Prodigaltality

Prodigaltality

Sermon for March 31, 2019, Lent 4C, on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (after reading Lev. 5:1-6). The audio version can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

As you may know, I taught primarily Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament”.  I actually had planned to teach New Testament, but the college at which I was teaching had a greater need for  Old Testament teachers.  Lots of people don’t like the Old Testament for lots of reasons.

The text I selected for us today from Leviticus is an example of one of the reasons.  As you heard it this morning, I’m guessing most of you probably were thinking some version of “yuk!”.  I understand.

But I chose that reading to make a point that I hope will help us understand the gospel text better.   We all have heard this parable called the prodigal son.  

Prodigal means lavish; even wastefully lavish, extravagant.   If this is the story of the prodigal son, then yes, it is a story about a recklessly, self-indulgent young man who extravagantly wasted his whole inheritance.  

But the way Luke has recorded this parable, it is not about one son, but two, and a father, so there are three characters; this parable is about all three.

My hope is that we can hear this parable the way Jesus’ original audience would have heard it, with their pre-understandings in their context, and see what Jesus is doing, which was radical in its time, and still matters deeply to us.

First, this quotation from New Testament Scholar John Dominique Crossan:

If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.

— J. D. Crossan, The Power of Parable, Kindle ed. p. 46

Let that sink in a minute.  “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”

Jesus is radically changing his tradition in ways that fundamentally challenged ideas and perspectives that had been settled for centuries.  And thank God he did, because instead of destroying his Old Testament, he re-framed it in ways that make it possible for us to continue to draw wisdom from it.  

The Man with Two Sons

So, the story starts out “There was a man who had two sons.”  What provoked the parable?  Criticism Jesus was getting for welcoming the hated “tax collectors and sinners” that he famously ate suppers with.  That was too much for the “Pharisees and the scribes”.  

The Hebrew Bible has several stories of a man with two sons.  Abraham has Isaac and Ishmael.  Isaac has Jacob has Esau.  You can just hear the “Oh no!” as Jesus begins, “a man had two sons.”  They know that the elder is going to have a problem.  The younger is probably going to come out on top.   

But in this story, the younger brother is the problem child.  We know this story well; the younger son, it turns out, abandons the family and its traditions in every way possible.  

He dishonors his father — which, in an honor-shame culture was like a Class 1 felony that you never live down.  

He abandons his people, moving away from the Promised Land to a distant foreign country.  

There, he abandons all the morality of the Torah by his “dissolute living.”  

Then, broke, he has to become a debt-slave, feeding animals that Jews consider disgusting, and that the Law of Moses forbids; pigs.  And, as if it could not get any worse, in a time of famine, he fantasizes eating “pods that the pigs were eating.

Listening from the Purity Perspective

So how would Jesus’ original audience have heard this?  They would have been horrified.  Their whole religious landscape was comprised of two categories that everything fit into: pure and impure.  

That is why we read that text from Leviticus — it is a perfect example of how they saw the world.  If you touched something impure, it made you impure, and you were guilty of that impurity, even if you were unaware of touching it.  

Everything was either pure or impure: plants, animals, and even people.  If you were impure, you were guilty.  And if you were guilty, you needed to “confess the sin you committed” and pay the penalty by sacrifice.  Everyone knew that is how it worked; that is what God expected; that is what the Law that God gave Moses, on Mt. Sinai, said, so there is no questioning it, ever.  

The Parable

So, Jesus told a parable about a son who was as impure as he could possibly be.  He has committed a “prodigious” quantity of sins; he is guilty.  He needs to confess his sins, and then he needs to pay his penalty, back home in Jerusalem at the temple.

In the story, as he sits, hungry, in his pig pen, he composes his confession.  He says, 

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”

But no one hearing the parable would think that plan would be successful.  No dishonored father would take him back, confession or not.  His record cannot be expunged.   No one else in the village would hire him either.  Once you have done time like he has, in a foreign country with its impure people and its pigs, you never get restored.   

The Prodigal Father

So he returns.  And now the story gets completely absurd, in the minds of traditional people listening to the parable.  The father becomes the prodigal.  He is wastefully extravagant in his welcome of his son.  He even dishonors himself by running to meet him in the most undignified way.  He touches him — even embraces him, becoming impure in the process.  He restores his status as son in the family, and throws a feast of honor.  

That is too much for the older brother.  He is scandalized.  He refuses to join the party inside the house.  So now, the older brother has become the outsider in the family.  

He wags his shame finger in front of his father, who has come out of the house to plead with him — as no honorable father of the time would have done.  

The father lets him rant on, accusing him of injustice.  Now, the older brother is being prodigious as he launches invectives against his father.  

Then, after all of that, the father says to him,

Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

He says, in effect,

Even after shaming me, by making me come outside, and shaming me by your verbal assaults and accusations, you are still my son, and I am still with you, and all that is mine is yours.

