are jumping into the middle of a story already in progress.  “Eight days after…” what “sayings”?  After the sayings like,

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

And those sayings were after Jesus had sent his disciples out in ministry, on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to heal illness and to confront evil, and after they returned having had success.

So from successful ministry, to sayings about suffering and cross-bearing, to an odd, uncanny mountain top experience, and finally to a situation down in the lowlands where they failed to cure a boy of the evil spirit that was damaging him.

What could Luke have been trying to teach us about discipleship with these stories that culminate in this Transfiguration story followed by a discipleship failure story?

Jesus is not at all content to leave his disciples in the condition in which he finds them.  He keeps challenging them and encouraging them, teaching them – and even letting them fail – so that they will grow.  They need to begin with the four basic conversions. Each growth-step requires another conversion.

Conversion 1:  from Ego-centrism to Others

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Conversion number one is the conversion from the me-only, ego-centric world to the world of me-and-others.   From the infant who is only aware of himself,  to the toddler in the family, to the child at school, to the adult in the world.

In this conversion, we begin to understand the purpose for which we were put in this world: We are not here on this planet for ourselves alone.  The self-obsessed life is not worth living.  In fact it is fundamentally meaning-less.  I am connected to the other people on this planet in a web of responsibility and reciprocity.

Everything Jesus did helped to teach his disciples to experience the conversion from self-centeredness to openness to others.  From his first call, “Follow me” to his healings, parables, miracles, exorcisms, all of it was oriented to others – especially to others who had been marginalized or despised.  The disciples went out on that mission trip: they were learning this.

The question that confronts each of us is: have I experienced the conversion from my own self-centered default position, to an open embrace of others?  How would that conversion be seen in my life?

Conversion 2:  self-justification  to  humility

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Conversion two is from self-justification to humility.  It is the awareness that that I’m not always right, nor always in the right.  I’m not always right means I wake up to the truth that my opinions are not always correct, my facts are not always straight, I have a vested interests that I’m often protecting, consciously or not, power interests, privileges for myself and my family; the people in my group.  So, sometimes the only “facts” I’m willing to look at are those that serve my and our special interests.

But, I’m not always right, and the proof that I’m not is what you hear when you ask people who are holding the other end of the stick in each case.  I need to be converted from self-justifications to humility.

Neither am I always “in the right.” Regardless of my constant stream of self-justifications and excuses, sometimes I do wrong.  Sometimes innocently, as in unintended consequences, sometimes deliberately, I do things that if someone else did the same, I would say were wrong.  I violate my own standards; I’m not always in the right.

This is the conversion that drops the rhetoric of self-justification in favor of the rhetoric of responsibility, and apology, and if need be, of reparations.

Jesus taught his disciples who wanted to take the places at his the right and left in the kingdom that the first would be last and the last, first.  And he called them out when they got it wrong: when they wanted to shun children or foreign women or when they simply failed to trust God.

On the mount of transfiguration, Peter gets it wrong and has to be corrected.  Down below, they all fail to have enough faith to confront the demon who is possessing the boy.

The question the gospels confront me with is: Have I experienced the conversion from self-justification to humility?  How would that be visible in my life?

Conversion 3: the broken heart

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Conversion three involves awareness of suffering: other people suffer just as I do.  Other people feel just as much if not more cold, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, fear, anxiety, pain and suffering.

This conversion is awareness.  Everyone of us is completely aware of our own suffering and the suffering of those we love. This conversion involves an awakening to the fact that we are not alone; everyone suffers.

This is where the pain of the world breaks our hearts. It also involves acknowledging how my life and lifestyle may contribute to the suffering of others, and that my purpose here on this planet must involve working to alleviate or at least minimize the suffering of others.

The fact that the disciples of Jesus went out on the mission trip and healed people as Jesus had taught showed that at least at some level they too cared for the sufferings of others.

The  question the gospel confronts me with is: Has my heart been broken by the pain of the world, the suffering of the hungry, the lonely, the excluded and the victims of oppression?  How does my life give evidence of that broken-heartedness?

