E Pluribus Unum [?]

Sermon for Seventh Easter A, June 1, 2014 on John 17:1–11

Exodus 12:31 – 38

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children.  A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. 

John 17:1–11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 8.41.58 PM

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

I never took Latin – though I wish I had.  I wanted my sons to take it, but when Ben was in school it was not even offered.  Nathan could have taken it as an online course, but did not.  I did not push it because of my uncertainty of the quality of an online ancient language class.  So we are not a Latin-educated family.  I suspect we are in good company.  But one phrase you cannot get through school in America without learning is “e pluribus unum,”  “out of many, one.”

That phrase is written on the banner held in the beak of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States.  That Seal shows up on our money, so we all carry around this Latin phrase all the time.

It is a fitting phrase for our country: we are one nation out of many nations.  One people out of many different ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.  It is both literally true – we are one nation made up of people from across the globe – as well as being an aspiration which is never fully achieved.  Our differences divide us.

Nevertheless we all want to affirm that aspiration to be “e pluribus unum;” one out of many.  That means we share this basic commitment to live together in this country as one people, even though we have obvious and deep differences.  We share a commitment to overcome our impulse to prefer “us” against “them;” our kind of people against the other kind of people.

Unity is Difficult and Fragile Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 8.54.46 PM

Unity like this is difficult to achieve.  It runs counter to our impulses.  It is always much easier to break down unity than to create it.  In fact the easiest way for a person who wants be a leader to get followers is to convince people that there is a an enemy they need to fear and to fight – in other words, a scapegoat – and that enemy is usually near, not distant; often inside the group itself, not outside.

So unity is broken in order to fight off the supposed dangers from from within, like the Jews, according to Hitler and Mussolini, or the subversive “wreckers,” according to Stalin, or the Communists according to McCarthy, or the Croats and Muslims according to Milosevic – it is a tired old formula.  Breaking unity is an age-old path to power.  Wasn’t it Caesar who said “divide et impera” – “divide and rule”?

It is difficult to get people who think of themselves as different to live and act in unity.  Unity is easier if people think of themselves as the same at some fundamental level, despite surface difference.  I recently heard someone say that in the second World War, because American soldiers fought side by side, black and white, it became harder afterwards for them to hold racist ideas.

Not “Many” but OneScreen Shot 2014-05-30 at 8.57.12 PM

But there is one major problem with the phrase “e pluribus unum” “from many, one.”  We are not really many at all.    We are already one.   The tragedy is that we do not know it.

I recently heard the story of a Hungarian man, Csanád Szegedi, a former leader of a far-right, anti-Semitic party in Hungary called Jobbik.

He was shocked to learn from his 94 year old grandmother that he was actually Jewish.  Nearly all of his family had perished in Auschwitz.   She had kept her Jewish ethnicity hidden ever since.Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 8.55.19 AM

Eventually, Szegedi went from being the leader of a nationalist and anti-Semitic party to embracing his own Jewishness.  This story may seem weird, but I promise, this sermon is going to get weirder.

But before we get in to the weirdness, let us notice this:  In some ways Szegedi’s story is potentially our story too.  Not that we are covertly Jewish, but that at the most fundamental level, we are not different, but the same: not many, but one.

Let us being with an odd question: what makes a person Jewish?  In the founding story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, we read that the people who made the original journey across the Red Sea were a “mixed crowd,” meaning, descendants of Abraham and descendants of other ancestors too (Exodus 2:38).  From the beginning, there was ethnic diversity.Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 9.03.44 PM

But to further trouble the waters, scientists know that there is no such thing as race as a biological concept.  There is as great a diversity genetically within any given group that we identify racially as between them.  Race itself is a fiction.  Skin pigmentation and hair and eye color are all subject to evolutionary change.

So it’s not really the case that Szegedi was Jewish and did not know it: it is really the case that ethnicity is a cultural concept.  You may as well divide up the world into musical preferences as into racial categories.  Fundamentally, we are not “many” but “one” already.

Faith and Unity

If we consider for a moment what it means that we worship a God whom we call Creator, none of this should surprise us.  In the biblical story, we all descended from one pair, made in the image of God.

If this metaphor means anything, it surely means that whatever differences we perceive now that divide us are insubstantial compared to what connects us together.  We are all humans, all a part of the human race – and there is only one of them.

