Who in the World? – Salt and Light

Sermon on the Mount Series #3  Salt and Light, Matthew 5:13-16 for  January 26, 2013Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 5.17.59 PM

Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Who in the World?     Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 5.21.21 PM

We have probably all had the experience of being introduced to someone who does not know us, and feeling awkward about the introduction.  As we hear ourselves being described, we sense the gap between the person we know ourselves to be, and the kind words being said about us.   As a minister, I can tell you I get that a lot.

This awkwardness can just be caused by mis-interpretation.  When I was serving at the college in Croatia, I was often introduced as a “professor” which felt pretentious.  A professor, to me, has to have an earned doctorate and scholarly publications – which were not true of me.  Later I learned that even high school teachers are called “professor” in Slavic languages.  So the awkwardness of the introduction was just my mistake.

Being Identified

Nevertheless, we take it seriously when someone tells us who we are.  We are powerfully formed by the “you are” messages our parents gave us, both positively and negatively.   We watched a film in which a father told his son that he was worthless and would never amount to anything.   It can take a lifetime and great suffering to overcome that kind of message.

The more significant a person is to us, especially a parent, but also other relatives, and people who know us, like teachers, or employers, or lovers, or spouses, or even friends, the more weight we give to their “you are” words.  The more either affirming and energizing, or the more painful and damaging they are.

So, Jesus, in this very first major public address, takes a Moses-like teaching position in a Moses-like place on a mountain and looks at those unwashed Galilean peasants and pronounces two “you are” messages to them.

Those people are mentally prepared, as we should be also, to take this seriously: this is Jesus saying this.  It is even more important to hear who Jesus says we are than to have heard who our parents told us we were, or our spouses, or anybody.Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.34.07 PM


Jesus has just finished the Beatitudes – his statement of “congratulations” to the kinds of people who live the values of the kingdom, like the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and now looks at the people gathered there and says “You are…”  I can just imagine them leaning forward a bit to hear how Jesus will identify them.

I was dean of students for a time when I was in Croatia.  In those days, an American man showed up fresh out of the French Foreign Legion (long story) who had a drinking problem too big to hide from anybody, but announced that he was done with hurting people and now wanted to help them.  He volunteered to work with our humanitarian aid organization serving war refugees.

But one night just after I had gotten ready for bed I got a phone call saying that Larry (not his real name) was outside the front gate of the school, completely drunk, yelling horrible things at the top of his lungs.  I, as dean, was the one for the job of dealing with Larry before the police came.  Sometimes when you are told that “you are the one for the job” it is both a blessing and not so much of one.   Larry had told me what he had done to people in drunken bar fights, and I was, frankly, afraid. But I was dean, so I went.  (He calmed down).

In a similar way, the two “you are” statements that Jesus makes both come with two sides to them.  They are both true about who we are, but both of them also come with a clearly evident risk of failure.

Being Indispensable

You yourselves are” Jesus says with as much emphasis as language allows, “the very salt of the earth.”  So far, so good.  Salt is indispensable.  Being told you are indispensable starts making you feel important and worthwhile. Your life has a purpose.  You are here for something that you, yourself must do – it’s crucial to the whole earth.

In the same way, the second: “You yourselves are the very light of the world” which sounds nice, but, like an awkward introduction, says way too much.  Nevertheless, he said it.  Light, even  more than salt is indispensable.  What could grow without light?  How could we manage life inside or outside without light?Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 3.12.23 PM

The Galilean peasants hearing this are asking themselves questions: What is it that we have that the world so desperately needs?   What future for us could Jesus possibly be imagining, that our role will be so important in that he stretches up to the sky itself and calls us the light of the world?

The Other Alternative

But the flip side of the coin has to be considered even before we can start imagining how good it is going to be.  The side that suggests failure as a real possibility.

You yourselves are indispensable: the very salt of the earth” Jesus tells us, but un-salty salt is as good for your body as eating gypsum.  In fact it’s the opposite of indispensable: it’s worthless.

The same with light.  “You yourselves are indispensable: the very light of the world”  Jesus says.  But on the other hand, it is possible to imagine conditions in which the most absurd and pointless thing happens: a lamp is lit, but instead of putting in on a stand to illumine the house, some fool covers it up with a basket.  How pointless would that be?

You are indispensable – that’s who you are: but it could all go wrong.  So, hearing this, the people are now saying to themselves, “Oh no!  Are we on a fools errand here?  Is this project of the kingdom of God doomed to failure from the outset?”