Conversion 4:  I’m not in charge of the world

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The final conversion we will look at today is from control to admitting need.  This happens when we conclude that we do not run the world, we are not in charge.  This is where we admit that we need redeeming; we need help; we need God.  We are not God: but God is God.

The point of the Transfiguration story is that it is God who is at work in life and ministry of Jesus.  Lest we get confused and think we are telling a human story, this scene reminds us that we are telling the story of God at work in the world.

Failure in the Valley

But the text does not end on the mountain, it ends with the scene below.  The disciples have started well; they have not turned away from the possessed boy in fear or disgust.  They have reached out to help, showing that they care, but they are unsuccessful.  Why?

The whole story brings up more questions than it answers.  The one sure take-away is to notice what Luke draws our attention to: Jesus’ evaluation. His analysis is that the failure is a failure of faith.  Luke allows the harshness and severity of this moment to stand; the words of Jesus and the action in the scene are both jagged and painful:

Jesus answered,

“You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Clearly, Luke is using this vignette to speak to us, the readers, not just to those gathered that day.  Evil is destructive and damaging; we can see the poor boy having this seizure and we hate what it’s doing to him..

And this is exactly how all evil is – including all of those natural states that we need to be converted from.  They are all destructive: self-obsession, self-justifications, hard-heartedness and arrogant presumption are poison to our own souls and toxic to our world.

All of them stem from the same disease: self is in the center; God is pushed out to the margins, others are pushed away, the pain of others is ignored, and the self seeks to sing “I did it my way” at every opportunity.  The chief demon, the fundamental evil has always been the quest to “be like God,” as the Adam and Eve story shows.

Down the Path of Discipleship

But though our reading today ends with a failure of faith, it is only a slice of the entire gospel story.  Jesus is pushing the disciples into new territory, further down the path of discipleship.

In the text today, we see God’s power on display in two dramatic forms: one on the mountain and the other down below.   We see what the point of all that power is: not to build religious shrines far above the heads of the masses.  Rather, God’s power at work in Jesus is always towards people in need.  The direction of attention is from up to down, not the reverse.

But the evil confronting people of faith, even those who want to be converted in each area, is strong.  Sometimes the power of evil is too strong for our faith.  We, like the disciples of Jesus simply feel overwhelmed; we cannot cast it out.

Hope after Failure

But that the power and destructiveness of evil is not the last word.  These are stories of hope because these stories show God’s power at work in the world in effective, redemptive ways.  Sure the disciples fail this time, as they will again on Good Friday.  But even that is not the end of the story.

These stories are foreshadowings of the source of our hope: the passion and resurrection ahead.  Jesus is going to suffer in a full-fledged embrace of humanity in all its sinfulness.  But God will raise him from the dead, powerfully working out his purpose, defeating evil with finality.

In the mean time, the disciples feel the sting of the rebuke, but know that the journey is still in progress.  What about us?

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Invitation to a Lenten Journey

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  We will once again be reminded of our frail mortality.  Indeed, some who received the ashes last year are no longer with us.  We will begin the season of lengthening daylight, the season of Lent, a distinct episode in our journey of discipleship.

The challenge before us this Lent is to take up these four conversions that God wants us to experience, and to allow his power to work in us.

This is a call to use the upcoming season of Lent to renew our commitment to being disciples of Jesus in deeper and more profoundly converted ways.  It is a season of faith-development so that we can be more effectively engaged in the practical confrontation of evil’s destructive force.  It is a season to experience the power of God in new ways.

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No Place Like Home

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, February 3rd, 2013, on Luke 4:21-30

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Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

No Place Like Home

There is a book by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo entitled “Adventures in Missing the Point.”  It’s all about how Christianity often gets itself off track, missing the main point in crucial areas.  It’s not just theologians like these who have concluded that the church has missed the point; so have a significant number of people.  And we are paying for it in a big way now.