We humans maintain the fiction of our essential difference for one reason: power.  The group in power wants to stay in power, and does so by two moves: one, it distinguishes itself from other groups somehow – tribe, skin color, language, religion, accent, whatever.

And second, by embracing a massive sense of entitlement.  Our group has the right to our privilege because – well, we are entitled to it.  It is as if God gave us more rights than the other guys.Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 9.12.25 PM

For example, a huge sense of male entitlement based on power is now being unveiled by the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen.  It was sparked by Elliot Rodger’s murder of six people on May 23rd in Isla Vista, California.  He explained the reasons for his rage in a 140-page misogynist manifesto, proclaiming his hatred of women whom he feels, rejected him.

Women are now coming out in places like Twitter with their stories of everyday sexism at the hands of men who feel “entitled” in relation to women.  Of course men feel entitled: we have always had the power.  This is not just about Sudanese honor killings, this is about how, yes, in fact “all women” get treated by men.

Again, our Creation story gives us all we need to debunk the myth of male entitlement: both male and female are equally created in the image of God.  We are differently gendered, but equally human.

But we have more than the Creation story to consider.  Jesus himself prayed that his followers would know that they were one.  Question: do you think Jesus included the women that were part of that discipleship community in his prayer for unity?  Of course!

That is why there was no basis for domination in the community.  Disciples should not seek to lord it over each other, as godless gentiles do.  Nobody gets an entitlement pass to dominate or abuse.Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 9.16.04 PM

Weirdness and Unity

I promised that there was weirdness coming, and here it is.  Now we know from the scientific community, that there is a further and deeper sense in which we are not “many” but actually “one.”  We all share elements of the one universe we live in.  We all have carbon in our bodies that was formed in the Big Bang.

In fact, to go even deeper, it is not at all clear what the difference is between the material world and (what we have been used to thinking of as) the non-material world.  Matter is simply one form of energy.

For people of faith this is interesting to mull over.  If, as we say, God is the ultimate source of everything that exists, then the universe itself really is one at its core.  God is the ultimate source of everything, and so, we could say, everything exists “in God.”  “In him we live and move and have our being” as Paul said, quoting a Greek poet affirmatively.

So this opens our eyes too see more clearly what Jesus actually said in the text we read.  It is not only that the disciples, men and women, should see themselves as one with each other.  More to the point, they should all come to know that they are one with God, just as Jesus is one with the Father.

Let us hear it again:

 “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

If Only

If we could come to know and to embrace our true identity as children of God, one with God, alive in and through God, moment by moment, it would transform our lives.  If we could grasp our union with Christ and with God the Father, and live into that identity, think of what that could mean.

Finding our identity in oneness with God would mean that we would feel loved and forgiven instead of alienated and guilty.  It would mean that we knew in our deepest hearts that God was for us, not against us.  It would mean that we could relax and trust that God is in control.  It would mean that we could accept our mortality and the fact that we do not live forever in this world.

Knowing ourselves as one with God would mean that everything else that defines us really doesn’t.  It would mean that we do not have to be defensive about who we are as defined by the roles we play and titles we wear – the externals that make up what Rohr calls the “false self” or the “small self”.

It would matter less and offend us less if someone didn’t like our identity as Protestant or as American or as a Republican or Democrat or Independent, or a Caucasian, or even as a man or woman, because we know who we are in God is most essential and most true.

And, knowing our true identity as one with God would mean that we could see though the illusion of our separateness.  We could embrace each other as equals; Caucasians and non-caucasians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even atheists as humans, with no claims to entitlement, no will to power.

If we knew this, we men would have to start treating women better.

We whites would have to start looking at discrimination and immigration from a new perspective.

We middle class Protestants would have to examine all the ways we feel entitled to the privilege we have enjoyed all our lives,  and we would have to consider what it would mean to live on the other side of those descriptors.

The same with straight people in relation to gay people.

We would have to look across our generational divisions from both sides in more compassionate and understanding ways – older to younger and younger to older.

In short, to know ourselves as one in God would mean to finally get what Jesus was demonstrating and talking about – inviting us to live in the Kingdom of God with a Heavenly Father as the one in whom we trust, and the one to whom we pray, as Paul said:

one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  (Eph 4:5-6)

So, not “E Pluribus Unum:” but rather, total unum without the pretense of  pluribus.