The Hope     Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.54.15 PM

The next thing Jesus says is beautiful and hopeful.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In the same way” – picturing the guy in the house lighting a lamp and putting it on a stand – “let your light shine before others.”  It sounds so passive to say, “let it shine” – the word here is actually an imperative, which is why, in The Message version it is translated simply, “Shine!”

But that is exactly what a burning flame in an oil lamp does naturally: it shines.  Shining is the normal state; in fact it takes extra effort for someone to try to stop it.  He has to go get a basket and cover it up if he wants it to not have the effect it naturally has.

This is so hopeful.  The “You ares” are not “try to be” or “after 10,000 hours of practice you may finally manage to be something useful.”

No!  The opposite!  God made you.  You have a purpose.  You are indispensable.  You are as indispensable as salt is to mammals and as light is to the world.  God made you to be and to do good.  “Now,” Jesus is calling to us, “get on with it!”

This is a grace-based calling.   God has already given you everything you need to be an indispensable player in the Kingdom project.

What’s Next?           

So, what comes next?  What’s the plan for the salt and light crew?  What does Jesus say?  Is it:

– Get this doctrine down, know it, and condemn the heretics who hold a different view? or

– Build me a lavish building, in fact an institution?  or

– Go on a moral crusade against the kind of people whom your natural instincts tell you are disgusting?

– Or the many, many things the church, throughout the centuries, has become known and even famous for doing and being?

How indispensable would any of those things be to the world?

What the World Needs     Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.55.40 PM

But how much does the world need people who are willing to be poor in spirit – recognizing our mutual dependence on each other, on the planet, and on God?

How much does the world need people who are so hungry and thirsty for justice that they do not stop working for it until justice is done?

How much does the world need people who mourn for every example of suffering and so, are motivated to respond with compassion and care?

How much does the world need people who are willing to be meek instead of aggressive with each other?  Who are forgiving, and who have learned do the hard work of living long in a community of other fallible people, instead of bailing out at the first offense or conflict?

How can humanity survive without people with pure hearts and motives who are willing to be merciful and to be peacemakers, and are even willing to suffer persecution for doing the right thing?

You are those people, Jesus is saying.  You are that indispensable.  Now, Shine, for goodness sake!

The world is watching.  It always watches.

The Sadness and the Hope

There is both a sadness and a remaining hope.  The sadness is that most of the world in the West does not think that the church is indispensable to them at all.  This is because it has been watching, and seeing.

The hope is that “it ain’t over ‘till it’s over” and, thankfully, it is not over yet.  As someone said, if you are still breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you – and we are still breathing.

In our deepest selves, because we have been made in God’s image and we have been baptized into God’s kingdom, God’s family, we all have the light of goodness to shine.  It’s there!

As long as we don’t smother it up with our false selves, our pretensions and pettiness, as long as we don’t hide the light behind walls of greed or hedonism, as long as we don’t extinguish it with violent words (or worse) it is there, to shine.

The world – starting with our families, our church, and our community, and including our planet itself – needs the light of us being good instead of making excuses.  Nobody has ever believed our excuses for not being good, anyway.   Nor should they.

So “shine!”

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”


Who Knows What? – the Beatitudes

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-10 for January 19, 2014

Matthew 5:1-10Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 6.20.51 PM

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Who Knows What? –  The Beatitudes

We lived outside the USA for a dozen years, in Eastern and Central Europe.  As we got to know people we discovered that there are things Americans “know” – all of us – in our guts that most of the rest of the world does not know in their guts.   And yet we discovered too that most of the rest of the world “knows” things at a gut level that we Americans cannot really grasp.  Both have to do with living as part of an ethnic community.

We Americans “know” at a gut level that American Serbs and American Coats can get along just fine.  And American Hungarians and Romanians can too.  And so can Americans from Germany and Japan, Italy France and England all get along without animosity.  We “know” that ethnicity does not have to divide people.

But we do not “know” (most of us) what they know: the powerful deep bonded-ness that an ethnic community shares.  We do not have national folk costumes that we dress up in on special holidays.  We do not have in common folk dances, or an ancient national cuisine that unites us all.  We have in common popular culture, but McDonald’s and Hollywood do not bind us into an ethnic community.  Most of us do not really know what that’s like.

There are many ways you can “know” something, but I want us to consider today the kind of knowing that insiders to an experience of life have that outsiders to that experience do not have.

