Face off Time

Sermon for Easter +2, April 27, 2014 on John 20:19–31

John 20:19–31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 6.04.54 PMJews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 5.55.41 PM

I watched a film called “The Untouchables,” long ago, in which Robert De Niro played Al Capone, a mafia boss that ruled with an iron hand.  In one scene the mafia inner-circle was all seated at a round table for a dinner meeting.  Capone, was talking about how important loyalty was to the organization.  They all agreed.

Then he got up and as he spoke he walked around the table.  When he got behind one man that apparently he suspected of disloyalty, he did something to him, him in front of everyone else, (which I won’t go into, in a family-friendly setting) that  made certain he would never have the opportunity to be disloyal again.

God: the moral police?

We can expect that kind of behavior from an a-moral, violent, even sadistic organized crime boss.  But the sad truth is that there are people who  think of God in not too dissimilar ways.  They picture God as one who has the power to punish whenever God wants to, and the intention to go around like the moral police, even the thought police, finding reasons to smite people.

And, since we all know that we fall short of perfection, we are aware that we have given God plenty of reasons to smite us; if not now, then perhaps in future, even in the after-life.

People get sick and wonder if they are being punished by God.  In fact any problem or difficulty is an opportunity to wonder for which of our most recent indiscretions we are receiving pay-back from the almighty Al Capone God.Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 6.03.02 PM

Pagan gods

As I drive, I have been listening to a voice recording of Homer’s Iliad.  It is all about the Trojan war.  The gods are involved frequently, from Zeus to Neptune on one side or the other.  They are like Capone – easily offended, capable of being brutal and vengeful; is that what we believe God is like?

If so, then God we may love God for being powerful, but we must also live in fear.  Most of us here are not young.  We gather for funerals much more frequently than for weddings or baptisms.  We think about our futures, about death, and about what we should expect.  Should we fear God in that way?

For people like us, this story we just read from John’s gospel is important.  I thought of the Untouchables film, and the loyalty scene specifically, because of how parallel it is to this story of disloyalty and confrontation.  Jesus was deserted and abandoned, even betrayed  by his disciples.  They were utterly disloyal.  Suddenly they were facing each other in the same room.  I am sure they were all feeling sheepish at best, if not completely self-loathing for what they did.

So here is Jesus’ opportunity to give them the loyalty speech; to rub their noses in their weakness and failures.  If the God that Jesus shows us is like Al Capone, this is his moment.

Peace, not Capone

He does the opposite.  The exact opposite.  Jesus comes to them saying,

Peace be with you.”

If there is one thing that all Christians affirm, one concept that is at the foundation of our faith, it is that we know God through Jesus.  Jesus is the lens through which we see God.  We do not start with philosophical categories or abstract conundrums, we start with Jesus.  John’s gospel begins with the startling announcement that the divine Word has become flesh and has dwelt among us.

What could this possibly mean to us?  Precisely that God is for us, not against us.   That God embraced our very weak, frail, prone—to—failure humanity as a total package, down to the very flesh and bones we walk around in.

Showing Solidarity

This is why John tells us that immediately after saying “Peace be with you” Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.”  He showed them his wounds.  Not to shame them for what they had let happen to him, but to show them that his embrace of their humanity was total.  He was pierced and scarred as all of us can be.  He embraced humanity all the way to the point of suffering, even to the point of death.

And so he comes, not to judge, but to be with those fearful disciples in that locked room bringing them “peace.” Fear always produces locks.  William Sloan Coffin said,

 “As I see it, the primary religious task these days is to try to think straight…You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth…A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind” (“A Passion for the Possible: A Message to the U.S. Churches”

Jesus came with a heart full of love, showing us how God feels about us, even after we have failed, even after we have been disloyalScreen Shot 2014-04-25 at 6.08.22 PM

The Thomas scene

The Thomas scene is helpful.  Did you notice what Thomas needed?   He needed what we need.  Not a ghost, and not a Greek—statue type of perfect—body Jesus.  Thomas needed wounds and scars.  Only a wounded Jesus helps.  Only a Jesus whose body has suffered matters.  Only a Jesus with scars can demonstrate that all of these pains and sufferings of life mean something.

Suffering is real.  Pain is real.  Everybody knows that.  The question is: where is God in it?  Where is God when the doctor says “cancer”?  Where is God when loved ones die?  Where is God when we have reasons to fear and need the doors locked?