Memory and Hope on Memorial Day Weekend

Sermon for May 25, 2014, on Luke 22:14-20, Sixth Easter A, American Memorial Day Weekend

Luke 22:14-20Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 9.09.27 AM

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

In America this is Memorial Day weekend. We take time to honor the memory of people who have given their lives in service to our country. We have many to honor. I wanted to know how many, so I looked up the information and found this:

We lost approximately 116,000 people during WWI;

  • in WWII 405,000;
  • in the Korean “war,” 36,000;
  • during Viet Nam, 58,000;
  • in Iraq 4,500;
  • so far, in Afghanistan approximately 2,000.

The most costly war we ever fought in human lives lost was our own Civil War. More than 600,000 (including losses on both sides).

These were the major wars, but there were other conflicts in which our soldiers died as well. From 1775 to the present, just over, 1,300,000 have died serving our country. We remember and honor their sacrifice on Memorial Day.

How many of those wars do you remember? I am too young to have my own memories of the Korean war, not to mention the Second World War. None of us here has personal memory of WWI, “the War to End all Wars,” nor of the Civil War.

Formation by Memory and Recital

Our own memories – form us, tell us who we are. We rely on our memories to project who we will be, who we want to be. We have been formed as a people in this country by the events of our shared past – our wars, of course, but by other formative events too.

Wars are not the only events that form us as a people. We remember and re-tell formative events and so preserve them that they may be part of the formation of new generations.

But our own memories are too short – only one lifetime. None of us today has living memories of slavery, though we are still living with the consequences of that time. We do not have personal memories of the Trail of Tears that drove the native Americans from these lands.

The most important and significant things to remember happened in a place now obscured by the horizon of our own location in time. My sons cannot remember what I saw – the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Viet Nam war and the anti-war movement, the Watergate scandal – they do not even remember the Monika Lewinsky scandal – they were alive, but too young. They do not remember, as I do, the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy nor of Martin Luther King jr.

So, because our own personal memories are too short to extend back to include crucial and formative events that must not be forgotten, we all need a community of common memory. There are events that we must “never forget” lest they lose the power to continue to tell us who we are, and to shape who we want to be.

A Faith Community of Common Memory

As people of faith, we are a community of common memory. Every time we gather, we rehearse together our community’s memories of our life with God, stretching back to Abraham’s call to leave his native country and to believe the promise of a “future with hope.” And so, as we re-tell our story, we too find hope for our future. Memory is directly related to hope.
Our Jewish ancestors of faith gave us a well worn path to follow. The Jews have always been people who treasured the memories of their life as a people, the people of Yahweh, Israel’s God.

Memory was part of their liturgy. Every year, at the festival of First Fruits, each Israelite brought a basket containing the initial harvest to the priest and recited the official version of their common memory:Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 9.11.03 AM

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, …When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, …and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is Israel’s core memory: exodus; redemption; liberation from slavery by a God who is faithful to the ancient promise. The first fruits of the harvest in the basket are the sign that the ancient memory is also the basis for future hope. The God of exodus is with us, and will be with us, and with our children. They too will learn to recite the memory, and from it, they too will learn hope.

Israel’s Painful Memory

Notice that Israel’s memory is a painful memory. Israel liturgically, purposefully remembers suffering and slavery as she remembers redemption and liberation.

This is crucially important. The memory that a community embraces as its official, identity-forming memory of the past, forms the nature of their hope for the future, both for good and for ill. Memory becomes eschatology.

If a community encodes a false memory, tragic consequences always follow. The most common false memory that communities repeatedly embrace is the fantasy of the past golden age; the good old days.

“There was a time,” these pseudo-memories pretend to recall, “in which our people were great. We were noble, we were free. We were then, as is our right and destiny, in control of our lands and not threatened by our neighbors.”

Lost golden age stories can be told of the recent past as well. “Ah, remember the time when we were strong and no one in the world challenged us? Remember when the people who are clearly beneath our status knew their place and kept their place? Remember “the good old days?” “Those were the days” – as Archie Bunker used to sing.

Tales of Loss – Hope for Restoration

Usually these stories begin with a past golden age and then tell a tragic tale of loss. Things changed for the worse. The bad guys had their way.

