Jesus on What Matters

Sermon on Luke 18:9–14 for Pentecost +23, Ordinary 30 C, October 27, 2013

Luke 18:9–14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus on What Mattersgirls hoodie shadow

The other day a question was going around the internet among a group of  Christians.  It asked, if Jesus returned today, what would he be like?  If Jesus came the first time as a poor, marginalized Jewish peasant, in Roman-occupied Palestine, a Galilean, no less, then who would he be today?  Could it be that Jesus would return as a poor, gay, black, teenage girl?

Did You Wince?

When I first read the question, it made me wince a bit. Did it you?  But then as I reflected on it, I realized a few things. First, yes, Jesus fit the categories of people whom the “respectable ones” found easy to dismiss, if not to despise.  Similarly,   the kinds of categories of people that we, in the North American, educated, suburban, caucasian Protestant church find easy to dismiss if not despise are included in that hypothetical person: the poor, gay, black, teenage girl.  So maybe he would come back like that.

And the second thing I realized was that my initial wince betrayed me.  I wonder how Jesus would have told this parable differently today?  What if one of the characters at prayer in the story was a poor gay black teenage girl?  If I were the other person in the story, would I be sitting there thinking “I’m so thankful I’m not like her?”  Maybe I have a self-righteous, smug side of me that I don’t want to admit.

But how would I know, since there are no poor, gay, black teenage girls around here?  Then, I started wondering about that fact too.  Why not?  Where are they?Brian at Wild Goose shadow

Being a “Jesus-Guy”

This past summer I got to attend the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina (the Wild Goose is the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit).  One of the leading lights of the “Emerging Church” movement, Brian McLaren was there.  He has written several books I have found stimulating like “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “A New Kind of Christianity.”

When he was asked about his perspective on Christianity, in this new day, with so many things changing, I loved how he began his answer: “I’m a Jesus guy” he said.  “I just think Jesus is great.”

I love that answer.  And I identify with it.  You may think I’m a church-guy, seeing me here, like this on Sundays, but the truth is, I’m a Jesus-guy first and foremost.  In my best moments, I want to follow Jesus, to know Jesus, to have his voice in my head and listen to it.  That’s what I see as the goal; the main thing.

The way I see it, we are authentic Christians to the degree that we are personally following Jesus.  The test of our Christian lives is not how well we do church, but how closely we follow Jesus.

No Huge Crowds Yet

https://www.facebook.com/TransitionsGS

As you know, we are now involved in a new evening worship service we are calling “Transitions.”  This Sunday will be our fourth week.  I’m hopeful that we will be able to reach out in a new way through this service, but it’s starting slowly.  We do not live in the days when you can just put up a sign and an announcement in the paper and hundreds of people will flock to a new church worship service.

In fact the very word “church” is a major obstacle for many people today, especially younger ones: look around; they are not here.church and wall shadow

We have a History

Why not?  For many reasons, no doubt.  But one of the big ones is our reputation.  Collectively and historically, the church has been expert in drawing boundaries and maintaining strict walls of separation between insiders and outsiders; saints and sinners.  The church, throughout its history, has been the poster child for judgmentalism.  Condemnation has been our strong suit.

There may have been a day in which that worked; when enough people believed in God, and heaven and hell, that the church got away with being arrogant, self-serving and exclusive; but those days are gone.  We are reaping the bitter harvest in our times of the bad seeds that the church has been sowing for a long time.

My Apology

I don’t speak for the church in general, but since I’m here in this role, let me just say, on behalf of the church, that if you have ever been hurt or felt shamed or excluded by the church, we are sorry; that was wrong; we apologize.  Please forgive us.  Whenever we did that, we were not following Jesus.

There is a trend these days to reject the church as it has been.  Maybe there is a positive side to this.  Lots of people these days define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”  They are deeply aware of their connection to spiritual reality, but they are not looking for a religious institution, like a church, to help them make that connection.  They are spiritually aware of God and freely admit it, even though they have been put off by the church.

New Kinds of Christiansred letter christians shadow

But, as Brian McLaren gave voice to, there are a lot of people who are newly interested in what it means to authentically follow Jesus.  They are forming movements like the Emerging Church movement and like “Red Letter Christians” who focus their practice on the red letters in the New Testament – in those versions of it that put Jesus’ words in red ink.

They are paying attention in a new way to Jesus’ teaching, and trying to live as if it were actually true and he actually meant it.  They are combining active engagement in ministries of compassion and justice with deep personal spirituality – just like Jesus did.  The only kind of church that makes any sense to them, and to me, is the kind that is seeking to follow Jesus.

What Matters to Jesus

What does that look like?  It’s so clear that Jesus never lost sight of what really mattered.  To Jesus it mattered that people were hungry, so he fed them.  It mattered that they were sick, and so he healed them.  It mattered what they thought about God, and so he taught them to understand God as their loving Heavenly Father whose name was holy.  And it mattered deeply what they thought of each other.  There is simply no room, in Jesus’ mind, for arrogance and exclusion.