The answer is that God is right there with us in the pain.  God is there as one who has embraced all that it means to be human, even our suffering.  Jesus is there,  with his scars, demonstrating to us that God is there, announcing, not judgment, but “peace.”

Somehow, Christian theology, in some circles, has turned this whole scene upside down and gotten it backwards.  There are people who believe that God was indeed like Al Capone who wanted to pay back his disloyal disciples by violent judgement, and so found a victim, a scapegoat, who took it all for them, namely Jesus.

If that were the case, this resurrection scene would have gone very differently.  At the least there would have been some finger—waging.

Spirit, breath

But instead, Jesus comes among his fearful disciples as one who suffers with them, and after granting them peace, he breathes God’s Spirit on them.

This is beautiful.  God, who is present always, by means of God’s Spirit, is, just like our own breath is, inside of us and all around us, always.   The Spirit cannot be seen, so Jesus says, blessed are the ones who can trust that God is present, by God’s Spirit, that the risen Christ is present, by the Spirit, in every moment, even unseen.  In fact in only one moment — now — because this one moment is the only one we will ever have.

A Comfort and a Call

I hope this is a comfort — to know that the risen Christ is present to us by the Spirit, to walk with us even, in our fear and suffering.  But the story does not stop there, simply as a word of comfort.  This scene ends in a strong call.  We must hear both the comfort and the call.  John says,

 “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 6.10.02 PM

We who know the comfort of God’s presence and who have experienced his peace have a calling to a mission.  We are sent.  This too is how Jesus shows us God.  Just as Jesus was God-sent into the world, with all its sharp, flesh-wounding edges, so we have been sent on God’s behalf.

Now it is our calling to bring God’s peace into places of fear and suffering.  It is our mission to by-pass the locks that are in the way, and bring God’s love in ways that address the fear and the physical wounds.

Called beyond Fear

We have to be willing to move beyond our own fears on this mission, just as Jesus did.  We are called and sent, in spite of how we might be misunderstood along the way. I think of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara who said,

 “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”

We do not fear what they call us.  We are not communists because we want the poor to have food, nor socialists because we want them to have doctors and medicine, nor are we disloyal to our tradition because we do not want any form of discrimination for any reason whatsoever.

But even if we get called by these names, we simply do not desist from our mission.  We have been called; we have been sent.  We have taken comfort in God’s loving presence, and we are now on a mission to take that same comfort to people in need.

Forgiven—ForgiversScreen Shot 2014-04-25 at 6.04.54 PM

Jesus is not finished.  One more issue needs to be dealt with.  We do not go out on our mission with any sense of superiority; we are fully human.  We have our own scars, our own pasts that we carry with us. We know God, not as the Al Capone god of vengeance, but as the Jesus—like “peace” giving God — even after our disloyalty. We are sinful people, but we know what forgiveness means, and so we go out as forgiven—forgivers; wounded healers.  We go out as people who are experts in offering forgiveness to others.  This too, is at the core of our Christian DNA.

I love how Eugene Petersen translates that last bit of instruction that Jesus gives to his disciples:

 “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”  (The Message).

We do with them what God does with ours: forgive them.  So that the wounds and the scars can heal.  So that the locks can come off the doors.  So that “you may have life in his name.

That is the point: life in his name.  Resurrections happen.  New life can come from dead zones.  There is hope, even in a world that inflicts its share of suffering; even in a world of fear.  The risen Christ is present in this moment, bringing peace, and saying: Go, in my name.  And so we shall.


Now listen to Sanctus by Renee Swick

Resurrection to New Life

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014 on Matthew 28:1-10

Matthew 28:1-10 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 2.49.20 PMplace where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Resurrection to New Life

We have this same story of Jesus in all four gospels.  The gospels tell us that Jesus came proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God, calling people to repent, meaning to change their thinking, and to live, risking everything on the God who is the world’s true king.

All four gospels agree that the powerful people who wanted to maintain the illusion that they were running the world felt threatened enough by Jesus and his kingdom message to get him killed.  The local aristocracy that ran the economy of Jerusalem, including the high priestly families who ran the temple, as well as the authorities that represented the Roman Empire, found in Jesus’ message a common enemy.  So together they conspired to have him killed.  All four gospels agree.

Each time the story is told, there are deep echoes of other stories that sound beneath the surface.  Each gospel writer uses rich symbols from Israel’s past to try to help us see what is happening and how important it is.


