Coming Out Christian

Coming Out Christian

Sermon for June 30, 2019, Pentecost 3C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I have read the bible a lot in my life, so I remember how surprised I was, when I went to seminary, to learn some of the things I had missed.  A huge theme in the gospels is what they call “discipleship failure.”  

Repeatedly the disciples don’t get it.  They don’t understand, they have faulty priorities, they lack compassion, and have to be corrected by Jesus.  It was obvious that Peter got it wrong, and also Thomas, but I missed how large a theme the failures of all the disciples were.  

I will tell you part of why I missed that, a bit later, but first, let us just notice how that theme that comes out so strongly in today’s text.  

Why would the gospels highlight the failure theme?  My professors told us that the likely reason is that the early Christians struggled to live faithfully into Jesus’ admittedly radical, and often counter-intuitive path.  

Who, after all, would claim to be good at turning the other cheek, loving enemies, welcoming strangers, or praying for those who persecute you?  It has never been easy to actually follow Jesus.  It was not easy then, and it is not easy today.  

So, the church remembered, and recorded, and handed on stories of the original disciples getting it wrong, partly to show the ways they got it wrong, and partly to encourage us, who also get it wrong, that we are not alone in the struggle — but that failure is not fatal.  Jesus corrected the disciples, but he never gave up on them.  Jesus modeled grace, which is the very character of the God Jesus taught us about. 

We are going to look at the kinds of discipleship failures Jesus had to correct in this text, and then we are going to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus today, in our context, which is different, but not easy.

A Journey of Change

So, the story, according to Luke’s gospel, takes place on a journey.  Most of Luke is set on this long journey Jesus and the disciples make from Galilee to Jerusalem.  That is part of the point: following Jesus is being on a life-journey.  We are not expected to stay put, as we are.  We have to learn, and learning involves making a lot of mistakes before you get it right.  Failure is just part of the journey. We are expected to grow and to change. 

I love the way the poet Mary Oliver wrote about change:

We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
change.
Congratulations if
you have changed.” 

(from “Almost a Conversation” her collection, Evidence)

Ethnic Animosity

So, on this journey, they have to pass through Samaria.  Most of us know that there was ethnic animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  The Samaritans, Luke says, “did not receive him” when Jesus went through their village.  

The cardinal virtue in the ancient world was to provide hospitality to travelers.  They broke it.  So the disciples get angry.  They ask Jesus,

“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 

They are asking to do what the Hebrew Bible says Elijah did; call down fire from heaven on the bad guys.  (2Kings 1:9).  But there are two things wrong with this idea.  

First, Jesus rejected the use of violence.  Even if the Hebrew Bible is full of divinely sanctioned violence, Jesus was a person who showed that he would rather die than kill.  He taught us to love our enemies, just as God does.  So no, calling down fire from heaven is wrong.

The second way this request of fire from heaven is wrong-headed is that it is a rejection of the “other” on ethnic grounds.  If you have problems with people of other races or religions, as the disciples clearly did here, then you do not yet get Jesus.  

Jesus was constantly crossing lines to reach out to non-Jewish people, specifically including Samaritans — remember the woman at the well and her village?  This is not a small point for Jesus.  

Of course it is not easy, and of course, we will fail to get it right, but to follow Jesus means being on the journey from every form of racism, overt or covert, personal or systemic.  Jesus is not okay with it, and we must never be okay with it.   We are not supposed to be causing human suffering, we are supposed to be alleviating it.   So the disciples were wrong on those two counts: violence and bigotry.

The Non-followers 

Then, since Luke is on the theme of discipleship failures, he strings together a series of similar conversations.  Jesus repeatedly called people to follow him.  Here we see some of the stated or implied reasons people gave for not following Jesus.  

One says she or he will follow Jesus wherever — but Jesus says it is going to be rough.  Sometimes there will be no place to lay your head down in comfort and safety.   The following objections lead us to assume that this first one was put off by the difficulty, and did not follow Jesus.  

So what are the next objections?  One has aging parents to care for until they die, which could take years.   

Another has apron strings that cannot be let go of, so she or he wants to go back to Galilee for a final, maybe lengthy, goodbye.  

We could spend some time unpacking each of these objections and each of Jesus’ responses, and that would be good to do sometime, but right now, let us just notice the big picture; lots of people fail to follow Jesus.  It is hard.  It is demanding.  It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  Some just do not think it is doable, or worth it.  

Jesus put a lot of effort into teaching about how valuable and how amazing the kingdom of God is — think of the parables about the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, the wedding banquet — but some people just don’t see it.  They have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, as Jesus said.  It’s tragic.  

The same thing can be said of our day.  It is still hard to follow Jesus.  It is still counter-cultural, and it is still true that many people fail.  

On Not Reading the Gospels

Now I want to get back to why I missed the huge theme of discipleship failure in the gospels, even though I was in church every Sunday for both Sunday School and worship, all my life.  

Here it is: besides Christmas and Easter, in the church I grew up in, we hardly ever read the gospels.  Now, this may shock you, because we hear the gospels read every Sunday.  But I grew up Evangelical, and they do not.  

There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it:  Evangelicals subscribe to a version of theology (called Dispensationalism) that teaches this: The reason Jesus “came” was to offer the kingdom of God to the Jews.  So he taught a lot about the kingdom, its values, and its ethics.  But the Jews rejected the kingdom and rejected Jesus as their Messiah.  So, God had to implement plan B, which is the church.  

When Jesus returns to earth after the tribulation, the teaching goes, he will set up his 1,000-year kingdom, based in Jerusalem.  So all of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and its values are for that future millennium, not for now, in the church age.  In the church in which I grew up, besides Christmas and Easter, I almost never heard preaching from the gospels.  