8 Groups of Knowers

This is how I want us to explore together the Beatitudes of Jesus.  All 8 beatitudes  are addressed to groups of people, like the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn now.  What do people who have had the experience of belonging to those groups know, that  outsiders to the experience do not know?

When we stop to consider what they know, we will understand why Jesus called them “blessed”.  Actually the word “blessed” really means something more like “congratulations!”

Why congratulations?  Because these are the people who are seeing the world like Kingdom people.  These people have the right perspective on life.  They get it.

So, the beatitudes are a set of congratulations given to 8 groups of people;  each congratulation has an outcome attached to it as the reason for the congratulations.  They begin and end with the same one: Congratulations to the poor in spirit and to those who are persecuted for righteousness, for to both of these groups belongs the kingdom of heaven – or of God (means the same thing).  The Kingdom is the outcome.

The kingdom of God is what this is all about.  The way Matthew tells the story of Jesus, we are supposed to understand that Jesus comes to us like a new Moses, standing on a new Mountain, giving us a new Torah in a new covenant-making ceremony.

Who has gathered to hear this?  Who is this instruction for?  For people who have responded to the one single message they have heard, so far, from Jesus:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (Matt 4:17)Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 6.31.35 PM

Changed Thinking and knowing

“Repent” means to change your mind; change how you think about things.  The people who are ready to hear the beatitudes are people who have changed their thinking in one dramatic way: they have come to know that the Kingdom of God is at hand; that Jesus is announcing that God is present in powerful, transformative ways.

This is a God-world; the world of the creator God who made and loves every person on the planet.  Knowing that in Jesus, the kingdom of God has come, is the kind of insider-experience-knowledge that changes everything.

So what can we learn from these 8 insider groups that we need to know to understand what it means that the Kingdom of God has come?

Poor in Spirit

The first group to be congratulated are the poor in spirit.  Who are they?  They were indeed literally poor – the word actually means more than cash-strapped; it means utterly destitute – like homeless people.

They are not to be congratulated because poverty is anybody’s friend.  Rather their poverty has driven them to understand the human fact that they are dependent.  The poor are poor in spirit.  They know they need each other, they need a decent planet, and they need God.

What do the poor in spirit know that the rich do not understand?  That being rich does not equal being righteous.  That nobody takes any of it with them when they die.

Congratulations to the poor in spirit because they know that detachment from material possessions is the path to happiness, and that attachment is a never-satisfied, always hungry beast.  They know that a life spent trying to be rich is a wasted life.

The poor in spirit look at people in poverty with compassion.  They know how it feels.  If they have any bread to share, they share it with the other poor, and open their doors of hospitality, because they have been the ones outside the door, hoping someone will respond when they knock.Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 6.53.23 PM

Congratulations to the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of God.  They see through the glitz and the sham and see that this is a God-world – and it changes everything.

  Those who mourn

Congratulations to those who mourn.  Why?  What do those who mourn know? They know that grief is real, that loss is real, and that human life is precious.

They know that there are no human beings that can be called “collateral damage.”  They know that every human has a name, a family, and that every loss is painful.

And knowing this, those who mourn don’t look past the suffering all around them and all around the world.  They see the TV news and they grieve at what they see – the poverty, the injustice, the greed and arrogance of the powerful and the harm it does.  They suffer with those who suffer out of empathy, compassion and humanity.

Congratulations: those who mourn will be comforted.  This is the onset of the Kingdom of God.  God, not evil, will have the last word.

The meek

Congratulations to the meek.  Why? What do the meek know?  They know what it means to be overlooked, discounted, and ignored. They know what it means to not be part of the conversation; to have no voice.   To not count by the decision makers – and they know it’s about power and control and about protecting vested interests, and they know it’s wrong.

They know that might does not make right.  They have suffered at the hands of the bullies, and yet they have concluded that the ends never justify the means.  They refuse to retaliate.  They take the path of non-violence.

Congratulations to the meek: they will inherit the earth – the kingdom of God that has no geographical boundaries.

Those who Hunger and Thirst for Justice

Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice.  Why? What do those who hunger and thirst for justice know? They know that justice is not the default position. They know that it doesn’t come by itself. They know that justice takes struggle and sacrifice.  They know that injustice is intolerable and apathy in the face of injustice is unthinkable.

