Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

Sermon on Luke 11:1–13 for Pentecost + 10, 17th Ordinary, Proper 12 C,  July 28, 2013

Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

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Luke 11:1–13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

When I first went overseas as a missionary, I learned that the Hungarians like to say “Ó, Istenem” a lot.  It means “Oh, my God!”  The Romanians say “O, Dumnezeul meu.”  The Croatians say “Bože moj.”  It seems that everybody likes to say “O my God.”  Would that be the same as a Hindu believer saying, “Holy Cow”?  God only knows.

These are all prayers.  They are automatic for many people, almost involuntary.  I don’t pretend they are sincere prayers from the heart of believers; “O my God” is  just an expression meaning not much more than “wow!”  Nevertheless, it seems that most people are hard-wired to call out to God when something happens.

So what happens when people call out to God?  Usually, not much.  The people who call out “Oh, my God!” on Saturday night don’t necessarily show up for worship on Sunday morning with testimonial reports of miraculous divine interventions.

And that’s how it has to be.  If every desperate prayer were automatically answered, who would work hard for anything?  Who would go to school if a prayer got you an A on the test?  Who would bother to go grocery shopping if you could pray the ingredients into your kitchen?  Who would ever go to work?  Who would try to eat and live in a healthy way, if sickness could just be prayed away, and who would ever die?

Real life would come to a grand screeching halt if that were the way it worked.  No action would have predictable consequences – or any consequences at all.

If you let your mind wander down this imaginary trail, you quickly realize that a world of always-answered-prayers would be an absurd and literally impossible world to live in.

So what happens?

And that brings us to the problem of prayer.  We all seem to do it, instinctively, at least in emergencies, but what happens when we pray?  Anything?

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There are lots of really absurd ideas out there about prayer.  I watched a film called “The Great Santini” long ago about an Air Force pilot (played by Robert Duvall).  He was a severe father and had a love-hate relationship with his son.  After he crashed his plane and died, his son was pouring out his grief to his mother.  He said that sometimes in anger he had prayed that his father would crash.  He asked his mother if perhaps one of those prayers were floating around in the sky like a cloud?  Maybe his father flew into it and that was why he crashed?

Where he got that crazy idea about prayers, I have no idea.  But people think all kinds of things about prayer.  Some think it has to be said in a special sacred place, like a church.  Some think prayer needs to be accompanied by some ritual act – lighting a candle perhaps or a gesture of some sort.   I think candles and gestures are fine, but not that they are required to make prayer work.

Some people think the words of a prayer have to be formulated well for God to respond well to it.  Some think only prayers that have been written by someone official will work with God.

Some people believe that they have to be good enough for God to hear them.  I guess they picture God like a parent who will not give you your allowance if you broke one of the house rules recently.

The God we Pray To

In fact, the ideas that we have about God are the key to the mystery of prayer.  Who is the God we cry out to?  The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world.  This is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.

They observed Jesus at prayer, Luke tells us, and wanted to learn to pray as he did.  I’m sure they saw that his connection to God was profound.  Jesus was, as some call him, a “spirit-man,” in touch with the presence of God;  a person from whom God’s power flowed out to others.  Surely he must know the inside story about prayer.  So they asked him.  What he gave them as a model is what we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father.

Starting with the Kaddish

Jesus did not start from scratch.  He was Jewish, as were all of his early disciples. To teach them to pray, Jesus started with the typical Jewish daily prayer they called the “Kaddish.”  Kaddish means “sanctification” – the Jewish prayer begins with a request that God’s name be sanctified, or made holy (see Scott McKnight’s book  Jesus Creed.”)  That sounds similar to the way the Lord’s Prayer begins “Hallowed (holy) is your name.”

The Kaddish says,

“Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world he created according to his will.  May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, an during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future.  Amen.”

So, Jesus started with this standard daily Jewish prayer.  He made some changes to it.  The first was that “Abba” father came before the request to sanctify God’s name.

“Father (Abba), hallowed be your name.”

Notice also that the Kaddish says “his name” while Jesus changes it to “your name” as if talking, not about God, but directly to God.

Both of these changes, calling God “Abba-Father” or even “daddy” and speaking directly to him show how intimately Jesus conceived of his relationship to God.

How do we pray?  We think of ourselves speaking directly to someone who is as personal and as caring as the perfect father would be; attentive, concerned, one who is a stake-holder in our concerns.

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Yes, but, Really?

But is that God?  Isn’t the God of the universe beyond all human categories of being?  Doesn’t God, as the bible says, dwell

“in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”? (1 Tim 6:16).

Yes, and this is part of the mystery of faith: that God is utterly unknowable, “wholly other” than we finite mortal creatures, beyond all thought or imagination.  The Being who is the source of all being.  We must never lose sight of this great truth.   God is good, but not tame; God has not been domesticated and cannot be.

This is exactly what it means to say “hallowed (or made holy) is your name”.  Holiness means god-ish-ness.  God’s name, God’s essence is divine, infinite, eternal, or, “holy.”  God is not a mortal to be messed with.

Neither is God a big masculine person in the sky.  God is not a man.  Nor is God a woman.  God is beyond gender; both Adam and Eve, as the creation story goes, are made equally “in the image of God.”

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Infinite only?

How would it be be for us, if this was all that we knew about God?  We would be overwhelmed with awe, probably fearful of what God might do to us, probably worried that we had not appeased him in some way.

But this is the beauty of our mysterious Trinitarian faith: that the infinite God can be experienced in the analogy of a loving “father” who loves his children as the perfect father would, and looks after them, to raise them well.

So, he is aware that they need daily bread, and he provides the conditions for them to have it.  God is aware that they will mess up, get it wrong, do the wrong thing, and God stands ready to mercifully forgive.  Only he requires that his children do the same as he does when they are wronged by another.