When the community takes its identity from a lost golden age story, then their future hope is in restoration of what was lost. Justice and righteousness will only served by undoing the wrongs, beating back the “bad guys,” and regaining our “god-given rightful place.” The ends then justify the means.

These become tragic when the pseudo golden-age story becomes the reason for sacrificing the sons and daughters of the present generation in wars of recovery of a phony past for the sake of future generations.

How many of our sons and daughters have died fighting someone else’s sick and tragic golden-age recovery quest? Far too many.Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 9.11.24 AM

Israel’s Redemption Story

Israel’s official memory was not of a past golden age, but of a past time of bondage. Her story was not a victor’s tale of heroism in battle, but first and foremost a redemption story. God was given the credit:

“The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

And so Israel’s future hope was that the God who was faithful to the promise in times past would be faithful in the future as well. God was the basis of Israel’s hope.

So that, when the land was lost to the Babylonians, hope was not lost along with it. Jeremiah could say, as he watched the smoke rise from the burned out rubble of the temple in Jerusalem,

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3)

Jesus’ Memory, Jesus’ Hope

Israel’s hope was Jesus’ hope. With profound trust in the goodness and love of his Heavenly Father, Jesus had hope that the promised kingdom of God would come and that God’s will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Clearly, Jesus believed in the hope expressed by Israel’s prophets of hope, that there could be a future in which people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and nation would not lift up sword against nation again. (Micah 4, Isaiah 2)

Jesus embraced the expanding vision of that hope expressed in Israel’s prophets, that God’s future included all nations, not just ethnic Israel. Instead of lifting swords against each other, the nations would be invited to come together to Zion and learn to be the people of God together. They would sit together at a banquet; people from East and West, from North and South, and feast in security and joy.

The basis for this rather unlikely hope was the same for Jesus as it had been for Israel. That God’s characteristic action is redemption. The God of steadfast love and mercy is foremost a God of forgiveness.Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 9.11.43 AM

The Meal of Memory and Hope

This is exactly what we celebrate when we come together. Our central liturgical act, like Israel’s, is also an act of liturgical memory. As we gather at the Lord’s table, we gather to remember. We rehearse God’s mighty and merciful acts of redemption in the past, and especially the redemption we come to know through Jesus himself.

So we come as a community formed by memory of redemption. We recite:

“The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘Take, eat. This is my body given for you. Do this remembering me.” And the same with the cup. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, given to you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink of it, do this remembering me.”

Our hope for the future is that the God we remember is a God of redemption; a God faithful to his promise, a God who continues to be with us, now and to the end of the age.

So, our story is not a lost golden age story. And our hoped for future is not a restoration of glory days. Our story is a redemption-by-God-story, and our future is a future of peace and reconciliation. The best is yet to come.

In the mean time, we live as people of faith and people of hope. Our own lives are far too short to have remembered the most important events of the past, and will probably be too short to see the finale. But we trust that we are in God’s faithful hands in the mean time.Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 9.12.00 AM

Let us conclude with a famous quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, who said:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

― Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History





The Finale

Sermon on the Mount Series #11 for May 18, 2014, Fifth Sunday of Easter 2014

Matt. 7:24–29

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.47.50 AM

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The Finale

We have had more than our share of rain and flooding recently. The power of rushing water is amazing. It can wash out a paved road that seemed as permanent as the ground we walk on in almost no time. Flood waters sweep away bridges, people’s homes, even whole suburbs and towns, leaving utter destruction behind.

Our hearts go out to the people who have suffered loss and damage. We are a part of bringing help and relief to many through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

So, it is a bit jarring that the text we read from Matthew is about a flood and the damage it can do. The images of all this destruction are fresh in our minds, so I guess, if we were ever in a good position to hear the warning in these words of Jesus, it is now.

The Grand Finale to the Sermon

He speaks of two houses; one remains standing. The other experiences total destruction. It is more than a little ominous. This is the grand finale to the Sermon on the Mount, the culmination of the great inaugural moment in Jesus’ ministry as presented to us in Matthew’s gospel.

The story of the wise and foolish builders is about looking at our lives from the perspective of the end. All of us will die one day; we are mortal. No one knows when the end will come for us.

This was brought home to us powerfully Thursday night. We were at the awards assembly at the high school. A family in the community created a scholarship to go to a promising music student, by which to honor the memory of their musically gifted son, who died before finishing his Sophomore year of college. Just over two years before his death, he was there at high school awards night, looking sharp, with a promising future ahead, or so everyone believed.