Those who hunger and thirst for justice know about feeling hungry and thirsty; about having unfulfilled longings.  They know that there are all kinds of cheap substitutes, but at root, we are all hungry for God, and nothing else satisfies.  And God, when found, always leads us to work for justice, for fairness, for equality, for a level playing field for the strong and for compassionate care for the weak.

Congratulations to the one who hunger and thirst for a just world: there is a future in which they will be satisfied, as with a rich banquet.Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 6.54.30 PM

 The Merciful

Congratulations to the merciful. Why?  What do the merciful know? They know they know that the law is not always the last word. They know about second chances. They believe in the power of redemption; Transformation; Newness.  The merciful do to others as they would want done to themselves. They know that mercy triumphs over judgment.

They know that forgiveness is possible and that it is, in fact, the only possible path to inner peace and freedom.  They know that vengeance is poison, perpetual, and pathetic.  They know that mercy reverses the cycle.

Congratulations to the merciful. They know that in the end, the merciful receive mercy.

The Pure in Heart

Congratulations to the pure in heart.  Why?  They have figured it out that God is not ultimately concerned about purity rules or rituals – like eating Kosher and not touching dead bodies or blood.  Rather, God cares about what is going on in your head:  the things that you believe is important – where your heart is.   He would rather you break the Sabbath than to ignore human need.

Congratulations to the pure in heart.  They know that seeing God is not a reward for good behavior but a capacity to see God in everything.  So they do, see God.

The PeacemakersScreen Shot 2014-01-18 at 6.55.48 PM

Congratulations to the peace makers.  Why?  What do peacemakers know? They know that the cycle of violence will be endless, unless it is stopped. They know that conflict and violence only become the basis for more conflict and violence. They know that they have inner capacity to absorb and to transform pain, instead of transmitting it.

Congratulations to the peacemakers.  They know that they are children of God, as are all other humans. So they will be called the children of God.

Those who are persecuted for righteousness

Congratulations to those who are persecuted “for righteousness,” or, it could be translated, “for doing the right thing.”  Why?  What do those who are persecuted for doing the right thing know? They know that there is often a cost to be born, the price to be paid for doing the right thing. But they know that doing the right thing is worth the cost of doing the right thing.

They are the ones who know that the fact that the powerful or the mob is able to inflict persecution, it does not make them right.  So they are willing to take on the minority view, and be the voice of the ones out of power, the ones discriminated against, the ones who are being harmed by the system and put their own necks on the block on their behalf.  They are advocates.

They will stand up to money interests, to corporations, to politicians, even to angry mobs and be willing to suffer rather than let harm continue to be done.

Congratulations to those who are persecuted for doing the right thing. They have true kingdom values.  They have kingdom ethics.  Theirs is the kingdom of God.

They Get it!  Congratulations

Know – plus 2 Words

Congratulations goes to these groups of people.  These are the heroes we celebrate.    They may not be sports stars, great musicians or Hollywood actors, but these are the kind of people we hold up as examples.

These are people like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa.  Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the multitude of people who risked reputations, jobs, social acceptance, and some even their lives to work for kingdom values during the civil rights movement.

These are the ones whose values have lasting value.

Clearly this is not the path to a life of continual comfort and ease.  This may not be the path to power and control or the path to wealth and fame.  But neither is it the path to a trivial, meaningless, self-absorbed, wasted life.

This is how Jesus began his ministry.  This is the opening preamble of the the new Torah from the new Moses on the new mountain. This is the new covenant.

After the sermon Jesus is going to say the same two words, five times in Matthew’s gospel (8:22; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:21).  Let them be the two words we hear last; let them be his challenge to us.

Because the Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus says:   “Follow me.”



Getting Soaked

Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 for January 12, 2013, Baptism of Jesus Sunday

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Getting SoakedScreen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.11.51 PM

Down here in the South, most people are passionate about college football.   Here in Alabama, the civil war going on in these days is between fans of Auburn and fans of Alabama.  People are not just emotionally connected with the game and the players, but also about coaches.  There may be some of you from the North who wonder why people would put a decal on their cars with a black and white houndstooth checked hat, but down here, everyone knows what that means: that was coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s trademark.  They are Alabama fans!

Coach Bryant was head coach of the University of Alabama football team for 25 years. He led the teams to six national championships and thirteen conference championships. By retirement he had won 323 games.

So, people have good reasons to venerate the “bear” – he accomplished great things.   And I’m sure his players held him in the highest respect.