All four gospels agree that God raised Jesus from the dead.   But here, they  all tell the story differently.  The tomb is empty on Easter morning, they all agree about, but the stories of the appearances of Jesus vary.  Who saw him first?  Who else was there at the time – angels, guards?  Were they in and around Jerusalem or in Galilee?  Lots of details differ.

Of course they differ.  Each person experiences the risen Christ individually.  Paul himself  had an experience  of the risen Christ that knocked him off of his horse and temporarily blinded him, according to the description Luke gives us in the book of Acts.

We will follow Matthew’s unique story, paying attention to the rich symbols he uses to try to help us understand the significance of the story.  And in the end, I hope we will see ourselves in this story.

The climax of the part of the story we read today is that the living Jesus announces to the two Mary’s where he will appear next to the others:

“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 2.36.09 PM

Apparently, it is really important to see the risen Jesus.  So, in Matthew’s version,  Jesus tells the women where he can be seen.  It turns out that the place is back where it all started, back in Galilee.  Back where they started out, most of them, as fishermen.

New Creation 

So, here is how the story goes.  Timing is important.  The Sabbath is over, it is the dawning of Sunday, the first day of the week.  Echoes of the creation story sound: The Genesis creation story said that in six days, God made the world, and called it good, then rested on the Sabbath.  So now it is Sunday; A new creation is dawning.

Women arrive at the tomb

Two women who have just witnessed Jesus’ death on Friday, now come alone, Matthew tells us, to see the the tomb.  Matthew leaves out any mention of spices for anointing.   Maybe they have just come to mourn.  But maybe these women have a deep understanding that there is a pattern of new life following death, at work beneath the surface.

Men, at least disciples, are conspicuously absent.  Maybe they do not believe that life can follow death. Then something earthshaking happens.  An angel comes from heaven, and following the biblical pattern, he is scary.  The angel frightens the guards, and the tomb stone is rolled open.

The soldiers, representatives of the Roman imperial power that wanted to silence Jesus by death, fall down, as good as dead themselves.  Neither death nor the empire is a match for what God is doing here. But overpowering people with fear is not the point, merely the effect.  So the angel speaks peace to the women.

 “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

Seeing Jesus is important, so looking for him in the right place is crucial.  Do not look for him among the dead, in tombs.  He is not to be found there.

Missional Mandate

The next line is crucial.  These women have a role to play.  They have a task to accomplish.  They have a mission.  It is to bear a message.  The divine messenger says:

“Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

Jesus is alive, not dead in a tomb.  Neither is Jesus to be seen on Herod’s throne, in Pilate’s Palace, nor in the gilded temple in Jerusalem.  You will not see him at any of the power centers of this world.  He has gone to Galilee, the marginal place where poor peasants and blue-collar fishermen live; the place where it all started.

Fear and JoyScreen Shot 2014-04-19 at 2.46.35 PM

So the women left with two emotions: fear and joy, Matthew says.  The reason for joy is obvious – hope is possible.  But after what they witnessed on Friday, women who take a practical view of life, know that nothing is certain; fear remains. But they accept their commission and immediately ran to tell the men disciples who still think that tombs are permanent.

On the way, they see Jesus, alive.  He says, “Hello.”  They fall at his feet in worship.  He renews their missional mandate, telling them:

 “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

To be seen in Galilee

And they do.  Matthew will tell us that the eleven disciples go to Galilee, to the mountain Jesus directed them to, and Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” This is one of the most amazing lines in the bible.  On the one hand, it says that the eleven actually saw the risen Jesus.  On the other hand, seeing him was not enough for some of them.

There is no way to read all of this on merely a surface level.  Seeing Jesus risen seems to make a difference only to those who are willing to embrace the fact that he is risen and to see him with faith. There are lots of questions, but two big ones that jump out at me are: why was it important to Jesus to be seen in Galilee instead of Jerusalem, and why on a mountain?

Well, we know that mountains are where God-things happen all the time in the bible, and in Matthew’s gospel too.  And Galilee is where the common folks live.

