The One that Matters

The One that Matters

Sermon for November 1, 2015,  the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, All Saints Day on Deuteronomy 6:1-9 & Mark 12:28-34

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

I love it when the lights come on, and I understand something in a new way that makes sense of lost of formerly disconnected details.  One big idea suddenly brings clarity.  Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 10.40.14 AM

The one big idea that opened up biblical study for me was that every text is situated.  Every text has an author who lived in a specific time and place, and had a reason in mind for writing something down.  If you know that one big idea, then you can proceed.  Without it, you are lost.

There is something satisfying about a big idea that brings together many smaller concepts into one. We hold in high respect the people who are able to see unity where everyone else only saw diversity, simplicity replacing complexity.

Like Copernicus.  Copernicus’ big idea was that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system. It was revolutionary.Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 10.36.08 AM  We call it the Copernican revolution.   All those ridiculously complicated formulas that they came up with to try to account for the movements of the planets and stars around the earth could finally be tossed into the trash.  It is far more simple, once you know they all revolve around the sun, as Galileo’s telescope demonstrated.

Einstein’s big idea was E=mc2, meaning that matter is form of energy.  There is an essential unity to everything.  Of course that has all kinds of scientific implications.

We read a text about Moses’ big idea, which was that the Divine exists as Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 10.48.35 AMOne, not many.  We call that monotheism.    The great creed of Judaism that every observant Jew recites, proclaims that God, the Divine, is one.  Naturally then, we give our complete loyalty, or in the words of ancient covenant treaties, our “love” to that One alone. We are to love God alone.  To love Israel’s God alone is to be loyal to Israel’s God, and none other.

Of course a big idea has implications.  Moses, as the story goes, brought down a summary of those implications in a list of Ten Commandments.

Jesus’ Big Idea

Perhaps it was reflecting about those Ten Commandments that gave Jesus his big idea; that they way to love the one God alone was to love one’s neighbor.  The first half of the Ten Commandments, after all, is about God, and the second half is about our neighbors.  The first half begins, Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 11.01.10 AM

“You shall have no other gods before me”

and then the second half continues,

“you shall not kill….”

and so on.

To elevate the love of neighbor to the level of the love for God alone is a huge move.  It brings love of neighbor right next to the central and fundamental commitment to love God; this has enormous implications.  Now every person counts.

There are two sides to this coin.  On the one hand, this means  that every person I meet is an opportunity to show my love, my loyalty to God.  Every act of love, every kindness, every act of mercy and compassion, every cup of cold water given to another person is service to God.

Serving becomes spiritual.  Working for justice is spiritual work.  Ending all forms of discrimination and oppression are spiritual acts that God takes personally.  Helping a child with their homework, enriching a student’s life with the fine arts, and collecting kits for refugees expresses love to God.

The other side of the coin is that each one of us individually matter to God.  Each one of us is important to God, made in God’s image, and worthy of dignity and respect.  There are no exceptions.  You matter to God.

The Big Idea, the Kingdom, and the Family

Did you ever consider an odd conundrum in Jesus’ big idea?  It is that he spent most of his time talking about the kingdom of God.  He told parables about the kingdom of God, comparing it to a pearl, a treasure, a field growing grain.  He even told the scribe he was talking to, in our text, that he was not far from the kingdom, since he knew that love of neighbor what right up there with loving God.  Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 11.07.57 AM

And yet, most of the time, when Jesus spoke to God, or about God, he called God Abba, papa, or father.  That is different from calling God “his royal highness,” as you would a king. In other words, the king of the kingdom is part of the family.  The king is papa.

This turns the concept of a king’s sovereignty upside down.  Now, instead of a God as a king who issues decrees and enforces his rule with the threat of punishments, this king is papa who is all about providing daily bread.  The kingdom is a kin-dom; a family.

This is why Jesus did not teach people to be privately religious alone, but gathered around himself a group; what we today would call a church.  A group of people who matter to each other because they all matter to God, the father of the family.

Each Mattersphoto (85)

Each of us matters.  We just read the names of those who have died this past year, as we do on All Saints Day.  We remember what they meant to us.  I am sure you have noticed how each person present changes the group.  I know on Wednesdays when I am with our kids in youth group, I notice how different it feels if one is missing.  It changes the group.  Each one matters.  Each one brings ideas, perspectives, and a distinctive personality.

At a deeper level, each one of us has gifts to share that we all need.  In the letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he uses the analogy of a body; we matter to each other like each of the parts of the body matter; hands, eyes, tongues, all provide something distinct, something necessary to the whole body.  That is the way our spiritual gifts function. Some are teachers, some are better at administration, some have gifts of mercy and compassion, but everyone matters.

I read about a church which had a custom of waiting until Easter for baptisms, so several people were baptized on the same day.  Their custom was that the newly baptized would introduce themselves to the congregation, saying something about how they could matter to the rest.  They would say things like, “I’m Joe, and if you need help with your car, I’m your man.” Or  “I’m Mary, and if you need a casserole, I’m on my way.” And,  “I’m Sarah, and if you need someone to come sit with you for a few hours, call me.”