What did Bear Bryan want from his players?  That each of them would have pictures of him hanging in their dorm rooms?  That they would send him cards on his birthday?  Would he want them to buy and wear checked hats like him?  Or would he want them to pay attention to how he taught them to play football?Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.17.20 PM

Tragic Irony

Of course a coach wants you to learn to play the game, not to be simply venerated.  But what does God want from us?  One of the great tragic ironies of all time, I believe, is what the church, throughout her history, has done with Jesus.   He has been put on a pedestal, glorified in paintings, stained glass, music and libraries full of literature, and simultaneously his teachings have been quite often completely ignored.

Think about the great Christian creeds: we define Jesus’ relationship to God the Father and the Spirit, define his human and divine nature, even indicate his mother’s maidenhood and who the governor was when Jesus was crucified, but not a word about what he taught.  It is like knowing all about Bear Bryant’s pedigree and history without knowing the bit about how he taught people to play football.

The whole point of telling the story of Jesus’ baptism is to say: here is the one whom we should listen to and follow.  He is not just nice and kind Jesus, not just smart and clever Jesus, not just Jesus the healer of the sick, not just a great story-teller.  Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit of God.  Jesus is God’s Son so pay attention!Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.19.34 PM

Unlearned Lesson 1

And so, what is lesson number one?   I have heard that the Packer’s famous coach, Vince Lombardi would begin each year, on the first day of practice (and remember, the players he is coaching are professionals – they are in the NFL) he would stand up in front of them and, holding the ball he would says, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”  He started with the basics.

How does Jesus start?  By dealing with the human question.  Who is important?  The story goes this way: Jesus comes to John for baptism. John and Jesus have a conversation.  John acknowledges that Jesus has a special role to play in this drama of the Kingdom of God, and he wants to defer.

 “John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Lesson one: getting down into the baptismal rinse waters into which all the unwashed masses have been confessing their sins is exactly what Jesus came to do.   Nobody is too good for anybody else in the kingdom.   You cannot fulfill God’s definition of righteousness by smug superiority to anyone.Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.22.12 PM

Jesus is going to keep teaching this lesson throughout his life.  Three times in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus teaching a version of “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Matt. 19:30; 20:8; 20:16.

The voice from heaven – God’s voice – identified Jesus has God’s beloved son, but Jesus’ favorite name for himself was the “Son of Man” – meaning, the quintessential human one.  What did he come to accomplish: to be pictured in a painting hung on the wall in a gilded frame?  Let him speak for himself.  He said,

the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  Matt. 20:28

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said that the poor in spirit were the blessed ones, and that the meek would inherit the earth.

He said:  “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  Matt. 7:12

The Point of the Story

The whole point of this event of Jesus’ baptism: the voice from heaven, the cracking open of the sky, the descending Spirit and God’s announcement that Jesus is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased, is to authorize Jesus as the one to listen to.  Even Moses himself did not get that kind of direct authorization.  He got smoke, fire and noise on Mt. Sinai, but not this kind of declaration directly from God.

So, maybe Jesus should be studied as hard as the Pharisees studied Moses’ teaching – or even more.  Maybe Jesus’ teaching should be as important as Kosher laws – or perhaps even more.  Maybe what Jesus says and thinks and does should rank right up their with Moses’ Sabbath laws.

Hanging a picture of Moses on the wall or singing Moses praise songs would not have been an adequate substitute for obedience to any Jewish person who ever lived.  But that is what has happened to Jesus.

Consider how many of us can recite one or more of the creeds such as the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed – and by contrast, how few could recite the Beatitudes by heart.

A New Way – not a new law

Of course the beautiful fact is that Jesus, who is now authorized by God to be the one to follow, did not just bring us a new set of “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s” like Moses.  Jesus did not bring us a new law to doggedly obey.

Rather Jesus taught us a whole new vision of what it meant to live as a human being.  A whole new perspective on spiritual authenticity, not based on fear and punishment or guilt and shame, but on knowing ourselves as beloved sons and daughters of God.

Jesus taught us to understand God, not as harsh, vindictive law-giver, but as loving Heavenly Father.  He taught us to look at each other as family – bound together by a new covenant.   He taught us to love, to serve, to forgive, forgive forgive, to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and to give the shirt off our backs to people in need.   A capacity for absorbing and transforming instead of transmitting pain.

There is no such thing, in Jesus world as “OK, I’m more important than you, so I will baptize you.”  That’s the de-humanized way of the world.