So what kind of God-thing is going on in Galilee?  Just a few chapters earlier, before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples where to look for him and find him. He told them a story, a parable, about a king at the end of time who will separate people as one separates sheep from goats.   The sheep go on the right, the goats on the left.  The sheep are the blessed ones who get it.  The goats are the ones who don’t get it. What is the difference?  He tells the ones who get it:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

They reply that they never saw Jesus in those circumstances.  He replies:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” 

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 2.47.57 PM

Seeing Jesus in Galilee

How do you see Jesus in Galilee?  You see him where he said he would be seen: among the common people, the hurting people, the people like you, the people in need all around you, right in front of you, right where you live, at home in Galilee, or in Gulf Shores, or Mobile, or in Daphne. So, how is it that some of them, on that mountain in Galilee, saw, but still doubted?

Who knows? but maybe this:  These were the men who did not go to the tomb like the women did.  They believed there was no point.  Tombs are permanent.  Death is final.  Roman imperial power is the last word.  There is no justice.  The good die young.

Maybe to see the risen Christ you have to believe that there is a pattern in the bible and in existence itself, that death can be followed by new life.  New creations can come from the God of creation.  Dawn can follow the dark night.  A new week can be born.

In fact, the sequence is crucial.  Death has  to come before new life; winter before spring.  The message of Jesus had two parts that followed the same sequence

“repent, or change your thinking, the kingdom of God is at hand.”  

Death before new life.  Death to the old way of thinking and living before life can burst out of your old tombs.

We all carry around dead-end thinking.  In the first half of life, we start with the small self.  We think the universe revolves around ourselves and our personal needs, that we are at the center.  We think that what matters is our own personal happiness, our status, our reputation, our superiority. We think that our security has to be protected by building up a big economic pile and keeping it safe for ourselves.  We think we need to bend the will of the world to our perspective and be in control.

That is the small self way of being that leads to death.  But if we are willing to let that kind of a self die, then a new life is possible.  Transformation is possible.  A new life can spring out of a tomb.Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 2.50.40 PM

He will be found

If we are willing to go to Galilee among the commoners and sufferers and start looking for the Jesus, we will find him, just where he said he would be, among “the least of these.”

I don’t know what went through your mind when you woke up this morning and first became conscious.  Maybe you woke up to a new day remembering the old days.  Maybe there are parts of your life that you feel are dead ends.  Dead zones.  Tombs.

Hear the good news of the Gospel: Jesus is risen from the dead and is alive now, giving new life to all who trust him.  Let the old self die.  Let the small self-absorbed self die.  Let the new Christ-consciousness be born in you.

Look around.  It is a new day.  You have a mission; a role to play. You are to announce the good news that domination systems do not have the last word.  You have the mandate to go to your Galilee and find Jesus there.

He may not look pretty.  He will have scars; he will have evidence of suffering and pain, of course, but he will be there to be seen and found. Even if your joy is mixed with fear, hear the message of peace and the call to go.  You are now collaborators is new creation.  You are agents of the kingdom. And you too have “been buried with him by baptism in to his death and raised with Christ to walk in newness of life.” Look all around: Christ is risen, and you will see him in Galilee, as he promised.


Parading Towards Significance

Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm Sunday, Year A, 

Matthew 21:1-11Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 4.52.33 PM

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,

Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.07.41 PM

Parading Towards Significance

We lived abroad for a dozen years, two in Romania and ten in Croatia, where they do not play American football.  So it had been a long time since I had seen a game when I went to watch at the high school when my son started attending there.

Not only had I not seen American football for a long time, I had not seen a high school game since I was in high school.  I had forgotten about all the elaborate pomp and ceremony at the start.  It was almost like a an elaborate religious ritual for the whole community. Of course the band played and the cheerleaders performed, but the climax was when the gladiators, or rather, football players stormed onto the field.

People made a human corridor for them, at the end of which was a huge paper banner with the team logo and school name.  The players ran through the corridor and burst through the paper, and everyone cheered like mad.

Two events can radically change that happy memory.  One is loosing the game.  The other is losing the game, but winning the division championship.  When you lose a game, it makes the memory of the big splash entry seem a bit pathetic.  But if, by the end of the season, you win the championship, then even the games lost along the way seem different.

Today is Palm Sunday, and it feels like that to me.  We remember and celebrate the parade day and the happy “Hosanna!” cheers today as Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  But we know what is ahead; arrest, trial, and brutal crucifixion.  What keeps the happy parade from feeling pathetic in the light of crucifixion is that we also know about Easter and resurrection.  The story ends in triumph, not defeat.

