Eyes Forward

Lectionary Sermon for  Pentecost +6, Ordinary 13 C, June 30, 2013

Luke 9:51–62

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When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Eyes Forward

I did not grow up in a mainline denomination like the Presbyterian Church.  The Christian subculture I grew up in, however, had its own ideas of what was important: it was to avoid doing the things that were wrong so that you would not fall into the trap of becoming “worldly.”  For example, we were tea-totalers, since drinking any alcohol was a sin.  And we weren’t supposed to go to dances, since it provokes “lust in the heart.”  Other groups of Christians I knew had even tougher  restrictions: they forbade going to watch movies and had strict hair codes and dress codes.

One of the worst sins you can commit is saying a bad word: swearing, or cussing, as we called it.  That’s what I thought, as a kid, growing up in a suburban American Christian home.  I’m not saying that anyone ever told me to believe that, but that’s the message I got.  Lying was something you should not do, so you tried not to, most of the time of course.  And “lust in your heart” was something you had to repent of as often as you experienced it.  But cussing was something you just never did.  Nobody in your Christian circles did.  None of the people in your family or church or youth group did.  It was that bad. It was that important.

So, from that context, it was a shock to hear what I heard one time.  A well respected Christian speaker, professor Tony Campolo was talking about world hunger.  He quoted a statistic about how many children die each day of malnutrition.  Then he said most of us didn’t give a “s____t” about it (insert bad word).  And then he said that most of us were far more concerned that he had said a bad word than that all those children were going to die tonight.

He was right.  It shocked me.  I felt as though I had been exposed as a fraud.  It was clearly true and obviously a terrible truth to discover about myself, that  I had a stronger gut-reaction to his use of a forbidden word than the reaction I had to the needless deaths of hungry children.

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Anti-Communists!

It gets worse.  The sub-culture I grew up in was virulently anti-Communist.  Communists were godless atheists who were persecuting Christians and shutting down churches wherever their poisonous perspective took root; so they had to be opposed.  Many of you may be nodding in agreement, but hear me out.

We never asked the question, not even once, what would motivate a person to join up with the communist cause?  We never discussed economic injustice or oppression.  So when the topic of apartheid in South Africa came up, apartheid was never questioned.  The subject was wether Nelson Mandela’s ANC was getting support from Marxist sources and had communist aims.  That was the only question.

Never mind the virtual enslavement of a whole indigenous population of South Africa.  Never mind the shame, the humiliation, the exploitation and hopelessness that defined apartheid.  We consoled our consciences with the thought that the blacks in S. Africa could at least go to church (their own churches, of course, not white ones).

I actually spoke with a missionary who had recently returned from South Africa back in the 1960’s who pointed out that all of the black people in his pictures were smiling.

If it were not already done, I could write a book entitled “Adventures in Missing the Point.”  Dancing, swearing, any use of alcohol – compared with oppression, injustice, hunger! I’m not blaming anybody: we are all products of our times and places, but the naked fact is that we had trivialized Christianity.  We had believed a distorted and anemic version of Jesus that left him utterly irrelevant to the compelling issues of the day.

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Mass Graves

As you all know, my life was changed by my years of living in Central Europe, Romania and the former Yugoslavia.  I lived within a half an hour’s drive of mass graves in more than one directions from my home.  I have seen what it means to have inherited and to practice a version of Christianity that is powerless to prevent genocide.  Serbs, who identify with Orthodox Christianity, and Croats who by-and-large identify with Catholicism, both repeat the whole Nicene Creed in church.  So what?  The Reformed Church (= Presbyterian) has it’s own brand of nationalism that I have witnessed up-close as well.

That was the experience of my lifetime.  Some of you lived through the WWII; you could tell stories that would make my experience pale by comparison.  I have visited Auschwitz and seen that pile of baby clothes and the crematorium.  That happened in so-called “Christian Europe” where lavish cathedrals with amazing organs first played the greatest compositions of music ever written, from Bach to Mozart and beyond, all in praise of the Christian God.   So what?

I am completely convinced now that the Christianity of the Creeds alone is vacuous, maybe even dangerous, as it has been instrumentalized so often by the powers-that-be to baptize the current political agenda, up-to and including their gratuitous wars.  Even Croatia’s former Communist-turned-nationalist president Tudjman lit candles in church when he found it helpful to be seen doing so, during the campaign of ethic cleansing of the Krajina region.

What kind of Christianity lets that happen?  The kind that has lost the point.

Jesus’ Warnings

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I believe that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to warn us about.  On more than one occasion that Luke has compiled nicely for us to read in one place, Jesus warned about the utter seriousness of his mission.  There was nothing trivial about it.  It had nothing to do with cussing or dancing.  It had to do with the number one essential point that if lost sight of, subverts all the rest: Christianity is supposed to be about compassion.

Compassion for the world and all of the people who inhabit it is God’s primary motivation.

God is love” the bible tells us.

“For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…”.

“No greater love has anyone than this: that he lays down his life for his friends” Jesus said.

And this love, this compassion is real.  When we have real compassion we feel grieved whenever people are suffering.  Compassion moves us to become involved, to look for solutions, to reach out and touch, to offer a hand.

Compassion means that not everything goes: there are right solutions and wrong solutions to problems.    If people get in the way of your journey to Jerusalem, as the Samaritans tried to do to Jesus and Co., what do you do, call down fire, like Elijah of old, as James and John suggested to Jesus?  No!  Whatever you think was going on in that Elijah story, those days are over.