How did we get into the condition we are in, in which we have earned the reputation for being so un-Jesus-like to the point that we feel free to wince at the idea of Jesus being a poor, gay, black teenage girl?

Hard wiring and Spiritual Transformation

Because, the truth is, that it is normal for humans to like those who are like us and to fear and loath those who are different.  It’s human nature.  We are probably hard-wired to be exclusive.  It’s part of our long biological evolutionary history that we protect and care for our tribe against all competitors.

But if that is not the Jesus-way, how can this deeply ingrained tendency be overcome?Jesus in boat shadow

By being like Jesus in his spirituality.  Frequently we see Jesus, the feeder, healer, activist taking time out to be quiet and alone in prayer.  Jesus was truly an activist.  He was out with people in need, addressing their needs, even to the point of exhaustion sometimes.  He even worked on the Sabbath.

But he knew how to take Sabbath rest as well.  He knew when he needed to leave the crowds, to get in the boat, and experience the presence of God out on the water.  He sometimes got up long before daylight to go and be alone in prayer and meditation.  He developed such an intimate relationship with God that he came to know him as his Abba – father.

Have we been following Jesus?  We, especially in the Christian Western world, have spent a lot of time trying to work out the correct theological understanding of Jesus.  How many natures did he have?  Was he fully human and fully divine?  How does he fit into the Trinity?  How does he relate to the Spirit?

And we have spent a lot of time, energy and money doing church.  We have built it as a huge institution with constitutions, by-laws and buildings.

Maybe now is the time to say,

“been there; done that.”

Now let’s try something new.  Now lets try to  be who we should have been all this time.

Now is the time to examine our own personal spiritual practices.  If we are going to  experience transformation from that default human condition of exclusion, it will only come as the fruit of the kinds of spiritual practices Jesus modeled for us.

Spiritual Practicescandle cross shadow

How are your spiritual practices?  Maybe this is a good time to re-examine how we have been, and renew our commitment to being fully authentic followers of Jesus.

If you have not yet discovered the amazing power of contemplative, centering prayer, may I encourage you to try?  Set aside twenty minutes every day.  Find a place and time when, like Jesus, you can be alone and undisturbed.  Allow yourself to rest in God’s presence, neither planning the future nor ruminating about the past, but simply being mindfully present to God.

This is the kind of transformative spirituality that Jesus practiced.  This is what led him to understand himself as a beloved son of his heavenly Father.   This is what led him to be so open hearted and accepting of people in every category – women, children, Romans, diseased people, confused people, even caught-red-handed guilty people.  He never shamed anybody, never put anyone down.

Instead, he loved people into repentance.  Without a word of judgment the corrupt tax collector in another story offers to repay four fold all of those whom he has gouged, after Jesus breaks the barriers of protocol for decent people and joins him for a meal in his home.  The adulterous woman whose execution Jesus stopped was given a second chance to go and sin no more.

I wonder how Jesus would have reacted to a conversation with a poor, black, gay, teenage girl.  I want to be a Jesus-guy, and for our church to be a Jesus-church, and for us all to be spiritually grounded, actively activist, Jesus-people.  Then we will be blessed in so many ways, maybe even by having people like that showing up again as they used to when Jesus walked the earth.

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Filibustering God

Sermon for Pentecost +22,  October 20, 2013 on Luke 18:1–8pastedGraphic.pdf

Luke 18:1–8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Filibustering God

Do you have faith?  This parable ends with a question: will the son of man find faith when it matters?  So, if it were now, do you have faith?  Or are there things that make you doubt?  How easy is it to trust that God answers your prayers?

Do you remember the game from childhood: “do you trust me?”  Another kid, maybe a sibling, or friend would do something that looked dangerous, like it might hurt you, and ask you, “do you trust me?”  The game is awful because in it, someone does something precisely designed to make you not trust them, and then asks you to go ahead and trust them anyway.  It’s completely unfair.

The Trust Game Parable

This parable sets up just that situation.  A widow with no clout, no influence, no money, no power (i.e. she’s a widow!) tries to get justice.  She might have a shot at justice if the judge she is appealing to was simply a decent person of high moral character, but he is pretty much the opposite.

In this story, he lacks respect for anyone and has no fear of God.  He has no reason to respond unless he perceives it in his self interest to do so.  The widow has no means to bribe him, she has no men at home to threaten him with retaliation.  She doesn’t even have any means to shame him publicly since he just doesn’t care.

So she is like the kid in the trust game who is asked “do you trust me?”: all the evidence she has tells her that there is no reason to expect anything good out of this situation, but she is supposed to keep being persistent.

The parable has a moral: it is that we are to keep praying in the face of evidence that it’s not working, so that when the showdown comes, we won’t be one of those who are guilty of having lost faith.  It seems perhaps unfair to find someone guilty of a lack of faith when all the evidence is that there is no reason to.

What makes me doubt my faith

If the opposite of faith is doubt, then this parable brings up the doubt question.  So, do you doubt?  Sometimes?  I do.  There are several things that regularly make me feel doubtful.

Evil is the big one.  Why God allows it, why the worst of it is not stopped, why so many people suffer.  Lots of Jews lost faith after the holocaust – and I can understand why.