The biblical pattern is suffering before glory; death before resurrection.  It is the same pattern for every human life; struggle and pain before transformation.  Moments of despair before hope.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.14.37 PM

The Other Parade 

Historians tell us that there may well have been two parades that day in Jerusalem.  Every year, the Roman governor, in this case Pontius Pilate, traveled from his coastal headquarters up to Jerusalem for major  festivals.  This was part of keeping control, of course. He came on his big horse with his soldiers and brought with him extra troops in case there was trouble.

Trouble was not at all unlikely.  The festival was Passover; the celebration of Jewish independence from Pharaoh and the oppressive Egyptian empire.  Now they were living under Caesar and the oppressive Roman empire, and many were sharpening swords and looking for an opportunity to get on with the revolution.

So Pilate and his big burly parade would have been clanking and stomping into Jerusalem from the west just about the same time Jesus was coming from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.  The two parades may have almost mirrored each other.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.21.44 PM


Can you imagine a high school foot ball game which started with two grand entrances, coming from opposite ends of the field?  Picture this: at one end you have the home team players in their big helmets and imposing shoulder pads bursting through the banner.

At the same time, at the other end, running and stumbling through the banner is a Ronald McDonlald—looking circus clown, complete with oversized shoes, orange hair and a red nose.

It would be really funny, unless you became aware that the clown was from the opposing team and he intended his entry to mock the real players.  That could make everyone mad enough to turn the whole situation very ugly — even dangerous.

That is what was happening on the day that we call the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The clown was Jesus.  He was intentionally mocking Pilate’s imperial parade.

Everything about what he did that day was planned and arranged in advance.  Matthew tells us that the donkey was pre-planned and the owner was ready to receive the request to use it.

Everything was set up as street theater, to mock Pilate’s parade, his prestige and his power.  Instead of a big imposing stallion war horse, Jesus rode a donkey.  In fact, a female donkey.  Matthew gives us the detail that she was accompanied by her colt.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.27.00 PM

The mockery goes even deeper.  Jesus was actually mocking not just the arrival parade of Pilate, but also, and more to the point, the Roman Triumphal parade.  When a victorious Roman general returned from his conquests, they gave him a huge parade called a “triumph.”

If Jesus had married and had a son, by the time he was a 40 year old man, he might have witnessed the Roman general Titus receiving his triumphal parade as he returned to Rome after conquering the Jewish revolt, burning the temple to the ground and slaughtering over one million Jews (according to Josephus).

It was just this kind of militaristic domination that Jesus was mocking.  He had the people prepared to wave palm branches as they had done several generations earlier as the Jews won independence from the Seleucids.  But that was a military victory.  Jesus was channeling Zechariah’s prophecy, riding his peace-donkey proclaiming a new empire: the empire of God.

Rules and Standards in God’s EmpireScreen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.34.25 PM

The rules and standards are different in God’s empire.  Humility, not arrogance is the virtue held in highest esteem.  Service instead of exploitation is the path to greatness in God’s realm.  The little people, the “unwashed masses,” the powerless, the poor and the unprotected were the central focus of God’s care and concern in the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.  Where Jesus is king, the goal is peace-making and the means are non-violent.

In short, there is hope for all those out-gunned and out-maneuvered peasants waving those palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” – “God saves.”  That hope has now been realized.  That is why we too can join in the festal shouting.

God is still saving us today.  God saves us from our hopelessness, because resurrections happen.  God saves us from the tyranny of evil.  He gives us a vision of new life, transformed by spiritual practices, empowered by his Spirit.  He saves us from living in the ego-driven small self, and raises us up to newness with Christ.

Yes, suffering and death comes before resurrection and new life; the biblical pattern comes true for all of us.  But we have hope in the midst of suffering that the last word to be spoken is God’s word of a hope-filled future.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.35.44 PM

Hope here in Gulf Shores

Our congregation here in Gulf Shores has gone through a period of suffering decline recently.  Some have been tempted to loose hope.  But let us open our eyes and see the hope that God has been preparing for us.

Because of the faithful stewardship and kind generosity of a recently deceased member, we have an amazing opportunity before us.  Her bequest has enabled us to do something new and hopeful.  Today we will install and commission our new Church Life Director.  God has gifted and equipped Pam in unique ways for new ministries of care, compassion, enrichment and outreach which will bless many people.