The Point

So, who are the characters in the story?  Jesus is replying to the criticism that he has included impure people to his company and fellowship — tax collectors (we may as well say Roman collaborators) and the generic “sinners.”  

The attacking scribes (Torah scholars) and Pharisees (the self-authorized purity police) just like the older brother in the parable, are the responsible ones who have kept themselves pure, and have kept and the family honored all these years.  They are scandalized by Jesus’ failure to uphold the purity code.

But look what Jesus has done in this parable: he has totally reframed the notion of sinfulness and guilt.  Instead of impurity, Jesus has invented a whole new category: “lostness.”  

The father, in the parable, tells the older brother what Jesus is telling the Scribes and Pharisees about the impure people he has been hanging out with:

“we had to celebrate and rejoice, [these people were] dead and have come to life; they were lost and have been found.’”

This is the third in a series of three parables of lostness and found-ness that Jesus told, according to Luke.  First was the lost sheep, found by the shepherd.  Second was the lost coin, found by the woman of the house, and now the lost son, found by his welcoming father’s love and forgiveness.

What has become of his need for confession?  His father interrupted his speech before he could finish it.  What has become of his impurity?  It is simply and completely ignored.  What has become of his guilt?  He is not guilty, just lost.  What is the remedy?  Forgiveness that needs no temple, no priest and no sacrifice.  

What was the motivation of the father?  It says,

“while [the returning son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion”

The Compassionate God

What defines God’s relationship with us lost ones?  Compassion.  There is no judgment, no shaming, no bargaining or deal making; simply, compassion.  The lost son has been found; the broken family has been restored.  

This, I hope you can see, from the perspective of the tradition, is a total re-reading.  Some aspects of the tradition have been destroyed.  The purity pursuit has gone down in flames.  But the story of the creator God, who loves all the children of the world with extravagant compassion, has been saved. 

“If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”

Why it Matters

So there are two ways this story matters to us. First, it has to be the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.  What is our truest self?  Sinners?  No, our truest selves are children, loved extravagantly by a compassionate God.  Do we get lost from time to time?  Of course we do.  But when we are ready to come back home, we will be welcomed with open arms.

Second, this changes how we see others.  Some folks are still in a lost condition.  Are they “sinners in the hands of an angry God”?  No. They are lost ones that need to come home to love.  

This new perspective has radical implications.  Who are the “prodigals” of our times?  Who are the impure, dishonorable ones in our culture?  Unfortunately, many people are, but chief among them are former convicts, especially convicted felons.

Our culture has made it nearly impossible for them to get any but the lowest paying jobs.  After serving their sentences, we make them pay fees and fines, court costs and reparations, and if they cannot, then, in states like ours, neither can they vote.  

For all kinds of reasons, most of them completely unjust, there are a disproportionate number of people of color who are convicted felons who are not able to vote.  You can make up your own mind if this is accidental or not, but that is our society.  It looks very much like a society of older brothers and their wagging fingers. 

I do not believe Jesus would treat convicted felons the way our society does.  Therefore, I feel called to work to undo some of the built-in, systemic injustices that cause so much harm.  

Yes, there are people who have gotten themselves lost along the way, but there is also the possibility of redemption. As a Christian, I feel called to believe in redemption.  Justice does not have to be merely retributive; justice can be restorative when we, like God, have compassion.  

[ For further reading on the subject of our criminal justice system and its effects on people, from a Christian perspective, I recommend Rethinking Incarceration: advocating for justice that restores, by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. I supplied the link, but consider shopping local. ]

Rethinking God’s Ways

Rethinking God’s Ways

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9 for March 24, 2019, Lent 3C.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

I want to talk about paradigm shifts, or major changes in how we see things, that matter.  The world has gone through a huge paradigm shift in the practice of slavery. Slavery is as old as human civilization.  People enslaved other people all over the world.  

I just learned that the word Slavs, as in Slavic people, comes from the word for slave, since, at some point in history, so many of those Eastern European Caucasians were enslaved by others.  

For most of history, no one could imagine a world without slavery.   The bible does not imagine it, except in the most theoretical way, saying that “in Christ, there is no slave nor free.”  

But there is no plan to eliminate slavery in the Bible, any more than there is a plan to eliminate gender on the basis that “in Christ there is no male and female.”  

The point is that the whole idea that you could have a world without slavery was a huge paradigm shift.  

There have been moments in history in which the conventional way of thinking has been completely changed.  Jesus represents one of those moments.  

Jesus gave us a paradigm shift in our understanding of God and our relationship to God.  This text is a perfect place to see the shift.  This is fundamental to all of us, every day, so let us look at this text.