Some of you have gone through experiences in which you have been damaged by someone else’

s evil.  How does that experience affect your faith?

Another cause of doubt for me is the lack of effect of Christianity, on both a large and a small scale.  On a national scale, we have to be honest about the fact that the   holocaust was the product of one of the most Christian nations on earth – Germany.   Why did Christianity fail to make anti-Semitism impossible?  But millions of German Christians were totally seduced.  Why?

Germans are not alone.  I am constantly appalled

by the seemingly total lack of Christian values in our own national debate.  It seems that the more Christian you are, like the public spokes-people on the religious right, the less likely you are to hear the word “justice,” or to hear conversations about ending poverty, or talk about how to ensure that everyone like poor widows, has access to affordable health care.

I’m not speaking of any one proposed solution and whether or not it would be effective.  I’m talking about the conversation itself.  You don’t hear it as a goal in some circles.  It seems to be a hated concept to some very loud American Christians  that everyone would be insured.  It just doesn’t seem to matter much, to a lot of them, whether or not people suffer needlessly.  That seems bizarre to me – as if prep you for the billChristianity itself has failed at a basic, fundamental level.  Yes, it causes me to doubt sometimes.

It’s also true at a personal level.  I have to admit it that my faith is actually shaken some when a person whom I have respected for many years, who has given all evidence of being a faithful Christian, gets offended, and then finds it impossible to forgive.  Forgiveness is basic to Christianity.  It is spiritual growth level A.  It is is baby-food level Christianity.  And when it seems unachievable by seemly mature Christians, it makes me wonder if Christian faith has anything more to offer than belief in Santa Clause.

Prayer and uncertainty

But the issue that is probably the most difficult for me is the prayer issue.  Yes, it causes me to wonder about faith, when, after a lot of prayer, bad things still happen.   Or nothing happens.prayer in church

It is true that there are also times when prayer seems to work as we want it to.  Some soldiers return safely home; some cancers are cured, some relationships are healed.  But there are a lot of times nothing seems to happen – or worse.  That’s just the trouble: we are asked to trust, when there is just as much reason not to as there is for persistence.  I wonder if you have felt similarly?

It’s complicated.   We almost lost our firstborn son.  There were problems with the pregnancy.  In fact, I had started to prepare myself for the worst.  We prayed.  So did our church community and family and friends.  And we had a beautiful healthy baby!

But other people I have known have lost theirs.  Was our happy conclusion a coincidence, or answered prayer?  What should we make of the ones who had the opposite experience?  It’s complicated even when we are the ones who get the good news.

Faith anyway

But I do continue to have faith, in spite of my doubts, and I do continue to pray.  In fact, I pray a lot.  I’m not bragging; I actually think I cannot help it.  It seems so instinctive to me to call out to God when I face injustice or suffering or uncertainty.  I almost don’t seem to have a choice.

So what’s going on here?  Why do I hang in there?  I do not have all the answers, but I have a couple of thoughts.looking at stars shadow

God: knowns and unknowns

The first is about God.  In this almost humorous parable, God is represented by the unjust judge character.  The whole point of the parable is that everyone knows that God is not like that.  God is just about the opposite of that self-absorbed, unjust, shameless, arrogant person.  That’s why it is all the more the case that we can expect God to help us when we pray.  If that powerless, vulnerable widow eventually got help from that horrible judge, now much more should we expect our loving heavenly Father to care for us?

There are many things we do not know; cannot know about God.  But we know that God is good, not bad; loving not spiteful; caring, not apathetic; and wants our good, as a parent wants the good for her child.  If Jesus had any insight into God at all, this was his message to us.

Does that answer all the questions?  No; in fact it only makes some of the questions more difficult – like the “why?” questions.  But our lack of understanding is not a sufficient reason to think the opposite.  Asserting the goodness of God does not lead to certainty, but at least it gives us a reason to doubt our doubts.  We don’t know everything, but at least we know this much.war horse

Evil: who’s fault?

The second thing I think about when doubts come has to do with evil.  The fact is, God does not shut it down.  I am free; free to be good or to be bad if that’s how I want to be, and so is everyone else.  The world is a morally real place, not a vast puppet theater.

A great deal of the suffering that makes me wonder if God is doing anything is caused by human evil.  If we want to, we can have a world like fascist Germany, which gasses Jews, gays and mentally handicapped people, or not.  We can have a world of slavery, discrimination, and sexism, or not.  These are the products of human decisions, individual and group decisions.

A lot of the evil on earth, from warfare and violence to gross injustice is caused by humans.  God is not on the moral hook for that; we are.  In fact, we are all the more on the hook since we have democratic means to make a difference.

Completely unlike the widow in the story Jesus told, we can vote; we can organize; we can write and call and campaign and make our voices heard.  We have a lot of responsibility in our democratic times for the conditions that we allow to exist.  We can have a just and equitable society or an oligarchy; nowadays, we get to decide.