“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”

God’s Kingdom, Come

Just like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come.  But instead

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of thinking of it as a future event when God would come crashing down out of the clouds to crush the bad guys, Jesus helped us to pray that God’s kingdom, God’s realm would simply “come.”

In Matthew’s version of the prayer which we are more familiar with, this simple request is explained as “on earth as it is in heaven.”   This simply means “here and now.”  “Your kingdom come” simply means “May God be in charge here and now.”  Or, in other words, may we live as those who want what God wants, here and now, for ourselves, for others, and for our precious planet.

May justice be done.  May the hungry be fed.  May the homeless find shelter.  May the victims of discrimination and abuse find security and healing.  May the sick have access to health care.  May our water, air and soil be clean for us and for our children.  May love and harmony, forgiveness and reconciliation define our relationships.  May we be peacemakers; “instruments of peace,” as St. Francis prayed.

May we be able to come to God, trusting him to be our perfect father, with all of our concerns; with all of our hurts, our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings, our grief and our worry about the uncertain future.  May we be able to pour out our hearts to God with the confidence that he cares and that he has the capacity to redeem all the evil that has happened.

Trust in God as Father

May we have the trusting confidence in God as father to keep asking, even when we don’t see anything happening.  Even when it feels as fruitless as banging on a neighbor’s door at midnight.   The mysterious, infinite God of the universe can be appealed to as a loving father.  There is no way he would give his children a snake when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg!  Even a human father with all of his failings knows better than to do that!  How much more does God love and care for us?

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Praying (not understanding) 

I do not pretend to understand how prayer works, or why.  I don’t believe God needs to be informed, as if he didn’t know, or reminded as if he forgot.  I don’t believe he needs to be assuaged by groveling, and I don’t think he is holding out for the best deal I can offer him.  I don’t think he is waiting until prayers accumulate like sugar on a kitchen scale before agreeing to respond.

All I know is that I have this need to say “Oh my God” and know that there is someone there to hear, who cares, and who wants what is best for me more than I do for myself.  This is the God Jesus taught us to pray to: an utterly, infinitely holy divine being, whom we can trust and know as “Abba, father.”

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Martha, Mary and Jesus walk into a bar…

Lectionary sermon on Luke 10:38-42 for July 21, 2013, Pentecost + 9, 16th Ordinary C

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named

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Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha, Mary and Jesus walk into a bar…

It’s not easy to grow up in times of change, is it?  When I was a child, my parents taught me how men are supposed to treat women.  I learned that we were supposed to open doors and pull out chairs for them,  help them on with their coats, and be generally chivalrous.  Then the 60’s happened, and though I was still young, I “got it” that role expectations were changing.  Now, instead of worrying about looking like I wasn’t a gentleman, I had to worry about looking like a male chauvinist.

Those changes were part of the ongoing plot of the TV show “All in the Family.”  I remember how stumped Archie Bunker was when he was asked this  riddle:

“A man is driving his son to school. they get into an accident and the man dies. the son is rushed to the hospital and when he arrives for emergency surgery the doctor says “I can’t operate on this boy, HE’S MY SON!”

How is this possible?”

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Neither Archie nor any of his friends in the bar figured out the obvious: that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.  Archie’s liberal son-in-law whom he calls “meat-head” got it immediately.

Those were the early days of the “women’s liberation” movement.  Women, for all of human history had been treated like second class humans, even as property.  Even here in America with our emphasis on democracy, freedom and equality, it was not until 1920, already the 20th century, before women had the right to vote.

Bondage and Ignorance

We are still living in a tremendous time of transition.  Gender issues continue to be a source of a lot of uncertainty, and often, of pain.  But as issues of equality and liberation have been analyzed, from South Africa to South Alabama, it has become  clear that men had to be liberated along with the women.  Men’s thinking and perceptions had to be freed from the bondage of misinformation, prejudice, and from the blind arrogance of power.

Consider this: that to think incorrectly about something is itself a form of bondage.  It is the truth that sets us free, as Jesus taught.  And yet how in the world do you get someone in power to change?  How do petrified positions ever soften to new information and new ways of understanding?  It’s not easy to admit being wrong – never; for anybody.  Especially when you benefit from the error, has men always have.

There are two issues this text puts forward that are both important, both concern  forms of liberation from our bondage, and we need to consider both of them today if we are to live into the truth that can make us free.  I want to start this way:

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The Oddness and what it teaches

“Martha, Mary and Jesus walk into a bar…”.  Does that sound funny?  It sounds like it’s the start of a joke.  But it also sounds funny because the whole situation is odd.  Mary, Martha and Jesus show up together in the bible, but not in a bar.  But in the same way that it strikes us as oddly inappropriate to picture the three of them in a bar, so it would have seemed odd to people in Jesus’ time for him to go into the house of a woman with no man around.  (I know we are used to thinking of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, being around, but he never shows up in this story or this gospel – only in John’s gospel).

Where are we, in this story?  Jesus and his followers are on a long journey to Jerusalem, the capital city, the site of King Herod’s palace and the temple, the heart and soul of Jewish culture and religion.

On this journey, Jesus was intentionally forming his disciples into a new community.  As they watched what he did, who he took time for, and as they heard what he said, they were getting a course in spiritual direction.  The way Luke tells it, every detail was important.

There are two levels to this, and every gospel story.  On one level, this is a story about a journey Jesus is on.  But something else is going on as we read about this journey.  Many years after Jesus’ life on earth, and in a different place, Luke was re-telling the story of Jesus for his faith-community, his new church.   Luke was telling the story of Jesus in such a way as to help form his gentile community as disciples of Jesus.  Both levels are in operation all the time as we read the gospels.

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The Woman who Takes the Initiative

So, back to the story.  On this journey, something odd happens. Jesus receives an  invitation from an apparently single woman to come into her home were she lives with her apparently single sister.  This gives Jesus a chance to teach his disciples a powerful truth, one that, if they grasp it, will liberate them and many others.  They watch Martha make the invitation and they wait for Jesus’s reply. Picture the disciples all raising their eyebrows simultaneously.