So, the question is, what will it all have meant? Why are we given these days? What will those who follow us, have to say about our lives when they are over?Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.50.40 AM

Wasting Life

A few years ago I heard a song about a person who so wasted his life that the writer wondered if he would also waste his death as well – what a horrible thought! He sang, “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you wast the afterlife?” Talk about a house built upon the sand! (Modest Mouse: “Ocean Breathes Salty”)

No matter how many days we are given, it is going to seem like a short life at the end. This is what everyone tells me; even people in their 90’s. “The time just flew by,” people say. “It seemed like only yesterday….”

So what is gong to make the difference? What will make the house we are building with our lives stand all the way to the end, despite the many storms, and even torrential floods we all face?Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.53.22 AM

The Wisdom Tradition Approach

Jesus answers the question with a proverb; a wisdom story. Using a well known Jewish approach, just as we find in books like Proverbs, Jesus tells a wisdom story. There are two builders, one wise and the other foolish. As in the wisdom tradition, there are only two paths, and you get to chose one or the other. One is the path of wisdom, the other, folly.

In the wisdom tradition, the path of wisdom may not be the easy one, nor the one taken by the majority, it may go through the narrow gate, instead of the broad one, but it is the only one that leads to life and fruitfulness in the end. The wise path is the one that withstands the floods and avoids destruction.Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.55.43 AM

The Jewish wisdom tradition grew out of a strong conviction that the world was not merely random and left to chance and accident. There is a God who is good behind this world, and so there are observable patters that reveal themselves to those who pay attention. We can learn from common sense observations.
So, even the lowly ants can teach us wisdom like about the necessity of preparing food in summer, and gathering the harvest ahead of the coming winter. The wise person is not the lazybones who avoids labor, but, even without a boss commanding, she prepares for the future. (Prov. 6:8)

So, Jesus asks us to look with wisdom at two builders and their different architectural strategies. Both are building houses. The difference is the foundation. One builds on solid rock, the other on sand. When the inevitable storms and floods come, as they did every rainy season in Jesus’ Palestine, as the do in every life today, the outcome was dramatically different, and entirely predictable. The house built on the rock stood firm, while the house on the sand collapsed in ruin.

A Covenant Renewal Moment with a Twist

It is important to pause here to notice something significant and powerful that is going on at this moment in the Sermon on the Mount. As we have seen in previous weeks, Matthew is making a lot of parallels between Jesus and Moses. Jesus is, like Moses was, standing on a mountain, delivering God’s instructions for the newly formed community. So it is a covenant renewal occasion.

Covenants in those times, typically included a list of blessings you would receive for keeping faithful to the covenant, and curses you would face for unfaithfulness. That is how Moses’ covenant renewal ceremony ends in the book of Deuteronomy: blessings and curses.

Jesus began his sermon with blessings: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on. So will Jesus, like Moses, end the covenant renewal ceremony with threatening curses?

No. Jesus taught us a new way to conceive of God. The God Jesus showed us is not like an easily offended, brutal king, but rather like a loving Heavenly Father who desires our very best, our human flourishing.Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.57.43 AM

Inevitable Consequences of Foolishness

But behavior still has consequences, even if God is not just a curse-happy king. The consequences are clearly observable to the wise. It is possible to live life in such a way as to end up having built a house of substance that stands, or one that falls.

But is the difference as common sense as it sounds? As simple as rock vs sand? Maybe not. According to Jesus, the difference between a wasted life and one that finally meant something meaningful is weather or not his his teachings were both heard and followed.

This is why it’s not as simple and clear cut as sand vs stone. Jesus’ teachings are often at odds with common sense wisdom. They are even sometimes the opposite of what observable common sense teaches.

For example, Jesus taught “blessed are the meek.” But the meek do not normally “inherit the earth.” In fact, as they say, “nice guys finish last.

Jesus taught “blessed are the poor.” But, The poor, even poor “in spirit” alone, do not seem at all blessed.

And Jesus taught “blessed are the peacemakers.” But, who wants to be a peacemaker, rather than the winner?Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.59.09 AM

What We Have Come To

True enough, Jesus’ teachings often ran counter to common sense wisdom. But the consensus view of common sense wisdom has given us — what? Common sense “wisdom” has given us the world as it is. How is this working out for us?