History: the moral arc of the universe

There are many many things I don’t understand about God or about prayer.  Why does it seem to take so long?  What is God waiting for?  The Psalms are full of the cry “How long, O Lord?”  The story is that the Jews cried out to God for 450 years of slavery in Egypt; how long?  As Brueggemann says, “Damn long time.”

Nevertheless, it does indeed seem to be true, as Martin Luther King jr. quoted, that the moral arc of the universe, though long, bends towards justice.  Fascism did not win in Europe.  Soviet style tyranny collapsed.  Millions of people around the world now do have access to food, clean water and medical care.  Slavery still exists, as we know, but at least it is not state-sponsored anymore.

Discrimination still exists – just ask women, or people of color, or immigrants, or gay people – but we have made tremendous progress.  And though it has may gaping holes, there is a social safety net that helps millions of people, from children to the elderly, who otherwise would be suffering even more.  On that score, Germany is way ahead of us today.  I give thanks to God for all of this progress.praying hands shadow

Prayer, in spite

So, no, it’s not an open-and-shut case; doubt is possible because of the way we experience life.  In fact, the story-world of the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is rather realistic.  For her, persistence seemed to be completely ineffective for a long time, until the judge got tired of being filibustered.  But eventually, justice was done.

So I am going to keep filibustering God.  I want to encourage you to join me.  The last chapter has not been written.  It’s not over until it’s over.

What are you going through right now?  Health issues for yourself or for a loved one?  Depression?  Economic problems?  Relationship issues?  Grief?  Aging issues?  Maybe doubt itself is an issue.  Keep up the filibuster; keep praying.  Cry out to God when it hurts, when it looks impossible, when it seems hopeless.  Cry out even when you don’t understand.

I believe that God is with us in the pain and in the struggle.  God is, in fact, suffering with us, “feeling our pain” – as flippant as that phrase has been made to sound.  I believe that God redeems evil.  Sometimes the process is long and difficult, but God causes good to come, even out of tragedy.

So join me in doubt, and join me in prayer in spite of the doubt.

And let us join together in being part of the solution, wherever we can.  Let us be part of the answer to other peoples prayers for justice and mercy, working to end evil and to promote the goodness that God wills for all God’s children.

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The Resurrection Question: Tony Jones, Marcus Borg, the Bible and “the Mess Science is in.”

I have been following the recent give and take between progressive theologian, emergent blogger, author, Dr. Tony Jones and Jesus

Tony Jones
Tony Jones

Seminar New Testament scholar Dr. Marcus Borg.  Jones, though progressive on most issues, maintains a belief in the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body.  Borg, though affirming the presence of the risen Christ, evidenced even personally for him in mystical experiences, does not believe physical resurrections are possible, nor possible to believe in.

As I read their conversations, I thought of my own struggles with the question – both questions: Did Jesus rise from the dead physically?  and Does it matter?

There are two problems for me that make the whole issue so difficult.  First is how the New Testament itself describes Jesus’ resurrected body, and second, the scientific notion of physical vs. (vs. what? non-physical?  particle vs. wave?  matter vs. energy?) something else.

The Problem of the New Testament and Resurrected Bodies

The New Testament does not make the question easy nor settle

Marcus Borg
Marcus Borg

the issue.  It could have just said “Jesus’ body rose from the grave” and left it at that, but the problem comes in the descriptions of that body after the resurrection.  The gospels show a body that is somewhat like what we know as physical and somewhat not at all like physical bodies.  First, location: where was the body on Easter?  In Galilee (as Mark 16 reports, but doesn’t show, and as Matthew implies the disciples went to – but the timing isn’t specified)?  On the road to Emmaus and yet also  in the room where the disciples were hiding in Jerusalem?  (Luke 24).  At the tomb, where Mary Magdalene saw him (in John 20), or not at the tomb where Mary Magdalene didn’t find him (Mark 16).

And besides location, what kind of body was it?  One that was not recognized – by either Mary Magdalene (she thought he was the gardener, even after words were exchanged – in John) or the couple on road to Emmaus who only realized him “in the breaking of the bread” just before he disappeared (Luke).  He could be on that Emmaus road then (instantly?  hard to know) back in Jerusalem where he appears (materializes?) in a locked room with the disciples.  He has body-scars remaining from his ordeal that Thomas can see and is

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invited to touch (did he then touch? or did he just believe because he had seen and been invited to touch?).  He could eat fish after cooking it on the beach (in John).  All of these very physical-ish appearances have continuity and discontinuity with what we understand bodies to be and to be able to do.  In what sense, putting them all together, can a “physical” body do all of these things?  And yet, how can a non-physical body cook, eat, bear scars or be touchable?

There is one more place in the New Testament which pushes this question even further down the rabbit hole.  Paul is the one who argues most strenuously for a resurrected body.  No body, no resurrection is what he argues in 1 Cor. 15.  But right there, in the context of his argument, he brings up what is to him, his Ace in the hole: Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and introduces a huge conundrum.  Jesus, he says, appeared first to Peter, then to James and the other disciples, and then was seen by more than 500, some of whom are still alive and available for cross-examination (so far so good; strong case for a physical body resurrection) and then he adds,

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Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor. 15:8)

But how did the risen Jesus appear to Paul?  He never claims that he saw Jesus as a physical body.  He heard a voice from heaven, saw a blindingly bright light, got knocked off his horse and went temporarily blind – and that was Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus!  That sounds powerful, but not physical-body-ish.