What if a compassionate agenda causes inconvenience?

What if it means we lose some of our privilege and advantage?

What if it means power-sharing to open up  doors of access to people other than us insiders?  Jesus would say, (did say):

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

In other words: this is serious: and yes, it may include the embrace of inconvenience; even embracing suffering.

What if I can come up with twelve good reasons to put it off until some future moment when the time will be right?

“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the reign of God.” 

What if we start down this compassionate road and then, realizing the costs of loosing some of our power and privilege, we start to have regrets?  What if the way of compassion starts to bite into our lifestyles and puts limits on our luxuries, making us nostalgic for the old days?

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Fit” here means “useful.”  It’s not a matter of being rejected, it’s a matter of being unhelpful in the cause of compassion?  Why?  Because looking back with nostalgia for the former days, before the time when Jesus changed the religious paradigm could only mean one thing: that person didn’t get the point.

It would be like a former slave owner, after emancipation, being nostalgic for slavery; a fundamental denial of the essence of compassion.  Jesus changed the whole quest of the spiritual life from performance of ritual to compassion in action.

James got the message, as he wrote very soon after Jesus’ ministry these words:

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“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  (James 1:27)

In other words compassion; compassion which refuses to be seduced by dominant cultural values to the contrary.

It’s so sad when that vision is trivialized or lost.  The vision Jesus held out for us of living according to the reign of God is a bright and hopeful vision.  In Jesus’ vision, God is not interested in temple rituals and the blood of animals; God is the heavenly Father who supplies bread for the day.

God is not waiting in heaven to be called to come down and smite the Samaritans; God is making, Jesus said,

“his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  (Matt. 5:45)

Any version of Christianity that misses the point of compassion is useless.

An Alternative Vision

But for those who have, as the gospels say, “repented” of our default selfishness, defensiveness, our primitive, immature, lizard brain, fight-or-flight responses, in favor of compassion, imagine what is possible:

A world in which there are no more mass graves.

A world without children dying of hunger.

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A world without discrimination on the basis of anything: race, religion, sexual-orientation, social status, or gender.

A world in which our precious planet is safeguarded from degradation.

A world in which compassionate people dream God’s dream of liberty and justice for All –  that’s All, with a capital A; no exceptions.

The dream is unfulfilled so far.  The task is unfinished.  We, here now today, as prosperous Americans at the start of the 21st century are called to join the journey Jesus marked out for us when he “set his face for Jerusalem.”

We are called to dream the dream.  Jesus said then and continues to say now:

“Follow me.”

We are called to be followers of Jesus, full of compassion, accepting the struggle and the inconvenience, embracing even suffering as Jesus demonstrated, looking forward, not back, to the reign of  God; the God  of compassion.

And we are called to work out what it means to implement compassion in practical ways, in our community, in our nation, and for our planet.

Hand to the plow;

No looking back.

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Richard Rohr on “The World, The Flesh, and The Devil”

I thought this was worth passing along.  I get these daily meditations delivered by email,  and they are often quiet insightful. Here is where to try them for yourself if you wish.

Rohr 6-25-13

Meditation 21 of 52

Traditional Catholic moral teaching said there were three sources of evil—“the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Dom Helder Camara, who was the holy and wise archbishop of Recife, Brazil, taught this in terms of “a spiral of violence” spiraling from the bottom up. “The world” (systemic evil) is the lie at the root of most cultures about power, prestige, and possessions; in the middle is “the flesh” (the personal evil and bad choices of individuals); and at the top is “the devil” (evil disguised as “good power” to enforce the first two), which is usually the unquestionable institutions like war, the “laws” of the market economy, most penal systems and many police forces, unjust legal systems and tax systems, etc. They are rightly called “diabolical” because, starting with the snake in Genesis, high-level evil always disguises itself as good, charming, on your side, and even virtuous. Satan must present himself as too big or too needed to ever be wrong.

Up to now in human history most people’s moral thinking has been overwhelmingly oriented around the personal evils of “the flesh.” There was not too much knowledge of the foundations of evil in cultural assumptions themselves, nor hardly any critique of major social institutions on a broad level, until the 1960s! This is really quite amazing. The individual person got all the blame and punishment for evil, while the supportive worldviews and violent institutions were never called into account or “punishment,” as Jesus did when he critiqued the temple system itself.

The biblical prophets of Judaism were the unique and inspired group who exposed all three sources of evil, and it’s also why they have been largely ignored, as was Jesus, the greatest of the Jewish prophets. They didn’t concentrate on the flesh, but largely on “the world” and what I just described as “the devil,” which very often passes as good and necessary “evil.” You see what we are up against, and why evil continues to control so much of the human situation.

Adapted from Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

The Politics of Wonder

The text: Luke’s story of Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Poli lookout point, Hawaii
Poli lookout point, Hawaii



Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

I was re-listening to Bill Moyers’ conversations with the late Joseph Campbell (from the PBS series “The Power of Myth”).  Campbell told a story of two policemen who were patrolling in Hawaii on a mountain top; a place where tourists come.

Sadly, it is a place where people have jumped to their deaths.  The policemen spotted a lone man near the edge and went to see if they needed to intervene.  Just as they approached, the man made his move to jump, and the nearest policeman instantly reached out and grasped him.  Campbell says that the policeman was being pulled over along with the man, and would have fallen had not the second policeman grabbed him.