I don’t know if the eyebrows in Luke’s Gentile congregation would have raised as highly as they did in the Jewish world Jesus inhabited, but certainly everyone would have noticed.  Gender rules in this new Jesus-community were not the same as they had always been in the wider culture, not in Palestine where Jesus lived or in Luke’s world of the Roman Empire.

What is the role of gender in our lives?  It’s huge.  Every time we have to say who we are we use identity-categories like race, nationality, and gender to define ourselves.  “I’m a Caucasian, American man.” It is part of our self-identity.  Gender opens doors for us, or else it shuts doors, depending on which doors they are, and who is on the other side.

So, Martha makes the invitation to Jesus; can a woman do that?  Take the initiative?  Invite a single man in?  I can picture Jesus looking around at his raised-eyebrow crew and saying, “Watch closely, gentlemen,” then, turning back to Martha with a hearty, “Yes, thank you.”  Luke’s church too, is hearing and learning a new way to live.

What about the culturally appropriate separation of the sexes?  Shouldn’t Martha  have found a man, a friend, a neighbor perhaps to go give the invitation while she stayed dutifully behind closed doors?  Separate but equal?

The truth is that “separate” always means unequal, and always will.  If the women  are not in the room, they are not part of the conversation.  If the women are not at the table, their voices are not heard.   That may be the Taliban way, but it is not the Jesus way.

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Creating a Transformed Community

Look at what Jesus is doing here: by his inclusion of women, Jesus was teaching his followers to be a transformed and transformative community.  Who cares if nobody else did it this way?  Who cares if all of male-dominated history had done it another way?  Jesus’ community was about restoring God’s good creation to the original vision: male and female, both equally created in the image of God.

It is only after things go wrong in the garden, only after humans choose the knowledge of good and evil in their vain attempt to be “like god” that we hear the language of domination.  In the creation story, God tells women how men will treat them:

“he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

Truer words were never spoken.  The burqa was not unpredictable.

The Woman who Wanted an Education

Luke continues the story inside the home.  Jesus the teacher is seated as was the custom for teachers. His disciples are sitting at his feet.  Probably no one is on a chair.  Luke sets the stage:

“a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”

Eyebrows raise again. Here is a second woman, Mary, also apparently unaccompanied by a man, doing what the culture believes that only men could do:  learning from a Rabbi, a teacher.  That was not women’s role.  They were supposed to stay in the kitchen.

Jesus was pushing gender stereo-types and boundaries.  Not only could women take the initiative and approach men as equals, as Martha did, they could even be students, learners as Mary was.

Every culture of  domination has known how dangerous education is.  Slaves were not allowed to become literate in America.  Black people were met at the university door with police dogs here in Alabama, not so long ago.  The Taliban would rather shoot a girl in the head than let her go to school.

Hard-headedness and Change

But it is hard for men to hear teaching about gender stereo-types that contradict the way we have always believed.  Even in the church, the very community that preserved this story – and all the other stories of Jesus and women – and read them, and copied them, and passed them down to the next generation, took nearly 2,000 years to ordain women clergy.  We are a stubborn species.  And we men like our privileges.  Gender stereo-types die hard, and with great resistance.

Some churches are still stuck in the gender stereo-types of the ancient world.  Happily, our denomination moved beyond them in the 1970’s (though there is much work left to be done).  But today we are deeply divided by gender stereo-types of other sorts.  We all know that the binary alternative of the majority, male or female, is simply inadequate to describe the complex world of human beings.  But our old habits of thinking die hard.

Even knowing what we know now, it’s still hard.  We now know about things that the ancient world was clueless about, like the concept of sexual orientation.

Sappho
Sappho

Although the ancient world knew that sometimes people of the same gender loved each other romantically, in fact, one of the great ancient Greek lyric poets, Sappho, from the Isle of Lesbos, is the source of our word “lesbian.”  But the ancient view was that homosexuals were merely over-sexed heterosexuals. Now we know differently.

Sexual orientation is not chosen, any more than eye color is chosen,  and it is not about out of control appetites at all.  But discrimination still exists because old habits of thinking about gender-related issues die hard.

Jesus taught us to deconstruct culturally created gender and sexuality categories that keep people in bondage.  Martha, a woman, takes the initiative, and Jesus accepts her in that role.  Mary is welcomed as a learner, siting as a disciple at Jesus’ feet.  This is a transformed community.

So the first issue was the liberation of women which happened in the new Jesus-community.  But what about the liberation of men?

How can we hard-headed, stubborn people soften to the voice of the Spirit as she coaxes us forward?  Here is where the next part of the story comes in.  We will never make spiritual progress as long as our focus is doing.  We have to take time to be still, and listen.

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Being both Martha and Mary: Doing and Being modes

Martha is the fall-guy here.  She does what Peter usually did: say just the wrong thing and get corrected by Jesus.  But this time, instead of giving Martha a bad rap, perhaps we should think of these two sisters with the similar-starting names as two alternative aspects of one person.  Maybe we all have a Martha and a Mary in us.

All of us have the capacity to live in the Martha “doing mode” or the Mary “being mode.”  In the doing mode, we are active, productive, accomplishing, getting things done.  We have to live that way, at least some of the time, or nobody gets supper.  Our Martha mode gets it done.

But if the doing mode is all we know, then we never stop to listen and to learn.  Even “doing church” or religion will not accomplish the spiritual transformation we long for.  All of us have to hush the Martha voices of compulsive doing, and purposefully spend time in silence at the feet of Rabbi Jesus as Mary did.

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It is when we learn to sit in silence and turn away from our own mental chatter that we open ourselves to the gentle voice of the Spirit.  Compassion grows with time spent in contemplative prayer and meditation.  Compassion opens our hearts to people who had been shut out or shut down.  We can become open to hearing the voices of those who have been silenced by culture and custom as we allow our Mary-sides time to sit in silence before the Teacher.