If that is not category-confusing enough, Paul goes one step further.  He is actually able to discuss the difference between a “physical body” and a “spiritual body” (psuchikos soma and pneumatikos soma 1 Cor. 15:44).  The whole debate about “physical” vs. “spiritual” body seems to come to grief right here in that line that requires that both be possible – exactly in the place where the resurrection of the body is being defended.

The Problem that Science is in a Mess

If the New Testament leaves us category-confused, can we simply appeal to science?

Raymond Tallis, retired Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and neuroscience researcher wrote in the Guardian (May 26, 2013) about the mess science is in.  Here is an example (the brief article is brimming with these kinds of paragraphs):

“Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but

Schrödinger's cat
Schrödinger’s cat

incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.”

Add to these conundrums, Tallis says, the inability of science to account either for consciousness or even present time, and you see how messy the mess is.

Two things are clear to me: first, the picture of the resurrected body of Jesus in the New Testament is quite complex, if not almost incoherent, if we are limited to discussing a binary either-or between physical and spiritual.   Second, science is getting closer and closer to (if not already at the point of) eliminating entirely the meaningfulness of a matter vs. not-matter conception of the universe.  Even particles, we hear,  are more wave-like than we ever thought before.  It’s almost as if particles disappear into mere relationships.  This isn’t helping solve the riddle.

The question, “can such things happen?” that “modern, post-enlightenment” people used to feel smug about asking now seems to have been swept off the discussion table.  But the other smugness of “the bible says” is also not possible to maintain.

So, that settles it.  Right?  Or not.

 

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Mercy and the “far away” folks

Sermon for Pentecost +21, 28th Ordinary, Year C, October 13, 2013, on Luke 17:11-19

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and girl with giftgo on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Kids are cute when parents try to teach them the importance of saying “thank you.”  When children receive a birthday or Christmas gift, they tear open the packaging, they get wide-eyed, maybe smile – and all of that is natural, but they must be taught to add to their joy a polite “thank you.”  So parents remind them: “Say Thank you to grandma,”  and its cute to watch them say a sheepish “Thank you, grandma.”

Of all the things the bible is, the one thing it is not is “cute.”  The bible is sometimes puzzling, sometimes challenging, sometimes even humorous, but never cute.  If the opposite of cute is life-and-death, then this story from Luke is closer to life-and-death than cute.

This story is not a cute reminder to say “thank you.”  The message embedded in this story made some people mad enough to want to get Jesus killed.  On the other hand, once we grasp what is happening here, and what it all means, this story is a huge source of life and healing for us.   We need this badly, so let us look at it together.

Passing Through (spit on the ground) Samariaacross a divide

On his long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus and his traveling entourage pass through Samaria.  Does that mean the ten lepers they encounter are Samaritans?  If so, that adds a whole new layer of complexity to the story.

Jews and Samaritans found each other repulsive.  Samaritans were part-Jewish, part not-Jewish, and so were despised by Jews.  Samaritans did not worship in the one exclusively correct place, Jerusalem; they had their own temple.

So, to Jews, they were both ethnically and religiously corrupt. Healing, if it ever happened, would require going to a priest.  If these lepers are Samaritans, whose priests would they go show their newly cleansed bodies to?  Luke dangles this one out there for us to  ponder.

Ten lepers in Samaria call out to Jesus for mercy.  Jesus, remarkably, is not put off by them.  He allows himself to be engaged by their cries for help.    No one Palestine mapwould have cared if Jesus ignored some disgusting, diseased Samaritans.  But he did not ignore them.

Samaria, capital of Israel

Samaria is the name of a region, but it used to be the name of a city also. Samaria the city was, in fact, the capital of the Northern ten Israelite tribes that broke away and formed their own nation, just after the death of king Solomon.

These were the people whom the Assyrians conquered and drove off their land. A few of them were returned later.  They intermarried, and became the half-breeds  whom the Jews despised.

So, notice: ten tribes broke away and made an alternative capital in Samaria; ten lepers meet Jesus in Samaria.  Samaritans are ethnically and religiously impure, the lepers are unclean.  They cry out for mercy.distance

What does Luke tell us about them?  In English we read that they call to Jesus, but that they “keep their distance.” Literally, Luke says, these ten lepers in Samaria are “far away.”  Of course lepers were required to keep “far away” from healthy people; everyone knew that, so why mention it?  This is a clue to what is going on here.  Some background is needed.

The prophet Isaiah said that there would be a time when people from “far away” would find salvation.

How would the “far away” people find salvation?  Isaiah said that there would be someone called the “servant of the Lord” who would be  “light to the nations.”

He would “restore the survivors of Israel” and to bring them back “from North and West”  so that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (it’s all in Isaiah 49).