The Galileans and their blood

It begins by saying,

there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

What would everyone in Jesus’ day think had happened?  Even if they were hearing this for the first time and had no prior knowledge of the event, everyone knew that there was only one place of sacrifice, which was the temple in Jerusalem.  

They also knew that as Galileans, they were a long way from home in Jerusalem.  The distance is about 60 miles, give or take; walking time would be around 20 hours or so.  Jewish people went to Jerusalem as pilgrims for festivals, like Passover.  Is that why they were there? 

So what happened to them?  They died in the temple area.  Who was responsible?  They blamed Pilate, meaning troops under his command.  There was a Roman cohort stationed in Jerusalem full time, but Pilate and the forces under his command came to reinforce them specifically at Passover.  

Why?  Because Passover was like the Jewish 4th of July.  It was Jewish Independence Day.  It celebrated their liberation from the Egyptian Empire.  

So naturally, on that day there would be heightened animosity toward the Roman Empire who held them down, and from whom they longed for liberation.  

We know that there were groups who wanted an open revolution against the Romans in Jesus’ time.  Historians tell us that there were Israelite assassins who killed people for collaborating with the Romans.  So tensions were high.

But taking action against people in the temple ran the risk of starting a huge riot that could have been the spark that would ignite that very revolution, so Pilate must have had an overwhelming reason to send his troops into that sacred space on that sacred day.  

There is a bit of speculation here, but it makes sense of all the evidence, that Pilate was putting down some kind of rebel forces.  Perhaps the rebels had sought sanctuary in the temple.  Anyway, what we do know is that reportedly, Galileans were killed there.   

Poetically put, their human blood mingled with the blood of their animal sacrifices.

The victims of the tower collapse

The second situation this text imagines is less clear.  All we hear is that a tower fell killing eighteen people.  A tower is part of a walled city, and the tower is near the pool of Siloam, so this also refers to Jerusalem.  

How and why would a tower fall?  Well, it could have been simply due to the age of the tower, or perhaps it was a construction accident.  

But there is another possibility that presents itself because of the way Jesus links this calamity with the first one.  For both of them, he says, 

“unless you repent, [meaning, change your minds] you will all perish as they did.”  

It would be very unlikely to die “as they did,” when the tower fell, if it were merely a random accident.  When the  Jewish revolution against Rome finally did start, in 66, it ended in the year 70 after a collapse of a section of the Jerusalem wall. The wall collapsed because of the tunneling work going on under it, and a fire in the tunnel. 

So the tower of Siloam may have fallen and killed people who were also part of the would-be revolution, preparing tunnels for a future battle.  We do not know, but that explanation would fit. 

So, in both cases, Jesus says, unless you repent — in other words, change your thinking — you will die the same way.  Another way of saying this would be what Jesus said on the night of his arrest, 

“those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”  

So Jesus is saying unless you stop this headlong rush to violence, you will end up getting killed.  As I said last week, according to ancient Jewish historian Josephus, over a million people in Jerusalem were killed by the Roman army in the Jewish revolt.  

The Paradigm Shift

So what is the great paradigm shift?  Jesus uses these two reports of people getting killed to completely undermine a notion that almost everyone believed in those days: that you get blessed for doing good, and punished for doing badly.  

It is called the “doctrine of retribution.”   Nearly everyone believed it, because it is one of the major themes of the Hebrew Bible.  It is not the only one.  There are counter-voices.  But retribution was the dominant understanding of how God related to humans.

In any case, Jesus wanted to undermine the doctrine that suffering is a punishment from God for being bad.  So he heard the report about the Galileans whom Pilate killed and asked,

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No.”

He then adds to it the memory of the 18 who died in the tower collapse and asks, 

“do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No.”

It doesn’t work that way.  God is not like that.  That paradigm is wrong.  It is not the case that suffering is a punishment from God for being bad.  In another place Jesus says it this way:

God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Luke 6:35

and in another place he says, 

God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” 

Matt. 5:45

The Hebrew Wisdom Tradition

Jesus did not get this paradigm shift out of the blue.  The wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible contain thoughtful reflections about the breakdown, in practice, of the doctrine of retribution.  

I’m sure Jesus heard the story of Job. The book of Job is a 40+ chapter attack on the doctrine of retribution.  Job suffers horribly, but knows that he did nothing to deserve it.  In the end, the reason for his suffering is never given.  It’s a mystery.

The writer of Ecclesiastes gives this reflection:

In my fleeting life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil-doing.” 

Eccl. 7:15

For thoughtful people, real-life presents a challenge to the notion of retribution.  If you reflect for a moment, you too can think of bad people who do pretty well in life, and good people who suffer.  Even young children suffer and die, so there are reasons to wonder about retribution.  

Facing the Alternatives

So why do people cling to this notion of retribution if it doesn’t always work out?  Because the alternatives seem unacceptable.  

The first alternative is that suffering fits some Divine plan that is simply too mysterious to comprehend.  

