Jesus and the Heart of God: food for thought

Jesus and the Heart of God: food for thought

Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 for Pentecost +14, Year B, August 30, 2015

Leviticus 11:1-12

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 5.40.23 PM
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

I have been told by some people that history is boring and they do not like it when I talk about it.  I believe they are saying something true for them, but I must admit that I do not get it at all.  To me, not enjoying knowing what really happened is like not liking chocolate.  I just cannot imagine it.

I will say, in their defense, however, that knowing the real story can be like knowing how sausage is made; you may have been happier when you were ignorant.

But knowing the context is often crucial.  Do you remember finding out how your parents met?  Or where your ancestors came from?  You feel as though you have a deeper understanding of yourself when you know the story of your people.

Crucial History for the Church

Several times recently I have mentioned an event in history which changed everything for Christianity; it was the first church council held at Nicea in the year 325 which produced the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly “converted” to Christianity, and in a political effort to unify the empire, wanted all Christians to be be organized into one centralized church.  Christianity was quite diverse for the first 300 years after Jesus walked the earth.  People had different ideas about how to understand Jesus, his relationship to God, the nature of God, the Holy Spirit, the relationship of Jesus to the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Before Nicea, these diversities were something like modern denominations.  Everyone believed in Jesus, they just believed different things about Jesus and God, the Trinity, the incarnation and so on.  But after Nicea, after they took the vote and one theological perspective won, a creed was written, and after that, all the alternative ways of understanding became known as “heresies.”

The Wikipedia article lists 32 early heresies, if my count is accurate.  Of course heretics need to be condemned and officially cursed, and excommunicated, right?  And people who are cursed as heretics can be persecuted too, right?  Why not?  And they were.  But the followers of the deposed bishops do not have to take it lying down, do they?  People actually rioted over such things.

People got killed.  For example, a man named Paul, the orthodox bishop of Constantinople, was banished by imperial decree.  A riot broke out that resulted in 3,000 deaths.

The Absurdity of that HistoryScreen Shot 2015-08-28 at 5.48.18 PM

Friends, nothing could be more absurd.  Scholars of religion agree that the single most unique innovation Jesus made was his teaching requiring the love of enemies.  Jesus taught us to  do good to those who persecute us; to turn the other cheek, to forgiving 70 x 7.  This is not a side issue, it is central.  In the one prayer that Jesus taught us to pray which we repeat in every worship service, we tie our forgiveness with our willingness to forgive, as we pray:

“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Jesus made it explicit, to eliminate any confusion or room for doubt saying,

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  (Matt. 6:14-15)

The idea that in the name of Jesus, a person could think he was doing God a favor by attacking someone for not defining the mystery of the Trinity in the right neoplatonic philosophical terms is, again, absurd.   You would be forgiven for believing the conflicts between Christians was a ridiculous Monty Python plot, but sadly – tragically – it is real history.

Jesus the Radical

I wanted to review that history because of today’s text.  Jesus was a radical, revolutionary figure who created a paradigm shift in our understanding of God, of who God is, and what God is concerned about.

It is true that love of enemy was the most significant innovation Jesus brought to humanity, but it is also true that his orientation to the Law of Moses was a massive sea-change for the Jews of his day.  Last week we spoke of how Jesus was  unafraid to take the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, found in the heart of the 10 commandments, and set it in a much broader context of Gods’ concern for human well being.  That was a huge change.

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So too is the change of understanding Jesus made in today’s text.  Kosher food laws were serious.  In the Leviticus story, those laws come from the mouth of God.  For God, the wrong kind of animals were not just “unclean” they were “detestable.”

Those food laws formed part of a Jewish person’s identity.  They made Jewish people separate. Think of it: they could not even socialize with non-observant Jews, let alone non-Jews because of these Kosher laws: no wedding feasts, no funeral dinners, no shared meals with gentiles of any kind.  Kosher laws defined their community.

But Jesus said that it is not food, not things that go into a person that defile us, but rather what comes out of us from within that defile.  For Jesus, the issues are not splitting hoofs, chewing cud, and having fins and scales; they are real moral behaviors.  He lists, as examples:

“fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”

These, Jesus said, come out of the heart.

I am not sure who gets off that hook.  I myself am innocent of a couple of those, and guilty of a couple of others.  That means I am included among the defiled ones.  Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.00.30 PM

But that too is the point Jesus makes: we are all lost sheep that need finding.  We are all prodigal sons and daughters that need to return home.   We are all broken people who need a physician.  And God is there for us as the Good Shepherd, the running Father, the great Physician who knows how to heal souls.

So, Jesus again makes a radical move, revealing to us the heart of God.  How could God possibly care about how well a person could define the Trinity if they did not love their enemies?  What would it matter if a person believed in the virgin birth if they did not know  how to forgive?  Is believing in the literal resurrection itself more important to God than compassion and showing mercy?

It is not what goes in that defiles, it is what comes out of the heart.  Jesus was a heart-person.  And Jesus taught us that God is a heart-focused God.

Hope among the heart-defiled

I hope this gives us all great encouragement and hope.  We all mess up.  We all have things that come from our hearts that show the defilement there.  We all say things we should not say.  We cause hurt and pain; we resist apologizing and asking for forgiveness.  We all have done things we regret.  We have not shown the love we should have.  We have done things that were hurtful, selfish, unjust and self-indulgent, and we have failed many times to do the good we could easily have done.  But that is not the last word.