All of them were saved from falling, but an important question was raised.  Why did that first policeman continue to hold the man who wanted to die, at the risk of his own life, indeed when his own life was in jeopardy?  He did not know the man, was not related to him.  Why, in that instant, did he so entirely abandon his self-preservation instinct, his duty to his family, all of his wishes and hopes for life?

When a journalist asked him why he didn’t let go, he said, “I couldn’t let go.  If I had let that young man go I could not have lived another day of my life.

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Why not?  What deep knowing produced that life-risking act?

This week NPR has been examining suicides among soldiers.  I heard a heart-breaking account told by two parents who lost their son to suicide after he had returned from a tour in Afghanistan.  In their grief they tried to find a reason.

They had heard him speak of a time in which a young Afghan boy, about twelve, the age of their son’s cousins, suddenly came around a corner with a Kalashnikov aimed at him.  It was a story he had told his parents about escaping from danger.

After their son’s suicide, his parents learned from the other men in his platoon that he was the one who had to shoot and kill that boy.  The post-traumatic stress that he was dealing with came from experiences such as that.  How could he live after having taken life away from others?

A policeman was willing to risk his own life to save a total stranger.  A soldier is so disturbed by having to kill a child who would have killed him had he not, that he takes his own life.

What is the deep knowing that produces these results?  Is it not that we share a common humanity with every person on this planet?  There is within us, a deep knowledge that we are one in a profound way that is far more significant than our surface separateness.

Where does this knowledge come from and what does it mean?  In our tradition, we tell a story about God as the ultimate source of everything – trees, birds, oceans and humans.  We are made by God who breathed into our lungs the breath of God’s Spirit, the breath of life.  All of life and all being itself has One source: One Creator.

The Name of Being

How do we know this God?  Moses was in the wilderness when he saw the continuously burning bush.  It was there that the voice, God’s voice from the bush named God, saying “I am who I am.”  Being itself is God’s name (if that is a name at all).

Elijah goes to the same mountain on which Moses received the ten commandments, or, as it says in the original, “the ten words” and meets the same God of the burning bush; the I Am, where Elijah is told “I AM” will “pass by” and make himself known.

Elijah is, at first, presented with raw power: mountain-splitting, rock-breaking wind, but “I AM was not in the wind.”

“and after the wind an earthquake, but I AM was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but I AM was not in the fire; and after the

"I Am who I AM"
“I Am who I AM”

fire a sound of sheer silence.”

Being itself;

I Am;

sheer silence.”

No words.

It is in our silence that we meet I AM.  When we turn off the steady flow of our own mental narrative, and become quiet, centered, still, we experience the wonder of being.

Exhaling, we let go of our constant, habitual judging; preferring; disdaining; we accept what is, as it is.

Inhaling we receive the oxygen freely given, that we did not earn, cannot buy, or hoard or restrict, but which we share with all breathing life.

The Crossing

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Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to make a crossing of the sea.  There is a storm – because crossing of borders and boundaries always causes storms of resistance.  But Jesus overcomes the storm with a word and settles the sea into the quiet of sheer silence.  No words.

They arrive on the shore of a world marked by strangeness, impurity, and taboo.  It is a place of tombs, of pigs and of unclean spirits.  It is Gentile space.  History tells us that in this region Herod the Great’s son built a city over a graveyard.   We are told that a Jewish revolt against Roman occupation there was met with predictable Roman force; the rebels were herded into the lake and killed.

In this space of complete otherness, Jesus confronts a man whose life has been ruined.  He is utterly de-humanized.  He wears no clothes; he lives among the dead, he inflicts self-harm and no one can fix him.

He senses that the boundary he has lived with so long has been crossed.  He attempts to gain mastery over Jesus by the ancient means: naming him.

“he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torture me.”

But Jesus who was not impeded by the storm in the crossing is not going to be named.  He turns the tables in this power-encounter, saying,

“Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

In our context, he would have said,

My name is Brigade, for we are many

A Roman army legion, as an American brigade, is comprised of several thousand troops.  Here is a man whose life has been ruined by Roman occupation, living a living-death, dehumanized and now in the process of self-harming.

But he is in the presence of a far greater power who has crossed over to him.  Jesus, brimming with the presence of I AM, will not avoid him, shun him, stigmatize him, shame him, or judge him.  He has just given the command that soldiers know well: “Come out” or as we would say today, “Dismissed!”

The unclean spirits, those occupation troops,  the blame targets need a place to go.  They are sent into the very emblems of impurity, into the pigs.  The “gaggle of new recruits” – which is actually what the word “herd” was used for (pigs are not herd animals anyway) then “charge” as if to attack, but end up in same water, in the same place, where those Jewish rebels were killed.  They perished the way Pharaoh’s army perished in the Red Sea; as all empires have or will do.  There is no one left to blame.

An Alternative

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There is another way; an alternative to the politics of separation subjugation and scapegoating.  There is a way to be at peace, re-humanized, clothed, healed, saved, mindful.  It is found where this new human now finds himself, where Martha’s sister Mary was, where all disciples find themselves: at the feet of Jesus.