The other is that there is apparently no rhyme or reason for suffering. So, either God has a reason for all this suffering that justifies it — we just cannot know that reason in this life, or the universe is random and chaotic, and suffering is meaningless.  

In either case, there is no justice, at least in this life, and maybe none ever.

I believe both of those alternatives smuggle in a view of God that I do not accept.  Both imagine God as a being, separate from the universe, who looks at the universe, and us, and what we are doing, or even thinking, and sometimes intervenes in it, and at other times doesn’t.  He is all powerful, but not always active.  

Instead, I believe that the universe is the first incarnation of God.  God as Creator is the source of all of it.  The universe exists in God, and yet God is also more than the universe.  As theologians say, God is the “ground of being” itself, not a separate being.  

How is God active in the universe?  God’s Spirit is always and everywhere present, luring all creation towards the next good thing.  God, in every moment, is coaxing, non-coercively, but with the power of persuasion, towards the next good, even after horribly bad things happen.  

God is therefore with us in our suffering, experiencing it with us, in fact suffering with us.  The cross is the perfect symbol of God suffering with us.  

Real Moral Choices

There are real moral choices, and choices have consequences.  That is what the parable of the fig tree is about.  The tree is the nation.  If the nation continues down the path of violence and revolt, then it will get chopped down.  Rome will be happy to supply the ax and the army to swing it.  

But it need not happen.  And when it happens, it is not God’s retribution, it is what happens when people decide to use violence.

Our Future

What is ahead for us?  No one knows.  I bought a box of bandaids, however, because I know I will need them.  Suffering happens.  None of us lives forever.  That much is certain.  Between now and the end of life, we will experience suffering.  God is not causing it.  

Please know that!  You are not being punished.  That is not how it works, according to Jesus.  That is not how it works, according to the evidence of your own life experience.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Even the bible says so.  

But know that God is with you in your suffering.  God has not abandoned you.  God cannot abandon you; God is the very ground of your being.  

God is not only suffering with you, but also opening doors onto new and better futures, even after suffering.   

The justice in the universe is not retributive justice, but it could be restorative justice, if we follow the lure of the Spirit and make it happen.  In any case, God is good, and God, according to Jesus, is not punishing people with suffering.  

Lament for a Change

Lament for a Change

Sermon for March 17, 2019, Lent 2C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Lament for a Change

Everybody tells me I would like the TV series Breaking Bad, and maybe I would — everyone agrees that it was high quality in every respect.  

But the trouble I have is that I know the basic story outline.  I know it is about a high school chemistry teacher with cancer who becomes a methamphetamine drug dealer.  It seems like a very sad story. 

Somehow knowing how the story is going to end makes me less interested in it.  That is really odd for a person in my situation — I am constantly involved in re-telling a story that I know the ending of, to people who already know the end of the story too, and yet we need to keep telling the Jesus story.

One of the questions (and there are many) that this text from Luke’s gospel brings up is, did Jesus know the end of the story?  

Luke presents the majority of his story of Jesus as a long journey from a fishing village in Galilee to the capital, Jerusalem.  Did he know he would face death there?  The gospel writers want us to believe that he did.   

But, it could be that Luke was writing with the benefit of knowing how things turned out.  It could be that even the long journey Jesus was on is Luke’s way of helping us understand that we are also on a spiritual journey, learning the lessons Jesus teaches along the way.  

I think Luke wanted us to see Jesus as a model to emulate.  In Luke, we hear Jesus say “follow me” at least five times.  So, we too are to be on a journey, a spiritual journey, taking our cues from Jesus.  This text gives us some of those cues. 

Naming the Fox

It begins with an odd interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees.  It is odd because much of the time Jesus finds himself completely at odds with their purity agenda.  

But here, they seem to be offering helpful advice.  They tell him that he should leave the area because Herod wants to kill him.  One of the unanswered questions in this text is whether they were being sincere, or just trying to get rid of Jesus.   

We don’t know, but we get to see Jesus throwing some shade on Herod.  Jesus calls him a “fox.”  Foxes are famously sly — is that a good thing?  They are certainly dangerous to barnyard animals.  Herod had brutally killed John the Baptist, whom Jesus followed.  So, no love lost there.  

But Jesus does not come out with a scathing condemnation of Herod, which would have been suicidal.   He simply refuses to be put off of his sense of mission by Herod.  

It is important to notice that Jesus never kowtowed to political power.  The church,  unfortunately, did not learn this lesson from Jesus.  By the fourth century, the church became the chaplaincy to the Empire, after Emperor Constantine’s supposed conversion, but in so doing, the church was not following Jesus.  Throughout history, the church has been repeatedly seduced by political power. 

It continues to this day.  I have read that it took a while for Billy Graham to figure out that Richard Nixon was using him insincerely, but once he realized it, to his credit, Billy backed away.   