The heart-focused God, that Jesus showed us, comes to us to offer a path toward healing, toward redemption.  Once we know that God is heart-centered and that God is for us, to transform people with defiled hearts, to bring cleansing and renewal, we can follow the Jesus path with joy.

So our focus must be, not on the literal lines of the creeds, but on our hearts.  Our concern is how to align our hearts with the heart of God.

I used to think that the path to transformation was education.  If I just knew enough, I would be a better Christian.  If I knew the bible better, if I understood theology at a deeper level, then my heart would be in the right place.

We all seem to have believed this.  We organize our Sunday Schools and our confirmation classes so that our kids will learn the facts.  We teach about the Trinity and make them learn creeds by heart, hoping that knowing will lead to genuine faith.  But our track record is not what it should be.

As long as we think that faith is about believing facts, like which food is Kosher and which to avoid, or like the lines of a creed, we are not focusing as Jesus did, on the heart.  Faith is trust.  Trust is a matter of the heart.

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This is why I spend so much time talking about contemplative silent prayer and meditation.  It works on our hearts.  Of all the things I have tried to help me spiritually, the one that has yielded the best fruit is meditation.

I know I have a long way to go, but I can honestly report that it has been transformative for me.  I feel more peaceful than I ever did before.  I am less likely to be angry and less judgmental.  I find it easier to forgive.  I feel more compassion for others.  I am more aware of the sacredness of everyday life.  I am more able to be present in the moment.  In other words, my heart is in a better place.

As I said, I have a long way to go, but I am on a journey of transformation.  Unless it is an unusual day, I regularly set aside twenty minutes each morning, after I have done some spiritual reading, to sit in silence.  I have a word that I use from the bible to anchor my mind as I focus attention on my breathing in and out.

Of course my mind wanders – that is what minds do – but as soon as I am aware of it, I gently resume my anchor word, saying it silently, and return attention to the breath.  In those moments, I am being centered.  I am allowing God to be present without the normal mental chatter of my own internal voice.

In this way I am putting a temporary stop to my ego, that mental narrator that is always telling me stories about my life, making judgments, explaining to me why people do and say what they do – as if that could be known.  In contemplative, silent prayer, we make a space for our hearts to soften, to become aligned with the heart of God.  I hope and pray each of us develops the daily practice of meditation.  I would love to talk to you about it if you have questions or find obstacles.

God is a God of the heart.  Let us be people of the heart, whose hearts are being transformed.  I am hungry for this.  I think you are too.  I believe our world is desperate for people with transformed hearts.


The Goodness of God in New Wineskins

The Goodness of God in New Wineskins

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. August 23, 2015 on 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:23-28

1 Samuel 21:1-6

Mark 2:23-28

One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.   The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”   And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?   He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”   Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;   so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Twice a year the congregations of the Presbytery of South Alabama come together for Presbytery Meetings.
We just had our meeting  at the Government Street Presbyterian Church this past  Friday evening and Saturday morning.  Worship was great in both.  Friday night was non-traditional, just as we do here in the early service.  Saturday was more traditional style worship.  Both were moving and inspiring.

A Sad Dismissal

But there was a depressing part on Saturday as we turned to the business meeting.  On the agenda was the dismissal of two more of our congregations.

The primary reason for their departure is that the majority of our Presbyteries, 121 out of  168 voted to approve the changes to our Constitution allowing gay people to be married.  Those changes do not force anyone to marry anyone, but the door is now open.  Our constitution treats gay and straight people equally.

It saddens me that these two congregations are leaving for all kinds of reasons.  I do not believe that our unity in the body of Christ is dependent on unanimity of opinion.   I believe that baptism gives us our unity in Christ, and no one can add to it or undermine it.

Faith as Trust, vs. BeliefScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.09.35 PM

I firmly believe that for Christians, faith is about trust, not about assent to or belief in a list of dogmas.

I am part of a growing number of people who think this way – what I hope will be a new consensus view, but I realize that we are in the minority at the moment, and have been so since 325 AD.  That was the year Roman Emperor Constantine forced all of the Christian bishops to come together at Nicea and make a common creed.

Christianity was quite diverse before that.  Different groups had different ways of understanding who Jesus was and how Jesus related to God.

But after Nicea, the ones whose views did not prevail were proclaimed heretics.  The church then became the imperial project of the Emperor.  Constantine financed salaries and buildings, and the church quickly became the chaplaincy to the Empire.

To many of us, that was a disastrous move.  Faith evolved from “trust in”, to “belief that.…”

So now, when Christians end up believing different things, instead of tolerating diversity, as we did for the first 300 years, we think we need to pull away from each other.

Needing Diversity of ViewpointScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.35.24 PM

And personally, I am sad to see them go.  Not just theoretically.  I believe that we need each other.  I need people who disagree with me.  I need them to challenge me. I need to hear other perspectives.  I feel just like the professor who told his class that he knew that at least 10% of what he was teaching was wrong, he just did not know which 10%.

I need people like one of the pastors of the departing churches with whom I disagree.  Here is my story about this:  as you probably know, we Presbyterians have been debating our differences of opinion about LGBTQ issues for years.  Well, after one Presbytery meeting, someone suggested that those pastors and elders who were interested should come together for a series of conversations about the issue.