At his feet, the unclean are clean.  There is no sea of separation between them.  As Paul would shortly say,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  |
(Gal 3:28)

There is hope and there is tragedy here.  The hope is that there is salvation: there is the chance that the victims can return home, as Jesus told him to do, fully alive, fully human, connected in family networks, full of joyous testimony.

But the tragedy is that the old ways of conflict are the best-known ways to be.  The reptilian brain we all have inside us that wants to fight everybody, to make distinctions and judgments, to maintain boundaries and to reject the concept of our common humanity is not impressed, even by healing.

The other swine herds spread the word; the majority would rather live with the devil they know than to have the devil leave them without scapegoats to blame.  It says,

“Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them”

Why did they not know what that Hawaiian policeman knew about our common bonds of humanity?  How could they not want to be healed from the miserable status-quo conditions they were living in?

Luke tells us they were afraid, after what Jesus had done.  Afraid of what?  Perhaps they were afraid of wonder?  Fearful of coming face to face, in silence, with the great I AM, as naked children, without pretense or hiding, or shame?

What a pity.

“There need be no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.”  (1 John 4:18)

  • We are invited to be the people who sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him.
  • We are invited to join him in living without boundaries of exclusion and judgment.
  • We are invited to go, as Jesus went, into the silence of prayer; in to the wonder of being, into the presence of I Am.
  • And from that centered space, we are invited to recognize the truth that will not let us let go of any other falling human, with whom, in fact, we are one.

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The Consent of the Governed

Naboth’s Vineyard and the community that killed him

1 Kings 21:1-21  Click here to read the text

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On father’s day we usually sing, “Faith of our Fathers” in the traditional service.  Some of us were  raised by fathers who had genuine Christian faith and lived it.  We are the blessed ones. I am so thankful that I am among them.  My father is a person of strong faith who raised me in that faith as well.

Others had fathers who were not there for them at all, or not much, or not in any way that was helpful.  Our prisons right now are filled with men who never had decent fathers to guide them.  Most, if not all of the men I have met on death row fit that last category.

When things go the way they should, a father is there for his children; he is not always absent, and he is there to help hand-on the traditions that he was raised in.  He teaches his children by instruction of course, but more significantly, by example.  Children observe everything, and draw conclusions; we all did.

We absorbed far more than we are conscious of.  What we saw at home, we now consider “normal,” even “necessary,” concerning the way the world operates.  Some of what we learned is good and helpful, some may not be.

My father treated me and my brothers and sister fairly, and so I learned about fairness.  He worked hard and waited for the end of the pay period for his check, and so I learned about hard work and delayed gratification.

But at a far deeper level, I learned what to value as good and what to think of as not-good.  I watched my father treat people of different races with respect.  I watched him treat women with respect.  I am sure the reason that for me, house work is normal for a man to participate in is because I saw my father do his share of housework.   I don’t have much interest in watching sports, probably because he didn’t.  (You can tell me if you think that’s a good or bad thing.   It seems normal to me.)

In some ways, a culture is the sum total of all of that learning from our home.

The Story of Ahab and Jezebel

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We just read the story of King Ahab and his wife queen Jezebel, and how they conspired to acquire the land that belonged to Naboth.  We know from the context that both king Ahab and queen Jezebel had terrible fathers.  Ahab’s father was Omri of whom the text says,

“Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he did more evil than all who were before him.” (1Kings 16:25)

Queen Jezebel, we are told was “the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians”, so she is a non-Israelite foreigner whose father is named after the Canaanite god Baal.  She was a devoted worshipper of Baal, and so then, of course, was her husband king Ahab. (We note, with regret, the implied misogyny of this ancient text that blames the woman for corrupting the man.)

So neither king Ahab nor queen Jezebel were raised to practice the traditions of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor to respect and follow the law of Moses.  Jezebel may not even have known them at all; Ahab knew, but didn’t follow them.

The Consent of the Governed

But these two are not the only “bad guys” in the story.  In fact there would be no story here if it were not the case that the corrupt king and queen were surrounded by bad guys.  The whole culture had gone bad from the leadership to the lowest levels.  As a culture they had abandoned the traditions and values of Yahweh, Israel’s God, and had sold them cheap, for the bowl of pottage that was Baal worship and consequent values.

The story itself shows how it happened.  King Ahab wants to acquire more land.  He is king. He has plenty.  He doesn’t need more.   But he sees something nice that is not his, and he desires it for himself.  A commodity; a piece of land.

The way the author tells us this story, there are clues embedded here that allow us to read the story on a wider horizon than merely a story of an individual king and his neighbor.  The land he wants belongs to a man whose name comes from the word for fruit, Naboth, and the land he owns is a vineyard.

A vineyard is a symbol for the nation of Israel: fruitfulness is what they were supposed to experience in the promised land.  Each tribe was allotted territory in the

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land.  According to the law of Moses, the family was never to sell it.  It was held by each generation as a sacred trust: a gift from Yahweh, who maintained title as owner.  Every Israelite knew this: Naboth knew it; King Ahab knew it – even if he despised that sacred obligation.  Although perhaps it was the case that queen Jezebel never heard of it.

Anyway, when the Israelites were promised the land, they were told that it received regular rainfall, and so was unlike the land of Egypt which had to be watered like a vegetable garden.  King Ahab wants to buy Naboth’s sacred land, a fruitful vineyard, to make a vegetable garden out of it.  He’s not a health-nut, he’s acting out the values of an Egyptian.  He resembles the tyrant, Pharaoh. (see Deut. 11)

King Ahab makes a fair offer for the piece of the commodity that Naboth holds in sacred trust.  Naboth turns him down on a values basis.  It’s not just about money.  You cannot commodify the promised land.  It means more than money.  That land was granted to us by covenant.  We are its tenants; the owner is the Lord.