The way of the world is that the strong usually oppress the weak, the majority discriminate against minorities. The 1% rich dominate the 99% non-rich, and the gap between the two widens every day.

Money influences politics at absurd levels now, and is set to get exponentially worse, especially after the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates.

And even sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education we have not solved the problem of the racial divide in our country – in fact it may even be getting worse in some respects.

Our prisons – the whole system is dysfunctional, ineffective, and horrific. And we still have not grown up and taken responsibility for protecting our fragile Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 12.00.43 PMplanet, since it might cost us money.

Getting Personal

It gets personal too. Common sense wisdom has given us what one person described as the conditions in the retirement community. One person there, reportedly, always arrives, thinking he needs to fill up the whole room with his own voice. Another only keeps playing card games as long as she is winning. Yet another almost continually purposefully irritates someone else while playing table games.

This is amazingly sad. Here are people filling their final days in discord. What a fallen house they have built.

The Jesus Alternative Way

Jesus taught the opposite way, the alternative path. The Jesus path is the life of trust in a good, loving Heavenly Father that cares for us so that we can live without anxiety or stinginess, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

He taught us the value of prayer, and of the absolute necessity of practicing forgiveness as we have been forgiven.

He taught us that money must not become a god, for it would surely displace God as God, with disastrous consequences.

He taught us that enemies were exactly the people we are supposed to love, and that true piety was never a matter of public display.

He told us “do not judge.” Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 12.02.12 PM

And to sum it up he said,

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

This is the solid rock to build on. This is the life that is truly meaningful; the life not wasted in self-absorbed narcissism, selfishness, apathy, nor the life squandered in domination and control. This house, based on hearing and putting into disciplined daily practice, his teaching is the truly wise choice.

I have said before here a few lines from a poem I heard long ago that made such an impression on me that I will never forget.

Some folks die in battle,
some go down in flames.
Others die by inches,playing silly games.”

Some build houses on the rock, others on sand. Some put into daily practice the teachings of Jesus; most, do not. The outcomes are dramatically, different.

One thing is certain: more storms are coming. There will be floods.

The question is, on what are we building our houses, today? Which outcome awaits us?








Brokenness and Meaning

Sermon for Easter +3A, May 4, 2014 on Luke 24:13-35

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 4.33.17 PMlooking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Brokenness and Meaning

We just read one of the stories of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is clear to me* that the gospel writers, like Luke, wanted us to look beneath the surface of these stories to meanings that are true, in the deepest sense, and desperately needed. So, we will walk through this story trying to hear from it what Luke wanted us to hear.  *[For a brief explanation of why, see below.]Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 2.50.56 PM

The setting is a journey. The risen Jesus meets the disciples on their journey; on the way. Even though they are not expecting him and unaware of him, he meets them where they are, on their journey.

The idea that life is a journey is an old one. We leave home as adulthood begins, and journey into an unknown future. Now, today, most of us here are quite far along on the journey. Looking back, it feels short. Time has flown. How are you feeling about where you have come to at this stage of your journey? Are you where you want to be?

Disappointment and Expectations

The two disciples are admittedly, disappointed with where their journey has taken them. They had high hopes, but now are left with dashed expectations. Does that sound familiar? Disappointment with how things turned out is not simply a shallow emotion. Below the surface, it is also disappointment with God.Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 2.53.46 PM
Disappointment has to do with expectations. What were you/we expecting life to be like? Did it include suffering?

These two disciples in the story reveal that they had a firm, fixed notion about what to expect from God. They had defined a job description and had a clear plan for how God would fulfill it.

“But we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel.”

– meaning, redeem Israel from the grip of the Roman occupiers.

It was not necessarily an evil plan; it involved God doing things they thought they could expect God to do – like removing the bad guys and making life wonderful.

Only, the bad guys appeared to have won. Jesus, who was supposed to be God’s man of the hour, was crucified – as Rome did to all of its potential problem-causers. It was not supposed to happen that way.

