“Why Not the Yom Kippur Commandment?”

“Why Not the Yom Kippur Commandment?”

Sermon for Pentecost + 20, October 26, 2014, Reformation Sunday

Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Matt. 22:34-36
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 4.40.34 PM
   ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
    “Sit at my right hand,
       until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?
“If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The Ebola outbreak has now claimed over 10,000 lives.  It has us all worried.  It is so invisible and so deadly.  But we can be thankful, in our times to have science.  We can look in a microscope at a blood sample and see the snake-like virus.  And, perhaps by some time next year there may even be an effective vaccine.  Science has made tremendous advances.

The Scientific Method

The vast majority of people have enough sense, these days, to appreciate and admire the scientific method.  It is fact-based; evidence-based.  Long gone are the days of theories like “spontaneous generation” – they used to believe that old rags and dark rooms spontaneously generated rats.  We know better now. Only politics does that.Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 4.44.54 PM

But the scientific world view had a struggle.  In the days of Galileo, no matter what the telescope saw and no matter how the math worked out, powerful people still clung to the belief that the earth was the center of the universe.

Galileo’s observations confirmed the work of Copernicus who came before him.  It is now hard to imagine what a dramatic change people had to make in their thinking to stop imagining that the earth at the center, and instead, was simply one planet among many orbiting the sun.  Copernicus’ “heliocentric model” was nothing short of revolutionary.

It was so revolutionary, that Immanuel Kant, a later philosopher of the enlightenment, used the phrase “Copernican Revolution” to describe other massive, fundamental changes in world views.  Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 4.47.33 PM

The Protestant Copernican Revolution 

This weekend we Protestants remember and celebrate  the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.  In two years it will be exactly 500 years since, as the story tells it, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the Wittenberg castle door, calling for a debate that set in motion what we might call a “Copernican revolution” – a radical change of views.

Like the findings of Copernicus and Galileo, Luther’s views were also resisted by powerful forces.  Unlike Copernicus and Galileo, Luther and other reformers like John Calvin did not appeal to scientific evidence to support their views, but rather to scripture.

Scripture’s Role

Ironically, the powerful forces who were resisting changing views also had scripture on their side.

Now, I think it is sophomoric and lazy to simply throw up your hands at this point,  and say, “Well, there you go; people can make scripture say anything they want” – as if that means we cannot find anything reliable or useful in scripture, as many claim today.

At the same time, it is helpful to acknowledge that there have been times when people of insight have noticed that the path “the herd” has been following is going nowhere; that a change of direction is require; that a Copernican Revolution is necessary.

Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 4.49.48 PM
Duck or Rabbit?

Rare people of insight have known that majorities can be wrong, regardless of how much power they have.  Even a majority view on what the scriptures mean can be wrongheaded and therefore headed in the wrong direction.

“You don’t get it”

I do not know if Copernicus or Galileo ever said to their detractors: “you fellas just don’t get it,”  but if they were doing their work today, they probably would.  That phrase is a bit arrogant, but sums it up.  When someone can stare the facts right in the face and not see the conclusion, there is something there that they are just not getting.

I am so glad Jesus never said “You all just don’t get it” but I imagine he felt like it many times.  He actually did come close once.  He was so frustrated with the religious leaders of his day who believed their religious duties gave them an excuse to ignore human need that he said,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe [your spices], and but neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and trust. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  (Matt 23:23-24)

You can almost hear him thinking “You just don’t get it.”  Jesus did everything he could to help people “get it” about who God is and what God wants from us.  He told stories – parables – comparing the kingdom of God to all kinds of situations in the hope that the light would come on for us and we would have an epiphany, an “ah-ha” moment, and finally “get it.”

The Literalness Proclivity

But people are funny.  I guess we always have been.  I think the biggest obstacle to “getting it” has been the same for centuries.   We humans have an odd proclivity to over-literalize.  It is like we have a compulsion to be natural-born fundamentalists.  I believe this was true of the people Jesus was in conversation with, and just as true centuries later of the church that gave Galileo such a problem.  Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 4.52.20 PM

Psychologists tell us that as children, we think in concrete categories.  If someone tells a 4 year old, “my love is a sweet, sweet rose,” the child thinks they are in love with a flower.  It takes time and some maturity to get metaphor and smilies, to think abstractly and poetically.