She will need all of our help and support as we go forward in unity into this hopeful future that God has opened for us.  Wish her well today at the reception, but also pray for her every day.  When new opportunities and programs are presented, join in.   Invite friends to participate with you.  As someone here said, this is not the time to be pew-potatoes but to be active participants as much as possible.

Palm Sunday is the perfect day to celebrate the new things that God is doing among us.  Let this day be a day of celebration and joy, and of renewed commitment.  Let us conclude with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah,

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  (Jer. 29:11)




Sermon on Matt. 7:12;  April 6, 2014;  Lent 5, Year A

Matt. 7:12  

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.26.02 PM


When I was a child we used to get a magazine for children called Highlights Kids.  I always looked forward to the hidden picture puzzles.  There would be a hand drawn picture using black ink on a white background, which included a dozen or so easily recognizable objects hidden in plain sight.  The goal was to find them all.  They could be anything from a hammer to an ice-cream cone, from a toothbrush to a fork, all there to be found and colored.

Things  hidden in plain site is what this “Golden Rule” text is like.  Right here, towards the finale of the first teaching of Jesus that launches his public ministry, the way Matthew tells it, is this perfectly plain and simple teaching:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

It is not just a simple and good idea; for Jesus, this is the boiled down essence of everything the whole story of God in the bible was all about.  He said,

“for this is the law and the prophets.”

In which situations does it apply?  He said, “In everything.”  No limits, no exceptions.

In some respects, this is nothing new at all. In fact this is the exact implication of a teaching that goes all the way back to Moses himself, Leviticus 19:18

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In another place, Jesus called this the second greatest commandment, right up there with the first commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

This simple teaching asks us to consider exactly one question as we interact with other people throughout our lives.  There is no mystery, no moral confusion, no secret knowledge or philosophical sophistication required. We are to ask ourselves, WWIW.  What would I want.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.37.52 PM

Some people wear the bracelets with the letters WWJD, to remind themselves to ask, “What would Jesus Do?”  But for Jesus, it is even simpler than that: we only need to ask “What would I want?”

This is so simple and obvious, so “in plain sight” as a moral imperative, that neither Jesus nor Moses was the first to realize it.

Universally Known

If you were in Bible Study Thursday you heard as we read this same “Golden Rule” teaching, “do to others as you would have them do to you”  or the same thing said in the negative, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other” said by people around the world and throughout history.

In ancient China, Confucius said, [these quotes are from the Wikipedia page on the Golden Rule]

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Lao-tze said,Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.46.23 PM

“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

The ancient Egyptians have a text that says,

“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

In ancient Greece, Plato recounts Socrates saying,

“…it has been shown that to injure anyone is never just anywhere”

In Ancient Rome,  Seneca said,Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.47.14 PM

“expect from others what you did to them”

And yes, this teaching also appears in the Muslim’s bible, the Quran, written centuries after Jesus.


So if this is such a clear and simple teaching, why would I call it hidden in plain sight?  In what sense is it hidden?  Only in the sense that throughout the history of the church from its early days to the present, people have felt so free to ignore it.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.48.45 PM

I can illustrate it this way; most of our solid teachings of what is considered correct theology or “orthodoxy” are the result of theological controversies settled in ecumenical church councils.

We all know about the Nicene creed.  This was agreed to as the result of the council of Nicea in 325.  This council sought to end the “Arian Controversy” by affirming that Jesus, the Son of God, was “begotten” but not “made” and being of the “same substance” with the Father.

The church had split into factions over the issue of Jesus’ relationship to the Father, and whether he was of the “same substance” or only a “similar substance.”  So great was the conflict in the 4th century that there were street battles between mobs of Christians on opposing sides who used violence against each other. [see: Hellenic Heritage and Christian Challenge: Conflict over Panhellenic Sanctuaries in Late Antiqity, by Amelia Robertson Bown, chapt. 25 of Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices, edited by Harold Allen Drake]

The fact that neither Jesus nor the bible anywhere says anything about the essence of God nor of Jesus, and the odd question about how humans could ever know these things for themselves, should give us pause.  The fact that Christians were willing to use political force, threats, intimidations, banishment’s and even mob violence over  these esoteric imponderables should make us blush.

It was the Christian church, we will recall, that launched the inquisition, banned books and burned witches in its long dark history.  And all of this in the face of such clear, simple, teaching of Jesus.  Christian duty can be summed up simply as this:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

There it is; hiding in plain sight.