How do we make progress as a church instead of remaining in the bondage of old and incorrect ways of being?  We make spiritual progress towards inner liberation and transformation as we softened to the stories of pain and suffering told by those who had been shut out of conversations for centuries.  This is the fruit of sitting in silence, in the Mary-mode of being.

Well, Jesus was about two thousand years ahead of us.  Perhaps it was his many hours of solitary prayer that softened his heart to the pain around him: to women, to children, to diseased people, to the poor and to the hungry.

May we follow his example and be his transformed disciples.  May we soften to compassion, to new ideas, and even to admitting that we had been wrong in the past.  May we push the boundaries as far as they need to go, so that no one is left out of the room, or excluded from the table.

Let’s let Jesus’ voice be the last word, as he addresses both sides of our lives, saying to each one of us, men and women:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

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Christian Unity (or not): some personal reflections

I’m part of a group of Presbyterian pastors who get together periodically to see if we can survive together 4 churces on 1 corneras a denomination.   That sounds grandiose, but truly, some of the congregations we are serving have left the denomination between the start of our meetings and today, so it’s a real issue.  So, we discuss the issue of unity.  We have made some stabs at coming up with a list of “we all agree on this”.  But for me, the question of unity is a lot deeper than an agree list.  So here is my rant.  (warning: it starts pretty theoretical, but I promise, it gets personal, so wait for it).

Christian Unity (or not)

Our unity in Christ is a fact, based on God’s work in Christ.  There is only one body of Christ, and we are all members of Christ’s body, as Paul says, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  There is only one table around which we will all sit together in the kingdom, with people “from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29)   The basis of this established fact, this reality of our unity is not anything of human origin and is not threatened by anything humans can do.

We did not make it, we cannot destroy it.

And yet this invisible and indestructible truth of our unity may or may not be made visible by the ways we conduct ourselves.  Every breach of the visible unity of the body of Christ, the church, is an acted-contradiction to the truth of our unity.

Every dis-unity we display is a public “no” to our Lord’s prayer for us in John 17.  And our visible dis-unity makes true, albeit in reverse,  Jesus’ implication: the world knows the Father sent the Son because of the unity of his disciples (or, their disunity makes the claim hollow – as perhaps it is, for so many, today).

So what do we do when we disagree with one another?

There is “separation” language in scripture.  In 2 Corinthians believers are warned against union with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:17).  In I John 2:19 we read of people who separate themselves from the church, apparently in denial that the Father had sent the Son.  But the New Testament sets the bar of unity in Christ at the level of the Spirit-inspired affirmation that “Christ is Lord”  (1 Cor. 12:3).  In fact the stern warning Paul gives the Corinthians about “destroying” the church is precisely a danger created by disunity: some are of Paul, others of Apollos (1 Cor. 3)  The quarreling they were doing was labeled as “unspiritual” and a sign of their immature state, still in need of milk and not solid food.  Let us just at least pause to note that in almost none of our many splits have either side denied that Christ is Lord.

Not everything is allowable in the name of unity.  Paul is able to recommend at least temporary excommunication of an immoral man, involved in violating his own father’s marriage covenant by his affair with his mother in law.  Nevertheless, the hope he holds out, even for this one, is that his spirit is saved – a redemptive goal (1 Cor. 5:5).  We do not know the content of the  dispute between  Euodia and I urge Syntyche in Philippi, but they were urged to agree with each other, according to the model of Christ (4:2; 2:1-11).

It is so odd, the way we treat the church, the one entity that is divinely established as a unity, in contrast to the way we treat other groupings.  Lots of people these days bemoan the government but only a few at the fringes speak of breaking away to form a new country.  We pay taxes even though we could all come up with a long list of things we do not support.  We do not disown our parents or our children for contrary views (for some of us, we even stay married even though we have differing opinions).  A lot of us even hang in there with a political party that only represents our views incompletely.  We buy and use products and services from providers that do not necessarily line up with our cherished certainties.  But, historically speaking, we have felt free to break the visible unity of the body of Christ  into sacramental-sized tid bits.

Where does this go?  How far does it go?  I was a dutiful son, so fulfilling my parents’ expectations, I trundled off to the Moody Bible Institute, and three years later they gave me a diploma to prove it (back then, it was a 3 year, non-degree program) though they probably regret it now.  I had always read my bible and gone to church, so I knew a good bit when I started at Moody.  I knew a lot more theology when I came out.  But I was having trouble with some important parts of Moody theology by the time I graduated.  In the mean time, my home church in Ohio had gone through a departure from their parent denomination, making it necessary for them to come up with their own doctrinal statement.  Signing that new statement was a requirement for membership.   I had gone off to Moody, a member, but returned a non-member.  They gave me the pen and showed me where to sign.  But I couldn’t sign.  The statement had a paragraph about the return of Christ.  It was not only pre-millenial, it was pre-tribulational.  I could not sign that.  So, I was not welcome as a member in my parents’ church.

So how far does it go, when we make unity in the visible church contingent on agreement about issues of interpretation?   It could go all the way to the requirement that women wear hats in church, as Paul tells them to do (and it does go this far for some Christian groups – though the little things the ladies wear hardly fit my definition of a head-covering).   It is at least interesting, if not funny (or sad?) that my parents’ church, which was so doctrinally pure and biblically literal, had left their former denomination because they did not want to be bound to observing the literal washing of feet – in spite of the clear command from our Lord himself to do so (John 13:14-15).  For me, the timing and events of the return of Christ (pre-mil, pre-trib.) were a bit more vague than the language that Jesus used: “14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  But everybody picks and chooses.