So, when Galileo spoke about what he saw through his telescope and how it confirmed the theories of Copernicus, the response from the powerful church at time was that his view did not match the poetry of the bible about how the world God created is “firmly established and cannot be moved” (Psalm 104:5).

They clung to a childish literalism, as if poetry was ever supposed to be read that naively, in spite of Galileo’s data and of the scientific method.   They just didn’t get it.

Jesus’ Struggle Against Literalism

And this is exactly what was going on in the gospel text we read.  They ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment.  Already you can see how stilted their perspective was – as if the main thing God is concerned about is commandments.  But anyway, he plays their game and gives the answer they all recognize as correct.  Jesus says,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

First, notice that Jesus did not stop with only the greatest command to love God, he immediately added the second command, also from Moses, to love neighbor.

Already we see that for Jesus, if you “get it” about loving God the way God wants to be loved, you will immediately turn to your neighbor in need and you become God’s hands, God’s voice, God’s ears, God’s arms of love in action.

But this has not been the conclusion they have been drawing at all.  They think you love God by keeping your hands and arms from coming in contact with messy, needy, bleeding, hurting people.

The Conundrum QED

So, to show their mistaken approach to the whole bible, Jesus pulls out an odd little conundrum.  It is from a bit of biblical poetry – which – as poetry, every school-aged child should know not to read literally.

It is from Psalm 110.   The author of the Psalm is accepted as David.  David was the one who God promised would be the father of a future king who would bring God’s kingdom in its fullness – in other words, David was the ancestral father of Messiah.  Messiah would sit at God’s right hand and enjoy a worldwide reign of peace.

But in the Psalm, David calls Messiah, who comes after him, his “lord” or master.  How can Messiah be both his master and his descendant – his “son”?

Well, if you take it literally, it makes not sense at all; you simply get dumfounded.  And that is their reaction, and Matthew tells us that from then on, they did not dare to ask him any questions.  They had painted themselves into a literalist’s corner and looked rather foolish.

They Should have Known Better

It is so odd to that they cornered themselves like that.  They did not have to.  They could have read their scriptures with more adult eyes and seen the facts staring them in the face.

Think about it: they already agreed that the most important commandment was to love the Lord their God, right?  This is part of the daily Jewish creed, called the “shema”.  Everyone knew it was the most important.

But right there, they should have noticed that the Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement  command was therefore not the greatest commandment.  And this is odd, because it is clear, according to the  Law, that on the Day of Atonement they had to cease all work and perform the liturgy of forgiveness.  The Day of Atonement was called in scripture a “a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements.”  (Lev. 23) That is about as powerful and serious as it gets.

But nevertheless, they had all agreed that more important than the liturgy of forgiveness was the call to give full allegiance to God: to Love the Lord.

Prophets “got it”

The prophets long ago “got it.”  Jesus’ insight was profound, but not original.  Micah had asked, centuries earlier, “with what shall I come before the Lord?”  He then lists all the things you bring to a sacrifice, like you do on the day of atonement.

But Micah had concluded that these sacrifices of oil or lambs is not the main point.  That what God really wants is devotion – and, get this: devotion that results in active justice and compassion.  He says,

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;Screen Shot 2014-10-25 at 4.34.43 PM
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Do we “get it”?

This is exactly what Jesus wants us to “get.”  And this is why Jesus used the metaphor of God as loving heavenly father to best teach it.  The Jesus revolution in understanding God and what God wants of us demanded an overturning of previously over-literal readings of scripture.

Jesus’ revolution was about the kingdom – but not a literal, political kingdom as Israel had always been.  Jesus proclaimed Copernican revolution of understanding.

The “king” on the throne is a “son of David” – but the kingdom is not any more physical, and the citizens are not literally ethnically Jewish.   The Kingdom is present wherever God is acknowledged as reigning, all over the world.

And their main problem is not that  God is angrily waiting to punish them them,  if they messed up the Day of Atonement liturgy, but longing to offer them forgiveness simply by grace alone, as the Reformers re-discovered.