The church, when we are being faithful followers of Jesus, is not afraid to be critical of governments.  When their policies and practices harm people, we speak out, just as the ancient prophets of Israel repeatedly did.  

This text shows us that Jesus identified with those prophets.  He knew that some of them paid with their lives for their prophetic voice, in the very city he was headed for.  

There may be a price to pay for a prophetic ministry even today.  If so, as followers of Jesus, we accept that price.  

The Fox and the Hen

Perhaps it was the idea of naming of Herod a fox that makes Jesus (or Luke?) think of the imagery of hens.  In any case, as Jesus considers what is coming, he offers a lament for Jerusalem, using this vivid feminine image.  

Just as Jesus received his model of prophetic ministry from his Jewish tradition, so too, this image shows up in several texts of the Hebrew Bible.   

God is the mother bird, stretching out her wings to shelter her vulnerable chicks.   

It is not a departure from our tradition but an act of faithfulness to it when we too use feminine imagery for God.  

We call these words of Jesus a lament.  This is also something Jesus received from his Jewish tradition.  The Psalms that Jesus heard and quoted are filled with lamentations.  Often we read the lamenting question, “How long, O Lord?”  

We need to reflect on this.  When Jesus thinks of the people who killed the prophets of old, and as he imagines the likelihood of his own death at the hands of the current powers-that-be, in Jerusalem, what does he feel about the ones who will be responsible?  He laments.

Anger

The emotional alternative is anger.  When I think of people who hurt people, I often feel angry.  I feel angry at the people who separate children from parents at our borders.  I feel angry whenever I hear of another mass shooting.  Especially shootings motivated by hate, like the one this past Friday at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  

I feel angry when I think about how our society fails people like Samuel Morris and so many like him with deep mental health issues who end up being killed, instead of being treated.

But anger is unproductive.  Anger only leads to blaming, name-calling, and can lead to violence.  The angry brain is not the rational brain.  

So the angry brain is not the place from which solutions can come.  It is not where positive changes can be imagined and implemented.  In fact, anger, left to fester, only ends up harming us.  Stress hormones flood our bodies.  That was not the path Jesus took.  

Lamentation

Instead of anger, Jesus lamented.  Lament can lead to change.  As Jesus saw the head-long rush to violent revolution, he was filled with sorrow for the victims it would inevitably produce.  

Lamentation is compassion for the damage that evil does.   Lamentation is sadness that things got to this point.  To lament is to say, “I’m not okay with this; it shouldn’t be this way.”  

To lament is to de-normalize.  It is not normal to have mass shootings — even though they are frequent.  Even if the whole society becomes numb, we take time to lament, to say “No, this is horrible.  This is not normal.

So we lament over the mass shooting Friday in New Zealand, for the victims, yes, but not only for them.  We lament that racist and white supremacist ideology is still part of our world in the 21st century.  We lament that religious intolerance still exists. 

This is our spiritual goal: to grow from anger to lamentation, and from lamentation, to making a difference.  Our quest is to be on that spiritual journey with Jesus, on which we see evil, we call it out, we walk with courage into communities of suffering, lamenting for a change.  In other words, as is often quoted, 

to be the change you want to see happen.”  

To lament is to do what our Affirmation of Faith from Iona says: 

to work for change, and put ourselves on the line; to bear responsibility, take risks, live powerfully and face humiliation to stand with those on the edge to choose to live and to be used by the Spirit for God’s new community of hope.”

Iona Community

Violence and Hope

Was there any hope in Jesus’ heart as he lamented on the way to Jerusalem?  It is hard to see at this moment on the journey.  As he imagines the chicks running away from the hen’s outstretched wings, as he imagines the coming violence it appears that he knows the near term future is bleak.  He says,

“I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you.”

Or, was this Luke’s addition, with the benefit of hindsight, looking back on the revolt that started in the year 66 and ended in 70, with 1.1 million non-combatants dead in Jerusalem,100,000 in Galilee and the enslavement of 97,000 survivors, according to ancient historian, Josephus?  Even if he inflated the numbers, the losses must have been staggering.

Violence is a cycle.  Violence begets violence.  That is why, for the first several centuries, the church was famously pacifist — that is, until the time of Constantine when it became advantageous to bless the sword and baptize the Empire’s wars.  Nevertheless, we are the people called to say, as Jesus said,

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

This one comes saying “blessed are the peacemakers.”  Those who have lamented for a change, and then courageously journeyed towards the change, being the change they want to see happen.  

“Are We Related to Something Infinite or Not?”

“Are We Related to Something Infinite or Not?”

Sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for March 10, 2018, Lent 1C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
    ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
        to protect you,’
 and
    ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
        so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Hero stories follow patterns, according to the work of people like Joseph Campbell.  In fact, the same basic story keeps getting told again and again in world literature, from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to the Wizard of Oz, and now in film; think of Star Trek and Star Wars.  