Something else was going on in my personal life during my time at Moody in the mid-1970’s.  It was a school that still made the men cut their hair short, made women wear their skirts over the knee, and forbade attending movies at the theater and the public display of affection on campus.  And all this at the time when Nixon had just resigned, the civil rights movement was going on, the women’s movement was in full swing, we had just gotten out of Viet Nam with out tail between our legs, and large swaths of our inner cities were charred and boarded up.  I had just read “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” and woke up to poverty in America, hunger, at home and abroad, I had newly started reading Sojourners magazine – I felt like my conscience was waking up to the real world.  And my alma mater was worried about my hair length and my (former) church was worried about my eschatology.  There are so many ways to miss the boat it makes my head spin.  Talk about adventures in missing the point!

At this time I was exploring the Presbyterian Church, just as people in it were heading for the doors over the ordination of women.   Then the abortion issue started heating up, and “I just cannot support this” language was heard in the halls.   The Presbyterian church I joined after I finished my undergrad degree had a split.  The people who wanted a more pure church left to form it.  And it looked like it would have a chance of succeeding until the women in the group realized that their role in leadership was questioned (they had been leaders, but had left the Presbyterian Church over the abortion issue, only to find that the folks they left with were not happy with women leaders in the church – they had verses about it).   Again, it’s not so clear whether to laugh or cry.  Probably both are demanded.

Right now we are living at one of those massively huge times of transition.  Even if the language of “every 500 years the church holds a rummage sale” that Phyllis Tickle popularized in her book The Great Emergence is a bit too schematic, nevertheless, now, almost exactly 500 years after the 95 theses hit the Wittenberg door, we are in a sea-change.  We all can see it.  Where it will go, no one knows, but all of us are aware that the church of pretty-soon is not going to look like the church of up-until-just-recently.  There aren’t enough artery stents and bottles of Plavix to keep what we have going forever.

In the mean time, we cannot find reasons enough to stay together.  This is the post-Constantinian conundrum, finally bearing it’s bitter fruit.  The Emperor’s solution is to make a creed that defines orthodoxy, and call the dissenters heretics.  What happens?  In one day, Arius goes from bishop to bad-guy, and all the faithful in his flocks are damned heretics as well.  Was that the only way?  It was at Nicea.

I was in seminary at an Evangelical school (an inerrantist school) when the fight between Murray Harris and Norman Geisler over the nature of the resurrection body was in full bloom.  Geisler accused Harris of “neodocetism” for not believing “flesh” is raised (as Geisler does) when “the body” fit for eternity is resurrected (Harris’ view).  I kept wondering when the argument about the number of angels dancing on the pin’s head would commence.  I’ll say this: I think evangelicalism, in some forms, is its own brand of scholasticism.  I thought we had a Reformation about that.  How far does all this go?  When agreement about interpretation is the sine qua non of unity, it goes very far down a very dark path.  How many Protestant denominations are there?  Thousands.  And how many totally independent congregations?  And does this situation reflects adherence to our Lords words:

22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Here’s how I see it: In matters of theology and biblical interpretation, I know I’m right.  But of course, I knew that back before I changed my mind too.  In fact I’ve always had my reasons that were right, until I changed my mind.  But now, I must be right in some final sense.  This is how it feels.  And it’s self-evidently silly.  I heard that a professor told his class that 10% of what he was teaching was wrong, he just didn’t know which 10%.    For me it may be 11%.  OK, 12.   If you have a similar % difference, there could be up to a 24% space between us of error on both sides.  Now, that’s a scary thought.

The “correct” people in the church in the 4th century used to literally attack each other over the differences between homousious and homoiusios.  Today, I seriously wonder how many working preachers can speak coherently of substances and essences, or of the “absolute numerical identity” of God (Arius), versus a fully trinitarian mathematical mystery (Athanasius – Nicea)?   Or, how about the 16th century split-making question: in what way exactly is Christ present in the bread and cup at the Lord’s Supper?  When does “is” mean “is,” as in “this is my body” – (and this debate happened a long time before Clinton!)?  We are famous for what we are doing now.  It has a grand tradition.

But the world is sick to death of it, and it isn’t working anymore.

I hope we can do better on our watch.  But there isn’t much time left on the clock.  Can we at least agree that “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing”?  Christ is Lord.

The Evolution of God: A Systems Approach

Sermon for July 14, 2013,  Proper 10C / Ordinary 15C / Pentecost +8, Luke 10:25-37 and Psalm 82

Psalm 82

Rembrant
Rembrandt

In the divine council
God has taken God’s place;
God holds judgment
in the midst of the gods:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
“Give justice to the weak
and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly
and the destitute.
“Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in shadows;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any noble.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

long ago
long ago

The Evolution of God: A Systems Approach

Last week my eldest son Ben had a birthday.  It has been amazing to watch both of my sons grow up.  As they grow up, we parents watch how some things about our children stay the same, but they go through many changes.  Both boys used to have bright blond hair, but no more.

They don’t think about the world the same way they used to.  Actually, I’m really happy about that.  When we drove him to kindergarten one of my sons was convinced that the sun that he was looking up at, out the window, was following us.  He also held me personally responsible for every bump in the road we encountered (particularly unfair, since most of them had been caused by the pot holes in the road that shell fire from the the recent war had made).  He doesn’t hold either of those beliefs anymore.

Calvin on Progressive Revelation

This past week, on July 10, we marked the anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, just over 500 years ago.  He is considered the brains behind the Reformed (Presbyterian) branch of the Protestant Reformation (or, from the Roman Catholic perspective, the “great schism”).

spark to sunrise
spark to sunrise

When Calvin reflected about the way in which our human understandings of God and God’s will have changed, or progressed (that is, evolved), he used the image of a growing light. For him, the biblical Adam (whom he took to be a literal person) saw just “a few slender sparks” of God’s plan.  But as centuries passed, through the ministry of Moses and later, the prophets, the light grew brighter, Calvin says:

“at length all the clouds being dispersed, Christ the Sun of righteousness arose, and …illumined all the earth, (Mal 4).” (Institutes 2.10.20)

So Calvin believed in what we call “progressive revelation” – God has revealed his plans bit by bit, over a long time.  Or, looking at it from the flip side, we could say that human’s understanding of God has evolved over time.