This is what I long to really “get” at a deep level for myself, and what I long for all of us to “get.”  That the old approach to God as the angry, punishment-threatening monarch in the sky is simply wrong.  I long for us all to “get it” that the most important thing we can do is to love God with all our hearts, and to manifest that love by how we love our neighbors as ourselves.

There is a love circle going on here that never stops:  God graciously loves us, so we love God who fills us with love for the people God made – “all the children of the world” as the children’s song goes.  In other words, to “get it” is to become fully convinced, fully engaged beloved lovers.

Jesus ended his dialogue with a question; we are left with two:

Do I “get it”that God loves me, graciously, in other words, freely and completely?

And do I “get it” that loving him back means loving my neighbors – not in some literally restricted sense, but my metaphorical neighbors, next door and all around the world?


Gradual Hope

Gradual Hope

Sermon for Pentecost +19 A, Oct 19, 2014 on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 1:14-17

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 8.41.37 AMand the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Mark 1:14-17

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

A recent article in the New Yorker on the Synod on the Family, in the Vatican was interesting.  It called attention to a document Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.22.22 AMreleased in 1864 by Pope Pius IX, called the “Syllabus of Errors.”  The Syllabus lists a series of ideas which people of that time were believing, that Pope Pius considered errors that must be avoided.  According to the author, these errors included democracy, freedom of speech, and opposition to slavery.  The most interesting one, considering where we have come, was the erroneous error that suggested that:

“80. The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Now, we must realize that the “Syllabus of Errors” did not have the force of doctrine, according to some Catholic Theologians.  And we can see that many of its  supposed “errors” are embraced by most Catholics today.  The church has never been monolithic.  She has always included diverse views.  And the church has changed her views over time.

Well, this week the Catholic church produced a document describing the state of  the discussions going on now at the Synod on the Family, and perhaps you have heard something about the controversy it is stirring up.  The document asks: How can the church be welcoming to divorced people, or to non-traditional couples?

The Law of Gradualness

The document from the Synod this week also reminds us of a principle called “the law of gradualness” or a “step-by-step” advance” in progress in moral life that we are all called to.  Gradual progress in the moral life was developed in a former apostolic exhortation written by Pope John Paul II from 1981.

Here is the essence of the question: can the church welcome people who are living in incompletely faithful circumstances?  For example, can the church acknowledge loving faithfulness and sacrificial caring as positive steps in a morally good direction, even in non-traditional relationships and families?  We will have to wait and see what they conclude.

This brings up the whole question of moral and spiritual progress.  The “law of gradualness” simply means that we do not start out, morally or spiritually, at the finishing line.  We start at the starting line.  Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.24.58 AM

This truth is, for me, a great source of hope.  And I need that hope, because I know how far short I fall.  I am not nearly as loving as I should be.  I’m not as forgiving, as patient, as kind, or as accepting as I should be.  I’m not as self-controlled or as disciplined as I should be, in what I do, or even what I say.

But that is not a cause for despair, for me, but rather hope.  Because I can see that in some areas, at least, I have made some progress.  It has been gradual.  That is what the “law of gradualness” means.  Progress in a positive moral and spiritual direction should be what we all expect to make in our lives.

Moral Development LevelsScreen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.26.51 AM

People who have studied the way we make gradual moral progress (like L. Kohlberg and C. Gilligan) have noticed that we all progress through stages.  We begin, according to Kohlberg, in the stage of “obedience and punishment.”  In that stage children learn to obey because they want to avoid being punished by the authorities (parents) whose rules cannot be questioned.

In the next stage, the moral rule is “tit for tat” – I do what is best for me.  Next is the “good boy / good girl” moral level.  It is good to have the approval of others, and bad to experience disapproval.

Then there is the “law and order” stage.  All laws are good and all laws must be obeyed.  Beyond that level is the recognition that there is a “social contract” at work behind the laws – that laws are made to protect the common good.  Finally, there are universal principles like justice which transcend culture.

Kohlberg was famous for telling moral dilemma stories and asking people what the right thing would be to do.  Should Mr. Heinz steal the medicine that he cannot afford to buy, in order to save his dying wife?  Why or why not?  People at different moral levels respond differently.