 “3 But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” 

Ahab has been check-mated by the Law of Moses that he was trying to ignore.  Queen Jezebel, on the other hand, feels no qualms about trampling the faith of Israel’s fathers.

But this is the crucial part:  even queen Jezebel can do nothing without help.  She will not succeed without the cooperation and participation by the people.  She is relying on the consent of the governed to pull off her plan.  And they all roll over and cooperate without the slightest hesitation.

8  So [queen Jezebel] wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city.  9 She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly;  10 seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ 

All of them, from the “elders and the nobles” to the scoundrels have accepted the commodification of the land and the corruption that requires them to “go along to get along.”

Naming the Crimes

What’s going on here?  Let’s name it: official corruption, deception, forgery, conspiracy, phony religion paraded around by people who really despise it, false charges – that is – judicial corruption, perversion of justice, and it ends in state-sponsored homicide.  All of these a consequence of the commodification of the land.  Money was now God.

The faith of the fathers of Israel had been abandoned, and with it, the values of Israel also.  Israel was supposed to tell a story about how one Creator-God made the world and every human in God’s image.  All people, all human life was sacred and the land was sacred.   No one can be swept aside with impunity for the sake of someone else’s insatiable need to acquire.  Furthermore, no one could think of themselves as a mere consumer of commodities.  God did not make consumers; he made people.  And all of them have dignity and value, rights and obligations.

God’s covenant with the people of Israel included a plan of community organization  that was a radical departure from anything that came before it.  There was not supposed to be a wealthy king and court served by a multitude of impoverished peasants, as in all the other nations.   Each of the 12 Tribes of Israel was allotted  enough land to ensure that all of them could have the dignity of being productive providers for their families.

If, by whatever reason: war, famine, drought or disease, a family had to sell their land, the sale was supposed to be considered a lease – not a permanent sale.  It was a lease, valued by the number of harvests remaining until the next “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” or Jubilee year, in which all leases expired and the land was returned to the family, so that the next generation could start afresh.  No permanent underclass could ever develop by such a plan.  Poverty could be eliminated instead of being generationally perpetuated.

All of this is totally subverted when everything is commodified.  When economics is the only rule-book that is followed by the fathers, the children learn to despise their inheritance.  Then anything and everything is possible.

You cannot serve both God and money.”

A Modern Story

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This is one of the most modern-sounding stories in the whole bible.  When the lust  to acquire more and more is considered “normal,” the sins of the fathers have already been transmitted to the children.  When commodities are considered sacred, nothing else is: not God, not humans, not the air, the land, the rivers, nor the oceans.   Every kind of evil is on the table when the criteria is solely monetary.

In that commodified world, you can build a garment factory filled with human beings, and build it on the cheap.  As long as it’s standing, you can pay them wages.

no one could live on, and when it falls down and crushes them, you try not to get caught.

You can put a chemical plant with explosive and toxic material in range of homes and schools.  Why not?  It’s normal to think this way in a commodified culture.  Thinking any other way would require things like more inspectors, but that would cost us all more money!

Every health regulation and every environmental regulation has been opposed on the basis that adopting them would make us less competitive, regardless of consequences to human beings and the planet they live on.  Every pipeline and every oil well drilled has been claimed to be safe by people who stand to profit from them, even though history tells the opposite story.

Do we even require the companies doing all the fracking to divulge what kind of chemicals they are pumping down there to force out the natural gas?  No, that’s a trade secret, but rest assured it must be harmless.

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These maybe the values of Ahab and Jezebel, but they are not the values of the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This may be the way the world works, but it is not the way of justice and righteousness.

All over the world people are being abused, oppressed, trafficked, and enslaved because somebody is making money from it.  And all over the world, otherwise decent people have been seduced into considering themselves acquirers of commodities – or, more commonly, as “consumers.”

We are not consumers; we are human beings!  Our purpose in life is not to go out and buy things; it is to live as Jesus taught us to live: with compassion as our highest value, not accumulation nor consumption.

We believe, as Jesus said, that a person’ life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.”  (Luke 12:15)

  • We believe that it is knowing the truth like this that does indeed make us free.
  • We are free of the distortions and deceptions that seek to commodify that which is a sacred trust: ourselves and our planet.
  • We are free to know ourselves as human beings whom God made for a lot higher purpose than any “bottom line” sum.
  • We are free to treat each other as human beings, with compassion and concern, regardless of potential earnings, even and especially, the “least of these brothers of mine” as Jesus taught us.

Free to really live according to the “faith of our fathers.”

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Dead Zones and Hope

First, the texts:

For the reading from click here

Luke 7:11-17

dead zone framed

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi.  Blooms of algae there consume the oxygen in the water such that nothing else, fish or plant can survive.  If you want to find the cause of the dead zone, you have to look upstream.  Agricultural run-off, primarily fertilizers, from states all the way up to Minnesota, are to blame.

Dead zones are not made after one season of run-off.  They take years to develop.  But once there, they say it will take years to un-do.  That’s only if we can adopt the right turn-around strategies up stream and stick with them as long as it takes, which right now, doesn’t look likely.