Knowing God via Christ

The ultimate revelation, or as Calvin wrote, the fully risen sunshine, is Christ.  We would say it this way: we know what God is like and what God wants from us best by looking at Jesus.

In some circles this concept has become almost cute or banal: people wear “WWJD” bracelets, hopefully reminding them to ask themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?”  As in, “Which film would Jesus watch?  Which internet sites would he visit?  Would Jesus wait for marriage?” etc.

But this simplistic approach to ethical decision making (as if a moment’s reflection automatically gives an adolescent direct access to the mind of God) really masks something crucially important.  It is this: Yes; we believe that Jesus truly gives us insight into the nature and will of God.

Jesus was a person who pushed our understanding of God way down the road.  Following a direction, or a trajectory that was marked out before, in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), Jesus’s vision of God was an amazing leap beyond the view that was current in his day.

Jesus was part of a long tradition of reflection about God’s character and God’s will that he inherited from his Jewish background.  He was an innovator, but by no means the first one.  This is so important for us to grasp that I want to take a moment to show you something you may have never noticed (unless you come to Bible Study, where we have discussed this several times).

the council of the gods
the council of the gods

The Divine Council Gets Fired

This morning we read Psalm 82.  What did you picture when you heard this:

“In the divine council
God has taken God’s place;
God holds judgment
in the midst of the gods:

This is a poetic description of an ancient view of God.  It pictures the one central chief God surrounded by a “divine council” of lesser “gods.”  They are not angels, they are called literally “gods.”  They are there to serve the main God; to carry out his will.  They are his lieutenants.

But Israel evolved past this ancient picture of God.  Israel ended up believing in strict Monotheism: there is only one God; period.  And we can see the transition to full monotheism right here in this psalm.

Here is how we see it: the lesser gods have a job to do.  They are supposed to ensure that God’s wishes are carried out on earth.  God cares how things go, on the earth.  God is  watching, but he sees things going wrong.  He sees injustice, he sees the weak and vulnerable being mistreated, in other words, wickedness, and these lesser gods are letting it go.  God addresses them directly:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
“Give justice to the weak
and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly
and the destitute.
“Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

He has told them what he wants them to do, but he has already made up his mind about them.  They are not up to the job.  So, like Donal Trump, he fires them.  Listen:

“I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any noble.”

They were gods, but they just lost their immortality; they will die like mortals.  They are fired!

I’m being a little facetious, but I hope you can see the point.  The author of the psalm uses this poetic image of how people used to think about God, to emphasize his evolved belief that there is only one God to cry out to when the society has become so corrupt and unjust.  He says:

“Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!”

The old fashioned, primitive belief about God as the head of a council of gods (henotheism) has been replaced by Monotheism.

This is just one example among many that show clear evolution in the way humans understand God and God’s will.  Notice what has not changed here too: God cares about what humans do to each other, and that he is especially sensitive to the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, the widows, the orphans and the destitute.

Isaiah’s Evolved God

God's chosen fast
God’s chosen fast

Our reading from the prophets shows the same process of  evolution in  thinking about God. All throughout the Hebrew Bible, when people wanted to express their religious sincerity, they would fast from food.  But the later Isaiah said that the ritual of fasting was meaningless if it was not accompanied by specific behavior.  Of what sort?  Listen,

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

What has evolved, and what has stayed the same?  There has been an evolution in understanding what makes God happy: not the religious ritual of fasting, but rather right behavior.  Orthodoxy, we could say, has been trumped by ortho-praxy.

What has stayed the same?  God’s passionate concern for the same kind of people:  those subject to injustice, the debt-slaves suffering under the yoke, the oppressed, the hungry, and the poor.  You can see a great theme in all of this, can you not?

Jesus and the Evolving understandingmodern good Samaritan framed

We discover the final step in this evolution, the final location on this trajectory, when we come to Jesus and the familiar parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  Jesus takes the tradition he received from the prophet Isaiah and radically transforms it by the removal of three little words.  The last three.

Isaiah said that the proper fast that God chooses, instead of a religious ritual, was the practice enacting justice – for whom?  The last three words are:

“your own kin

This may well have been were the Torah scholar, the expert in the Law of Moses, got his question:

“Who is my neighbor?”

Remember, that question came in response to the the discussion of the greatest commandment in the whole Hebrew scriptures.  The conclusion, shared by Jesus and that Torah scholar was that they whole Torah was summed up in the words,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Right.

So the question is: “who is my neighbor?”  Isaiah had said, “your own kin.”

So to answer this question, Jesus told a story.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

The priest and the Levite are both caught up in a world-view that believed God would rather have them keep their religious purity than touch a bloody victim, or worse, a corpse.  Were they right?  Is that what God wanted most?  No, but we already knew that, from Isaiah.

To add even another wrinkle, in the parable, along comes a Samaritan.  Why a Samaritan?  He is a person who is not kin to the victim.

Now, to be fair, the victim’s ethnicity or nationality is left unspecified – but that is precisely the point.  It doesn’t matter.  Remember, there is no way anyone can know what nationality the victim is: he is half dead, so no one hears his accent.  He has been stripped of his ethnically distinctive clothing, so he could be kin or not to anyone.

This changes everything.  The concluding question says it all: instead of

who is my neighbor?

(who is kin that I am obligated to care about)?  The question  becomes,

“who was a neighbor to him?”

This is what Jesus shows us is really important to God.  To care for people who are not part of our tribe; people who are not family; people who are perhaps even the bad guys, the enemies, the ones we feel so justified in ignoring because they are not like us: not “our kin.”