Getting Stuck, Morally

I heard someone awhile back discussing interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, like water-boarding.  For him, the morally relevant question was about citizenship: non-Americans were not protected by our laws and constitution, therefore what we did to them was not morally objectionable.  It made me wonder if he would defend slavery if it were still legal.

And this shows what Kohlberg also learned from all of these interviews: people can get stuck morally; in fact, he believed that only 20% ever reach the level of a morality based on universal principles.   People whom we have identified as moral leaders, like Jesus or Gandhi do, but most do not.

Gradual Progress is PossibleScreen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.29.43 AM

But progress can be made, gradually, and therefore we have hope to grow, both morally and spiritually.

This is why we read the two texts we heard today.  Jeremiah foresees a new day for his people.  There will be, he says, a new covenant.  It will surpass the old one because instead of being written on tablets of stone, it will be written on the heart.  Who’s heart?  On everyone’s hearts.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.”

Obeying laws because they are chiseled on stone somewhere and someone will punish you for breaking them, is a much lower moral level than obeying the dictates of conscience, the laws that have become internalized in the heart.

Jeremiah pictures God giving those laws on stone tablets to children whom he led “by the hand” out of Egypt.  It was “early days.”  They needed to start at the starting line.  But that was never the final goal.  The finish line has a new covenant and a new law, known by everyone, imprinted on their hearts.

All of us know it is wrong to cause harm, even to the powerless and defenseless who threaten no retaliation.

All of us know it is wrong to act unfairly: to tilt the scales in favor of a privileged group at the expense of others.

And all of us can gradually grow in our capacity to include more and more people in our circle of moral concern.  We should expect to grow; we should expect to change.  We should expect that when, as Paul said, we were children, that we thought like children do – morality was only about fear and punishment.  But when we became adults, we put away childish things.

In the end, Paul endorses three universal values: faith, hope, and love.  And he is even able to discern a moral ranking among these: the greatest, he says, is love.  (1 Cor. 13)

Jesus’ Call to the Gradual JourneyScreen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.36.50 AM

Gradual development is what Jesus expects of us as well.  There are many texts I thought of using as our reading.  I chose the one from the beginning of Mark’s gospel because it is so clear.

Jesus, when first calling his original disciples, called them to make changes.  Their very identities would have to change.  They would leave their former vocational identities as fishermen to join Jesus in his ministry to people.

Follow me,”  Jesus called, “and I will make you fish for people.”

Notice what happened.  No miraculous, instantaneous transformations.  Instead, they simply responded to the call to follow Jesus.  To follow is to set out on a journey, trusting that the one leading knows where he is going.

A journey is gradual.  One step at a time.  One day at a time.  One moment at a time.  And this is the journey we are called to.  The journey of following Jesus, today, this moment.

Failure and Hope

You have probably noticed how many times those original disciples got it wrong, messed up, and had to be corrected – especially Peter.  Just last week we saw Jesus actually get angry at them when they tried to keep the little children from him.  But I love those stories of their failures.  They too give me hope, when I fail.  Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.38.28 AM

Jesus represents, for us, the finish line.  He looks like what we are aiming for.

His compassion for people in need is what we want to have.

His love for outcasts and marginalized people is what we want to exhibit.

His generous giving of his time, of his un-divided attention, and his physical resources is the generosity of spirit we aspire to.

His willingness to forgive, and forgive and forgive – his failing disciples, his un-comprehending family, and even, in the end, his mortal enemies – that is our goal.

And so is his spiritual life the goal we gradually journey towards.

Jesus’ sense of the God of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, always and everywhere sustaining life, is what we want to experience.

Jesus’ participation in the synagogue’s public worship sets our pattern of regular gathering for worship.

And Jesus’ practices of silent withdrawal for prayer and meditation is our model for silent, contemplative or centering prayer.

And most of all, Jesus’ self-understanding as a child of God is exactly what he wants us to internalize – that our true self is not our small self – the self of roles, titles and ego-props.  But our true self is beloved daughter, beloved son; child of God.

The non-dual self that does not need, any more, to divide up the world into binary categories of us vs. them, all or nothing, good or bad, but rather who is willing to embrace diversity, complexity, and even paradox and mystery.