And what is true for individuals is true for groups also.  There is no such thing, in the kingdom of God, as “Our group is better, more worthy, more justified than your group.”  Judgmentalism has no place.  Discrimination has no place.Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.27.15 PM

Remaining Questions

So then, if this is Jesus’ first and frequent lesson that God’s own voice from heaven has just authorized, if this is what the Spirit-anointed Son of God is teaching us, there are a lot of questions that need to be asked.  Like: why haven’t we learned it?

Christianity has been the dominant faith in the West for two thousands years – so why is it that there are so many homeless people?  Why is there so little help for people with mental illness?  Why are our urban schools in the state they are in?  Why do we keep approving high stakes risks to our environment, like oil pipelines within accident-range of a whole  city’s (Mobile, AL) water supply?  Why do we still hear things like I have heard from what my own family members have observed, about the way hiring decisions are still racially motivated?  We could go on an on with these questions.Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 12.47.15 PM

Veneration vs. Discipleship

I believe a big part of the reason is that we have been, so to speak, buying Bear Bryant hat decals instead of studying the game of football.  We have been reciting creeds that define Jesus that leave out the entire life and teachings of Jesus.  We have special days to honor Jesus, like today, Jesus’ baptism, but we cannot quote his teachings by heart.  We have substituted veneration for discipleship.   This is crazy.  (Maybe not: veneration is easier, quicker and cheaper than discipleship).

And the result is a world we live in, that our dominant faith helped to form, is one  that does not reflect Jesus’ perspectives on people nor on the God who made all of these people, nor on spiritual authenticity.

I don’t know about you, but once the lights have been turned on and you see truth of this craziness, you cannot continue as before.  It is time the church decided to be who we are.  We are Christians.   We are followers of Jesus.  Our story is that Jesus  has been divinely authorized by God and anointed by God’s Spirit.  He is the one who sets our agenda; he is the one whose ethic we endorse; he is the one we imitate.

It starts in baptism for all of us.  All of us have been plunged into the same waters.  It is time we lived as people who have been soaked in a completely new vision of life.  2014 is still young: let this be, for us, the year of following Jesus.



Tear Ducts and a Tummy

Sermon on John 1:1-18 for January 5, 2014,  the Second Sunday after Christmas Year A

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.


The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Tear Ducts and a TummyScreen Shot 2014-01-03 at 8.24.21 PM

The Gospel of Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus with foreign Magi presenting royal gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But the story he tells is not about a powerfully connected  family, but about a family of political refugees, fleeing the country to escape king Herod’s brutality.

The Gospel of Luke tells the story with angels singing in the sky about “glory,” but they sing to shepherds – men who never passed the GED exam, who cannot find any better work than to play night-watchmen to sheep.  They find the baby in an inglorious  place fit for animals.

John has time to think about it – probably writing his gospel sixty years after Jesus’ physical presence.  The result of his reflections amazes us.

The source of all creation, John says, the divine “Word” as he calls God, “moves into the neighborhood,”  pitches his tent on our campgrounds; puts on human flesh, complete with tear ducts and a tummy.

John speaks in conundrums: Jesus is both flesh and blood, and at the same time, John says, he is life itself; he is  light shining in the darkness.

He has family, kin, “his own” people; he is so human, so normal.  And yet from him we receive “grace and truth” in ways that even Moses the law-giver himself only hinted at.

He is a person who sweats and sleeps, and yet his presence comes as radiant “glory” – “the glory of an only son.”

He gets hungry and eats food, and yet from him we receive “fulness.”  What are we to make of this?

Who is God to Us?

The questions John is struggling to answer are these: How are we to know God?  How should we imagine God?   What is God to us?

These are our questions.

John came from a Jewish tradition that forbad picturing God.  God could be encountered – like Elijah encountered God – but not in something you could see, not even in the overwhelming power of a tornado, or an earthquake or even a raging fire.  After all the sound and fury, Elijah encountered God, we read, in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19).

Is that helpful?  To say that God is known in “the sound of sheer silence” tells us almost nothing.  “Hints and guesses” perhaps is all.

John’s Jewish tradition has a hero – Moses – who has several encounters with God.  In the first, he learns God’s name.  We read about Moses approaching the mysterious, eerie bush that burns perpetually without being consumed, and from it hears a voice.  God’s name, says the voice is “I am who I am” – in Hebrew, “Yahweh” – pure being; source of all being.  Existence itself.