The Jesus revolution has shown us what God cares about.  As Paul said it,

“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.”

Expanding the Circle – infinitely

So what has changed and what has remained the same?  Changed is the size of our circle of care, compassion and action.  Now, it is universal in size.  Nobody is outside of it.  What has stayed the same?  God’s clear concern for people who suffer: victims.  Victims of robbers, victims of all kinds.

This is a call to action for us.  We know what is important to God; Jesus has shown us.  But now we are left with a problem.

Is this too much to bear?  What do we do now that we are responsible for the whole world?

Is this call so radical and so extreme that we simply have to write it off as pious fantasy?

Systemic Injustice

1% & 99%
1% & 99%

Not at all.  Now we are in a position, to push the evolution even further.  Now we know why that man was robbed that day on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Banditry is the consequence of a deeply economically divided society in turmoil.  Nobody bothers to rob poor people: they have nothing worth taking.

In those days of a 1% at the economic top, and a 99% near the bottom, bandits who were the victims of the system, turned to crime against the wealthy.  In other words, the whole economic system conspired to create the conditions that landed that man in the ditch.

Nowadays, we understand systems as no other generation has.  We understand how systems can be either just or unjust; repressive or inclusive.   We understand social evils like nationalism, racism, class-ism, sexism, homo-phobia, xenophobia, and how all of these can be and have been enshrined in custom and even in law (even in constitutions!); defended by police and courts, and cause enormous suffering.

We know, for example, that a few simple regulations can bring clarity, transparency and accountability to an industry, like home owners insurance industry, where previously every decision was taken under the cloak of darkness, creating gross inequities for many, and massive profits for a select few.

Marching Orders

We are called to think through the implications, for our day and time, of our foundational belief: Jesus shows us what God cares about.  He cares about suffering people everywhere.   And now we know what to do about it: address causes; change systems.  Be a neighbor to the world.

Moral Documents
Moral Documents

Laws, we now understand, are not just legal documents, they are moral documents.    Budgets are moral documents.  Constitutions and court rulings have moral content.   Tax rates have moral content – as even Warren Buffet has pointed out.  Even student loan rates have moral content.

So it is not enough to have a religion focused on the personal, nor on the micro issues.  This parable of Jesus shows us the kind of God we serve – a God of compassion and mercy – and shows us our mandate, our marching orders: we are to be neighbors to the world, actively advocating for justice and compassion in all the systems of the world, from economics to health care, to education to the criminal justice system – and all the rest.

This is a huge calling.

Everyone’s involvement is significant.

Make no small plans!

The kingdom of God is at hand!

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The Right Hope

Lectionary Sermon on Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 for July 7, 2013, Pentecost + 7 C, 14th Ordinary

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Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He

said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like

a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The Right Hope

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My son Ben was home for the Fourth of July, which is always nice.  We enjoyed some good family moments together, including sharing some of our favorite YouTube videos with each other.  We got around to sharing music.  Ben has been getting into old stuff.  Frank Sinatra, if you can believe it.  But also old-ish rock and roll.  And This is where it went downhill for me

What I found particularly off-putting was when he started playing music from my late-middle school years and early high school.  I don’t know how early adolescence was for you, but those were not my best years.  I remember a lot of awkwardness.  And the music put me right back into those years.  I am glad to be past them now.  I would never want to re-live them.  And yet part of who I am comes from those days.  They are a part of my journey.

Life as Journey

It’s pretty common to speak of life as a journey we take.  If you were asked to describe you life as a journey, I

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wonder how you would describe this moment you are in right now?  Clearly for most of us here today, more of life is behind us than before us.  And yet, it’s not over; we are still on this journey in this life.

Each day we travel through life is no more or less significant than any other day.  Each morning we are presented with a new day; with new choices and new possibilities for acting or re-acting.  The question we have before us is: how am I journeying today?

I love the way Luke tells the story of Jesus: most of it is a journey Jesus and the disciples make from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Most of the action and the teaching in Luke takes place on this journey.  We come to understand that Luke was telling the story this way, as a journey, on two levels: one was the literal journey Jesus and the others took, and the other is the way that this journey applies to the journey Luke’s community was taking through life, and the journey we are on, right now.

This text today is especially important because it has descriptions of some moments of that original journey, as well as teaching about how to make the journey.  Both were relevant to Luke’s community in the years after Jesus’ earthly life, and both are relevant to us as well in important ways.  So let’s look at the text together.  It is loaded with insight: we will only be able to skim the surface.

Mission without Jesus Present

The scene begins as Jesus sends out 70 disciples, in pairs, on a mission.  They will go out without Jesus present beside them.  That is exactly where Luke’s community found themselves, and where we find ourselves.  It is one thing to follow Jesus when you can see and touch him; but how do you keep following the Jesus path when he is not there to be seen?  This is what this story is about.

So how does Jesus instruct them to conduct the journey?  Jesus teaches several fundamentals about how to follow him on the journey.  First he tells them:

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“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals”

The Christian community is supposed to walk through life without a purse for hoarding; no bag for accumulating. Jesus has taught them that,

 “A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.”  

Our cultural values here in the wealthy West usually ignore this one.  Blessings are wonderful to enjoy, but the purpose of life is not accumulation and consumption.

The disciples are then instructed:

“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!”

These Christians, on the journey, put themselves in vulnerable positions in which they must depend on each other’s good will.  They rely on “the hospitality of strangers.”  The expression that you often hear that pretends to be so self-righteous, “I do not accept charity from anyone” is deeply non-Christian.  Christians are people who both give and receive gifts and strangers.

They are to offer the blessing “peace to this house.”  They are to be people of the blessing; people of peace; shalom.

Jesus tells them to “eat what is set before you.”  They are to live in the moment, accepting what is put before them without reservation, non-judgmentally.