Undoubtably, Jesus’ own sense of his personal identity and mission was modeled on Isaiah’s “servant” poems.the world

God’s World-wide Redemption Goal

God’s will has always been to redeem everything that has been damaged by evil.  God sent his son, John tells us,

“not to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through him” (3:17).

Jesus understood this worldwide mission of redemption as his mission. He knew that God intended  salvation, or healing (the word means both)  for everyone, not just his own Jewish community.  It would be a light seen by all the nations, even people “far away,” starting with half-breed, incorrect, uncouth Samaritans.

This was Jesus’ mission from the start.  Near the beginning of his ministry, Luke tells us that Jesus preached a sermon in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth that started well, but ended with an attempt to kill him.  It started well as Jesus quoted Isaiah and said that the time of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor was coming true.  People in Nazareth liked that part.

But then Jesus told a story from the Old Testament of a non-Jewish leper who was healed by the prophet Elisha.  Jesus made the point that God’s healing, restoring, redeeming love was never meant to be exclusive; it was for everyone, even people “far away.”

But in Nazareth, they hated hearing that bit.  If God wanted to redeem everyone, then that would surely include despised people like Samaritans, or even (God forbid) the enemy Romans!   That was treason.  They preferred that God would punish them, not redeem them. They thought that their people alone deserved God’s mercy. So they tried to push Jesus off a cliff.  Somehow he got away that time. (It’s all in Luke 4)

Healing those “far away”

Now, back to the story of the ten lepers in Samaria.  What did the healing of those ten accomplish?   Jesus was dramatically enacting what he had announced back in Nazareth.  God’s healing salvation had come to unclean lepers, “far away” in Samaria.

The people “far away” had seen the “light to the nations” and were experiencing God’s ubiquitous grace for themselves.

So, to whose temple did the healed lepers trot off,  and to whose priests did they show themselves: Samaritan ones or Jewish ones?  Or does it matter?  Luke doesn’t say.  Maybe the point is that it doesn’t’ matter.   They were all healed, Luke tells us.

The One Who Returned

So what happens next in the story?  One of them returned.  On tenth of them returned.  Ten percent is about the same percentage as Northern Israelites returned from Assyria to the land  of Palestine, where they intermarried and became the half-breed Samaritans.  Are we to take this one returning leper as a representative of the Samaritans?  Luke tells us exactly one thing about the one who returned:

“And he was a Samaritan.”cvommunion

What did this Samaritan do?  He fell on his face and “gave thanks”.  The word for giving thanks is the word for Eucharist.

In fact the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, begins with the “Great Prayer of  Thanksgiving” in which we remember and give thanks for all the ways God has shown mercy to his people, from creation to liberation from slavery in Egypt, to the ministry of the prophets, and finally, we give thanks for  Jesus himself.

The Eucharist itself is a thanksgiving event that proclaims the healing, saving death of the Lord.  Eucharist is a thanksgiving that Jesus, the “servant of the Lord,”  whose body was broken like bread, suffered, rather than retaliating, and stopped the cycle of violence, ending the whole notion that God needs blood sacrifice in order to show mercy.

Eucharist is a thanksgiving event that invites people from North and South to sit together at a table of joyous, thankful meal of memory and of presence.  Jews and Samaritans, slave and free, male and female, all reconciled to God and to each other.Dali crucificxion

Not Cute: Crucial

This is it then.  This healing story is not “cute.”  It’s not about remembering to say “thank you” grandma for the birthday gift or to God for the lovely day.  It’s about the worldwide purposes of God to redeem all of creation; to heal and restore all that has been damaged, sickened, and disfigured by evil in all its destructive forms.

So did that one Samaritan leper, or the other nine who were also healed that day do anything special to deserve the mercy of healing?   Did they promise to be good?  Did they convert to Judaism?  Jesus tells the one who returned to give thanks:

“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Faith” means “trust.”  Trusting God, who is defined by exactly one word: Love.  Trust that God wills your redemption, your healing.  Trust God to be merciful.  And trust that God is good – not just to us, but to everyone.

It is crucial for us that we get this message.  The good news is that God is merciful, not because we are so special or did anything to deserve it, but rather because that is who God is.  We have nothing to fear.  We are not “sinners in the hands of an angry God” we are rather “sinners in the hands of a merciful God,” a God, a God  of redemption and healing.  A God who looks like the one Jesus showed us.   Trust God, and do not fear.

Transitions

This text invites us to make a profound transition.  Many of us have somehow acquired a view of God that is inadequate at best, and totally false at worst.  We have the mistaken notion that God is generally angry.  That he is up there looking for people to smite, and when it’s all over, he will throw most of them into hell.  (This happens to be the mistaken notion of God that many atheists reject – and with good reason).

Some have the mistaken notion that God’s mercy must be earned or deserved, as if it’s not given as a gift.

If that has been your view of God, let this text be a reason for a major transition in your thinking.  We believe that Jesus shows us who God is; what God is like.  Jesus shows us a God nearly opposite to that angry image.  Jesus shows us a God of love, who is always ready to extend his merciful healing to people in need, unconditionally.  It is time to make the transition to the real God, whom Jesus shows us.