So we did.  I was a member of that group.  Over the course of the next two years we meet multiple times for dialogue and a shared meals together.  We got to know each other; we had some good laughs, and some great conversations.

I was supporting the view that LGBTQ people should be given equality in every respect in our church, and others argued that the bible did not allow this.  At one point, after I had said something I do not recall, one of the pastors looked at me and asked me a question which I replied immediately to.

I want you to know that hearing myself answer his questions was a huge “A ha!” moment in my life.   A light went on.  I realized something that I had never put in to words before.  His question sparked that moment of self-revelation for me.

“I want God to be good”
He simply asked,

“What is your issue with this question of gay rights?”

My immediate response was,

“I want God to be good.”

I shocked myself as I heard those words leave my lips.  I had never put it so succinctly.   But as I said those words, I realized what I had been thinking as I studied the issue.

For me, by then, it was clear that nobody chooses their sexual orientation.  I never chose to be strait.  I just woke up one day and realized girls were cute.  And no gay person chose to be gay.  Who would ever choose to have all the complications and challenges, even all the outright persecution that gay people have to endure?

None of us, neither you nor I, chose our sexual orientation.  It is simply how we are made.   We do  not choose the gender of the people we fall in love with; and that is what this whole debate is about: who we fall in love with.

So, for me it is simply wrong to exclude or marginalize people for loving differently that I do.  And I cannot believe that a God who is good would ever want us to marginalize or exclude people just because they are different from ourselves.

In fact, as I study Jesus’ life and teachings, I find just the opposite.  I find that Jesus was constantly crossing over boundaries and walls, prejudices and traditions to welcome the marginalized and the excluded.  He ate with sinners, touched lepers, crossed the sea to break bread with gentiles; he made time for women and children, even Romans themselves.

So anyway, back to that dialogue group.  I need people like the pastor who asked me that question that helped me clarify my own thinking.  I am sorry to see them go.

Jesus and the Mercy TrajectoryScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.12.08 PM

I am also sorry to see them go because I think it is so unnecessary.  The teachings of Jesus themselves should, I believe, help us to look at questions like this one.  The texts we read today are  perfect examples.

Jesus teaches us to follow a trajectory, an arc of understanding that was started in the Hebrew bible.  This trajectory moves in the direction of justice and liberation of the oppressed, and away from a rigid, exclusionary focus.  It moves from legalism to compassion.  From retribution to mercy.

Let is consider for a moment, the text we read.   Jesus is in trouble with the purity, rule enforcers, the Pharisees.  He is in trouble because he is the leader; the buck stops with him.  His people, his disciples, have been breaking the law of Moses.  They have been reaping grain on the Sabbath.  Reaping is working.  Work is explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath.  This is not an obscure law, it comes right out of the Ten Commandments itself.

But Jesus excuses them.  On what basis?  On the basis that he knew how to read the trajectory of understanding of what is important to God.  It turns out that God is good.  And being good means caring about human suffering.  In fact it means placing the concern for human well-being above ritual concerns.

Jesus backs up his teaching with a story from the Hebrew bible.  It is about a time when David was running for his life from king Saul with his small band of supporters.  They were hungry.  The only bread available was consecrated bread from the house of God that only priests were allowed to eat.  To make a long story short, the priest made an exception to the rule and allowed them to take the holy bread.

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Then Jesus gives a clear summary of his perspective.  To those who accused his group of breaking the Law by a bit of personal harvesting on the sabbath he said:

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

When was the sabbath law made?  Right after the people of Israel had escaped from being 24/7, bricks-without-straw slaves of Pharaoh.  They gathered as newly freed people at Mt. Sinai and heard Moses read the law that gave them all, for the fist time in their lives, a day of rest!  The sabbath law was made for humans; for their benefit; not as a burden but as a blessing.

The sabbath rest law was for the benefit of humans.  That was what was important to God: human flourishing.  So for Jesus, allowing people to eat is of even greater importance than keeping a rule, especially a rule made for the purpose of benefiting people.

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I believe that there is something deeper going on here.  Mark is using this occasion to back up what he just said in the line preceding the text we read: you do not put new wine in old wineskins or it will burst them.  You put new wine in new wineskins.  Jesus was bringing new wine.  The old wineskins were not going to work.  The old way of looking at things was going to have to be replaced by a new way.

So, unlike the folks who think that they have to leave when things change, Jesus taught us to expect change.  It is ironic that the motto of the Reformed Church of which the Presbyterian church is a part is, “the church reformed, always reforming….”

We have changed, not in arbitrary ways, not willy-nilly, not changed with the wind, but we have intentionally sought the voice of the Spirit who is still at work, leading the church in to new truth, as Jesus told us the Spirit of truth would do.

We have come to the conclusion at several moments of our past that we need to follow the Jesus trajectory further than our ancestors.  We changed from accepting slavery as necessary to rejecting it as immoral and dehumanizing.  We changed from excluding women from ministry, which the New Testament does, to openness to the gifts of women as elders and ministers.

We are served by women elders in this church: if they all went away, we would have to close up.  Their ministry is vital here.  And at the Presbytery meeting, our current moderator is a woman.  But it was not long ago that all those doors were shut to women.