This is not the way these good Jewish boys were raised to think about about food and people; about purity and impurity; the clean and the unclean.  But those judgmental days are over.  A new day has dawned: “the Kingdom of God has come near.”   Now true purity is being “pure in heart” which means there is no longer need of an “impure” category to put people into.  No scapegoats are needed.  Even to those who reject them, the message is still, “The kingdom of God has come

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near.”

Location: expect opposition

Where are the disciples, at this point in the story?  Remember from last week, that they are still traveling through Samaritan territory.  They can expect opposition; not everyone is happy to have them around.  There are people who will reject their message and ministry.

Luke’s community of early Christians in the Hellenized Roman world knew this story well.  It was their story too.  Genuine Christianity should expect to be at odds  sometimes, with the prevailing culture.   If the values of the culture are oriented towards accumulation of wealth, exploitation of the vulnerable, discrimination against those who are “not like us,” and accepts violence as a means, then expect to be at odds with it.

But, when they are rejected, they do not call down thunder and lightning, they do not curse, they simply shake off the dust and move on.  No retaliation.

Blessing, not curses

When we were living in one of the countries of Central Europe, we were told something really depressing.  Police were afraid to give traffic tickets to priests when they pulled them over, for fear the priest might put a curse on them.  No wonder the church there was so anemic and irrelevant!

That is the opposite of the Christian value system.  Jesus told us to “bless those who curse” us and “pray for those who persecute us.”  Yes, there is opposition to Christian values, but there is never an excuse for a violent or retributive response.

We are sent out “like lambs into the midst of wolves,” not like fellow wolves!  The cycle of retribution and retaliation turns perpetually until someone stops it.  It stops with us.

Forgive us our debts” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive our debtors.”  This is central!

Compassion + Forgiveness = Authenticity

Last week we spoke of Compassion as the heart of true Christianity.  The other equally essential and crucial Christian characteristic is forgiveness.  Christians do not seek revenge.  Period.  On this journey, we are following a leader who went to his death without lifting the sword of quid-pro-quo retaliation.  We follow the one who taught us to “turn the other cheek.”

I am completely convinced that it is precisely the lack of compassion and forgiveness shown by those who wear the name “Christian” that has led to the demise of organized Christianity in our culture today.

But, I give the new atheists and agnostics credit: a Christianity that is not characterized by compassion and forgiveness has gotten off the path Jesus called us to follow.  It deserves to be rejected.  Organized religion of that sort may be “organized” and it may be “religious,” but it is not “Christian” in any meaningful sense.  Good riddance.

But, the world is indeed hungry, maybe, by now, starving for people who know how to practice genuine compassion and true forgiveness.  “The harvest is plentiful” but there are precious few reaper-practitioners.  “Pray the Lord of the harvest” to raise up a new cohort of Jesus-followers who are committed to following his path of compassion and forgiveness.  May we be among them!

The Healing Mission

The disciples on  this journey have a mission to fulfill.  We have a purpose. We are not living random, aimless, pointless days.  We are sent out, at each sunrise, into a new day, as emissaries.  There is sickness all around, so Jesus sends out the 70 with the mission of healing.  Listen to how this mission is described:

“cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’Brain evolution framed

It is as if we are to understand that there is healing power in the message that the kingdom of God has arrived.  There is.  And this is the healing message we have.

There are many ways to look at this; today I offer one of them.  We humans evolved from primates.  We share huge similarities with chimps and monkeys from DNA to behavior.  Even our brains are quite similar, but we homo-sapiens have evolved past the other primates.

All of us share in common a brain stem and a primitive brain-core.  Some people refer to this the “lizard brain.”  That is the area that gives us survival instincts.  From the lizard brain comes the fight-or-flight instinct.  When something threatening appears to be happening, like: we hear the snap of a twig behind us, instantly we think: “Tiger!”

Immediately our brains are flooded with stress-chemicals.  Our blood pressure and heart rate sore.  Adrenaline pumps through our veins; we can leap tall buildings in a single bound if need be.  We run like mad, or we climb the nearest tree.  If it grabs us, we will fight blindly, to the death.

The trouble with this mechanism is that we still have it, and now it is unhelpful.  When we feel threatened, even insulted, or slighted, and especially if we are really wronged, the same “lizard brain” produces the same fight-or-flight response.  All the same stress hormones and adrenaline flow, and all of it is unhealthy for us.  It literally makes us sick.

The message that the kingdom, or the realm of God has arrived is a healing message.  There are alternatives to violence.  The cycle of retaliation can be stopped.  Vengeance and condemnation can be replaced by forgiveness and compassion.

It is possible to accept what is presented to us each day non-judgmentally.  It is possible to walk through life as one who brings shalom, peace, wholeness and healing to every house we enter.  We have the choice each new day of the journey.

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Christian Practices

Amazingly, after all this time, lots of Christians are finally waking up to something that people in Jesus’ day took for granted, but that we had forgotten: that truly Christian living is the fruit of regular Christian practices.

Compassion and forgiveness don’t just happen automatically, and don’t come naturally.   Rather, they are the fruit of the daily practice of contemplative prayer, or mindfulness meditation.  This practice can help turn down that lizard brain response and help us to practice compassion and forgiveness, and actually change our brains.  I will be teaching about this practice in my upcoming course called “Your Brain on Prayer.”  I hope you can come.

We are on a journey, and we travel it each day with hope.  It is not the hope that all the bad guys will be conquered with vengeance, but that the Kingdom of God has come; the alternative lifestyle of compassion and forgiveness is possible.  Jesus has shown us how to make this journey, each new day, according to the often counter-cultural perspective of the Kingdom, or the realm of God.

Jesus may not be physically present anymore, but God is present.  Today we will get help to know his presence in the bread and the cup, the sacrament in which we see the risen Lord, just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus did on their journey, as Luke recounts for us.   So this very moment is, as each moment is, perfect for us, to help us journey well.

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