Ultimately it is the mystery of our oneness with the God of all creation.

So, the call is to follow Jesus on the Journey.

The journey is a gradual one of moral and spiritual development, day by day.  The goal is to live like Jesus lived, morally and spiritually.

Failure will be a frequent experience for us humans, but so will forgiveness.  Hope is that each new day is a new opportunity for gradual growth in faith, hope and love.

Now, we see all of this, as Paul said, “as through a glass, darkly.”  But one day we will “know as we are known.”   We will make progress towards that goal, albeit gradually.

So take courage.  Nothing good comes quickly.  The Spirit of God is at work in us day by day as we make this journey of gradualness that Jesus calls us to.


Generations of Hope

Generations of Hope

Sermon for Oct 12, 2014, Pentecost +18 A on Deut. 6:4-9 and Mark 10:13 l-16

Deut. 6:4-9 

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,  and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Mark 10:13-16  Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.52.14 AM

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. 

Are you feeling hopeful about the future these days?   I am sensing a lot of pessimism from all kinds of places, and it is starting to get to me.  World events could not be less encouraging – from the horrific violence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the raging ebola outbreak in Africa.

At home, there is a severe drought in California, while in Miami Beach, they are investing in huge pumps to keep out the rising tides.  And to top it off, even an innocent conversation about football spirals into the subject of domestic violence.

But it may be good to step back a bit and get some perspective.  As horrible as ISIS is, it bears no comparison with a world war.  As bad as ebola is, it is nothing like the plague in the 14th century, or even the influenza pandemic that killed millions in the early 20th century.  And, as inexcusable as domestic violence is, at least we live in an age in which most of us, at least in the West, believe that it is inexcusable.  That consensus was not the case, not that long ago.

Of course that still leaves the issue of climate change without a hopeful response; that issue is still on the table; historical comparisons only makes it look worse.

Hope and Children

Perhaps we can pin our hopes for the future on the children of today.  Armed with a good education that is solidly values-based and scientifically-astute, perhaps they can help solve some of the problems they have inherited.

Hope in the future that looks towards children for its substance is what the ancient Hebrews expressed in Torah.  Moses said:

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”

Home School

Science you can learn at school, but values are first learned at home.  Moses wanted the children to first learn from their parents: “Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet.”  They should learn from their parents to care for “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” because, as their wisdom tradition says:Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.57.06 AM

“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” (Prov. 14:31)

It should be that it is at home, from their parents, they first hear, and often hear, as Moses also said:

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;…You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  (Lev. 19:17-18)

Children Receive

Children, raised in homes that instill these values, could possibly be the hope for the future.  But children do not get to choose what they learn at home.  You didn’t; I didn’t.  Children are not choosers; they are recipients.  They receive what is given whether it is violence or love.  Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.58.25 AM

And what they receive will most likely be what they will, in the future, also choose; violence or love.  For children raised with violence, unless and until there is major intervention (we Christians call it healing, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation) the cycle that began with violence-received turns around to give violence.  The victimized become the victimizers.

This is why childhood must not ever be idealized or romanticized.  Christians can  be guilty of this, particularly because of the the text we read.  Jesus looks at the children gathered around him and tells us,

“for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

I have heard people say that this means things like being trusting and innocent as children.  But we adults have trouble with being trusting and innocent, partly because of what we have experienced in childhood.  Children are uniquely vulnerable to domination and victimization.

So, we must not romanticize children.  Rather, receiving the kingdom as a child means simply receiving it as a given, the way children receive life.  Why so?  Because, “The kingdom of God has come near,” as Jesus liked to say.  It is already present; so, to receive it as a child is to receive it as the given set of circumstances that you live in.  It is there, to be discovered, like a treasure you stumble onto.

It is like a realization, an awareness, or an “ah ha” of enlightenment.  The lights come on.  There is a new clarity.  All the old things look different.

And once having received the reality of the kingdom, then we look at the world and see what a broken, hurting, dangerous place that the kingdom has come to.

What does this mean for us?  This given-ness of the kingdom, when discovered, and received as a child, immediately has two results: the first is personal, and the second is public.

The PersonalScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.06.41 AM

Personally, receiving the kingdom means living in a broken world in which God is present and active already.  It means that there is healing and redemption for all of the hurts, disappointments, and failures we have accumulated.  There is hope for lost-ones.  That is why the kingdom, Jesus tells us, is like the party the woman gave after finding the lost coin, the celebration over the lost sheep that was recovered, and the reconciled lost, prodigal son who found a family to come home to.

To receive the givenness of the kingdom means that we, who know ourselves as finite and mortal, and as sometimes weak, and other times, hurtful, can know ourselves instead as we were made to be, as children of God.  We can know our true identity as sons and daughters of God, loved by God, forgiven, and transformed.

To receive the givenness of the kingdom means that we can be present to our lives in each moment, not resisting and fighting the moments we are given, but accepting and receiving them, as children receive life, confident that we are safe, ultimately; that whatever comes, it will be okay.  God will be there for us; is here for us, in the only moment we are ever given – the present.

The PublicScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.08.20 AM

Receiving the kingdom as children is more than just personal; it is also public.  Since the kingdom is a given for us, we look at our public lives from a kingdom perspective.  This means we look and see the world as God does, with compassion.

The best way to see what it means to look at the world compassionately is to notice what Jesus does as he gives this teaching: he reaches out to children.  He reaches out to touch and to bless those who are most at risk, uniquely vulnerable, unable to defend themselves, and he makes them the object of his concern.

This is what we do too, following Jesus: we turn our compassionate gaze towards the pain, towards the ones in need, towards the vulnerable.  Naturally, we reach out to children.

We do not have many children of our own around us now.  But we do have other people’s children around us, and we are reaching out to them.

It reminds me of the situation among the refugees of the former Yugoslavia we met.  Croatians, driven from their own homes and farms to the south, were forced to find refuge in a house that a Serb from the north had abandoned to flee southwards.  On someone else’s land they would till the gardens, plant flowers, and maintain simple crops.  They would sometimes say that they hoped that someone who was living in their house, on their land, was likewise keeping it well.

We may not have our own children or grandchildren to care for, but we do have the children of others.  We hope and pray that elsewhere, someone is looking after ours as well.

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For many years this congregation has reached out to the children of our community by our after school tutoring program.  As you have helped these youngsters do their homework you have done significant kingdom-work.  You have formed relationships – some have even become pen-pals.  You have shown these kids that someone loves them enough to take time for them.  And you have helped them have success instead of damaging failure in school.

Right now we are hosting a pre-school and a whole variety of after school programs for the children of our community to help them develop positive values and skills for their future.  This is just the beginning – we are actively planing more ways of reaching out as well.

As Presbyterians we are one of the support churches for the Presbyterian Home for Children that specifically ministers to children that come from places of great suffering and pain.  And lives have been transformed.  Bodies and hearts have been healed.  Cycles of violence have been stopped. Hope has replaced hopelessness.

This is what we do.  People who receive the kingdom as children, look with compassion at children – all the children of the world.  We pray or peace, we get help to victims after disasters.

Around the world we build schools and hospitals, we send bright, intelligent, compassionate people to go for us to teach and to care for refugees and orphans.

We adjust our own lifestyles to be compassionate to future generations who will inherit the planet we leave for them, reducing, recycling, reusing, and supporting policies that protect our air, land and water.

So, yes, children are the future.  But even more significantly, children are the present.  They are here, now.  And we are here, now.  And one of the reasons God has put us here, is to have people of compassion to continue to do just what Jesus did when he said:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”


Pessimist, Optimist, Realist, or Theist?

Pessimist, Optimist, Realist, or Theist?

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46 for Pentecost +17 A, October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46

[And Jesus said:] “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 6.35.00 PM
 ‘The stone that the builders rejected
  has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing,
  and it is amazing in our eyes’?

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

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As much as I do not like my newly quiet, empty-nest house, now that my youngest has gone off to college, I do believe it is a good thing.   If I asked any of you to tell me what the goal of parenting is, I believe you would say something like the familiar expression: “to give a child roots, and wings.”