So now we have changed again, and have finally given fully equal treatment to gay people.  We are already benefiting from their participation and ministry among us.  This is a cause for celebration.  I am so sorry that those who disagree cannot see their way clear to stay together.  We will be weaker without them.

God is Good

But this is our rock-solid core commitment: God is good.  God wills the good.  This is what we all take to bed every night.  This is what we wake up to every morning.  This is what sustains us in the really hard times.

We believe that faith is trust.  It is trusting that God is good; God is with us.  God is for us.  God loves us.  God calls us by name and wants what is best for us.  And when we suffer, God also suffers with us.    God is good.  That is what Jesus taught us.  That is our faith.  Truly it is in God we trust.


Like Children

Like Children

Sermon on Mark 10:13-16 for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, August 16, 2015

Mark 10:13-16

 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.

Every year when school starts I get nostalgic.  I remember walking to school on rainy days in second grade, with my yellow slicker on, the smell of new textbook pages, the sounds of the cafeteria; it all comes back every fall.   Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 12.58.50 PM

Today is the day we do the blessing of the backpacks; we send the children of this congregation off to a new year with God’s blessing and with great hopes.  We are so blessed in our area, to have high quality schools, excellent teachers and administrators, extra-curricular music and sports, and blessed that our  adults, over the years, have seen fit to fund all of this (at least until recently); none of it is free, but it is so important!

We had a wonderful summer around here for kids.  The Summer Fine Arts Camp called Kaleidoscope was a great success, and so was our VBS.  Children are important to us.  They are fully part of the family of God.  Very soon we will have a baptism of a child, which will be a great joy for all of us.

Jesus’ Solemn Pronouncement

We read the text from the gospel of Mark about Jesus and the children.  It seems a bit bizarre in our day to imagine adults trying to keep children from him, but in those ancient times, children were expected to be silent non-participants at adult functions.  Fully in keeping with Jesus’ outreach to all people who were marginalized, the poor, the sick, women, and foreigners, he also made a welcoming space for children.

One of the most beautiful images we have of Jesus is this one:

“he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

He not only blessed them, he had something to say about them:

“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.”

This is one of those solemn pronouncements that gets a “Truly I tell you” preface.  I like the old King James version: “verily verily I say unto you”.  It sounds even more serious.

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I want us to think about this important, solemn pronouncement today.  In what way do we receive the kingdom like children?  In what way, as Jesus so categorically puts it, will we never enter the kingdom if we do not receive it accordingly?

I am sure there are many ways to reflect on this; today I want to reflect on one.

Children expect to grow and develop.  Children know they are in process towards a goal that they have not yet reached.  How many times have you asked a child their age and instead of a simple answer like “Four” you get “Four and a half.”  Children know that the next level is coming; they are not there yet, but they will be, soon.

To receive the kingdom as a child is to always remain open to growing and developing spiritually.   We know that all of us pass through developmental stages as we grow.

Erik Erikson has mapped out eight Stages of Psychosocial Development from the oral-sensory stage of infancy all they way to adulthood.

Piaget has outlined for us the  stages of Cognitive Development, that describes how we move from thinking of everything in concrete, literal terms to being able to think abstractly.

Lawrence Kolberg has described six stages of moral development.  All of us used to think of right and wrong only in terms of fear and punishment.  Later we grew to understand that there were rules we had the duty to obey to maintain social order.

Eventually, for those who keep developing morally, we come to understand that there are moral principles that transcend human laws.  It is right to resist the Nazi’s.  Laws themselves can be immoral.  It is right to stay seated on the bus and not move to the back.  It is right to sit at the lunch counter and expect to be served, no matter what sign has been posted.  It is the only moral thing to do, to make a wedding cake for whomever is being married.  No human law can make discrimination morally good.

We consider justice to be a higher demand on us.  We consider Love of neighbor as compelling to us, on a level right up there next to loving God, as Jesus taught.

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Children know they are developing.  They know they have not reached maturity.   Next year they will be taller.  Next year they will learn the next level of math that they could never comprehend this year.  Some adults, however, get stuck at spiritual and moral levels far from maturity.

They get stuck in the literal phase, especially when they read the bible.  If it says “seven days” in the creation story, then each day had to have twenty-four literal hours, even though there is no sun to mark time until day four.

It would be funny, if it were not also tragic.  People who get stuck here end up believing in a god of wrath and judgment, more interested in condemning people than redeeming them, if the numbers involved indicate God’s interests.   Getting stuck in the literal stage ends up being tragic.

Growth and development, that children naturally expect, are necessary for us to enter the kingdom that Jesus was announcing had arrived.  We leave behind  childish concepts of God as the great Santa in the sky, or as the old man with the long white  beard, or the scolding parent with the threatening paddle.

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We leave these childish concepts behind. We become open to paradox and conundrums as part of life.  An adult, maturing faith must keep developing until it can accommodate both aspects of our experience:
– wonder and awe as well as suffering and tragedy;
– sunsets, and tsunamis;
– thin-place experiences of palpable presence, and the dark-night-of-the-soul times of agonizing absence;
– the feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the gifts we enjoy of security, technology, medicine, education, nutrition, healthy safe food, on the one hand, and the depressing knowledge that there are still many people who are food insecure, safety insecure, and who cannot even dream of living the lives we take for granted.
A maturing, developing faith also grows to understand that certainty is not ever going to be available.  As the theologian Karl Rahner as said:

“If you are talking about God and you’re talking about anything that has to do with God, whether it’s ritual or sacraments or scriptures or morality or anything and you are sure you know what you are talking about, you are a heretic.