Dead zones are a handy metaphor for a lot of things that become hopeless and eventually lifeless.

Today we are going to talk about the subject that our texts presents us with: death and the possibility of new life.  This is going to get personal.  If we confront these texts as they were intended, we are going to have to ask ourselves lots of questions:

  • Where are the dead zones in me?
  • What was going on up stream that created these conditions?
  • What kind of turn around strategy is required now?
  • How long would it take to make a difference?
  • Is there any reason for hope?

After the self-exam, it would be worthwhile to ask those same questions about a lot of other areas of our lives:

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by Frederick Franck
  • Where are the dead zones in my relationships/my family?
  • Where are they in the church?
  • In our community?
  • In our politics?
  • In our nation?

Texts of Death and Life

Now to the texts.  We read a two-part story from the life of the great prophet Elijah and a story from the life of Jesus.  Both Elijah and Jesus perform miraculous resuscitations of the dead.

Question:  when and why do people of tell stories about the dead coming back to life?

The answer is obvious: when conditions look terrible.  When they look hopeless.  When they wake up to the fact that they are in a dead zone.  These stories come from what the people in recovery call the “moment of clarity.”  The time it finally dawns on us that it’s not working.

Dr. Phil asks famously “How is that working for you?”  These texts come from people who have concluded: it’s not.  Not anymore – if it ever was.

Elijah and the Dead Zone of Exile

The Elijah stories come from the Jews in exile in Babylon.  They are stories of a time of drought and hopelessness under political oppression.  Of course they are.    That is the story of the people in exile.

And so, they tell of God’s sustaining provision for the people outside the borders of the land – the oil and meal outlast the time of scarcity – but the oil and meal must be shared for the miracle to work.  The widow in Sidon shares with the prophet, and they all live through the drought.

Theses stories also tell of God’s ability to vouchsafe the future generation who is at the risk of death by suffocation under the overwhelming weight of Babylonian culture, language, and religion.

The only son who had become so ill that “there was no breath left in him” is restored to life and given back to his mother.  The nation in exile, just as the widow’s son will live to continue the family line, but needs the mother’s care: she will raise him in the traditions, values and faith of her people who will, as a nation, live again.

The dead zone is real, but it is not the last word.  The turn-around strategy begins by attending to the words of the prophet Elijah, whose very name means Israel’s God,  Yahweh, is God.

The Jesus Story: 2 Processions meet

The Jesus story too is told about a people in a dead zone.  It is the story of two processions.  Luke tells us that Jesus, and his disciples and a large crowd approach the gates of the city – forming one procession.  There they meet a funeral procession coming out of the city towards the cemetery.  A widow is coming to bury her only son, and with him, her hope.

These two processions meet at a watershed moment.  The Jewish nation looks like a widow about to bury her only son; the Roman occupation has all but ended their hopes as a nation.  Their religious leaders are of no help; quite the opposite in most cases.

Revolution too, is in the air, which to many (including Jesus) looks doomed from the outset.; a national suicide mission.  The dead zone is undeniable.  Time to commence the funeral to bury future hopes.

But then the funeral procession meets the Jesus-led procession.  We will look at what happens there, because it is instructive, but let us pause to notice something.

These stories are an assertion of hope in the context of apparent hopelessness.  The dead zone has become undeniable: but is that the last word?  People of faith tell stories of miraculous life after death because we believe that death is not the last word.  God has the power to transform dead zones back in to oxygenated lushness.

How?

How does the presence of God in the middle of dead zones work?  Let us learn from Luke.

It is interesting to me that nobody called out to Jesus.  The mother did not come begging for a miracle.  Jesus did not wait to be invited or call for a cleansing repentance as a pre-condition.   What then, got the miracle-action going?  Jesus simply looked and saw that grieving, hopeless widow, and Luke tells us:

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.””

Without pre-condition and without hesitation, even though the old purity laws of the Old Testament told him he shouldn’t touch the dead, Luke says Jesus,

“came forward and touched the bier…. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!… and Jesus gave him to his mother.”

Jesus’ Analysis

This scene and all of Jesus’ ministry show us Jesus’ analysis of the dead zone in practice.  He has concluded that the trouble began upstream long ago – the run off from hundreds of fields over hundreds of years had all contributed.  Now things had to change.

First, a whole new approach to how to understand God’s will had to be taken.  The turn-around strategy Jesus adopted was a complete revision of the old purity code in the law of Moses.  It just wasn’t working anymore.

Not touching the dead, and all the other purity laws, had simply become a barrier to getting people in contact with God.  God is not waiting for us to become good enough, pure enough, or even to ask for help.

He wants to go to work on every dead zone – that is the measure of God’s love and mercy towards us.  It starts knowing that the very wake up call, the moment of clarity, the realization that there is a dead zone is already the work of God in us, and therefore, a sign of hope.

Part of our church’s dead zone is that we have put up purity barriers for many years, and now the runoff is killing us.  The church has had a history of being judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, anti-science, and way too tied into political agendas.

We have bought into the suffocating culture of consumerism.  We have believed we could be Christians without being people of radical forgiveness.  We have even  imagined and that showing up in church was the same thing as being spiritual.

We apologize for all of that.  That way led to death.