Living on Plan B

I heard a radio program about people living out plan B or C or D of their lives. Nobody seemed to be living out their first Plan A life. Life is way more complicated, fragile, and vulnerable than that. Wars come up, economic catastrophes happen, families are subject to a host of crises, relationships fail, illness, death, even career crises happen. Everybody knows loss and suffering.Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 2.55.35 PM

Psychiatrist Scott Peck began his famous book “The Road Less Traveled” with the words,

“Life is difficult.”

That simple fact is quite hard to accept as completely true. Peck says that attempting to avoid the simple truth that life is difficult is the cause of most mental illness. And none of us is completely healthy in this respect, he claims.

God’s Job Description

If we expect that God’s job description is to step into our lives to make them not difficult, we will be disappointed. It is odd of us to be like this. You would think we would know better.

None of us, who are parents, thought our job was to remove every difficulty from our children’s lives. We knew that they had to encounter and learn to overcome difficulties if they were to develop impulse control, learn to delay gratification, and grow into resilient adults. Nevertheless, we have a hard time when God does not step in and fight our battles for us, and remove the pain.Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 2.56.48 PM

Mis-Reading the Bible

How did we get into this condition of wrong-headedness about God? Probably for the same reason those two disciples got it wrong; because we were reading the story of God incompletely. I mean, the Biblical story of God. We call it the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.

We have parts of the story we like to read and other parts we tend to ignore. We like the bits about Moses besting Pharaoh with plagues, Joshua conquering the promised land from the Philistines, and David felling giant Goliath. We like the miraculous birth of Isaac to aged Abraham and Sarah and Daniel’s survival in the lion’s den.

Reading with eyes open only to the triumphal parts of the story may lead to the conclusion that God’s job is to lead us to victory and bliss. This may be one paradigm, one frame in which to put the picture, but not the right one. This is a distorted picture – perhaps even an upside down and backwards picture.

A Truer Perspective

There is a pattern in the biblical story that should be clear as a crystal, if we are open to seeing it. It is the pattern that barrenness comes before the miraculous baby is born. It is that slavery comes before the Red Sea crossing to freedom. It is that there are humiliating giants in the land before there is a day of triumph. That death precedes resurrection; that suffering is the path to redemption.

So, in this story, Jesus opens their eyes. How?

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

He opened their eyes to their own scripture. He provided a new paradigm for reading scripture. What had they missed?

The answer stares us in the face:

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 3.04.36 PM

Suffering Precedes Transformation

The path to transformation is through suffering. It always has been; it always will be. Suffering is the only experience that awakens us to our lack of control. Suffering exposes the sham of our infantile grandiosity. It brings us to the moment of utter helplessness that may, if we let it, lead us to understand what it means to trust.

This is the path Jesus took, on the cross. He first suffered the absence of God, saying,

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

But finally, fell into God’s waiting arms, saying,

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

This is the lesson learned and taught by the 14th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich who said,

“First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer?”

Yes, and so too, it is necessary for all of us to journey down his path, suffering included. As Paula D’Arcy says,

“God comes to you disguised as your life.” (in Rohr’s Falling Upwards, p. 65)

Learning to trust God to be there with us, in suffering, is the Jesus path.

So, in this story, after Jesus changes their biblical paradigm so that they are awakened to necessary suffering, two other details are important to notice.

Back to CommunityScreen Shot 2014-05-03 at 3.23.55 PM

First, the turn around. Why were they going to unknown-for-anything Emmaus, anyway? Maybe it was a place of escape; withdrawal. Some people, faced with disappointment, take this path. They try to hide in plain sight under a cloud of routine and habit, leaving the TV on; asking nothing, expecting nothing, contributing nothing, risking nothing.

But something happened in this story, that made them want to change their location. By the end of the story, they have left invisible Emmaus and are back in Jerusalem, back with the others. What turned them around from isolation back to the community?

The Eucharistic Moment of Seeing

This is the second detail to notice. It is when they are inside with Jesus – whom as yet they do not recognize – as he performed the eucharistic actions, as Luke describes:

“he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”

This was the crucial moment. This was the moment that everything changed for them. This was when their eyes were opened. Listen to what they told the other disciples when the got back to Jerusalem:

“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Their eyes were not opened by the bread alone, but by the breaking of the bread. It is broken bread that opened their eyes to Jesus.