The desire to be sure, to be certain, while all of us have it, is an immature quest that needs to be left behind in favor of embracing mystery and paradox.

Developing believers are able to chart a course from naiveté to deconstruction, to a second naiveté that can maintain faith in the allurement of Love, even in the context of suffering and evil; there is no certainty here; but there is hope, courage, and compassion.

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A maturing, developing faith is also open to looking in the mirror, seeing how far we have to go in the basic spiritual practices like forgiveness and humility.   Since we know we are still in process, still growing, like children are, we welcome self-discovery that comes from looking at the things that make us angry and offend us.  We realize that most of them are probably evidence of our false selves, our egos that are still fragile and wounded, and in need of transformation.

When we do not get it to go our way, when someone else gets to make the decision or gets the honor, and we feel that “who do they think they are?” question, we realize that we still have growing up to do.  When we hear ourselves saying, “you can’t make me; you are not the boss of me” we realize that this is our inner moral child reacting, and we smile, and laugh at ourselves; we expect to keep growing up spiritually.

A childlike approach that assumes development understands that it is never to late to begin new practices of spiritual formation that we become aware of.  We embrace practices of silence, meditation, and wordless contemplative prayer because we know that spiritual development is not automatic; it is not produced by the clock nor the calendar, but by regular habits, practiced over time.

A developing, growing person takes more and more personal responsibility.  We become mindfully aware that every choice we Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 1.01.32 PMmake is, in fact, a choice we make.  Every forkful of food we bring to our lips is a choice with consequences – both personal and global.  Every purchase we make, every investment we make, every use of our money, is a personal choice that we take moral responsibility for.  Every vote we cast, every use of our time, every entertainment decision we make we are mindfully aware that we are responsible for.  Even the words that come out of our mouths are choices we make, which can be words of healing, of welcome, of reconciliation and love, or not; and we take mindful responsibility for them.

Jesus says,

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Like children, we expect to grow, to change and to develop.

You have heard the expression, “You cannot teach and old dog new tricks.”  I have good news: we are not dogs.  That expression may indeed be true for quadrupeded   canines, but we are different.  Brain scientists have told us about neuroplasticity.  Our brains change with each new experience we have.  And this process, scientists tell us, continues throughout our whole lives.  It never stops until we breath our last.

The truth is that we are continually developing and changing.

The challenge and the call is to make it intentional.

So we are here to commit ourselves to entering the kingdom that is here, now, by means of a childlike acceptance that we are here to grow.
We are here to develop.  We are here to put on our backpacks, load up the school supplies, and open the door to the future that is evolving, that is in process,  welcoming the future, just like children do.


Jesus Saves – no, Really.

Jesus Saves – no, Really.

Sermon on Mark 6:53-56 for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 09, 2015

Mark 6:53-56
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,  and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.44.26 PMI just had my annual physical.  I take that for granted.  My insurance company believes I will be healthier, and therefore cheaper for them, if I have one of these every year, so they pay for the whole thing, lab tests and all.  No co-pay.  At the exam, I complained about my allergies, and right away got a prescription for the latest, hottest new medicine.  I had it filled within the hour.

I realize that this puts me in quite a privileged group.  Most people in the world today do not have it as good as I do, and most people in history could not even dream of this kind of access to good medical care.

Heath Costs Money

Today and historically, maintaining good health has been related to income.  The less money you have, the less healthy you probably are, for all kinds of reasons.  It starts with nutrition; if you are food insecure, you have problems from the start.  It is still true today, but all the more so in Jesus’ time.  It may have even been true for Jesus himself.

In Mark’s gospel, some people call Jesus a carpenter.  He was, then, a landless day-laborer like many other people, in the decades leading up to the disastrous Jewish-Roman war.  According to scholars, economic and political deterioration had left much of the population of Palestine dispossessed of their land.  Illness, for laborers, meant instant unemployment.  Ill-health must have been endemic.  (see Myers, Binding, 144).

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The situation for the sick is even worse than discomfort and loss of income.  Put yourself in the shoes – or sandals – of people back then.  What do you believe?  Well, for starters, since illness is associated with sin and guilt, you believe that when you get sick, you were being punished by God.

This is called the doctrine of divine retribution.  You get what is coming to you.  Lots of people I speak with still believe some version of this.  Even people who use the language, even if metaphorically, of karma, implicitly believe people get what they deserve.   They say “What goes around, comes around.”

You would also believe, as they did in Jesus day, that illness was a form of  religious impurity.  Impurity could be removed, but only by a trip to the temple in Jerusalem, the purchase of sacrificial animals, and the ritual of sacrifice.  For you, it would be expensive; in fact, nearly impossible.

Jesus’ Unorthodox Healing Mission

Jesus, as we know from the gospels, had a reputation for being a healer.  People came to him with the problem of illness, and found that by touching him – even, as Mark’s gospel says, the fringe of his garment, they would be healed.

Let us stop and think about what this would mean for you, if you lived back then.  You could go touch Jesus and be healed, Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.49.59 PMand suddenly lots of your problems go away.  If God heals you, it must mean that God is no longer out to punish you; you are forgiven.