Compassion is Essential

That’s not all.  The dead zone that Jesus observed was the cumulative effect of years of misconstruing God’s essential character and motivation.  God is Love, and God is Good – that is what we come to see most clearly as we get to know God through the lens of Jesus.

Goodness and Love are God’s essential characteristics, and so his essential motivation is compassion.  Jesus shows us how God looks at dead zones, as he looked at that widow in the funeral procession: not with condemnation and judgment, but compassion.

So, Jesus models for us exactly the way our lives should be lived: with compassion instead of judgment on ourselves and with compassion instead of judgment on everyone else.  Compassion is all about offering forgiveness when wronged instead of harboring bitterness – a huge dead-zone ingredient.  And compassion involves actively reaching out and doing something about the suffering at hand, just as Jesus did.

  • We ask ourselves: where is there bitterness in my life?  That’s a dead zone.

    by Fredrick Franck
    by Frederick Franck
  • Where is there shame and guilt?  That’s what dead zones are made of.
  • Where is there addiction or self-medication?  The dead zones there are even neurological, but even those can be healed.
  • Where is there a response of “That’s not my problem, I don’t care” when we become aware of suffering?  That’s the sure sign of a dead zone.
  • When do we hear ourselves saying, “Nobody’s going to…” (fill in blank)
    • “… get what’s coming to me” or
    • “…tell me what to do” or
    • “…say ‘no’ to me”  – all of those simply expose the dead zone that pride creates in all of us.

Turn Around Strategy

So what is the turn around strategy for dead zones?

First we acknowledge them – everywhere they exist: in ourselves, in our relationships, in our institutions – everywhere.  The acknowledgement itself is a sign of life because it is a sign that the Spirit is already at work, waking us up.

Second, awareness of dead zones must be followed by stopping the flow of the pollutants.  This requires mindfulness over time.  Healing is possible, but not instantaneous.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the moments we are living in and making life-giving decisions in real-time.  The only way to accomplish this is through the spiritual practice of daily meditation.

This conclusion, first come to by mystics of every tradition is now what the neurologists are telling us.  Everyone of us can afford twenty minutes of silence every day.  It’s free, it has no negative side-effects, and it produces in us the number one resource that we need to counteract fear, anxiety, depression, anger, bitterness and all the other dead-zone ingredients: and that resource is compassion.

Listen, we are not in the funeral procession; we are in the Jesus procession.  We have been touched and have been given new life by Jesus’ compassion.  We are not without hope, even if, realistically, we are not in great shape.  But we are in this together.

As people of faith, we keep reminding ourselves of stories of life coming back into dead bodies because we believe in the Lord of Life whose compassion is inexhaustible.  There is hope!

As the Collect for Monday Morning prayer teaches us, our prayer is:

“Let his love show in our deeds,
his peace shine in our words,
his healing in our touch,
that all may give him praise, now and forever!”

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The Struggle and the Connections: Stories within Stories

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 2, 2013

First, the texts:

1 Kings 18:20-39  text can be found here

Luke 7:1-10

Francesco Trevisani
Francesco Trevisani

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

I saw a T-shirt worn by someone in an Advanced Placement English class which said,

We can write and essay about an essay within an essay.”

That sounds clever, but why would anybody want to do that?  The reason is that no story makes sense in isolation.  The meaning of a story is only known only when it connects with other stories.

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This is true for our personal stories, as we all know: my story is connected in a vast network of relationships – and you are part of my story, as I am a part of yours.

This is also true of the stories in the bible.  Their meaning is discovered as we see   connections to other stories in the bible, and to the story of the church, and finally to our personal stories.

We just read two stories: Elijah on Mt. Caramel, watching Yahweh, Israel’s God, beat the prophets of Baal and their god, in a great contest.  Then we read the story of Jesus healing the servant of the centurion from a distance, without even having to go to his house.

Collections of Connections

Who told these stories?  This is where it gets interesting.   Jewish scribes handed down the Elijah stories from generation to generation.  Those stories became part of a long collection of stories.  Included in that collection is the story about the non-Jewish army commander, a Syrian, who had the disease they called leprosy.  It’s a story worth mentioning because of its connections.

That commander with leprosy, Naaman, had a young Jewish servant girl who recommended that he go to the land of Israel, to the prophet Elisha, for healing.  Long story short: he did, and he was healed at a distance, without Elisha even coming out of his house.  (2 Kings 5)

You can see the connection between that story and the one about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant.  In both stories, a non-Jewish army commander seeks healing from a Jewish prophet, and receives it, even at a distance, without any in-home action.

Connecting Elijah’s story

Why the lectionary asks us to read the story of Elijah and the contest between the gods today, when we read the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant, instead of the clearly parallel Elisha story is puzzling – but also fascinating.  There is a connection there too, but it’s more subtle.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that story without seeing it, but this time I noticed something new: the author shows how Elijah’s story makes sense because of the past stories to which it is connected; one story in particular.  He says,

“Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the

Jacob and Angel - Odilon Redon
Jacob and Angel – Odilon Redon

LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”;

Remember the story of Jacob who wrestled with the angel through the night?  He actually won the match, and so his name was changed from Jacob “supplanter” to “Israel,” “one who struggles with God.”   (Gen 32)

Why, while telling the Elijah story, did the author bother to highlight the name change from Jacob to Israel?  Because Elijah is also involved in a “struggle” with God – not a wrestling match, but a struggle to see if God is going to let Baal beat him in the contest.