The goal of raising children is to give them first, good roots: a sense of who they are, the knowledge that they are loved and valued, and that the world is waiting for their gifts and contribution.  And then, having done the roots-part, to give them wings to fly; to set them free to grow into the adults that they will become.  First roots, then wings.  The wings-part is painful, but important, and good.

What is the Goal of Life?

The goal of proper parenting is easy to know and describe.  But other goals are not.  What is the goal of life?  Would that be a difficult question for you to answer?  Why are you here?  What is it all about?  Especially, given the fact that life is fleeting, temporary, and often a complicated mixture of satisfaction and frustration; joy and pain?  What is the goal of it all?

We are living in a strange time now, in so many respects.  Knowledge is exploding.   We just watched a documentary (ElectronScreen Shot 2014-10-03 at 4.56.52 PM Fever) on the scientific work at the Large Hadron Collider.  Over 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries collaborated to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and to try to find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter.

Apparently they did discover the Higgs boson.  But there are lots of questions that remain unanswered.  What does it mean to push the edges of our understanding back, close to the beginning of the universe?  Would a purely scientific explanation ever be enough to answer that most basic and important question: what is the goal of life?  What does it mean?

The Meaning Quest: Deep and Universal

The question of meaning is not a trivial question.   There are plenty of people who have achieved success and affluence, who have lived in utter despair at not being able to know what life means; what the goal is.  Certainly success and even affluence are nice, but are barren as resources for meaning.

The meaning question is not trivial for another reason: it is universal.  People all over the world, from the ancient past to the complex present, want to know – or actually, more accurately – need to know what their lives mean.

For myself, it seems so clear that a purely material universe that can be known and described scientifically is not capable of accounting either for meaning (beyond pure randomness and chance) or even of explaining why the need we all have for meaning is so profoundly and universally crucial to our existence.  We all need meaning and do not live happy lives without it.  There must be something more than energy and time.

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Religions around the world can be understood as attempts at providing meaning.  But humans are always involved in religions, and so they get complicated.  Issues of power and authority come up quickly and often overwhelm the basic quest.  “Who is an insider vs. outsider” questions take up lots of time in many religions, as well as issues of guilt and punishment.

All of these side-issues tend to side-track, if not totally subvert, the quest for meaning.  Some religions seem to be able to keep closer to the goal, while others seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

The Old, Simple Answer

I want to offer an understating of the goal and meaning of life.  It is not new, not original, and not complicated.  I believe its Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 4.59.16 PMtruth is evidenced by its simplicity.  The goal of life is union.  I am a Christian, which makes me a monotheist, so the way we put it is that the goal of life is union with God.  God, understood as the source of all, which necessarily means that union with God is also a form of union with everything (though it has not been a big part of our tradition, historically, to speak of it that way – but see John 1:1-5; 17:20-21, Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10; Rom. 8:22-23).

Our core story is that humans were created to live and experience life with God – that is, if anything, what the metaphor of Eden is about.  But humans experience a life of exile; like Adam and Eve, outside the garden.  We are both at home and not at home in the world.

The Universal Lure from Beyond

As universal as the need and quest for meaning is, a sense of longing for a home we have left is also part of who we humans are.  Nearly all humans sense another world; another way to be.  There is a feeling of being lured and called to a another reality.  We long to return from exile and come home to the Garden, or to the  promised land.

Jesus and the Quest

The Gospel text we read today has all of this as its background and points us forward.  We do not have time to look at it in detail – that is what our adult Sunday School class is all about.  So I will outline the main ideas.

The scene is near the last days of Jesus’ life on earth.  After a ministry in Galilee to the North, Jesus has journeyed to the capital, Jerusalem.  He has made his way into the city in that famous ride on the donkey, an intentional parody of Pilate’s military pomp and parade.

Then Jesus has gone to the very heart of the religion of his people, the temple, and shut it down temporarily.  It was a symbolic action – reminiscent of symbolic actions the prophets of Israel were famous for; a way of acting-out the message in dramatic form.

The message was that things had gone wrong; entirely wrong.  The religion of Israel that was supposed to help people find union with God had become something else.

In the hands of humans, the religion had become focused on who is inside, who is outside, on guilt and punishment, and about power and control for the ones in power and  in control.   That is not a new or unique set of conditions that religions get into.  Anyone who reads church history has read the same thing again and again.