If  you got well, you were no longer impure; no need for the trip to the temple.  No need for the priest.  No more feeling religiously excluded from God, nor from your neighbors.  This is huge.

So, in other words, touching Jesus completely reorients your entire world view about how God feels about you and what God wants from you.  Suddenly you are liberated from the world of guilt and shame.  You are now invited into a world in which God is for you, in healing ways, not against you.  This, is in fact what salvation means.

And that is why Mark tells us that when people came to touch even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak,

“all who touched it were healed.”  

The word healed is exactly the same word that means “saved.”  Touching Jesus saves us.

Whether or not you take the healing miracles of Jesus as literal or metaphors for a deeper kind of salvation, one thing is certain: all of the people who touched Jesus that day later died.  The question is, were they saved?  The answer is yes.  Touching Jesus saved them.  Their whole relationship to God and each other was transformed.  Salvation means healing, and healing is salvation.

Distorted “saving”

I need to pause here and draw our attention to a great distortion.  A great many people, maybe some here, think that what Jesus came to save us from is hell.  I want to tell you that I believe that is utterly mistaken.

First, because Jesus was Jewish, and he knew is Hebrew Bible well.  Salvation for Jewish people is always historical, with a plus.  We read a text from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 49, in which God says to his people, Israel, picturing the nation as a person,

“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

It is all about how God would gather the scattered nation of Israel, who, in those days, were a small remnant of survivors of the Babylonian exile. That is the historical part. And this salvation of the regathered nation would be part of something larger that God was doing to bring salvation to the world.  That is the plus part.

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Here is how the plus part works:  Israel was the one nation in those days that knew that God was one, not many (monotheism).  That God was the creator of a good  physical world, and that humans were made in the image of God, with dignity and purpose.  Israel alone knew that what God wanted was that people love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds and strength, as their daily creed affirmed, and that, as Leviticus says, they also must love their neighbors as themselves.

In other words, that Israel had the calling, the vocation to be the bearers of this light to all the nations of the world; that God was for them, not against them; that God wanted love above all, not a laundry list of reasons to punish people.

So, salvation, to Jewish people, meant returning to the land as the re-gathered people of God, proclaiming God’s forgiveness and mercy to all the nations.

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Jesus saw himself as the person who was bearing this mission.  This is why he kept crossing over to the Gentile side of the lake; he was bringing the light of God’s salvation to the nations.

How did that manifest itself?  In Jesus’ radical hospitality; in table fellowship; in breaking bread with all who would come, without regard to the barriers of ethnicity or even religious purity.  And that kind of welcome, that kind of embrace of the other had enormous healing power.  Radical hospitality enacts and embodies the essence of the message that God is welcoming.

Jesus Still Saves

I believe this message, and I hope you do.  Jesus saves.  Specifically touching Jesus saves us still today.  People who have gotten close enough to Jesus even to touch the fringe of the Jesus-message experience transformation and healing.

Touching Jesus, or we could say, waking up to the good news of the kingdom of God, or, shall we say, kin-dom of God, is always transformative.  To touch Jesus is to know that this new family he is making out of total strangers is a place where we can find a home; a place where we can be loved, accepted, embraced, not because we deserve it or have earned it or are pure enough for it, but only on the basis of grace – the free gift of God’s love.

And when we recognize this is true for us, then we realize it is true for everyone.  We open our hearts and our arms and we embrace the stranger, the other, the person who formerly we had thought of as outsiders. Hostility becomes hospitality, and in that moment, God is present; reconciliation is possible; and healing happens.

Touching Jesus begins to heal us; and the longer we stay in touch with Jesus the deeper the healing goes.   We start to heal from all the ways our own egos keep us in sick states.  We begin to recover from the sickness of our self-absorption.  Our pride, our greed, our sense of being in competition with everyone, our apathy; all of these being to heal over.  The longer we are in touch with Jesus the healthier we become, and the more willing to open our hearts to people who are suffering.

We get involved personally and practically in every way we can to pay-forward the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit.  But we do not stop at a personal response.  We ask the question: why are there so many sick people?  What are the systems that keep people down?

Healing the Systems of Sickness

With hearts awakened by touching Jesus, we suddenly wake up to the fact that there are a lot of people who have not touched the Jesus message and for that reason, a lot of people are still sick.

Just as Jesus stood up to and against the systems of his day that were keeping the people sick, mentally, spiritually and physically, so we take up the mantle and address the systems of our day.

You would think that in an ostensibly Christian nation, most people would have at least touched the fringe of Jesus enough to want to extend healing to everyone.  But that is not the case.  I actually believe that the distorted message that so many people have heard, that Jesus came to save us from hell, (end of the story) has something to do with why touching him has had such a null effect morally for so many.

When  people believe that reciting the creeds is all we have to do to have touched Jesus, that is part of the problem.  It has been pointed out that in the great creeds, the whole life and teachings of Jesus gets reduced all the way down to the little tiny comma between the phrases “born of the virgin Mary,” comma, and  “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  In the creeds, Jesus was born and dies, and everything else he did, and said, like healing people, is hidden in that comma.

Whatever the reason, it appears that many who think that they have been saved by Jesus have not experienced much ego Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.57.52 PMhealing.