This is not only crucial news for us, it is crucial for the rest of the world too.  We are here to take up God’s loving care and concern for all the people of the world.  Many of them, for example, are hungry today, and so we, are committed to ending world hunger.  Many of them do not have clean drinking water or access to medical care they can afford.  For all the ways in which people suffer, Jesus shows us that God cares and seeks healing.  So, we care also, and so we are called to join Christ’s mission to the world.

We know that we have been blessed in order to be a blessing.  We demonstrate our thankfulness to God for God’s mercy as we do as Jesus did: act as agents of God’s mercy in practical ways to people who are “far away.”

 

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The Great Exception

Sermon for Pentecost +20, 22nd Ordinary, Year C,  on  Luke 17:5-10, World Communion Sunday

Luke 17:5-10

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The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

The Great Exception

This is a hugely significant day for me, for all kinds of reasons.  It’s a Sunday – a day we set aside to expose ourselves to the real danger of coming in contact with God, and being changed by that contact.

This is also World Communion Sunday, on which Christians around the world celebrate the truth that we believe in our deepest hearts: that regardless of all the human, superficial, or even important things that divide us – and the stupid ones too – that there is in fact only one Body of Christ, and we are all equally members of it.

This is also the Sunday here in Gulf Shores of tropical storm/would be hurricane Karen.  We have spent the greater part of this week in anticipation, not even knowing for sure we would be able to gather together, and now we know.

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To top it off, this is the Sunday we launch “Transitions,” our 5:00 p.m. service.

Transitions

We call it “Transitions” with the byline: “this church is changing; come change with us.”  That phrase is true: this congregation is willing to try out new ways of being the body of Christ in our time and in our context.

But it’s so much broader than that.  It’s not just that our congregation is changing; the church in general is changing.  Have you heard some of the things the new Pope has said?  It’s nothing short of amazing.

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His statements are just one sign that there are profound transitions going on in Christianity itself.  A new kind of Christianity is emerging – some have even called it the “Emerging Church” movement.

People like Phyllis Tickle have written about the uncanny way the church has experienced a pattern of going through massive transitions every 500 years.  We are only 4 years from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and here we are again at another one of those great transitions.

But we mean even more by the word “Transitions.”  The very essence of our faith is all about making fundamental transitions.  When I say fundamental transitions, I mean life-changing transitions.  We are going to be reflecting on some of these transitions

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in the next several weeks.

De-centering the universe

We start with the most important transition of all: the de-centering of the universe.  This is the transition we make from looking at the world as if I am at the center, and instead, realizing that God is at the center.

What I am talking about is the radical removal of the the great exception: the exception I give myself.  The way I make myself the special case, the one the rules don’t apply to this time, since my reasons for suspending them in my case are so justified – unlike anybody else’s. I have “good excuses.”

It’s the way we think “I deserve to be first in line, or to be the one who deserves to get whatever is in limited supply, I’m the one who deserves the discount price.

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It’s the way we think we should be singled out for attention and praise.  Our Facebook posts should be liked and shared.  We are the great exception.

Is your driving skill above average?  It has been reported that over 90% of drivers believe they are above average.

This is a totally normal human condition.  We all have it.

But it’s not true.

And to the extent that we believe it, we are lost.  To have self in the center of life is to miss the greatest key to happiness, to satisfying relationships, to harmonious communities, and even to the health and well being of our planet.  It even ruins good government – just look at what is happening in Washington.

“Worthless slaves”?

The transition from a self-centered universe to a God-centered universe is exactly what Jesus was getting at in this text in Luke.

Jesus’ way of teaching here sounds harsh.  According to this parable, we are to think of ourselves as, “worthless slaves” who, after serving the master all day in the fields  have to come home and prepare supper.  We don’t even get to sit at the table with the master.

Instead of a hero badge or a wall-mounted picture of us as the “employee of the month”, after all that hard work, we are to say, in effect, “we expect no fuss nor favors,”

“we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Brush clearing

Okay, first, just to be sure we are clear, this is a parable about something – one thing; not about everything.

  • It is not meant to be about a lack of personal self-esteem, nor about authority and power relationships, being a doormat and letting ourselves be abused.
  • It’s not about slavery either, as if the dominant story of Israel, the story of being set free from slavery in Egypt suddenly didn’t matter.
  • And it’s not about overturning the great banquet table-image of the kingdom of God where we all sit together with Messiah.

It is a parable about one thing, and one thing only: that we are not special cases.

  • We are not at the center of the universe.

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  • We are no better than anyone else, and we are not in control in any ultimate sense.
  • Our purpose in life is not to satisfy ourselves, to get all of our needs met first.
  • Our purpose is to serve.

As counter-cultural and non-intuitive as it is, our purpose is to serve.

This is not our default way of operating.  The transition Jesus is talking about is huge.  It’s about de-centering the universe.  It’s about knowing and accepting our place in relation to God and each other.

The essential first step

This is the utterly simple and simply profound transition at the heart of the message of the the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

or, in other words, “Think differently, God is King; not us.”