Making a Family WorkScreen Shot 2015-10-31 at 11.50.42 AM

It takes a lot for a family to make it.  There is a mortgage to pay, groceries to get, someone needs to cook the meals, there is always cleaning up to do.  In between the cooking and cleaning is the table.  That is where the family gathers and is fed.  Everyone has a place at the table.  Everyone is served.

At the table they process their experiences. They show caring concern for each other, they affirm each one’s own uniqueness.  They help each other grow into maturity.  That is how the church works.  Each one matters, and each contributes their gifts to the others.  This is a form of our spirituality, right along side devotion to God.  Loving God and loving neighbor as a family, a kindom.

We are able to be here now, as a family, because of the gifts given to this family by many people over the years, including the ones we named today.  Over the years, they paid the mortgage, served the suppers, taught the classes, fixed the toilets, and sat with the sick.

They prayed for the poor, and they started the Christian Service Center.  They built new class rooms, they dedicated stained glass windows, they made sure the electric bill was paid and the grass was cut.  They did everything that families do, making it possible for us to gather here as a family today.

Our WatchScreen Shot 2015-10-31 at 11.54.48 AM

Now, this is our watch.  We are today’s family.  We do not take this lightly.  Everyone of us matters.   That is why we are not afraid to ask people to pledge in Stewardship season.  It is a matter of saying, “I’m in.  You can count on me. I am committed to this family.  It matters to me.”

And just like a family with children and with elderly people, everyone’s part matters, though they vary widely.  In this family we are not valued for our wealth our wisdom, or our abilities, but rather for who we are as equally Papa’s children.

For us, loving God means loving everyone in the family, they way parents love infants in the middle of the night; not just with warm feelings, but sacrificial love that gets out of the warm bed.  It is practical.

This is a great time to be in this family.  We are growing.  New programs are being offered, new people are discovering us.  We are so filled with gratitude.  Stewardship is a way we have of expressing our gratitude to God for each other, for this family.

Whether you are new to this family, or you have been here for years, one thing is true: we are in this together.  Together we nurture the children.  Together we encourage and guide the youth.

Together we are there for each other as complicated adults.  Together we make sure the family’s needs are met, from the bed time story to the mortgage.  Together we are there when it is hard, when problems come.  Together we celebrate our joys and transitions.

This is Jesus’ big idea in action; a community of people who have embraced the message that God is for us, that we are reconciled to God, that God has created us as his family in which every one matters.  How can this not fill our hearts with gratitude?

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The Courage to See

The Courage to See

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52 for Pentecost +22, Year B, October 25, 2015

Mark 10:46-52
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 6.53.51 PM
I was listening to the Radiolab podcast this past week, and heard a story about a man named  John Horgan.  John has been doing a survey for years, asking people one question:

“Will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?”

What would you say?  The Radiolab hosts observed that that question gets to something really basic about us as people.  It really asks, “Do we feel we can change who we are?”

John reports that 80 — 90% , of people say “no.”  Most people believe we cannot change;  that we are hard-wired for war, because of our greed, our selfishness, our aggression, and our belligerence, and we will never change.

A Personal Change Story

Well, we just read a New Testament Gospel story about a man who changed.  He was blind, and after his encounter with Jesus, he changed: he could see.

So if this is a story about changing, one of the questions we have to ask at the start is, “Is this a believable story?”  Is there such a thing as personal transformation?  Do you feel that it is possible for you?  Would it take a miracle?

Now before we go further, let us ask if we are to take this miracle story literally or not?  Does it reflect a memory of the historical Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 6.57.24 PMJesus, or is it meant metaphorically?  Marcus Borg suggests that it may well contain a memory of Jesus, who, after all, was a healer; and there are reports of blind people being healed.  You are free to read it literally if you wish.

But Borg suggests, and I fully agree, that the way Mark tells us this story, from its structure to its details, he is writing metaphorically.  The many conscious echoes of the Isaiah text we read are one example (Isaiah 35:1-10). Source: Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 56).

Blindness is one of the most common metaphors I can think of. Certainly Jesus used it.  Remember when he called the Pharisees “blind guides” (four times in Matt 23)?   Blindness means you just cannot see what is right in front of you, staring you in the face.

So I think Mark wants us to ask ourselves the question: what am I blind to?  What am I not seeing, or not willing to see?  And then, what can be done about it?  Can I change?  What will happen if I start seeing things I did not use to see?

Following the Jesus Path

So let us look at this story together.   It opens with Jesus and his followers on a journey.  Mark is telling this story to teach about what it means to follow Jesus, or the Jesus-path.  So, they are making their way down from Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem.

They come to Jericho.  Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, comes to the first city that Joshua and the Israelites conquered by force, as they took possession of the  promised land.  Jesus is living in a revolutionary time in which many people want a new Joshua to lead them into battle against the occupying Roman army, to take back their promised land from the pagans.

In a text from just before the time of Jesus, called the Psalms of Solomon, (not written by David’s son, Solomon, but by someone writing in his name – a pseudepigrapha) we read a prayer for God to send the Israelites “their king, the son of David” who later is also called Messiah.  They want a military leader, to purge Jerusalem from the unclean Gentiles (Pss. Sol. 17:21 in Joel Marcus Mark 8-16, Anchor Yale Bible, p 1119).

Here, the blind man Bartimaeus yells out to Jesus, calling him the Son of David.  Jesus  calls Bartimaeus, to come, which he does, then asks him,

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 7.59.04 PMIt is the exact same question Jesus had recently asked James and John.  They had wanted to sit to the left and right of Jesus’ throne when, as the new Joshua, he conquered the Romans.  Bartimaeus merely wants his sight back.  Quite a contrast.

The Dishonorable “Son of Honor”

We should notice that people in miracle stories are rarely named.  In Mark, Jairus was named.  His name means “he will see.”  Bartimaeus means, Mark tells us, son of Timaeus.  Timaeus, Mark expects his Greek speaking readers to know, means “honor” (from timaō) so this dishonorable blind bigger is ironically named, the son of honor.

Jesus does what no one in the crowd expected him to do; he honors him with special attention.  Jesus characteristically reaches out to the dishonorable, the marginalized, the poor, the hurting, the suffering.

Reaching out to the suffering is exactly what it means to be on the Jesus path.  On this path, people encounter Jesus.  And when we do, our eyes are opened to the reality of suffering all around us.  And our eyes are open to the ways in which we can help bring healing.  This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God.

But it takes a miracle; the transforming, healing, encounter with Jesus, who calls us, just as he called Bartimaeus.  When we respond to that call, our eyes are opened in a brand new way.  We see suffering, and we do what Bartimaeus did, leave the old life behind and come and follow the Jesus path to Jerusalem.

What is ahead for Jesus, for Bartimaeus, and for all the others who follow the Jesus path?  In Jerusalem, they will confront the power structures at the temple who are defining blind people as dishonorable and unclean.  And in the process, there will be suffering.  But Jerusalem is the place of both death and resurrection.  It is where new life can come, after the trusting acceptance, that suffering is part of life.

A Parable

Peter Rollins recounts an old Buddhist parable that illustrates this perfectly.  It is about a young woman who gives birth to a Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.11.45 PMbeautiful baby girl.  But after a few weeks, the child dies.  The woman is distraught.  She wraps the child’s body in a linen cloth, and then wraps that body to her own.  She goes in search of someone who can resuscitate the child.  No one can; not the faith healers, nor the witch doctors, she talks to the tribal elders, but nobody can help.  Finally one of the elders says, “It is rumored that high in the mountains, away from everyone, is a holy man, who is so close to the divine, he can even raise the dead.  Perhaps, this is a myth, or maybe he is long-since dead, but there is no one here who can help you.”

So, she packs some provisions and goes up the mountain in search of the holy man.  She eventually comes across a hut in the middle of nowhere, beside a crystal clear lake.  She knocks on the door.  After a few minutes, an old man comes to the door, and she begins to weep.  She says, “I don’t know if you are the one they talk about, and I don’t know if you can help, but my child is dead, and I must have her back.”

The old man takes pity on her.  He says, “I am the one you are looking for, and I can help, but I need to concoct a potion, and the potion requires ingredients.  And one of those ingredients is a handful of mustard seeds taken from the home that has not been touched by the black sun of suffering that has scorched your life.”  He tells her to go down into the village, find the mustard seeds, and then return.

So she goes down to the village.  She goes house to house, but she cannot find one family that has not been touched by suffering, death, and loss.  Yet, as she listens to the stories of other people’s suffering, and shares with them her own story, she gradually comes to terms with the loss of her child, and is able to bury her.

Being the Community on the Path

We are a community of the people on the Jesus-path.  The way of life on this path  is the opposite of a triumphalist, conqueringScreen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.25.17 PM of enemies, Joshua-style.  Rather, our eyes have been opened to suffering in a transforming manner by Jesus.  Jesus showed us the path that leads to Jerusalem, to resurrection, to transformation.  It is the path that, instead of heading away from suffering, actually notices it, and even accepts it, as Jesus did his own.

We are a community which makes space to tell our stories to each other, and to hear each others’ struggles, failures, griefs and losses, and to tell of our own.  And with eyes wide open to suffering, in the hearing and the telling, we are healed.

Having the Courage to See

But this is not a club.  With open eyes, we look around, as Jesus did, and notice where suffering is happening.  We notice the dishonorable who are being shut-up and shut-out.   We see children who need help with school work, some of whom come from families that know great suffering.  We see, with compassion, the refugees reaching Europe and we extend a hand to help.
Our eyes are open to the real suffering of people without adequate jobs, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, people suffering from depression or addiction, and we respond in every way we can.  We pray, and we act.  As Pope Francis has said,

“We pray for the hungry, and then we feed them, because that is how prayer works.”  

Can people change?  Can the blind see?  Yes, we must insist that transformation is possible.   Answering the call to follow Jesus, walking his path, as Bartimaeus did, is transformative.  It opens our eyes.  It fill us with compassionate vision.  And we experience healing for our own suffering, and become healers of others, with the courage to see.

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The Depth Dimension

The Depth Dimension

Sermon on Mark 10:35-45 for Pentecost +21, Oct. 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Today we will be reflecting about the depth dimension of life and what it means for us personally and for our community.  What do I mean by the depth dimension of life?  Well, we could examine it in a couple of ways.

The Depth Dimension in OurselvesScreen Shot 2015-10-16 at 12.53.46 PM

First, have you ever had that experience that I have, that you see yourself in the mirror, and at first you think, “is that really me?”  There is a moment of uncanny oddness, that we both know ourselves better than anyone in the world will ever know us, and yet,  a part of us remains a mystery.  Sometimes I get the same feeling looking at old pictures of myself.  Am I that person?  And yet, I am.  There is a depth dimension to my being that is both undeniable and unfathomable.

The Depth Dimension in OthersScreen Shot 2015-10-17 at 6.46.14 PM

The same is true of our experience of other people, even people close to us.  People surprise you; they are not who they seemed to be.  You discover that there is something beneath the experience of our impressions of them.  There is a depth dimension to everyone.

Our relationships with people reveal two qualities at once: both the amazing, life-giving, soul-filling power of people joined together, and yet the mysterious abyss that is the inner life of others, the depths of which we will never plumb in any complete sense.

The Depth Dimension in NatureScreen Shot 2015-10-17 at 6.50.18 PM

Nature itself is not what it seems to be on the surface.  We see trees and water, grass and sand, not molecules, nor electro-magnetism, and certainly not the weird quantum world.  We do not see mathematical properties or Boson fields.

There is a depth dimension to nature.  On the one hand, it can be terrifying in enormity and vastness, even dangerous and life threatening, and yet it supports and grounds our lives.  Of course, at a surface level, we take from nature the resources that sustain our lives, but that is not all.  We also encounter the vastness and beauty with wonder and awe.  That too is the depth dimension to nature.

In fact, is it not true that we experience a depth dimension in every aspect of our lives?  I think this is deep within our DNA.  We experience life as more than the sum total of individual moments.  Perhaps this is the experience of depth that gave our ancient pre-human ancestors the impetus to bury their dead.

The Depth Dimension in Suffering
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One of the ways we encounter this depth dimension of life is by noticing what has brought us to this present moment; what has made us the people that we are now; what experiences have shaped our lives.  Often, it has been the difficult straits we have passed though that have been occasions of growth.

Georgetown University professor John Haught, in his book “What is God?” suggests that after passing through great difficulty, there is often “a sense of contentment that transcends mere gratification” such that, people will report feeling grateful for having gone though the experience.

I do not mean to lump all suffering together and put a smiley face on it.  Some suffering traumatizes people and causes permanent damage.  Nevertheless, who has not had the sense that it was the struggles we went through, even the failures we experienced, that taught us, and formed us into the people we are today.  There is a depth dimension even to tragedy.

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Professor Haught suggests that this depth dimension is one way we should think of God.  God is the depth dimension of life.  Not directly experienced, but as the horizon of our experience.

Last week we spoke of the need to replace immature and literalist concepts of God, especially in this post-holocaust world, with more adequate concepts.  This is one direction in which we might go.  So, it is not that God is a being, separate and aloof from the world, but that the world exists in an through God, and God is known though the world of existence, as the depth dimension of that world.  Perhaps we could say that God is prior to the category of existence.

A Discipleship-Failure Story

Now, returning to the depth insight: that we grow and learn through failure and difficulty, we come to this small piece of the story of the life of Jesus.  This is what we call a discipleship-failure story.   What is going on in this story?  The disciples do not yet understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus has been teaching about.  They are still stuck in the literalist phase.  That is always inadequate, if not entirely mistaken.

So, thinking of a literal kingdom, they want top rank in the ruling cabinet.  James and John want to sit on the left and right of the throne.  This is so tragic on so many levels.  It is not just that they misunderstand the kingdom – that they do not get that the kingdom of God is already present, and everywhere present, precisely where God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven” – as  the Lord’s prayer teaches.

But at a deeper level, James and John make the classic mistake that, Jesus says, all the “gentiles” that is, unenlightened people, make.  They think that life is about power and status, prestige and control.  Jesus says,

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

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It is true, a great many people live their entire lives believing that their titles, their roles, their social standing and their assets are themselves.  They think their family, their tribe, their nation or race or religion define them.  These are the important to establish, to give us an adequate sense of our selves, but they are only the project of the first half of life.

It is simply not true, it never has been true, that these are enough, and thinking they are has only led to frustration and suffering.  All of those ways of identifying ourselves are what Richard Rohr calls our “false self” or our “small self.”  None of them goes to our core.  Except for the people, anything that we would loose if our cruise ship capsized, and left us stranded alone on an island are in that category of the false self.

The small, false self is the self that is forever comparing and competing with other selves, for approval, for recognition, and for control.  This is the self that gets offended.

As we grow, in what Rohr calls the second half of life, we become aware of the depth dimension of life.  We recognized that our lives are grounded in an essential way that would still be true on that island alone, still true on our death beds, still true in a tragedy.   That even without all of those other ego supports, there is an ultimate ground to our existence.   Religion simply names it; we call that ultimate grounding God.

Learning the Jesus Path

So James and John are still living in the first half of life, wanting control, and when the other disciples hear of it, their small selves get offended; it is all about comparing and competing for them, still, so Jesus has to gently nudge them towards a deeper understanding.

“whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus did not just come to help isolated individuals, he came to form communities.  Notice that the whole story of Jesus is the story of Jesus forming a community of people.  We call them the disciples.  There were twelve in the inner circle, but we also know that the circle grew and included women and children.  The story is told as a journey story.  They literally followed Jesus on his path, as he taught them what it means to be a fully alive, authentic person.

He taught them, as in this lesson, with words, but he also taught them by his life.  He was different.  Unlike others, and contrary to expectations, he was radically at home with people of all sorts.  He seemed to go out of his way to be a welcoming, gracious presence to the people who had been marginalized or excluded, to the suffering ones, the overlooked ones.

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All of this was a lesson in how the new community could be.  Instead of being a community of comparison and competition, this could be a community of self-giving service.  A community of people who recognized the depth dimension of life and knew that they were ultimately grounded in God, and therefore were free to love, to give, to serve, even suffer for each other.

It is exactly in those times of openness to each other and service to each other that we experience the depth dimension of the presence of God.  When two or three are gathered, when a cup of water is shared, when we use the gifts God has given us to serve each other, something of that abyss of the mystery of ourselves and others falls away, and we experience the divine.  When the least of these are served, the spirit of Christ is present.  When the stranger is welcomed as guest, God is there.

When people gather to share about their lives together, as we have been doing on Wednesday evenings, amazing things happen.  When people get together to paint a house, God is there.  When people step up and lead projects of mercy to the refugees fleeing Syria and other terrible situations, God is there.  When people share gifts of music or teach our children or help kids with their homework, or volunteer on a Habitat house, God is present.

The Jesus path is not trouble free.  Jesus tells James and John that they will drink a cup of suffering and be baptized with a baptism of pain; that is true for all of us.  But being grounded in the depth dimension of life, we can wait, in those times of suffering, with trust.  Being grounded in God, we can, as Jesus showed us, even face our death with the confidence that we are in supported by “everlasting arms.”

And as a community of God-grounded people on the Jesus path who trust in the depth dimension of life, we are there for each other in our times of tragedy, in our suffering, and even at our deaths.

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Beyond Happy Thoughts

Beyond Happy Thoughts

Sermon on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 for Pentecost +20, Year B, October 11, 2015

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Then Job answered:
   “Today also my complaint is bitter;
       his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
       that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
       and fill my mouth with arguments.
    I would learn what he would answer me,
       and understand what he would say to me.
    Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
       No; but he would give heed to me.
    There an upright person could reason with him,
       and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

   “If I go forward, he is not there;Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.28.18 PM
       or backward, I cannot perceive him;
    on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
       I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

    “God has made my heart faint;
        the Almighty has terrified me;
     If only I could vanish in darkness,
        and thick darkness would cover my face!

I cannot imagine being the parent of the student who was shot and killed at Northern Arizona University this week, or the parent of any of the other students who died recently in the senseless meaningless school shootings in America.   What would it feel like to hear the news about it?  I think I would be in denial at first.  Usually when we hear of something too tragic to believe the first word out of our mouths is “No!”

But then when we know it is real, we feel anger.  It is hard to know where to put the anger – so it often goes all over the place.  There is always plenty of anger to go around in a tragedy.   Somehow, we think, a blame target is what we need.

God is often in the bulls eye of that target.  Where was God when the gun came out?  Why? is the question.   If God knew it was going to happen, or at least, could see it happening, why did he not stop it?  Why not make the gun jam?  Why not make the shooter miss?  Why not do something?

In fact, it does not take a tragedy to get us to that place, does it?  Any evil we live through, anything that makes us suffer pain can bring up the problem: why didn’t God prevent it?  Where was God?  Is there a God?  Because, if there is, he would have done something.  Anyone with the power to do something, anyone good, that is, with the power to do something, would do it.

You do not turn your back from a child walking towards the curb.  What kind of person would just stand idly by?  Even hearing of tragedies on the other side of the world can bring these questions upon us with bullying force.

Every one of us adults has encountered that moment; that experience of the absence of God.   This is part of the human condition, to both experience the divine, the transcendent, to glimpse the sacred, and to feel abandoned; to doubt whether there is a God at all.

Homo Naledids_gurtov6

Recently scientists discovered a new species in the human lineage.  They named the species  Homo Naledi.  Bones of 15 individuals were found inside a cave in South Africa so narrow that it took a team of young women scientists to do the excavations.  Consider for a moment the thought that already, two and a half million years ago, the ancient ancestors of humans were already burying their dead.  They had some concept of life beyond this one.

We all have this internal conundrum that we live with: that somehow this is not all there is; that there is another world beyond our senses; and yet we are mortal.  We die.  Our lives are finite, in fact, fragile.

So humans have long been on a quest to understand the divine; to know what God ,or the gods, are like.  Every culture has religion of some sort: there are shamans,  for some, priests for others.  There are funeral rites, prayer practices, postures, sacred places, sacred times, and all kinds of sacred words.  We tell stories, narratives about the ways humans interact with the Divine.  There are mythologies, legends, epics and scriptures that we treasure and pass down through the generations.

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One of our ancient legends is recorded in the biblical book of Job.  And this story was told precisely to work out the problem we have been discussing: what does it mean to live in a world that includes a God, but one that allows great evil and suffering?

Job, the author tells us, is a righteous man.  But in the heavenly court, an accusing spirit called the satan tells God that if he were not so blessed with such a good life, he would curse God rather than worship him.  So, in this story, God makes a wager with the satan.  “Go ahead; touch him and we shall see.”  So he does.

Job’s children die.  His fortune is destroyed, his health breaks, even his wife counsels despair, saying to Job

curse God and die.” (2:9)

In the course of this long poem, 4 men come to Job.  Each in turn argues to him that the way God works is by giving people what they deserve.  Good people are blessed, bad people suffer.  Job is suffering, therefore Job must have done something utterly unrighteous.  We call this the doctrine of divine retribution.  Blessings or curses; you get what is coming.   The Hebrew Bible proclaims this boldly.  The four so called “friends” of Job do have the bible on their side.   If you are suffering, you must deserve it.

Now, Job is a grown man.  A husband, father, and businessman.  It is quite possible that he is hiding unrighteousness.  He would not be the first person who looked noble on the outside to be hiding his immorality.  The author has told the reader that the men are wrong; Job is righteous; but in the story, they have no certainty that he is.  So they argue.

Job does not know why he is suffering.  He does not know about God’s wager with the satan – and in fact he is never told.  So, like all people, he never gets an answer to the question, “why?”.

It seems odd to me that Job, as he argues his case, does not bring up his own children who died, or the deaths of other children.  How do you make a case for retribution when little children suffer or die?  Are not the two words “pediatric oncology” alone enough to disprove the doctrine of retribution?

Demanding a Day in Court: Theodicy

But Job wants  his day in court.  He would be the plaintiff and God would be on trial.  Job says,

Today also my complaint is bitter;
       his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
       that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
       and fill my mouth with arguments”

He demands justice.  It is not fair that he, being righteous, is suffering. God needs to defend himself, to justify himself in the face of this evil.  This is what theologians call theodicy; the justification of God.

But where do you go to have your day in court against God?  What if God will not show up?    This is Job’s problem; where is God?

“If I go forward, he is not there;
       or backward, I cannot perceive him;
    on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
       I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

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Who among us has not asked exactly those questions?  And who has not been utterly frustrated by the same lack of answers?   This a common experience.  Since the 16th century, following the writings of St. John of the Cross, we have called it the “Dark night of the soul.”  Even Mother Teresa, her diaries revealed, spent years feeling abandoned by God, in the face of evil and suffering.

Where is God when evil happens?  Sometimes an answer begins in the question.  What do we mean when we say “God”?

From Plato and Aristotle we get a god some have come to call the “omni-god.”  The God of omnipotence and omniscience, all powerful, all knowing.  Recently Richard Kearney has called this the “alpha-god”.  This is the God Job believed he was appealing to.  But Kearney goes on to quote Elie Weisel who said that that god died in the hangman’s noose at Auschwitz, and adds, 

“After Dachau, Sobibor, and Treblinka, the notion that everything happens according to some Divine Plan was finally exposed as a cruel sham. The idea that God orchestrates good and evil alike was no longer tolerable.”

So where does that leave us?

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Kearny’s book is called “Anatheism”  Ana means again.  The subtitle explains: “returning to God after God.”  In it, he argues that there may be a possibility, to make a wager, just as God made with the satan.  Only this wager would be a bet that there might be a way to return to God, after letting go of the Omni-God of Aristotle.  But if there were such a way back to God, it would not come with proofs or certainty.  It would never rise above the level of a wager.

And if one were to wager that there may be a God, after the God who died in Auschwitz has been proven false, that God would have to make sense in our experience.   That God could never be known in any comprehensive sense.  There are simply too many unsolved puzzles, unaccounted for tragedies.

But why would anyone make that wager?  Why return to God after god?   The answer is found in our experience.  We humans bury our dead.  We humans have a sense that there is such a thing as “the good,” and that there is evil.  We have a craving for justice, even though none of us has lived in an entirely just world.  We have a capacity for caring for the weak and the injured that makes no sense in a strictly Darwinian world.  We experience beauty, even wonder.  And we will risk our lives, even die for something as intangible as love.

These are the glimmers and glimpses that give us what TS Elliot called “hints and guesses.”  And so, having left behind the first naiveté of youthful literalism, and having gone through the dark night of the soul, the loss of the alpha-god, we are willing to make the wager.  We make the gamble that there is a God to return to, on the basis of a second naiveté, in the language of Paul Recour.   In the second naiveté we come to understand that the language of faith is the language of symbol.  Its tools are myth and metaphor.