It is possible to analyze our lives in this hero story structure too.  This is what Richard Rohr does in his book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”  

Our Hero Stories

It works like this:  You have a story in your mind that you tell yourself.  We all do.  We are the main characters in our internal stories.  The stories we tell ourselves start with our first memories.  They include our experiences with our primary caregivers and the formative events of our lives.  

Each one of us is the hero of our own story.   That is not to belittle these stories.  They are profoundly powerful. They tell us who we are, and who we should be.  They tell us what we can and cannot be.  They are our way of making sense of the world.  

That is not to say that the stories we tell ourselves are true.  They are just the world from our perspective.  

So, we are the heroes and heroines of our own hero story.  Heroes set out on a journey.  Along the way, they encounter difficulties, even ordeals.  

We have all faced at least one, maybe many, life-changing ordeals. It is part of that predictable pattern.   A hero story always has ordeals that the hero/heroine must face.  

What have been your ordeals?  What has been the ordeal that has shaped you the most profoundly?  It will help today if you can fix at least one in your mind.

In hero stories, the great ordeal divides life into before and after.  Rohr calls that the first and second halves of life.  The ordeal is not just a problem or a setback.  

The ordeal that separates life into before and after is the one that confronts us with our deepest fears, like the fear of not being in control, the fear of failure, the fear of death, the fear of meaninglessness, the fear of being unloved or unloveable.  The fear that we are not related to something infinite after all.  

In mythical hero stories, the ordeal is some sort of battle or confrontation with an opposing force.  That force represents the hero’s own shadow side.  The hero fights and apparently dies; at least “dies” in some sense.  

Actually, it is the ego which dies. After that ego-death, the hero gains a new perspective; a consciousness of the connectedness of all things.  After the ordeal, comes the journey back home.  

After the Trojan war, Odysseus, the hero, sets out on his journey home to Ithaca.  But on the way, he has to face the Cyclops, he has to survive the straits of Scylla and Charybdis, and avoid the deadly seductions of the sirens. 

Odysseus hears the prophecy that guides him in his second half of life, after the Trojan war.  But he had to journey to the land of the dead in order to find the prophet.  He is literally at his lowest point in life.  Rohr says, 

“It is often when the ego is most deconstructed that we can hear things anew and begin some honest reconstruction….”  

All of these ideas will become important as we consider the text of the temptation of Jesus today.

Jesus’ Ordeal 

The stories of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey were well known in the ancient world.  One ancient writer said,

From the earliest age, children beginning their studies are nursed on Homer’s teaching.”

Ps.-Heraclitus  “Homeric Questions” 1.5-6, cited in D. R. Macdonald’s “Mythologizing Jesus” p. 3

Without a doubt, the Gospel writers knew these stories. Some New Testament Scholars suggest that they modeled this text of the temptation of Jesus on the stories of the hero facing ordeals.  

So, how would this work? Jesus is on a Spirit-led journey, just after his baptism.  Remember it was that visionary experience during his baptism in which he became aware of his identity as God’s son.  Immediately after, we could say, still dripping, the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to face the diabolical ordeal.

It comes in the form of three temptations: to turn a stone into bread, to get all the glory and authority of the world’s kingdoms, and to test God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple.  All three are temptations of the ego-self.

Jesus is tempted to use his gifts for himself, for short term ends, like satisfying his hunger, to acquire political power unethically, and to manipulate religion for his own personal benefit.   If he does any of these, his quest to be the faithful son of God who can authentically proclaim the presence of the kingdom of God will fail.  And these must have been real temptations in the mind of Jesus, as they would be for any human with leadership gifts.   This is Jesus’ ordeal.

Relying on Spiritual Formation

In each of the three temptations, Jesus relies on the spiritual formation that has shaped him all his life.  He reaches back into texts he has heard since he was a boy.  They have shaped his vision of the good.   He knows, in his soul, that “One does not live by bread alone,’” that one should ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” and that you “’Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  

We know that Jesus’ spiritual practices included both formal public worship in synagogue services, and private meditation, often lengthy nights in solitude and contemplation.  He was ready for the ordeal, and when it came, he defeated his own devils.   

Notice how overcoming each of these three temptations affected his ministry.  He did not turn stones to bread for himself, but without ego-driven fanfare, he taught multitudes to feed each other.  

He had huge crowds following him, but he had done the ego work; he never let his fame get to his head.  He was willing to tell them hard truths that they did not want to hear, even at the cost of his popularity, like the fact that one has to deny one’s ego, and take up the cross of self-denial daily, to be on the spiritual path of the second half of life with him.  

And he did not put God to the test, asking for special favors; instead, in the end, he was able to say, “not my will, but yours be done” in an act of calm acceptance, even of suffering and death.  

In other words, by his spiritual practices he had done the ego work, and found himself able to trust.  He knew that he was not alone.  He knew that he was related to something infinite.  

The Question: Trust or Not?

This is the question that we probably have all already faced, as we have gone through ordeals, and certainly is the question we will face again.  When the ordeal comes, will we be able to trust?  Even when we are not in control; even when the worst could happen, or does happen.  Even when what we most fear is staring us in the face?  

The answer may well depend on what we bring to that moment of the ordeal.  Ideally, we will bring the certain knowledge of our baptismal identity: that we know that we are indeed sons and daughters of God.  

We will bring our history of spiritual formation formed in a worshipping, practicing community of faith.  

We will bring our cumulative hours of meditation, and the innumerable tiny ego-deaths we have practiced, as we have said no to the chatter of our inner voice.  

And we will bring our confident trust that just as God was with Jesus in his wilderness ordeal, God is with us in ours, 

in the darkness before the dawn, in the waiting and uncertainty, where fear and courage join hands.”

The Iona Community, Affirmation

Ash Wednesday Call to Worship

Ash Wednesday Call to Worship

Call to Worship

We come to affirm that life is a precious gift. We give thanks, with deep gratitude, to be alive in this moment.

In life and in death, we belong to God.

We come to affirm that life is a fragile, impermanent gift. We remember with thanksgiving those who have gone before us already, knowing that we will also join them in death, we know not when.  

In life and in death, we belong to God.

We acknowledge our mortality.  We do not fear death. We live in the grace of God’s love, in the knowledge of God’s goodness, and in the freedom of the forgiven.  We are at peace with God.  Whatever lies beyond the grave for us, we know that we will be wrapped in goodness and love.

In life and in death, we belong to God.

Life is complicated and difficult, as well as beautiful and amazing.  We recognize that along the way, we have lived for things that are unhelpful. There are things we need to die to. We come to this Ash Wednesday service to name and to relinquish that which needs to be put to death:  the false-self, the ego-self, the judgmental-self.  This self we die to, so that we can live into our true selves as beloved children, daughters and sons of a loving God.

In life and in death, we belong to God.

Listen to Him

Listen to Him

Sermon for March 3, 2019, Transfiguration Sunday, Year C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.

Luke 9:28-36 The Message (MSG)

About eight days after saying this, he climbed the mountain to pray, taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep. When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him. When Moses and Elijah had left, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking.

While he was babbling on like this, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God. Then there was a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”

 When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless. And they continued speechless, said not one thing to anyone during those days of what they had seen.

When I was in seminary studying Bible and Theology, I kept coming upon questions that puzzled me; questions I could not answer.  One night I had a dream in which two professors were discussing one of those questions.  It was clear to me, in the dream, that they were discussing the answer.  I really wanted to hear it, but I was a bit too far away from them.  I strained to hear, to no avail.  

It must have been a waking dream because suddenly I was aware that it was just a dream.  Since it was a dream, I was making it up, and of course, I could not hear the answer because I didn’t know the answer.  It was all quite frustrating.  

Hearing is Hard

Being in seminary is hard because you are constantly confronting things that are hard to hear.  You think you know a lot about the Bible, but you realize that your knowledge is superficial.   

It was hard for me to hear how different from each other the gospels’ stories of Jesus’ birth are.  

It was even harder to hear how different from each other are the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances (or lack of appearances, in the case of Mark’s gospel).   

Some things are hard to hear because they upset what we thought we knew.  

I have read that Einstein was upset about quantum mechanics because it could not be squared with the settled math and accepted truth of special relativity.  But being upset is not an argument, and Einstein was just wrong on that one.  

Hearing Jesus

Some things are just hard to hear.  The same thing is true, and has always been true, about listening to Jesus.  It can be hard to hear him.  It can be especially hard to hear him when what he says contradicts former “certainties.”  

It is hard to hear Jesus when what he says threatens our security.  Right from the start, Jesus’ followers found it hard to hear him.  

Our text begins with a time-stamp:  “Eight days after saying this…”  It was about eight days after he told people he was going to suffer and die, and that if they wanted to follow him they had to deny themselves, take up their cross daily.  Now that is hard to hear.  

Overcoming Resistance

So, if you are Luke, telling this story, how do you overcome your readers’ resistance to hearing Jesus?   

From the evidence of what he wrote, we can almost hear Luke saying: maybe if people reading my gospel are convinced that Jesus’ words actually are an expression of what God wants for us, and has always wanted for us, they will hear them — even though they feel resistance.  

Well, how would you show people that Jesus is teaching what God wants for us and has always wanted for God’s people?  You hyperlink your story to the stories of God and God’s people in the past.  