“Repent” does not mean grovel in guilt and shame.  Repent means literally change your mind.  Think about things differently.  Why? because God is King, and we are not.  That is the first step, the primary transition.

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This is the simple, profound insight at the heart of so many religious traditions and the enlightened understanding so many teachers of wisdom have discovered.  We are a part of the universe, on equal footing with everyone else, not the center of it.  We share a common humanity.  No one is born on a higher status than anyone else.

This is part of what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday.

Salvation and freedom

Those who have made the fundamental transition of removing self from the center of their own universe find what?  Salvation.  Salvation from a wasted life, a tragic life; a narrow, dark, diseased form of life.

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This transition is so liberating!  When we are not at the center, when the world does not revolve around our ego needs, we are free in all kinds of ways.  We are free to admit that we were wrong; free to apologize; free to not have to be right all the time.  We are free from the self-destructive habits of denial because the truth has set us free.

We are free to forgive because we don’t hold other people responsible for being perfect all the time, any more than we are, or for being any more kind or patient or humble than we ourselves manage to be.  We are free to drop the double standard, the blame game, the resentment that poisons relationships and shrivels our own souls.

We are free to recognize that God has made all of the people on this planet in God’s image, and so all of us are in this together as equals.  We are free to recognize truth from any source, since all truth is God’s truth, and no group has a corner on the market.

This is the freedom that comes from making the most ancient of all Christian creeds:

“Jesus is Lord.”

I am not Lord. I am not God.  I am not the one in charge.  God is in charge.  And God has shown us exactly what that means to live with God in charge: that’s how Jesus lived.

The Jesus-kind of servant

Jesus is the one who called himself the “son of man” or the “the authentically human one” who

“came, not to be served but to serve”.

The kind of servant Jesus was getting at in that stark parable was the kind he was.

Can we go with this?  It seems so backwards from our culture’s perspective.  Can we have faith or trust enough to believe that living this way would work?

Believing the teaching of this parable does take faith.  It takes the kind of faith his disciples were asking for.  Faith that looked so simple and small, like a mustard seed, but which had miraculous effects.  Effects that went far beyond the miracle of uprooting a  mulberry tree on command; the greater miracle of actually displacing the self as the God of the universe, and letting God alone have that role.

This is the kind of faith that trusts God enough to do justice even against long odds.  The faith that give us hope that God is going to use us, as small and feeble as we are, to accomplish God’s purposes.  The faith to trust God with our mortal lives, our illnesses, our injuries, and our eventual destiny, resting on the fact that God is still God, and we do not need to try to be.

This is the profound and simple transition that is step one in the spiritual life.   God alone is God.  I’m here to serve.

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Spiritual practices

I don’t believe that this way of living comes from simply understanding or agreeing with it.  It is so counter to our instincts and habits!  I believe that this is why the spiritual practices are crucial.  Daily practices of prayer and daily meditation, daily exposure to scripture, regular common worship, regularly receiving the sacraments – the ancient Christian practices which Christians around the world and throughout the centuries have found indispensable.

God is God, and we are not; we are here to serve.  That is the essential first transition we make as people of faith.

Psalm for a Government Shutdown: culturally accurate translation

This goes in the category of “creepy bible coincidences.”  Each day of the week our prayer book gives us a Psalm of the day to read, plus it cycles each week through the last five Psalms, the “hallelujah” (Praise the Lord) psalms.  So each

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Tuesday we read Psalm 146.  It is made for today, the day the government shut down, and made to apply directly to the reason for the shut down.  So, yes, creepy, a bit.  Or at least, eerie.

Why?  The psalmist praises God for being the true King who will “reign forever” (v. 10) in contrast with the human would-be kings.  And that’s the trouble.  According to the psalm, the humans who are holding political office are messing up royally.  In the time of this psalm, the national political leaders were, of course, kings and princes.   Today, they are called “politicians.”

So, with this culturally accurate translation, listen to the ominous warning in verse three:

Do not put your trust in politicians,

in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

Why not?  How are they messing up?  They are not doing what God wants done on the earth. They are like mirror opposites.  What would it look like down here if God were really king?  The psalm says,

The Lord, “executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.” (verse 7) Would that include people on food stamps? Would that include people whose kids only get decent food at Head Start programs whose doors are now locked?

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.” (verse 8)  Would that include people with pre-exiting conditions who have been denied coverage by unscrupulous insurance companies?

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow” (verse 9) The Lord clearly has an agenda here.  It is not shared by many of the politicians we have elected.  They would probably call the Lord a “socialist” and go running to atheist Ayn Rand for justifications.

But the government is now shut down because there are people who would rather inflict massive harm than let the Affordable Care Act take effect.  The government is shut by people who want to strip food stamps out of the hands of thousands of poor people.  This is truly a Psalm for today.

Here is the Psalm in total

Psa. 146

1    Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3    Do not put your trust in princes (= politicians),

in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

on that very day their plans perish.

5    Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the LORD their God,

6 who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them;

who keeps faith forever;

7 who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;

8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

9 The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphan and the widow,

but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10    The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord!