Countdown to a New Reformation

Countdown to a New Reformation

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10 for All Saints Day, October 30, 2016

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

My family lived in Croatia for a decade. During most of that time, because of the war, it screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-5-46-44-pmwas impossible to drive south through Bosnia. That was a real pity because that was the short cut to the southern coast of Croatia. But towards the end of our time there, it became possible to take that route.

I will never forget the time we loaded up the family and crossed the boarder. It was a difficult trip. There were roads that were not on the map, and roads that were not named, and a turn we should not have taken. The further we went down that road, the more I began to suspect we were on the wrong path. The paved surface gave way to a gravel road, which terminated in a rock quarry.

If you are off the right path, the further you go, the worse it gets. That was the overwhelming consensus of opinion of the reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century. To them, the church had gotten off on the wrong path, and over the centuries, had ended up in a bad place.

The 500th Anniversary: 1 Year Away

Today we begin the one year countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-5-42-36-pmReformation. On October 31, 1517, the young professor, monk, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg castle door, which is what you did when you wanted to organize a theological debate.

The short version of events is that the institutional church in those days had no stomach for the debate. By that time, the church had been on the wrong path for so long that its errors had fossilized. The church, as an institution, had become so institutionalized in practices and beliefs that it bore almost no resemblance to the vision Jesus had of the kingdom of God on earth. It looked like a kingdom alright, but God had left the building.

So the clarion call of the reformers was “ad fontes”, or back to the fountain; back to the fountainhead, or the source. Let us return, they said, to the place we got off the right road, because that is the only solution when you find that the road you have been on has left you at a dead end at the bottom of a quarry.

That is our quest as well; to return to the source of our faith, which is the life and teachings of Jesus. This story we read today, unique to Luke’s gospel, will help us.

The “wee little man” Story

This story is a favorite of children; those of us who grew up in Sunday School know the screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-03-45-pmsong about Zacchaeus the “wee little man” who claimed up the Sycamore tree to see Jesus. Children relate to the small man who has difficulty seeing what’s going on.
Zacchaeus may have been short, but he was powerful. He was not just a tax collector which alone would have made him wealthy, he was the chief tax collector, Luke tells us. He had a management position. In case we miss the point, Luke says explicitly,

“and he was rich.”

Why mention that detail? Because Luke is telling a long story, and this is just one episode. The very last thing that happened before this story was the episode about Jesus healing a blind beggar.

So these two people, the blind beggar and the rich chief tax collector are at opposite ends of the economic and social ladder. Jesus has reached out to the poor man; what about the rich man?

To make the story even more interesting, before the blind beggar story, Luke has told the story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do, and Jesus has told him to sell everything and give the money to the poor (Lk 18:22).

To Jesus, money was a spiritual issue about which he had a lot to say. He was tough on people who had lots of money. But his attitude towards them was complex, not simple, as the Zacchaeus story shows.

By the way, many of Luther’s 95 theses were about the ways the church in his day was exploiting the poor by selling indulgences by which you could supposedly shorten someones’s suffering in the afterlife. In other words, the church was abusing the poor. Economic justice was an issue for the Reformation from the start.

Luke’s Gaps

Luke’s telling of this story is short. There are huge gaps in it. We wonder what conversation Jesus and Zacchaeus had? We wonder what Zacchaeus had already heard about Jesus that attracted him, that made him want to climb a tree that day? Had he heard the story of the rich man?

Had he heard of Jesus’ first sermon in which he said he had come to bring good news to the poor (Lk 4:18)? Maybe he had heard of Levi the tax collector. Perhaps Levi worked for him, and he knew the story – that Jesus went to his house because, he said, he had come like a doctor, not to the healthy but to the sick.

Maybe Zacchaeus, in spite of his wealth and power understood that he too was sick and needed healing; that he was lost and needed to be found. That his small self, his economic status, his power, his position, had left him as unable to see what he was looking for as the blind beggar. And he needed more than a tree. He needed a personal encounter with Jesus.

The Initiative of Grace

One of the huge themes of the Reformation was “sola gratia” (they had to have a Latin screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-24-58-pmphrase for everything) or “grace alone.” In other words, God always makes the first move. God is gracious. God is not waiting on our performance, or even our promises. God graciously accepts us and invites us to know ourselves as loved, as forgiven, as called on the journey of faith.

So, not waiting for anything from Zacchaeus, Jesus takes the initiative, just as God does with us, and invites himself over. Probably Luke thinks he has told us already so much about Jesus’ call for economic justice that he does not need to repeat it here. All we see is the conclusion. Zacchaeus announces,

“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Jesus calls this “salvation,” saying,

“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Jesus shows us God – that is our Christian theology. Jesus shows us that God is not hooked by social constructs, in either direction. In Jesus’ ministry to the blind beggar we see God reaching out to the marginalized poor, and in Jesus’ ministry to the wealthy chief tax collector, refusing to hold him in contempt, we see God extending grace to the rich.

The blind beggar can now see, and he is invited to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus is not lost in his materialism anymore, and becomes a person of generous concern for the common good.

The Crowd as Obstacle

Luke added an interesting detail in this story. Zacchaeus’ difficulty seeing Jesus was not just because of his size. Luke says,screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-28-18-pm

He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, he could not, because he was short in stature.

The crowd was keeping him from seeing Jesus. So he had two problems, not one. His small self, all wrapped up in material prosperity was an issue, and the crowd, the people of his culture were also in the way.

Sometimes, the crowd is part of the problem. What everyone accepts as normal and true is simply an aberration. Just because most people are used to it and do not question it does not make it true. A bad idea that has lasted a long time is still a bad idea.

A wrong path, the longer you are on it, only leads further away from your destination. Traveling the wrong road for a long time does not make it the right road.

For the reformers of the 16th century, like Luther and Calvin, the fact that the church had become fossilized in its practices and beliefs over many years was not an argument for keeping things as they were.

Today: a New Reformation Underway

Today, one year short of the 500th anniversary of the start of that reformation movement, the church stands at another moment in which great changes are underway. We are living in extraordinary times.screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-33-35-pm

Many people have concluded that our Protestant Reformation that started with a call to return to the fountainhead has, itself, gone down paths that have led to dead ends. The movement that began with a call for debate has become institutionalized.

But an amazing thing is happening in our times. Just as Jesus brought a new vision and and an entirely new way of living to Zacchaeus, a man whose life had been totally tied up in his culture’s values, so Jesus is bringing new life into institutionalized, even fossilized communities.

Jesus, the source, is again being listened to and heeded today. The reformer’s quest to return to the sources is the quest of many today who are returning to the life and teachings of Jesus for our direction.

This has led to all kinds of movements of change that we are now a part of.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to women, a new attention to the poor, and a new perspective on economic justice.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to mysticism and contemplative prayer, just as Jesus practiced.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a radical hospitality that opens our table of fellowship to everyone, especially to people to whom the door has been shut in the past as it has been, to LGBTQ people.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new commitment to our planet as we see ourselves as connected by our creator to the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea that Jesus drew inspiration from.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to people of other faiths, just as Jesus was not put off by heretic Samaritans nor even by pagan Romans, but rather extended God’s compassion to them, without requiring them to first sign off on a creed.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new understanding that our small self, our reputations, our identities in nation, in language, in religion, is not our true self, but rather our true self, and everyone else’s true self, is our identity as children of a gracious God, who is best defined by Love.

So, in this start of a year long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we find ourselves in a new reformation.

The Spirit is active today, luring us, coaxing us, persuading us to find goodness, truth and beauty in this amazing world, and to seek the common good until everyone benefits as we have from its blessings.

Pride and Prejudice: A Close Look at a Core Commitment

Pride and Prejudice: A Close Look at a Core Commitment

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for October 23, 2016, Pentecost +23 C

Luke 18:9-14screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-7-54-32-pm
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Most of us have heard this parable and know the ending, which creates a huge problem for us.  The whole point of Jesus’ parable is to call out people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” saying, in effect, “Don’t do that.”

But what do we do?  We see the smug, self-righteous Pharisee, contrasted with the self-effacing, repentant tax-collector, and we identify with the tax-collector.  So our problem is that we feel self-righteous and we regard the Pharisee with contempt.  Well, this parable about people who “regarded others with contempt” ends up putting us in the bull’s eye.   Holding the self-righteous in contempt is self-righteousness.  Holding anyone in contempt is self-righteousness.

Anyway, the whole point of the parable teaches humility before God and other people.  This was a huge theme for Jesus.  Can you ever imagine a situation in which Jesus avoided people or looked down on people because he considered himself above them?  It is unthinkable.   In fact just the opposite.  Jesus had a reputation and was criticized bitterly for hanging out with the very people that others regarded with contempt.

Good Pride

Let me clear the air about one thing first: it is good to feel good about doing good.  It is screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-7-29-00-pmgood to feel good about accomplishments, about good grades, about good performances, about a job well done, a meal well prepared, a kindness that was appreciated.  If you want to use the word “pride” for this, then there is a good side to pride.  We all want to be looked up to and esteemed for doing things well – that is both natural and right.

Christian humility is not about being unwilling to take a sincere compliment with a simple “thank you” and feeling good about it.   In fact receiving gratitude simply with a “thank you” is perfectly legitimate.  I am sure you have noticed that when a person denies a compliment it makes you feel the need to offer it again, which is an awkward loop to get into.

The Goodness of the Pharisee

So, back to the story.  The Pharisee was actually doing a lot of valuable, positive spiritualscreen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-06-04-pm practices.  He fasts twice a week – I do not know anyone who does that.  He gives a tenth of his income to the temple.  If we all did that we would never have any budget problems.

Nationally, Christians contribute about 2% of their income to all charities combined, church included among them.  Clearly, then, this Pharisee takes his spiritual life seriously, even to the point of being willing to make significant personal sacrifices.  He is also obeying the commandments, which is what I think he means when he thanks God that he is not a “rogue or an adulterer.”  He is a good fella.

He should feel good about being good.  He should feel happy about his disciplined spiritual practices.  That is not where he went wrong.

The Ego and Contempt

The place he went wrong is, as Jesus said, in “regarding others with contempt.” This is exactly what the ego wants to do.  The ego inside us all, wants to not only feel good screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-13-45-pmabout being good, it wants to feel superior.  It is not good enough to merely be good, the ego wants to be better.   The ego wants to compare and compete.  The ego loves feeling self-righteous.

Humility, the refusal to regard others with contempt, is not our natural attitude, any more than courage or patience is natural.  It must be taught and learned and practiced over time.  In other words, humility is a virtue.

When we practice humility, our ego feels assaulted.  Listen to this, from “Religion and Ethics”:

“It is well known that “humility” (humilitas in Latin; tapeinos in Greek) was not a virtue in Graeco Roman ethics. In fact, the word meant something like “crushed” or “debased.” It was associated with failure and shame.”  source: “How Christian humility upended the world”

The ego feels crushed and shamed when it is not given permission to regard others with contempt.  But humility is fundamental to Christian ethics.  God, as the source of every human, has created all of us in God’s image (in Greek, icon).  To hold someone in contempt is to have contempt for the icon of God.  Contempt denies what is basic and fundamental to the Christian view of God, the world and all humanity.

Good Regret

Back to the story, the tax collector really does have things to regret.  He should feel bad about the  life he has lived.  As a two-dimensional, cut-out character, he is foil for the Pharisee who tries to live a disciplined, obedient life.  The tax collector is working for the Romans in a system that allows him to aggrandize his material holdings by legalized extortion.  Of course tax collectors were resented and despised.  They caused real suffering.

But somehow this one sees the light.  He has an “ah-ha” moment.  He realizes the harm screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-25-53-pmhe has caused.  He rightly feels remorseful.  Remorse and regret are also legitimate emotions.  To have done wrong, and to recognize it, is the beginning of transformation.  Jesus’ original message was not simply that the Kingdom of God had come, but rather, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Repentance, or literally, an about face in thinking and acting, is a necessary first step to entering the kingdom of equals.

As Christians we regret every time we have treated others with contempt.  We regret every harsh word, every condemning judgment, every time we have let our egos take advantage of another person.

We do not wallow in regret and remorse.  We simply admit the truth that we have done something wrong, and set about to right it, to correct it, to stop repeating it.

Jesus’ Incarnational Model

For followers of Jesus, we hold humility as a core commitment.  Central to our faith is the story  of incarnation.  When we tell the story of God, we tell the story of God becoming a human being.  Not a human aristocrat, but a human peasant, born into poverty, born in an inglorious, out of the way, backwater village, on the fringes of the Roman empire.

Our story is of Jesus who lived his life on the margins, loving people whom others held in contempt.  And our story ends with Jesus on the cross, looking at those who had done him wrong, who had repaid good with evil, saying

Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.”  screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-27-56-pm

Humility is not a peripheral virtue, nor is it negligible.  It is central, and it is significant.  The core message of Christianity is that God forgives us.  The core commitment of a Christian is  therefore forgiveness of others.  The only prayer Jesus taught us to pray says,

“forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive…

But, forgiveness is direct assault on our egos.  Our egos want the feeling of superiority that we get from being morally superior to others.  It is a death to our egos to let go of the vengeance we think we deserve.

But Christianity is all about the process of resurrection only after a death.  That is the pattern stamped into the universe: death before new life.

Beyond the Personal

Christian humility is so fundamental that it extends far beyond personal relationships.  We not only refuse to hold individuals in contempt, we refuse to hold groups of people in contempt.  This is the temptation to scapegoating we mentioned last week.  To hold Muslims in contempt is to do exactly what that Pharisee in the parable did.  “I thank you, God, that I am not a Muslim!”  Did not God make Muslim humans in his image too?

Scapegoating Muslims or immigrants or any other group is a form of holding them in exactly the kind of contempt that Jesus is warning against.

Last week we spoke of the struggle we live with, as people of faith, in a world like this.  We talked about how Jacob, “the grasper” was  named “The One Who Struggles”, or Israel.  I mentioned that faith causes me a great deal of struggle.

I lived in a part of Europe where the disease of nationalism was all around.  It opened my eyes in a new way to the profound depths of the issue.  How was it that the holocaust took place in Europe which had been “Christian” for nearly two thousand years?

How had the message of Jesus so totally failed to prevent the scapegoating of Jews?  How in the world had it become not only tolerable but absolutely acceptable to hold other humans in contempt?  And yet, masses of people who called themselves Christians in Germany, in Italy, in France, and also in Britain were anti-semitic.

I have struggled a long time with the kind of Christianity that failed on such a massive scale.  And I struggle with the kind of Christianity I see in my day that seems to accept scapegoating today.

Is our faith not entirely centered in the story of a an innocent victim, scapegoated by the people of his day?  Should Christianity not have brought the end of all scapegoating?   screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-31-16-pm

It is time for us to identify with the humble, repentant tax collector in this parable.  It is time, now nearly 500 years after the Protestant Reformation to reassess where Christianity has come from and where it has ended up.

The great motto of the Reformation was “ad fontes” or back to the fountain; meaning back to the original sources.  It is time to reclaim that motto.  To return to the fountain of our faith, which is Jesus.  Whatever happened, over the years, that ended up with a faith comfortable with having contempt for others is a long, dark story, but let this be the generation in which that story ends so that a new chapter can begin.   The source we wish to return to is the humble Jesus who is not above coming to people like us, and extending God’s mercy and love.

Another great motto of the Reformation is “The church reformed, always reforming.”  Let us be the church that is always reforming.  We do not have to be in the future what we were in the past.  That is the message of grace and forgiveness that we depend on every day of our lives.  Transformation is possible as we orient our lives around the one “who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant”.

Practical Help

If it is the ego that is at the heart of the problem of our propensity to hold other people in contempt and scapegoat them, then the best practical help towards controlling the ego is contemplative prayer, or meditation.  In meditation, we practice saying “no” to the ego that wants to chatter away in our minds.  In meditation we shut down that voice that wants to compare and compete.  Is it any wonder that Jesus, who was famous for not holding anyone in contempt, spent so much time in regular silent prayer meditation?

When we build into our lives the regular spiritual practice of silent meditation, we begin to get new insight into our own egos.  Meditation teaches us to recognize thoughts, especially judgmental thoughts, for what they are.  They are not the truth of the world; they are merely our own thoughts.  We do not have to live controlled by them.  We can let them go, to be replaced by a deeper insight, that we are all icons of God, made in God’s image.  No one is beyond redemption.  No one is contemptible to God.  The God who can love and forgive us, can love and forgive everyone; and God calls us to do the same.

The Struggle that Defines Us

Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8 for Pentecost +22, October 16, 2016

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

What does it mean to be a person of Christian faith in a world like this?  That is a question that will not let me go.  If faith means anything at all, it screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-7-25-18-pmmeans trust.  To have faith is to trust God with your life.  Easier said than done.

There are at least two reasons why it is hard to have faith in a world like this.  One is that you probably should have some idea of what God is like, if you are going to try to trust God.  The other difficulty is that the world is like this.  Lots of bad things happen.  The most recent example is that Hurricane Matthew killed over1,000, most of whom were desperately poor Haitians.   The number will rise much higher, they tell us, if we add deaths from Cholera.

Besides big public events like hurricanes and the holocaust, we all have our own experiences of bad things that have happened to us, or to our families.  So what does it mean to be a person of faith in a world like it is?

What is God, in a World Like This?

That brings us to the God-question.  What is God like?  Specifically, what is God like, given what the world is like?  This question is so difficult that it causes many people to give up believing altogether.

They put it like this: if God is all loving and all powerful, why does evil and suffering exist?  A loving God would not want evil and suffering, and an all-powerful God would be able to stop it.  So either God is not loving or not all-powerful, or simply does not exist.  If God is like Superman, he is standing there with his hands in his pockets instead of intervening.

That argument only works if God is really like a Superman who stands somewhere, separate from the world, watching it with unlimited powers of intervention.  But clearly that cannot be the right way to imagine God.  The suffering of children alone should be enough to immediately show that concept must be mistaken.

Aristotle’s Perfect Godscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-27-49-am

So, how then do we imagine God?  Well you could start with abstract concepts, like perfection.  God must be perfect; God could not be less than perfect, right?  And from perfection you could reason that God must have perfect knowledge, perfect power, perfect control and all kinds of perfections.  This is Aristotle’s version of God.  He ends up being called the “unmoved mover.”  The perfectly self-sufficient being that gets the ball rolling for all the lesser beings of the material world.

Well, as it turns out, Christianity was born in a world in which the dominate thinkers followed Aristotle, so Christian systematic theology ended up have a distinctly Aristotelian flavor.

But Christianity did not start with Aristotle; certainly Jesus didn’t.  In fact, Christianity’s concept of God grows from Jewish soil.  Instead of abstract ideas like perfection, our Jewish ancestors began with stories of encounters with God.  From these stories you cannot get a systematic theology.  In fact Jewish people to this day do not even attempt to write systematic theologies.

Instead of systematic theologies, the stories of God-encounters are what we have.  They are the collected wisdom of the Jewish tradition, and hence, our wisdom tradition as well.

Jacob’s God-Encounterscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-31-13-am

We just read one of the stories of a God-encounter, and it is, admittedly, one of the oddest stories in the bible.  Then we heard a parable of Jesus, and it is odd as well.  But both of them help us as we try to understand what it means to be a person of faith in a world like this.

So, let us look at the Jacob story first.  To refresh your memory, this is the third generation from Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob.  The cycle of Jacob stories in the bible is rich and multi-layered.

Remember, Jacob was a twin; the one who was born second, who came out of the womb grasping his elder brother Esau’s heel.  According to the biblical story-teller, he was named for that grasping pose.  Famously, he also grasped the blessing of the firstborn that should have gone to his brother.  He got the blessing, but had to flee, fearing his brother’s reprisals.

So, in this story, after a long absence from his homeland, Jacob and his now huge family and all their vast possessions are on the journey back home. Truly, he has been blessed.  The story-teller says that after he secured his family’s camp, he went off by himself to sleep alone.  Why?  We are not told.

Then the biblical story-teller says these few, odd, eerie words:

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

A man?  What man?  What kind of man?  An angel?  A demon?  A visitation of God?  We look for more information.  The story continues,

“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.”

Whatever this “man” was, all we know is that he was unable to prevail over Jacob, but he had the power to dislocated Jacob’s hip with a mere touch.

The man then asks to be let go, but Jacob, the grasper, is unwilling to let him go without a blessing.  The heel-grasping blessing-steeler now wants a legitimate blessing, even if he has to fight for it.  So he gets his blessing, but then he gets something he did not ask for: a new name.

According to the biblical story, Jacob was the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel.  Why do we call them Israelites instead of Jacobites?  This story is the reason.  The strange “man” Jacob wrestled with and prevailed over changed his name to Israel.  In the story-world the reason is this:

“the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’”    

“Israel” comes from he verb, “to struggle.”  From this point on, what does it mean to be an Israelite?  It means to be hard-wired to struggle with God.  In the end, Jacob understands that he has seen the face of God, and names the place as such.

Faith and Strugglescreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-35-39-am

What does it mean to be a person of faith in a world like this one?  It means we are people who struggle with God.  In a world in which bad things happen and bad people get away with so much, we cannot but struggle with God.  As people whose faith descends from the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we have it in our DNA to struggle with God.

And so did Jesus.  We remember his struggle in prayer in the garden on the night of his arrest.  We remember his struggle on the cross when he cried out,

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

And here this parable, we hear him teaching his followers to be people who persistently struggle with God.

The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge

How does this work?  Jesus tells a parable, ostensibly about prayer.  He uses some cut-out characters.  There is the widow.  She is at the bottom of the social ladder.  She is poor and powerless, and has been denied justice.  Then there is the judge.  He is the quintessential bad guy.  He admits that he neither fears God nor respects human rights.

The story, according to scholars, is meant to be somewhat comic.  The judge stands for God.  Of course he is about as opposite to God as he can get.  Even when he grants the poor widow justice, it is not because he decides to do good, but only that he is sick and tired of being pestered by her.  His motives are self-serving to the  end.

So, is this, then, a charming story about how we should be like the widow and keep banging on the door of heaven with our prayers until God finally answers?

No, it cannot be that charming story, because that story is a false one.  Its falseness is screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-40-09-amhighlighted by the story itself.  It takes a long time for the widow to finally get anything out of the judge; the passage of time is an important part of the plot. He does not act quickly.  And anyone who has ever prayed knows it can be like that, more often than not.

But listen to Jesus’ conclusion to the parable:

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

If God did act quickly, the whole point of the story of the widow’s dogged persistence is subverted.

Unless, that is, God’s actions towards justice are as unlike the the command-response power of the judge in the parable as the character of the judge is unlike God.   In other words, just as God’s character is the opposite the judge, in this story, so God’s way of acting in the world is different.

We do not believe in the Superman kind of God who intervenes in a controlling manner.  Rather we conceive of  God as the ground of all being, the depth dimension in all of our experience.  We understand that God’s power in the world is not coercive but persuasive.  How?  We understand that God is at work in every moment, luring us towards the good, towards the beautiful, and towards the truth.

What evidence do we give for such a faith?  Only that there is, within all of us, in spite of screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-45-01-amthe way the world is, a longing for better.  We long for justice, in spite of all the injustice around us.  We long for peace.  We long for good to triumph over evil.  We long for equality.

And we have a deep sense that the way the world so often is, is broken.  It is our feeling of not-at-home-ness in this world, which we experience as glimpses of transcendence, that give us hope that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

In fact, we are not okay with the way the world is, just at the widow in the parable was not okay with her situation.  We are not okay with the injustice, the oppression and the violence.  We are not okay with how women are treated.  We are not okay with economic systems that only widen the gap between super-rich and poor.  We are not okay with mass incarceration.  We are not okay with discrimination of any kind.  We are not okay with scapegoating immigrants or Muslims.  Just like the widow, we will not rest until the way things are, becomes the way things should be.

The Struggle and Prayer

As this parable sits in Luke’s gospel, it is supposed to be about prayer, and how we ought to keep praying and not give up.  We do not pray to Superman to magically change things.

Rather, in prayer, we pour out our hearts and souls to the God who gives us our sense of justice, our understanding of goodness, and our hope for change.  In prayer, we center ourselves in that source of being who is also personal, who lives in us and works through us to be a part of what scholars call God’s great clean up of the world (John Crossan).  It is meant to be a collaborative clean-up.

In prayer, like Jacob, we struggle with God.  We struggle because of the way the world is.  And we struggle because, like the mysterious man in the dark, there are more things about God, and how God works in the world, that we do not understand than that we do understand.

We accept that.  We are finite.  But struggle is in our Judeo-Christian DNA.  And in that struggle, like Jacob, we perceive the face of God, even as we cry out for justice.

Following Jesus into Uncharted Territory

Following Jesus into Uncharted Territory

Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 & Luke 17:11-19 for Pentecost +21, October 9, 2016

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

One of my favorite melodies, probably because it combines beauty and sadness together, isscreen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-48-55-pm a musical setting of Psalm 137 entitled “By the Rivers of Babylon” by the band called Lamb.  Its sadness comes from its setting.  “By the rivers of Babylon,” it says, “we sat and wept for Zion.

The speaker is one of the exiles.  A Jewish person torn from his home and  homeland by the world-class Empire of Babylon.  He has been ripped out of his context to try to survive where nothing is familiar, nothing feels “normal” and where everything he thought was going to be true about his future and the future of his family and his people has been foreclosed.

Somehow, the experience of living away from home, of living in exile in a foreign land is deeply human.  Perhaps it is part of the human condition.  Life has a way of never being the way we thought it was going to be.

Is your life now like you expected?   Is the world now what you thought it would be?  We keep encountering the unfamiliar and unexpected.  Who knew the world would turn out like this?  Who knew we would be living this life in this way?  Who knew we would have to have gone through all of that to get here?

Some of us have a sense of nostalgia for the safe, secure homes we left as we grew into adulthood.  Others fled from homes of chaos and suffering, and now long to make a new home under radically different conditions.

I do not often take the time to look at both texts that we read each Sunday, but today we will.  Both of them are all about the space we inhabit, and what it means to be there.  If the space we all inhabit is some form of exile from home, how do we live here?  The God question is particularly poignant: If I am in exile, where is God?  How do I live?

God, in Exile

So, back to the rivers of Babylon with the Jewish exiles.  How do they feel in exile?  I am sure  they feel completely abandoned by God in that context.  Why did God allow the calamity of the Babylonian invasion?  Why did God not protect even God’s own temple or priests, let alone the king and his whole family?  Everything familiar is gone.  What happened to the promise God made to Abraham to give them land and to bless them?  Now the land belongs to Babylon, and there is no blessing to be found.   Perhaps you too have gone through times when those questions sounded like your questions.

The text we read is from the prophet Jeremiah.  It is his letter to the surviving Jewish leadership in exile, some of whom are among those sitting by the river of Babylon, weeping for Zion.  Grief over loss is normal.  It is grief over a lost future you had counted on.

But Jeremiah asserts that grief over loss must not become crippling nostalgia.  The quest the prophet calls the people to is not to a recovery of a past glory.  The challenge to exiles is to live life today, in a new, strange, unfamiliar context, counting on God to be there with you in that context.

And what does God want for you in that foreign context?  He wants your “welfare” our English version says.  The Hebrew word is “shalom”.  It means your wholeness, your well-being in every sense.  How will you experience God’s shalom?  Listen to the prophet’s call to the exiles:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-51-34-pmhave sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom).”

Do not become a community of grief-stricken nostalgia.  Do not become a community of isolation, uncontaminated by Babylonian culture and custom.  Rather, get involved.  Participate.  Live!  Be fruitful and multiply because the original blessing of creation is still in effect.

Especially, “seek the shalom of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf”  – What?  pray for the well-being of our enemies?  Yes.  Why?  Because the deep spiritual truth that God has hard-wired into the universe is this:  “in it’s shalom, you will find your shalom.”  In it’s wholeness and well-being, you will find your wholeness and well-being.”

How is this possible?  Because God is with you there in that strange context, luring you, coaxing you, persuading you to new possibilities of hope.  God is there offering you the opportunity to live into what is good, what is beautiful and what is true, even there in exile.  And as you seek the shalom of the people and conditions of your exile, in their shalom, you will find your shalom, because God is there.

Jesus’ Context

How could this not have been part of the mental furniture in Jesus’ mind, in his context?  His context was not the exile of Babylon, but another kind of exile.  At home in the promised land, the empire of Rome claimed authority and dictated the terms of public life.  Economically, it was devastating for most people.

So what do you do in that context?  What happens to the promise of God to bless the descendants of Abraham?  Luke tells this story with the artistry of a fine brush.  Notice where it takes place:

the region between Samaria and Galileescreen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-42-33-pm

In other words, home to no one.  It is no-man’s-land.  It is between places.  That is a form of homeless exile.

Who does Jesus meet there?  Exiles of another kind.  Lepers.  People who are forcibly exiled from the community because of a condition they did not ask for but cannot escape.  Notice, they have internalized their ostracism.   Luke tells us,

“they were keeping their distance”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likes to refer to Jesus as “the man for others,” and that is exactly what he is in this scene.  He does not live into the normal narrative of exclusion.  Once, we read, he touched a leper.  We do not know what he did this time; only that he told them what to do next.  Lepers could not be received back into the community in those days until a priest signed off on their healing.  So Jesus told them to go show themselves as clean people to the priest.

For Jesus, no one is excluded from the community.  Jesus was a person whose whole life screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-3-00-12-pmwas lived with compassion for others, especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized and the excluded.   Instinctively, he did not move away from the lepers, but towards them, with the mercy they were seeking.

Jesus shows us what God does; that is our theology.  God’s mercy is always coming to us, finding us, including us, healing us.  As Jesus is compassionate, so God is compassionate.   Especially to exiles.

Luke tells us that there were ten lepers.  Why ten?  No explanation.  In later Judaism, ten were required to form a prayer assembly, in other words, a community.  So there were enough formerly excluded lepers to form a community in that nether land region between Samaria and Galilee.

In exile, where Jesus met them, they could together, seek, and find shalom, welfare, well being.  God had not abandoned them there.

Epilogue Surprise

In the epilogue to the healing story a new wrinkle appears.  One of them returns with gratitude for the miracle of the mercy of his restoration to the community.  And this one, we learn, was a Samaritan.  So now, Luke has revealed to us that at least one of the lepers had yet another layer of reasons for being marginalized by the people who claimed direct access to the promise of God to Abraham.  He was not purely Jewish.  So now we see a deeper level of God’s compassion.

Being In the Story screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-3-04-52-pm

Where do we place ourselves in this story?  We could be part of the 12 followers of Jesus, simply witnessing this amazing story.  We see Jesus with compassion, reaching out to the most hurting, suffering people, and bringing God’s mercy to them.

Or, we could see ourselves as one of those lepers, living in a context that feels so alien to the life we had imagined for ourselves, in a kind of exile, wondering what God is doing.  If so, if we are one of them, we can seek the shalom of the context we find ourselves in, because God has not abandoned us there.   There is a community of people just like us, ready to welcome us, to share life with us, and to follow Jesus with.

Perhaps we can most identify with the one leper, the Samaritan, who returned with great gratitude for the mercy he received.  That is what we gather to do together.  That is what Eucharist means: thanksgiving.  We are a community of thanksgiving, of deep gratitude because God has found us in our exile, and restored us to his community.

Whomever we identify with in this story, we are transformed by it.  We see the model of compassion in Jesus, and we feel the luring of God to be people of compassion.  When we feel the love of God for us, in spite of our context, in spite of our condition, we feel the lure towards goodness and mercy for the others around us.  When our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s great mercy and healing, we want nothing better than to extend his welcome to everyone.  For in their shalom, we find our shalom.

So how do we seek the shalom, the well-being of our context?  Simply by asking, who is excluded from the blessing?  We could be methodical about the question, by asking, “Who is experiencing the most advantages and the biggest rewards here in this context?”  Then you may ask, what benefits and advantages should be denied the others?

So, in our context, it seems clear that healthy, Caucasian, heterosexual males from strong, supportive families, who had good educations have the greatest advantages.  In other words, people like me.  So, which of their advantages should be denied women, or people of color, or gay people, or people born into cycles of poverty with dysfunctional family patterns and poor educations?

We ask, what systems are in place in our context that perpetuate the status quo?  What is the role of the justice system in this context?  What about the health care system and educational systems, as well as economic systems?  How do we address those, as a shalom-seeking community?

Change towards increasing shalom for everyone, especially the ones Jesus went out of his way to bless, is a large task.  In the mean time, we can be the community for all of them.  We can be the place where people can find the 10 healed lepers and find community.  We can be the community of great gratitude for finding God active in our lives, even in our specific exiles.  And we can be the community for others, as Jesus was “the man for others”, extending God’s healing shalom to all the people God loves – to everyone.