A Story told from a Distance: Babylon

Consider who told this story of that struggle.  We know from the last story in the saga that it was the Jewish community in captivity, in Babylon who told this story.  Now we see that this story of Elijah and the contest of the gods that Yahweh won was being told by Jews many years later, who probably thought that Yahweh had lost the contest with Babylon’s god, Marduk, (or else, why did they wind up in captivity?).

Talk about a struggle-with-God story!  How do you trust God in such circumstances?  How do you have faith when the bad guys won?  Can God even reach you at such a distance from Jerusalem and from the now-destroyed temple?

Israel has always been a people who have to struggle with God, to understand what it means to have faith, to trust, when things look utterly bleak, and the distance seems great.

Luke’s Centurion Story

How about the other story?  Who told the centurion story?  Luke did.  Luke was a non-Jewish person, a gentile, writing for his non-Jewish church community, about the healing of a non-Jewish soldier’s servant.  And the whole story comes to a climax in Jesus’ amazed-statement:

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Long after Jesus is no longer physically present, this story of the faith of a gentile is being told to gentile believers, the vast majority of whom probably never saw Jesus.  Now he is as distant as it gets.  It’s probably a struggle to have faith in such circumstances.

Miracle signs and faith

Elijah
Elijah

Let’s dig down deeper.  Both of these are miracle stories: Elijah gets the fireworks from heaven, the centurion’s servant is healed.  Both stories are told by and for communities that do not expect the same.  The Jews in Babylon had no Elijah nor even Elisha performing miracles for their benefit, and similarly, the gentile church that Luke wrote for did not have Jesus standing among them either.

If it is a struggle to have faith, it is especially a struggle when there are no great signs, right?

Well, maybe a sign would help, but maybe not.  Look at the stories: in Elijah’s case, what good did it do the nation that Yahweh beat Baal that day with pyrotechnics galore?  The nation eventually wound up as exiles in Babylon.  The score at half-time is irrelevant after the game is over.  The bad guys finally won.

And the same is true in the centurion story.  Maybe some people believed because they saw the sign, but not many.  Were any other centurions converted?  How about the Jewish witnesses of the healing?   Jesus, remember, was deserted at his arrest, and died without anybody speaking up for him.

Jesus’ Story

Jesus in garden - Goya
Jesus in garden – Goya

And that brings us to Jesus’ story.  Jesus himself struggled with faith – think of the sweat on his forehead as he prayed for the cup to pass from him in the garden, just before his arrest.

Did Jesus get a miracle?  No.  There was no big dramatic divine intervention that night, was there?  Judas gave Jesus the famous kiss and the soldiers hauled him off for the mock-trial.  He was not spared by fireworks from heaven while they scourged him and crucified him.

And yes, he did struggle, even on the cross, crying out,

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

There is no greater distance than the chasm of god-forsakenness; and Jesus experienced it all.

Jesus shows us Radical Trust

Here’s the point: Jesus models for us the kind of faith that doesn’t have to see fireworks, cures, nor last minute rescues.  He shows us that it is possible to have the kind of faith that accepts the struggle and trusts God, in spite of the felt-distance.

This is the radical trust in God that Luke’s community needed to know was possible for Gentile believers.  So, first they hear a story of a Gentile like them, a Centurion, having faith, as they struggle to do; and then they hear the story of Jesus, and learn what trust in God looks like.

Our stories

Creation - Marc Chagall
Creation – Marc Chagall

So what is your story?  What is happening in your story now?  What are the struggles that challenge you?  Maybe you are in, or have been in, one of those god-forsaken moments.  Can you trust in God even when the bad guys are winning?

Yes, because your story is not alone.  Your story, and my story, find meaning in being connected to a vast, intricate web of stories that include each other, our families, our histories, and our faith.  So, we are connected to the stories Luke tells and the stories of Elijah and Elisha.  We are connected all the way back to the creation story itself, which, in turn, connects us with every story on the planet.

From these stories we come to know God’s loving embrace of all of the people he made, as the story says,  “in his image.”  We come to see ourselves as included in the story in which the Creator “blessed them and said, be fruitful.”  So our story is a story of the blessed people for whom God wills fruitfulness: shalom.

Our story also includes scenes of temptation and failure – like Adam and Eve’s, but that’s why it’s a redemption story!  A story about God’s relentless mercy and love.  In fact, to sum it up, it is a love story!

The End: Love Wins

And this is why we are able to continue to trust even when we feel forsaken, even when the bad guys are winning: we know the end of the story.  We know that in the end, God does get what God wants: Love wins.  Resurrection happens.  New life comes out of the grave.  Eventually we will, as scripture says, “participate in the divine nature.”   Even “death is swallowed up in victory”!  (2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:54)

And this is exactly why, just like those early believers that Luke wrote about in is volume two, the Book of Acts, we are able to be so fully engaged in our world on the side of love.  Just like those early believers who were even willing to sell what they had to give to the poor we are engaged in all kind of ministries of compassion and mercy.

It’s simply because we understand our story as part of God’s great redemption story.  We understand how deeply connected we are to the stories of all the people  of the world, and even our planet’s story.

So, we tell stories about stories within stories – and in the end, it’s all one story.  It’s God’s story; and we are all in it.  It ends in love.  In the mean time, we struggle, we feel the terrifying distance, and yet, like Jesus, we trust.

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