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The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story on the upsurge in “religious doubt” in the United States, touting research that shows the percentage of Americans who claim no religious preference more than doubled between 1990 and 2001. According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), more than 29 million adults do not identify with any religion, up from 14 million in 1990. Eight percent identified “none” as their religious preference in 1990, compared with 14% in 2001.”  Almost double.

source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/20329/religion-america-who-has-none.aspx

The Logic of Monotheism

Undoubtedly there are many factors contributing to this, but one major issue is that many have concluded that the church as a whole is simply missing the point.  I think this is somewhat a result of success as well as failure.  The success is that Monotheism has carried the day.  Even people who say they do not believe in God are thinking of a single divine being they cannot believe in, not a pantheon of nature/fertility gods or the many dark gods of the underworld.

But an odd thing happens when a person lives in a culture in which the long held consensus is there is only one God.  At some level you know that sectarian thinking is ruled out.  If one God made the world – whether in an instant or by means of a gradual process – either way – then how could God play favorites?  Only bad parents favor one child over another.  How could one God be a racist or a nationalist or a bigot of any kind?

And another odd thing occurs to monotheists.  Again, at some level, you realize that if God made humans in God’s image, then there must have been a reason for it beyond simply being angry at them and condemning the vast majority of them to eternal torment and suffering.  If that were the correct conclusion of the story, we would all conclude that it was the story of a colossal failure.

No matter how many times the story is told of a preferential god who loves to smite and punish, it simply has got to be missing the point.

The Point: tracking the Big Themes

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And it turns out that bible itself can be read that way, only by ignoring its most obvious themes.  The Bible begins with the story of a good God creating a good physical world with humans in a perfect garden of abundance.  They live in harmony with God and with each other; everything is as it should be.  This is the starting point.

There are other religions that start with anger and violence; wars between rival gods.  Blood and guts, humans made as after-thoughts, only to serve capricious, even malicious gods (one thinks of Babylon’s creation epic, the Enuma Elish, for example).  But our story begins with goodness; a God of infinite creativity and ability fashions a world of harmony and abundance and calls it “very good.”

Evil and Rescue

Of course the problem of evil comes into the story.  Humans, free as we are to make real moral choices with real consequences, get off track right away.  So the bible tells that story too.

But think of it: what is the next major plot theme that drives the story forward in the bible?  It is that God wants to solve the problem of the whole world, so God starts with one family: Abram and Sari (Gen 12).  It’s not a question of favoritism, but of instrumentalism.  From the very start, God’s purpose was worldwide.  Abram was told that through his descendants, God would “bless all the families of the earth.”

Redemption is Liberation

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And what’s the next major plot line?  When Abraham’s family winds up as slaves under Pharaoh’s oppressive Egyptian empire, then the whole story turns into a liberation story.  God’s good purpose is to set the people free from that horrible condition.

The story is a redemption story.  This is just about the opposite of a story of a God whose sole interest was in smiting and punishing.  This entire plot line is set in motion by a God who listens to and hears the cries of his suffering people, and compassionately acts on their behalf.

Now, of course the humans in the story are still prone to miss the point, to do evil, and to suffer the consequences. As a nation, that’s what the Israelites in the story do.   But even when they do, God’s role is predominately one of coming to the rescue.

Along the way, as the main story is told, people called prophets chime in as well.  They reassert that this story is a world-wide story, not an exclusive one.  Isaiah says that God’s plan is to “ bring forth justice to the nations” and that Israel is to be “a light to the nations.

The book of Jonah tells the story of God’s mercy extended to the enemy Assyrians.  Malachi, speaking for God, says, “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations.”

Ruth tells the story of woman from the enemy nation of Moab whose acts of devotion and loyalty not only save her family, she becomes the grandmother of David himself.  Without this foreign woman, there would have been no King David.

Jesus’s Conclusion: it’s a Love Story

Without a doubt, Jesus must have reflected on all of these texts long and hard.  He came to the conclusion that the story of God is, at root, a redemption story.  Yes there is evil and yes, evil is going to mean suffering, but the point of it all is God’s rescue of humans whom God made and loves, in spite of it all.  And if one God made all the humans in the world, this story was not an exclusive story.  It could not be an ethnic story or a national story; it has to be an inclusive, world-wide story.