So we do speak of God as Jesus taught us, as our “Father in heaven.”  And we understand that this metaphor encodes something essential; it is a wager that we are upheld, somehow, in essential goodness.  That, as St. Julian of Norwich could say,

“All will be well; all manner of things will be well.” 

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We acknowledge that the God of whom we speak after this return is “other” and so, is encountered in “the other.”  When we practice hospitality by welcoming strangers, somehow God is present.  In the least of these, we encounter Jesus.  The miracle of goodness and grace happens when humans break bread together as equals, and share bread with the hungry.  When two or three gather, the Spirit of Christ is present.

This is at the core and the center of our faith.  Jesus himself, on the cross, was not rescued by the alpha-god.  And that was the God he was able to let go of, after asking,

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

Was Jesus tempted in every way as we are?  That was his most profound temptation.  But returning to God, he was able to say,

“Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  

“All will be well.”

We do not pretend to certainty or to understanding.  We are content to live with mystery.

This is where Job ends.  God never answers Job’s questions.  But in the legend, God, instead, asks Job many questions like:

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
        or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?…
“What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
         or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?”  (Job 38)

And Job replies,

“I have uttered what I did not understand,
        things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Wonder and mystery is all that can be expressed.  This is the second half of the first line of the Lord’s prayer.  After addressing God with the metaphor of Father who is in heaven, Jesus acknowledges the mystery, saying “hallowed be (holy is; sacred is; divine is) your name.”

Then, in a simple second naiveté he is able to put his needs for daily bread into God’s hands.   And it was this simple trust that allowed him to face his death with equanimity; with shalom; with peace, and even with forgiveness.

This gives us the basis for our hope, that even in tragedy, even in the face of evil, and especially in the face of our own mortality, we can finally rely on the depth dimension of life that we cannot explain.  We pray:

“Into your hands, O God, we commend our spirits.”

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What the World Needs Now

What the World Needs Now

Sermon for World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2015, on Ephesians 3:14-21

Ephesians 3:14-21

I bow my knees before the Father,  from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

On this World Communion Sunday, I feel blessed in many ways, none the least of which is that I have had the opportunity to DSC04923worship with Christians in so many places around the world.  One year before we had children we spent the summer in Kenya where we worshiped with African congregations in a wide variety of denominations from Anglican and Presbyterian to Wesleyan and Baptist.  I have worshiped with Romanian and Croatian Pentecostals, Baptists and Catholics and with Serbian Orthodox Christians, and often with Hungarian Reformed believers.

Once I even got to worship with Palestinian Lutherans in Bethlehem, hearing hymns that I knew in English, being  sung in Arabic. I have worshiped in Latin America too, and maybe someday I will get to go to Asia and experience worship there.   Anticipating this World Communion Sunday has reminded me of these experiences of the global church.  It is wonderful that within our walls each Sunday a group of Christians come to worship in Portuguese.

The Basis of Our Unity

What is it that we Christians around the world share in common?  Often, on World Communion Sunday, churches will say the Nicene Creed.  This is the one creed still affirmed by all the major Christian traditions: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

But is that creed and what it proclaims the basis of our unity?  This needs to be heard very clearly: the answer is No.  Our unity as Christians does not come from shared belief in a creed about Christ, it comes from Christ alone.   Let me say this more Jesus' feetclearly; Jesus is at the heart of our faith.

And this is why I have hope for the future.  I believe we are living in an extraordinary time now in which Christians are re-discovering Jesus.  There are so many books being published now about Jesus; I have never seen such an outpouring.  There are seminars, conferences, festivals, and blogs by the hundreds – probably thousands (who knows?) focused on Jesus.

I am so thankful for this.  It has often been pointed out that the creeds completely leave out the life and teachings of Jesus.  All that we get between the statement that he was born of the virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate is a comma.  If a comma can be tragic, that is a tragic comma.

It is tragic because it is not belief in the the virgin birth or the ascension to the father that give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.  It is certainly not the cryptic line about Jesus descending to hell (which, by the way, was added centuries later) that gives us the courage to face the coming week with joy and hope.

And none of the lines of the creeds tell us how to live.  None of them mentions what the life of a Christian is supposed to look like and be like.

The First 324 Years

If we stopped for a moment on World Communion Sunday to ask what it was that gave the Church its character, its grounding, its sense of purpose in the 324 years before the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine and the council he called at Nicea, in other words, before the Nicene Creed became the officially orthodox statement that defined Christianity from then on, there is only one answer: Jesus.

The book of Acts says that Christians were first called Christianos or “Christians” in Antioch.  Christianos literally just means “belonging to Christ” as for example a slave would belong to a master; the ending indicates possession, like an apostrophe +s in English.

But before being called Christians, they were called people of “The Way” which means the path – the Jesus path (see Acts 24:14).  To be a Christian was simply to be on the Jesus path; the way of life that Jesus opened up for us and on which he leads us.