At the last supper, on the night of his arrest, at the table, Luke reports:

“Then [Jesus] took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In broken bread we see Jesus, as he taught us to see him, embracing the path of suffering, fully trusting his Heavenly Father. Yes, there will be moments of doubt ahead; this is not a children’s story. But finally, he will be able to say the words of ultimate trust:

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Our Encounter

This is what Luke has been trying to tell us: Jesus comes to us, today – the risen Jesus – not in the same form as before. But when we see the bread of his body willingly broken for his people, our eyes are opened.

Now our eyes are opened, not only to the presence of the risen Christ, but also to all who are broken, all who are suffering. We no longer try to escape and avoid suffering, but we notice it, pay attention to it, and respond, as Jesus did.

We move, like those disciples did, from self-pity and isolation, back to the city, back to the community, back to where we are participants in Jesus’ mission. Back to where soon the Spirit will empower a world-wide mission of mercy and compassion in Jesus’ name.

So, where are you on the journey? Is this where you expected to be? Probably not. Are you experiencing disappointment?

This is the time to examine our expectations. God’s job is not to save us from suffering, but to be there with us, to allow it to be our teacher, and to lead us to the second half of life in which we let go of our ego and finally learn to trust.

And then, having our eyes opened, we look at all forms brokenness in a new way. We look at our own brokenness in a new way, and we look at the brokenness of the world with newly opened eyes. We join the eucharistic community, and we take up the compassionate mission of the suffering messiah.



Why read appearance stories as parables: a brief explanation.

For a fuller study see Borg and Crossan’s “The Last Week of Jesus.”

If we read this story about Jesus appearing to the two of Jesus’ followers on the road to Emmaus simply on the surface, what do we have? We have an odd miracle story about a resurrection appearance of the past. It was nearly a private affair. Only two people, whom we do not otherwise know were involved, in a place famous for nothing.

But did Luke want us to read this on the surface level only? Did he expect us to read this like the way children read Little Red Riding Hood? Children think it is really only about a girl, a grandma and a wolf – not noticing the details of leaving the path her mother ordered here to keep to, or the gender and violence issues, not to mention the color codes of the story? Children miss the real meanings.

The text we read from Luke’s gospel is an appearance-of-the-risen-Jesus story. New Testament scholars have known for a long time that there is a sharp difference between how the gospels describe the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, on the one hand, and how they describe the appearances of the risen Jesus, on the other.

The gospels all agree about the outline of the arrest, trial and crucifixion stories, the sequence of events, the characters involved, and the outcome. They all involve the arrest of Jesus in the garden, his trial before Caiaphas the high priest, then King Herod, then governor Pilate, then the crucifixion.

But they all tell different appearance stories. The risen Jesus appears in different places to different groupings of people. No two gospels tell any of the appearance stories found in any other gospel. Each is unique. Only Luke tells of this story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus.

New Testament scholars almost all agree that the disciples believed they saw Jesus alive on and/or after Easter. They experienced the risen Christ, which is why there is something called Christianity today. The experience of the risen Jesus changed them. Most of them died for the faith they proclaimed. The message is clear: Jesus is still alive, active, and present. Do not seek him among the dead; he is not there, for he has risen. Jesus continues to be crucially significant in the present.

But the appearances stories are so odd and so unique that we scratch our heads to try to understand what to do with them. Sometimes the risen Jesus is recognized, but other times not. Even his voice is surprisingly unrecognized by those who loved him and spent such significant parts of their lives with him. In these stories, Jesus can appear and disappear. Locked rooms did not keep him out. He is almost ghostly.

On the other hand, he is very real. He has crucifixion scars and eats fish, even cooks breakfast on the beach.

One gospel has him ascending to heaven on Easter evening in Bethany, near Jerusalem (Luke); another has him appearing periodically for a period of forty days, ascending from a mountain in Galilee (Matthew).

It seems necessary, then, to read these appearance stories as parables of the disciples’ continued experience of the risen Jesus. His presence was real to them, but hard to define and harder to describe. Each gospel tried to tell the story in his own way (except Mark who has no appearance stories). Clearly, they concluded that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, so that he continues to exist and to be present to his followers in powerful, personal ways. He is not a ghost. But neither is he bound by calendar time nor by map locations.

And if he does exist, then the kingdom he came to announce and inaugurate is at hand. The new age has begun. The general resurrection of all the faithful at the end of time has begun with the resurrection of the first one: Jesus. The rest of us will follow when the time has been finally fulfilled.