Jesus’ authority to send this message and do these symbolic acts has just been challenged by the men who feel threatened by them.  They have demanded to know who authorized this non-priest from a low class family from the sticks to challenge them.

Now, this is what follows that challenge.  Jesus tells a parable.  God’s vineyard, in the hands of unscrupulous tenants, has failed in its mission of fruitfulness.  To mix the metaphor from a vineyard to a building construction site, Jesus says that the nation-builders, as they liked to think of themselves, have rejected the very cornerstone of the building.  They have lost sight of the goal.

Not only that, but they are ready, willing and able to bring suffering to God’s messenger who is the only hope to put things right.  Jesus understands that he is in that role.  Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 5.11.48 PM

Jesus is bringing the message of the gospel: that God’s love is unconditional; that we can be re-united with God, return from exile and come home to our true selves as sons and daughters of God.

The message is that this offer is not exclusive or performance-based, but universal, and offered on the basis of a merciful God who forgives, redeems, heals and restores the broken, the lost sheep, the prodigal sons and daughters.

So here is the question: how is this going to work out for Jesus?  Are they going to get it?  Will they turn from their misguided path and see the light?

No they will not.  And Jesus did not have to be a prophet to see which direction things were going to go.  He knew that his path would involve suffering, and he accepted that future.

Optimist, Pessimist, Realist, or what?

So this brings us to our central idea.  Should Jesus be an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist about his life?  And the same question applies to us as well.

Some want to make optimism itself the goal.  The idea is that thinking happy thoughts and remaining positive, regardless of the circumstances, will lead to peace and contentment.  Unfortunately, this simply falls apart when life really does fall apart.  Optimism can handle a rainy day, but it has a much harder time getting you through a funeral.

So, is a cold-faced realism, that does not expect much, the answer?  If so, maybe avoiding risks and keeping your head down is the best strategy for avoiding as much pain as possible.

Some simply give up in pessimism, believing the worst, and saying “See?  I told you so.”  “Isn’t it awful…?” is how most sentences start.  They circle the wagons of self-protection and end up contributing very little good in the world.

The alternative that Jesus show us to blind optimism, empty realism, or defeatist pessimism is Theism: a willingness to trust in God, the Heavenly Father.

The profound truth that Jesus teaches and models is that complete trust in God the Heavenly Father is possible, even in the face of suffering.  That even in the face of danger, even mortal danger, life can be lived in such union with God that Jesus knows he can relax, and be upheld by a mysterious grace.

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This feeling of being upheld by grace beyond the explainable world is another nearly universal human experience.  We all sense a need for meaning, we all sense an exile from our true home, we all feel an alluring call to find that home, and we all feel upheld by a grace that we find impossible to explain.

The Christian explanation – as far as it goes, given the need for metaphoric language to point to realities that are beyond comprehension – is that the God who made us in his image longs for union with us as much as we do – in fact, infinitely more.  God, as Heavenly Father, calls all of his children to come home and find our true identity in “Him”.

Union and Compassion

The natural and inevitable consequence of union with God, the Source of the whole world is compassion.

Compassion for ourselves – knowing that as finite creatures we will never get it right, but that God loves us anyway.

Compassion for other people – especially people in pain and need – and including people who are quite different from ourselves – even to the extent of compassion for those who think of themselves as our enemies.

Compassion for the planet that sustains us, and that future generations are depending on to continue to sustain them – our children and their children.

This is the life that Jesus taught and lived.  In the end, even in the context of great suffering, he was able to say, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  Union was complete.

The Practices and Table that Sustain Us

This is a complicated world, and we are quite fallible humans.  That is why we need to make use of the Christian practices and disciplines to help us on our journey of union with God: specifically prayer, common worship, and silent meditation, the tools we need for life.

Soon we will come to the table that offers us union with God.  We will eat and drink the bread and cup, and doing so, ingest the living bread and fruit of the vine.  They will become part of us; and we will become what we eat: the body of Christ.  In this meal of union, we will see the risen Christ among us.  By these signs and symbols, we will start to become aware of our union with each other, and with all of God’s creation.

Come to me” Jesus said.   Come; God is calling us all.