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In our Wednesday night youth program, this is our focus.  On the wall, from floor to ceiling is an artist’s rendering of a path.  It’s the Jesus path poster.  Each week we add a new footstep on the path.  We are teaching our young people to be people of the Way; the Jesus way.

Being a COG

And it is this Way that will give them reasons to get out of bed in the morning and courage to face the day ahead.  The first footprint we made was the one that says who we are, our identity.  Jesus taught us to approach God as our Father, so the first step is knowing that we are COG’s, children of God, and that nothing in the world can ever change that.

That is what the letter to the Ephesians says:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  

On World Communion Sunday we celebrate our common identity as humans: we are all children of God; every family on earth.  If Genesis 1 and 2 means anything, it means we are all one family, for we share one common origin.

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Step two on the Jesus path is called “Prayers to Papa”.  Jesus taught us to pray to our father in heaven, calling him “Abba” or papa.  Papa knows we need daily bread, and he invites us to trust him to provide it.

This is part of the revolutionary nature of the Jesus path.  It is perhaps subtle, but understand what this simple prayer is an alternative to:  to an orientation to God based on fear.  The picture of God as Papa is an alternative to a picture of a God who is so full of wrath and so interested in punishing that an animal must be sacrificed at a temple by a priest in order to remove guilt and shame.  That all goes away when we can know that God is for us, not against us, and that our Papa wants to be in communion with us, even over the mundane aspects of our lives like daily bread.

This is what gives us all the courage to get out of bed and face a new day.  We trust that God will be there for us and with us, in all of the events of the day.  God will not magically make everything go to our liking, but God will be there in the difficulty, in the struggle, even in the tragic.  We can trust God, as Jesus demonstrated, all the way to the end, even at our deaths.

Jesus did not live the life of a secluded hermit.  The God whom he called Abba, he knew, was not his own private deity.  Rather, God is the father of all humanity, and wills the good for all of humanity as well.  So Jesus lived a life for others; on behalf of others.  This too is an essential part of the Jesus path.

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So, the third footprint we put on the Jesus path poster proclaims the kind of life Jesus taught us to live: Compassion.   Compassion, caring, mercy, or simply love in action is the  Jesus Way of life.  There is no better way to summarize it.  Jesus lived a life of compassion and caring and calls us to live lives of compassionate caring.  This is fundamental.

That is why I chose the Ephesians text for World Communion Sunday.  Not only does it assert the Fatherhood of God, it also proclaims the basis of the Christian way of life.  The author says:

“I pray that, … [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”

What is the soil that grounds us, that our living roots go down into for nourishment?  It is love.  It is not dogma.  It is not a creed.  It is love that we see exemplified in Jesus, who gave himself for us; love in action; compassion.

The song got it right: what the world needs now is love; not another creed, but rather a movement of people whose agenda is to put compassion into action and to   love as Christ loved.

So, we are participating in a project to provide for the refugees fleeing violence and hopelessness in Syria and other places.  Compassion; love in action.  That is the Jesus path.

Compassionate Action for the Common Good

Sometimes compassion calls us in to action on behalf of others.  Compassion for people leads us to stand up for justice for people who are being treated unfairly.  Compassion means that we hold people who are in positions of power responsible to use their power ethically and compassionately.

Compassion leads us to work and strive for the common good so that we all may share the benefits of a just and equal society.  Compassion means we stand solidly against the use of violence as a means.  We respect all human life and work to protect the safety of every person.

We grieve that we are a society that is so violent.  We grieve for the ways violence has become an acceptable norm.  We longScreen Shot 2015-10-03 at 11.59.16 AM for the days when families will reject violent entertainment, violent video games, films filled with violence, and super-heroes whose powers enable their cosmic-scale violence.

We grieve with the people of Umpqua and for the tragic fact that they are not alone.  We grieve that there have been 294 mass shootings – in which four or more people were killed or injured by a gun – so far in 2015.  It is not anywhere within reason to accept that 9,956 people have been killed by firearms so far this year in our country – three times the number of people killed on 9/11.

We do not believe that simply making laws alone will change this – Oregon’s gun laws are quite strong – though certainly a lot more could be done to bring normal caution to the kind of unfettered access we have in so many places.

But the change we seek must be deeper.  As people on the Jesus path, we must be people who believe in the power of love and compassion, and who therefore reject violence as a solution.  We have become a culture of violence.  Let us be people of an alternative way to live; the Jesus alternative.

Call to our Roots

On this World Communion Sunday, let us hear a call to return to our roots.  Just as it was for the first three centuries of Christianity before the creeds were written, so today, what unites us as Christians is Jesus.  We are followers of Jesus.  Knowing ourselves as children of of God, we seek to be followers of Jesus, rooted and grounded in love.

This is what we celebrate as we come to the Lord’s Table.  The bread that we break is a symbol of our unity: one bread, the body of Christ, given for the world.  One cup, poured out so that all may know that God is still giving God’s self to each of us, as Ephesians says, so that we all may be

“strengthened in our inner beings with power through his Spirit”

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