Or, if you don’t like computer metaphors, you fill your story with allusions, with literary echoes that evoke other texts.  

So that is what Luke does.  Listen to how it he does it.  The only people to get a vision of God on the mountain in the Hebrew Bible were Moses and Elijah, so Jesus takes his inner circle, just as Moses did, up the mountain where they see Moses and Elijah.  

Visions of God, came to Abraham and Jacob in sleepy dream-like states, so the disciples are in that state here. 

God’s voice came from the cloud on Mt. Sinai to Moses, so God’s voice comes from the cloud on the mountain here.  

The effect on Moses was to make his face radiant, so, even better, not only Jesus’ face but his clothing too is radiant.  

All of this, according to New Testament scholars, serves the purpose of getting Jesus listened to.  There is more.

Moses, in the Hebrew Bible, says that in the future a prophet like  him will arise, and when he does, Moses says, “listen to him.”  That’s what the voice from the cloud says.

A after all that shining and radiance,  the voice from the cloud, says of Jesus, 

“This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”

Why “Chosen” — another hyperlink. Every day, in fact, twice a day, observant Jews say the great creed of Judaism from Deuteronomy, which begins with the word “Shema” — listen.  Now, the call to listen centers on Jesus.

Most of us know that Mark’s gospel came first, and Luke used Mark and other sources for his version of the gospel.  It is interesting that Luke edited Mark’s version of what God’s voice from the cloud said.  In Mark, the voice says 

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  In Luke, “beloved” is changed to “chosen”: 

“This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”  

Eight days earlier, Jesus had announced his own impending suffering, and here we hear an echo of the cryptic “Servant of the Lord” from Isaiah, about whom God says, 

       Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
        my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
    I have put my spirit upon him
      he will bring forth justice to the nations.  (Is. 42:1)

The chosen servant’s role included suffering, just as Jesus said his did also.

The Point

All of this hyper-linking serves the main point: listen to Jesus.   Even when what he says is hard to hear.  He is acting in the capacity of God’s servant, filled with God’s Spirit.  He will bring forth justice, so listen to him. 

Listen to how he will do it.  It will not come by force of arms or military victory.  It will not come with fire from heaven (like in the Elijah story). 

Justice to the world will come when people wake up to the reality that the kingdom of God is already present, and start living lives of listening to Jesus, even when he is hard to hear. 

UMC Church 

Right now, there is great upset in the United Methodist Church over their recent decision to strengthen their prohibition on same-sex unions.  They have a global church, in which 40% of those able to vote on church rules are from outside the United States.  In places like Africa and Latin America, many just cannot accept that people are born with different orientations.  It upsets old certainties, so it is hard to hear.  

Climate Change

Climate change is another topic that is hard for some to hear.  The idea that the car I drive and the plastic that my tomatoes come packaged in can actually affect the planet is hard to conceive.  

And yet if you live in a large city in China, for example, the sting in your eyes and the smell of the air, not to mention the incidents of respiratory illness are hard to ignore.  So are rising sea levels. 

The overwhelming consensus from the scientific community is hard to ignore too, unless your pension is dependent on oil and gas company profits.   Having skin in the game can make facts hard to hear.  

Easy and Hard things to hear

Some things are easy to hear, and we like hearing them.  Other things are hard to hear.  It is easy to hear: you are forgiven.  It is harder to hear: forgive as you have been forgiven.  

It is easy to hear: you are beloved. It is harder to hear: love your enemies. 

It is easy to hear: the hairs of your head are all counted by God. It is harder to hear: if anyone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well.  

It is hard to hear about systemic racism and white privilege, especially if the call of justice threatens that privilege.  It is even harder to hear about white fragility.  It is hard to hear the stories of those who have been marginalized.  

It is hard to hear: deny yourself, take up your cross daily.  But those who listen, understand that we are called to do the ego-work of deconstructing that self-interested, self-protective, self-promoting voice in our heads.  

We are called to  deny its lies and distortions, its exaggerations and its catastrophizing, and instead, listen to a better voice, calling us chosen, calling us beloved, naming us as God’s daughters and sons, and calling us to do the hard work of listening.  

Listening in Lent

The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.  Let us make this season a focused time of listening to the right voice.  How?  

I have recommended two books for us, as we journey through Lent.  The first is a rendering of the Psalms by Nan Merrill, called “Psalms for Praying.”  Her beautiful versions of the Psalms re-orient us to our belovedness, on every page.   

I have also recommended, “How to be a Mindful Christian by Sally Welch.  Sally suggests 40 simple practices that help us become more mindfully present in the moment.  

Mindfulness helps with the “self-denial” that Jesus calls us to, as we deny that ego-voice in our heads.  Mindfulness practices, especially meditation, helps with exactly that.  

May this Lenten season be a season of listening, even of hard listening, a season of growing, and, as with most difficult things, a blessing.