All we have to do is to look at the public discourse around literal health care.  The Alabama senate committee came within three votes of gutting Medicaid 23%.  What would that mean?  Analysts say that if the cuts had remained:

“…about one in five Alabamians would lose their health coverage, including nearly half of Alabama’s children and about 60 percent of the state’s seniors in nursing homes. Those cuts likely would lead to the closure of Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, as well as dozens of other hospitals and nursing homes across the state. The results would be devastating for Alabama’s economy and quality of life.”  (source: Alabama Arise Citizen Policy Report,

How could a person have been touched by Jesus’ healing message and vision and not want to extend literal healing and healthcare to children, to seniors, to the poor – to the very kind of people that flocked to Jesus for healing when he waked the earth?

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This is what we mean when we say that we are Jesus’ hands and feet.  We are the ones who have been saved by touching Jesus. We have been healed of our misconceptions of a non-loving God; we have been and are being healed of our ego diseases of the self-oriented life.

And now we are the body of Christ for the world, the light of the nations, that God’s salvation may reach everyone; not salvation from hell, but salvation meaning healing of exactly the kinds of diseases we have been and are being healed of.

So we are the ones who are called to bring Jesus’ healing touch to everyone.  We bring God’s openhearted welcome to the stranger.  We bring God’s merciful embrace to the guilty.  And we extend God’s care into every system of our world – the political systems, the health-care systems, the legal systems – everywhere the powers of the world are located.

We will know that we are fulfilling our mission when people can honestly say of us what they said of Jesus: all who touched them were healed.


The God Who Passes By

The God Who Passes By

Sermon on Mark 6:45-52 for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 02, 2015

Mark 6:45-52

 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.   After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.   When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.   But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out;   for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded,   for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

I remember the first time someone drew my attention to Jesus’ personal spiritual life, I wondered why so little had been said Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.10.12 PMabout it.  When I thought of Jesus’ prayer life I would think of him on the night of his arrest, praying intensely in the garden of Gethsemane as the disciples slept.  But of course you do not get to be a person who can pray like that, at a time like that, without a whole life spent in spiritual practices, including prayer.

But anyway, this text is one of the reasons Jesus’ personal spirituality gets overlooked.  His whole night of prayer gets one sentence.  But that sentence is overwhelmed immediately by the story of the disciples in the boat fighting an adverse wind, and Jesus walking on the water.   By the time you get to the part where they see him in terror, you forget all about his prayer life that evening.

You also forget that the reason they are in that boat that night, crossing the lake is that Jesus required them to.  Mark tells us that Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat” using a word that means “compel” or even “force”.  It is such a strong word that when John tells this story, he drops it.

Resistance to Following

These details are here for a reason, and they are important, and we will look at them.  But I must pause right here.  We often speak of ourselves as followers of Jesus.  I hope we all consider ourselves followers of Jesus.  The question is, what do we do when he leads to places we do not want to go?

I just had a conversation with some people who told about a bible study they had been in on the topic of the Good Samaritan parable.  The whole point of the parable is that our responsibility to care for the real needs of our neighbors is profound, limited only by the extent that our hearts have been broken open by human suffering.

But instead of getting that essential, fundamental point, the group started grousing about the costs of medical care.  Instead of a conversation about compassion it ended up being about how to keep their money in their own pockets.  I guess  the guy lying half dead on the side of the road would just have to stay there.  Anyway, it is bizarre that people could read Jesus’ teaching and turn from it completely.   He was leading where they had no intention of going.  Is Jesus that optional?

Well, the way Mark tells the story of Jesus, being a disciple means feeling compelled to follow where Jesus leads.  If he says get in the boat and cross over, then you do, even if you do not want to.  The assumption is that he knows what he is doing.   There is a purpose.  He is training these people to live life, not according to the status quo world, but to live lives transformed by an alternative vision, inspired and empowered by the Spirit.  So, sometimes the training cuts against the grain; put us in places of awkwardness or discomfort – even pain.

What Contemplative Prayer DoesScreen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.13.30 PM

So, back to the story.  Jesus spent the whole night in prayer.  By the time we get to the walking on the water part, it is morning.  What happens when people pray like that?  I hope no one thinks Jesus was making requests all night.  Probably most of the night was spent in silence; in what we call centering or contemplative prayer, or simply meditation.

What happens is that compassion grows.  People who pray contemplatively have much slower triggers for anger, for insult and for disgust feelings about others.   In fact a sense of oneness begins to blossom.  A person who regularly meditates in silence begins to see that we are all connected to each other on this planet.  And not only are we connected to each other, despite surfaces differences, but we are also connected with all living things.  In fact with all things in the universe.

The importance and significance of the boundary markers that we have spent so much time building and maintaining that make our group different from and better than other groups based on race or language or religion or sexual orientation or status or education, or any other descriptor, simply diminish to the vanishing point.

This is the essential insight Jesus had which blew open the doors and exploded the walls around the concept of the kingdom of God.  Think of how revolutionary and actually difficult it would have been for a Jewish person who grew up feeling  that they were part of the exclusively chosen people, to imagine the kingdom of God without ethnic boundaries.  But for Jesus, it was essential.  God’s Spirit is at work in the world to bring God’s blessing and wholeness to everyone.

So, no, the disciples did not want to get in that boat and cross over, because in Mark’s story, crossing over to the other side is about going from Jewish space to non-Jewish space.  Each time they do, the crossing is difficult.