Does this help?  Who is this self-existent God, whose name comes from the verb “to be”?Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 8.26.10 PM

Pictures of our history

Before we went abroad to be missionaries, Michelle and I were told to take with us pictures of our families – our parents, our brothers and sisters.  So we did.  But I wasn’t sure anybody would want to see my personal family photos – it seemed like a certain way to bore people.

In fact, it turned out to be good advice.  As I saw people looking with interest at the pictures, I remembered the reason they gave us for bringing them.  They told us that pictures of our families would vouchsafe our history to them.

There is something deeply human and wonderful about that.  We don’t know each other really at all, until we know each others’ histories.

God’s History

How do we know God?  John admits that “No one has ever seen God.” We know God by knowing God’s history.  Only, the problem we have is that our God has no history.  No history apart from our human history, that is.Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 8.27.28 PM

God has no back story.  There is no Mount Olympus where God lived in mythic time; no wife, no children like Zeus or Apollo.  There is no epic war story we can tell, about the battle in the heavens, the cosmic conflict, the defeat of the forces of chaos like Marduk had.

The only history God has, starts with human history.  “In the beginning,” God makes a world and human persons to inhabit it.  God’s story, as told in the bible, is co-extensive with the story of humanity.

The way John tells it, the story of the God whose history begins with our history reaches its climax when our story and God’s story combine into one.  God becomes flesh; human.

But that way of saying it is helpful to us, only when we say it the other way, from the other side: we humans come to know God in Jesus.   From now on, we come to understand God as the God who values humans so much that God embraced every single experience of our humanity: “the Word became flesh” and lived as a person.   God embraces every aspect of what it means to be what we are: people.

“No one has ever seen God,” John tells us, but, he continues, “It is God the only Son…who has made him known.”

God Becoming FleshScreen Shot 2014-01-03 at 8.30.14 PM

So the gospels tell us that John the baptist started gathering people to prepare them  by repentance, for the coming of Jesus.  They went down to the Jordan, confessed their sins and felt the water of baptism wash over them.  It was into those rinse-waters that Jesus also went, identifying with humanity in all of its darkness, ugliness and brokenness.

When we gather, as we do today, to encounter and to see the risen Christ among us in the Eucharist, let us remember that we do not see Christ in the bread.  Rather, we see Christ in the breaking of the bread.  Broken bread, representing a broken body reveals God as Jesus revealed God to us: as a human, who could and did suffer as we suffer, bleed as we bleed, and even die as we all will die.

When we affirm, as John tells us, that “God so loved the world that he sent his Son” we mean that God loves the world of real people – like us; without the make-up, without the shower and clean change of clothing.  People with histories – some of which are very dark and broken indeed.

Paradigm Shifthelping the homeless

The God whose history is bound up with people, who became a person changes our entire perspective.  We can never look at other people the same after embracing this story.

We can never be content to be passive when we become aware of human pain and suffering.  We can never turn away from people who are hungry, people who spend nights like these outside.  We can never turn a blind eye to the harm that people suffer at the hands of others.

We are the people of the God who became a person.  The God who showed us how important it is that we care for other people, just as he did; just as he does, tear ducts, tummies and all.

People Who Take Care

I would like to end with a poem entitled “People Who Take Care” by Nancy Henry from Hard.  (© MuscleHead Press, heard on Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, 11 Feb. 2006) (punctuation added)

People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody.

People who take care of peopleScreen Shot 2014-01-03 at 8.32.47 PM
are not worth much,
– except to people who are
sick, old, helpless, and poor.

People who take care of people
are not important to most other people,
– are not respected by many other people,
– come and go without much fuss –
unless they don’t show up when needed.

People who make more money:
– tell them what to do,
–  never get [filth] on their hands,
– never mop vomit or wipe tears,
– don’t stand in danger of having plates thrown at them,
sharing every cold,
observing agonies they cannot tell at home.

People who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift,
that moves with them from room to room,
that keeps them on the floor;
sometimes they fill a hollow no one else can fill;
sometimes through the [filth]and blood and tears,
they go to a beautiful place,
those clean important people
have never been.

We are here today because of Jesus, who did not come as a “clean important” person.  We come together because Jesus came among us through “blood and tears,” to join us in that beautiful place, that hollow, in which we are human. That broken, dark place, that we long to be flooded with his light and life; that hungry place, needing to know his grace and truth in its fulness.

We come because “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”