So, when Jesus came to his own home town, the poor village of Nazareth, and went into the local synagogue on the Sabbath, his agenda was to tell God’s story.  He read from the prophet Isaiah that the time of God’s great intervention on behalf of his, again, oppressed people, was at hand.  The great Year of Jubilee, the “year of the Lord’s favor” when the debts were written off, when the oppressed were set free, and when the poor finally heard good news, all of this was being fulfilled that very day.

Their reaction?  Luke tells us:

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

But did they really get the point?  Did they understand that their role in this story was instrumental?  That the whole point from the very beginning, and all the way through, was that they would be “a light to the gentiles” through whom “all the families of the earth” will “be blessed”?

Jesus tells God Stories

Jesus  has to make sure they get the point.  So he reaches back into their collective memory for two other stories that they all know well, which illustrate the point.

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Notice that he does not tell the “David and Goliath” story; they would have loved that one.  No, instead he selects two stories about the people considered the greatest prophets of Israel’s past: Elijah and Elisha.

The first is the story of Elijah who, in a time of famine, asked a poor widow from Zarephath in Sidon for something to eat.  It is a great story.  She says she only has a handful of grain and enough oil to cook it into a cake, and it will be the last meal she and her son will eat before they die of starvation.  He tells her to go ahead and make it up for him, and promises that the grain and oil will not run out until the famine ends, and that is what happens! The point Jesus takes from this story is simply this:

“there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,… yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”

Second, Elisha.  There was a man named Naaman, a Syrian army commander; a loathsome one, on two counts: he had in his possession an Israelite girl whom he had captured and made his servant, and he had a disgusting skin disease which they called leprosy.  Long story short: Naaman came from Syria to Israel, to Elisha the prophet, and was healed.  The point Jesus draws from this:

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Luke’s Tragedy Story

This story that Luke is telling, of the story of God that Jesus is telling, now becomes a tragedy.  The people of Nazareth have been missing the point.  They have no idea that this is a love story.   They think it is a war story.

If that were not enough – merely confusion about what kind of a story it is – to make matters worse, they want to have nothing to do with a love story.  The really want a war story.  They want the year of Jubilee to come for “us” against “them.”  They want it to be a “kill the Romans” story, not a “love your enemies” story.

So, Luke tells us, they tried to kill Jesus right then and there.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

What did they think the whole point of God making a world with people in it was?  How could they not see it as a love story?  Why did they want so much for it to be a hate story?  An “us” vs. “them” story?  A “good people like our kind vs. the bad people of their kind” story?

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Do we do that?

But let’s not be too quick to judge them.  That same tragic mistake has been made now for years by the church.  The picture we have painted for so long is of God as an angry old white man, looking for people to smite  and to curse.  And now, the growing consensus, especially among the young, is that the point must have been missed.  I think Jesus would agree.

But let’s not get lost in the dark side here.  This really is a love story and that’s why we are here.  “God so loved the world” – all of it – including us – “that he sent his son….”

Let’s pause right there.  Monotheists, like us, that is, people who believe in one God, need to be careful about how we tell this story.  It is not that an angry Father God needed blood to mollify his sadistic nature, and looked around for a victim and found his innocent son, and mercilessly sacrificed him.  That is not our story at all.

Our story – the one the bible tells – is that God became flesh.  God laid down God’s own life for us.  Our story is the story of the “Crucified God” as theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written.  It was God who passed through the pieces of the slain animals in Abraham’s vision, cursing himself lest he ever be unfaithful to his covenant (Gen 15).

Lover’s Response

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So the question is, what is our response to this kind of story of this kind of God?  How can it not be love in return?   Love for the God who loves us and, in Jesus, gave himself for us, and love for every single person on the planet?

This is the story that fires our worship, and impels our mission!  We first know our selves as people loved by God, rescued by God, redeemed by God’s grace.

And then we know ourselves as people who take on God’s characteristic agenda: we listen to the cries of people who are suffering, just as God does, and we engage all the energy, creativity, talent, skill and resources we can manage to alleviate their suffering and end their oppression.  There are no boundaries on this mission, no exclusions, no one is deemed unworthy.

Come” Jesus said, “all you who labor and are carrying burdens, and I will give you rest.”

“All” means “all.”  No exceptions.  That’s us; that’s everybody. May this be the story we live!

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