What Would I Want?

Asking this one question: “What would I want?” in other words, “How would I want to be treated?” can eliminate the need for the commandments: “Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness,” and even the positive commandment to “honor your father and mother.”  Of course I would not want to be killed or stolen from, cheated on, or lied to.  Of course I would want my children to honor my parental role.

It even answers questions like “How should I treat the environment?  What kind of condition should I leave the world in for my grandkids?”

So, this is a call to have an active imagination.  All that is necessary to know how God calls us to live is to simply imagine what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes – or moccasins –  yes, the native Americans also had this concept.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.53.56 PM

The Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance

What is true for personal issues is also true for public concerns.  A famous American philosopher, John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in the “original position” of getting to make all the rules for how humans will relate to each other; the rules of justice.  We get to decide everything about the rules for what is just and right, but with one condition:  we will have to be a character, living in the world whose rules of justice we make, but we are not allowed to know anything about who we will be.  We decide justice behind the “veil of ignorance.”

So how will we write the rules for this world, if we cannot know in advance if we will be a rich person or a poor person?  What rules will we make if we do not know if we are going to be in the world as a man or a woman?  What will justice be if we do not know in advance if we will be able-bodied or disabled, or mentally challenged, or diseased, or aged, or Congolese or Chinese, Muslim or Catholic, straight or gay?

The reason this imaginative exercise is so brilliant is that it simply asks us to do the same thing Jesus asked us to do: consider how the world would look if you were in another person’s skin.


Let’s try it.

An African boy

You are an 8 year old boy, full of energy and curiosity, both naive and mischievous, born into an African family in a village near the coast of Senegal in  1785.  How does justice look to you when the salve traders sweep into your village and capture your parents and your sister, leaving you watching from up in the mango tree?

A Pritchard girl

Or, you are a 13 year old girl, who did not ask to be, but who was born to an unwed, addicted mother who was still in high school in Pritchard, Alabama.  You watch how the string of men who come and go from the house look at you, and it scares you.  You already know that even if you are among those who stay in school until graduation, almost no one goes to college.  No one, besides fast food restaurants maid services and Walmart, ever hires people like you.  And when they do, even working full time you will still be poor enough for food stamps.

A woman I know (true story)

Or, you are a professional woman with a college degree and a good job working in the technology division of a bank when suddenly you have a car accident that leaves you with a traumatic brain injury.  Now, even the slightest thing makes you filled with unbearable anxiety and fear.  Your impulse control part of the brain was damaged in the accident and so you say things you shouldn’t.  Nobody wants to be your friend, so you spend your days in loneliness and aimlessness.  You threaten suicide and while you are locked up in the mental hospital you miss a rent payment.  Upon release, you discover that they have changed the locks  of your apartment, having cleared out all your belongings and put them somewhere in storage.  What would you want to happen next?

In every case, the simple act of imagining ourselves in other people’s positions, asking “How would I want to be treated?”  tells us what we should do.


But what about exceptional circumstances?  What if someone else strikes the first blow?  What if someone says something insulting or offensive, or intentionally hurtful to us?  What if their behavior is simply inexcusable?  What if they did wrong?  Then are we free to respond in kind?  Then does this mandate go away?  Then are we off the moral hook?   Well, how does it sound to you?:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 8.03.14 PM

Spiritual Maturity Defined

This, then defines spiritual maturity.  This is the test of our true condition.  Every time we treat others the way we would want to be treated, we demonstrate our true character.

This teaching expects us to be the adults in the room, even when others are behaving badly.   No double standards; one rule for everyone; ourselves included.  We are the ones who absorb instead of returning the wrongs.  In this, we are called to imitate Jesus himself, as Paul tells us:

“Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.   For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15)

So we have gone from the personal to the public and now back to the personal realm.  In the kingdom of God, it is a seamless cloth.  We are to walk in this world, in both our personal lives and in our public and political lives as those who understand, believe, and put into practice the essence of the Jesus—kingdom—love ethic:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

This, then, is an act of trust in God.  If there is a score to settle, we leave it with God.  If there is a price to be paid in order to accomplish justice, then we trust that after we have paid it, we will still have enough, so it is okay to part with it.  If there is moral courage, patience, and strength we need, God, through the present Spirit will supply it in full measure.

Let us assert our trusting commitment to bring this command out into the light.  Christians, this is our calling:


“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”