Of course it is.  For whom is it ever easy to open the door to the “other” to the stranger, to the person who is different?   Our instinctive impulse is suspicion, or fear, if not outright loathing for people who are different.  Nobody wants to get in the boat and face the  difficulty of crossing over.    But disciples of Jesus feel compelled by the Master Teacher, and so they do.

This is the second difficult crossing Mark tells about.  In the first one they encounter a storm, but at least Jesus is in the boat – even if he is sleeping.  When they awaken him he calms the storm.  When the community of Jesus followers awakens the presence of Christ as they gather together, the storm of opposition to fulfilling their transformed vision of embracing a new humanity can become peaceful and calm.

Jesus’ Absence in AdversityScreen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.05.46 PM

This time, as they cross, there is no storm, but they face adverse winds that make them spend the whole night straining at the oars.  This time, Jesus is not even with them, and the struggle to cross is all the harder and longer for his absence.

Did you notice what Mark keeps calling this fresh water lake?  He calls it the Sea of Galilee.  This is purposeful.  The sea is rich with symbolism in the Jewish scriptures.  The whole world is a blessed and good place because God, the creator, calmed the waters of chaos in the beginning by his Spirit, his breath, the wind of God that blew over the waters.

The Israelites gained their redemption, their freedom from the Empire of Pharaoh in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea as another wind from God separated the waters.

That crossing was remembered liturgically and poetically in the Psalms.  The imagery of Psalm 77 takes the Exodus story and adds pyrotechnics to dramatize the  immensity of the moment with these words:

“When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

That moment Israel became a nation.  The family who had gone down into Egypt as a 70 member clan came out of Egypt as a new nation.  God’s way was through the sea, on a path that left no footprints.

This is the tradition that Mark is invoking.  To be part of the new nation, the new kingdom of God is to make the challenging crossing to the other side.

Mark wrote his gospel in and to a young Christian community that was most likely a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They had begun to live that alternative vision of a new humanity of reconciliation; a community of radical hospitality.  But there is no way that it was easy for them.  How could it be?  And all the more difficult because Jesus was not physically present anymore.  Jesus was not in the boat.

The language of spatial separation Mark uses emphasizes Jesus’ absence.  The boat was out at sea, and Jesus was alone, on the land, and ominous evening had already fallen.

Passing By on the Water

So then the scene comes that is both famously memorable and confusing.  If you know anything at all about Jesus it is probably that he turned water in to wine and walked on water.   But why in the world would he walk on water only to appear to pass by the poor struggling and now terrified disciples?

Well if you read this literally, I do not see how it makes any sense at all.  I do not read this literally.  Mark is again alluding to a profound tradition in several of texts from the Hebrew bible; stories that every Jew, literate or not, would know well.  These are the stories of divine revelation when God makes his glorious presence known by passing by.  It happened to Moses and to Elijah.  Both stories are dramatic.

Mark is saying to his struggling mixed community: yes, it is true that we are separated from Jesus now.  But he is the one whose vision of a new humanity we are following.  We are in this boat together.  And it is not true that we are abandoned.  God is with us.  The Spirit of God is here.  The Spirit of the risen Christ is here in the midst of our struggle against the adverse winds on this threatening sea.

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Mark’s gospel is realistic about how difficult this process can be.  The disciples are slow to catch the vision and to embrace it.  So Jesus pronounces peace as he comes to them, and says, “take heart; it is I”.  Then Mark explains the root of the difficulty of the evening: their hard hearts made them unable to understand about the loaves.

If you were here last week you know what he is talking about: the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  Strangers who had massed around Jesus had been formed into groups the size of house churches on the fresh green grass that had sprouted in the desert, sharing eucharist together, as if they were family.  If you do not get the meaning there – even on the Jewish side of the lake, you will certainly not understand why you must get into the boat and cross over to do it again on the Gentile side of the Lake.  But that is exactly what followers of Jesus are compelled by Jesus to do.

This is why many people now refer to Jesus’ mission as the Kin-dom of God, instead of kingdom of God – replacing a monarchical metaphor for a kinship, family metaphor.

Here is the point: when strangers are embraced with hospitality instead of hostility, God is present.  It is miraculous and transformative.

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And frankly, our world desperately needs this.  Our country needs this vision as we now are newly aware of how deeply divided we are racially.  Our state needs this vision too, as it is still not able to wrap its judicial head around the fact that LGBTQ people deserve justice and equality for all.  Our world desperately needs people who know that religious differences do not constitute justifications for violence or for discrimination.

This text is a call to the church to be the church.  First, we must be the people of God and then do the work of the people of God.  Being the people of God means that we follow Jesus in his spiritual practices.  To be a Christian must mean practicing the regular disciplines of a Christian, including and especially regular silent prayer-meditation and the regular celebration of the sacrament of Eucharist in the community.  These are the essential practices that both sustain our faith and open our hearts to the oneness that is the fundamental reality of the world God made.

And then we do the work of the people of God as we open our personal hearts to strangers and people who are “the other” and as we take up the cause of working for justice and equality for all people – not just Americans (which would be radically missing the point) – but all people on this planet.

So in a moment we will come to this sacrament.  We will break bread together as a family.  We will share one cup, and enact the sign of God’s presence among us.  And we will, by this meal, proclaim that the kin-dom of God is present, and that we, as followers of Jesus, are ready to really follow Jesus.