I believe this is one of the reasons we are in the state we are in now, in this country.    Huge numbers of Evangelical Christians think that Christianity is just about having faith that Jesus will save you from hell, and that is what the gospel is about; period.   All that teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself is for another time.  Friends, that is, in my understanding, about as wrong as it can get.  

Jesus called people to follow him and that is what he meant.  The way we Reformed Christians look at it, we respond to God’s gracious love for us — in spite of our frequent failures — with gratitude.  Gratitude is expressed in concrete acts of love, compassion, welcome, mercy, and service to all the people God loves — which is exactly what Jesus modeled and taught.  

Who Owns the Name?

But now, we have a problem.  The Evangelicals get a lot of media attention.  They have their schools and colleges, magazines and television shows all across this country, and in the countries where their missionaries have gone.  Most Americans think that to be a Christian is to be an Evangelical.  

So what does that mean for us who take such a different view?  We tend to be quiet about being Christians.  We do our ministries of feeding people, of responding to disasters, of working for a better climate, of all kinds of advocacy, and we do them under the radar.  

We do not want to be identified with the Christians who are okay with separating children from families at the border and keeping them in inhumane conditions.  We do not want to be identified with the crazy conspiracy theories that they keep coming up with.  So we keep our faith quiet.  We are closeted Christians.

Learning from the Gay Community

Well, this is the last day of Gay Pride month, and I think the church needs to learn a lesson from the LGBTQ community.  They have shown us what courage means.  They have shown us what it means to risk shaming and humiliation in order to be known for who they are.  They know how to come out of the closet.  We have to admire them; they are models for us.  They can teach us how to come out.

I believe it is time for us to come out as Christians.  It is time to reclaim the narrative and the name.  It is time to let the country know that there is an alternative way of being a Christian that actually takes Jesus seriously.  

It is time to come out against racism and racist policies, including racist immigration policies, specifically because we are followers of Jesus.  

It is time to be public allies with the LGBTQ community because Jesus welcomed everyone, and we are his followers.  

It is time to work hard against climate change specifically because Jesus taught us to love, not just to love flowers and birds, but to love people — like our grandchildren, that will have to live on the planet we leave to them.   

It is time to come out as Christians when we feed the hungry and work to eliminate poverty; we are not just humanists, we are Christians on a journey, following Jesus.  

Yes, we fail.  Yes, we get it wrong.  We freely admit that.  But we serve a God of Grace who does not shame us for our failures, but whose Spirit is working in us at every moment to empower us to keep on the journey with Jesus as our guide.  

We will come out as Christians; not obnoxiously, not arrogantly, but humbly and unabashedly being public followers of Jesus.  

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The Message of the Silent Voice

The Message of the Silent Voice

 Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a for June 23, 2019, Pentecost 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a

[ King ] Ahab told [ his wife, queen Jezebel ] all that [ the prophet ] Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets  [ of Baal ] with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then [ Elijah ] was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But [ Elijah ] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 

He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

[ The Lord ] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus….”

I grew up in a Christian home, so the subject of God, what God wants from us, and how God communicates with us has always been present, at some level, to me.  

As children, we take everything literally, and assume that the God-stories we are told are uncontroversial.  Later, most of us realize how problematic, if not impossible that view is.  We also become aware of the way literature works, with its metaphors and symbols.  

We come to understand that the stories we read are often trying to get at the human condition, far below the surface of the narrative.  For example, Little Red Riding Hood is not a literal story, and its purpose is not to warn children about wolves.  It is far deeper than that.

We keep returning to ancient stories for good reasons, even though we often find them troubling.  We realize that in the ancient world, not many people could read and write — most people were peasants who did not have the time, nor the luxury for education.  Writing was expensive.  Before paper, parchment or animal hides (vellum) were labor-intensive to produce.  

It took a great deal of effort to keep stories in circulation and to make them available to the next generation.  Old copies had to be re-copied before they withered away, requiring more investment and more effort.  

So, communities that maintained and transmitted stories through the generations, did not do so lightly.  They saw, in the texts that they handed down, wisdom worth the cost and effort.  

The Violent Contest of the gods

This is helpful to keep in mind as we approach this text about the prophet Elijah.  All texts are situated; this one is situated in ancient Israel.  

Violence was part of that world.  It is not that it was unquestionably good; some writers complained bitterly that they were victims of violence.  But violence was an accepted tool.  If you find that troublesome and problematic, you are in good company here.

This text opens with the threat of violence that Queen Jezebel makes against Elijah, as her vengeance for his violence against the prophets of Baal.  

In the previous story, there was a contest of the gods on Mt. Caramel which Yahweh won.  If you remember, the prophets of Baal set up sacrifices on altars, praying that Baal would send fire from heaven to consume them.  Baal never did.  

Elijah did the same, praying to Israel’s God, Yahweh, and fire fell from heaven.  Afterward, Elijah and his supporters, according to the story, slaughtered hundreds of the competing prophets of Baal.  

Stories like that make us wince at the bloodshed, which they should.  

The Flight Scene

So now, Elijah is fleeing as far away as he can get from Jezebel’s reach.  It is an odd story in many ways.  Elijah’s God has just proven stronger than Baal, but Elijah does not trust God to keep him alive.  So he flees southward.  

He seems utterly despondent, even depressed.  He wants to die.  He spends the night in a cave.  The cave is on Mount Horeb, the other name for Mount Sinai where, long before, Moses had experienced a revelation of God.  In fact, there are a number of parallels between Moses and Elijah in this story.  The contrast does not leave Elijah looking very good.  

Scholars have noticed that Moses’ concern was for his people, while Elijah comes across as completely self-concerned.  There are a number of subtle indications that Elijah is barely doing what God tells him to do, throughout this story; in fact, sometimes ignoring God altogether.  

There is both symbolism and realism in this story.  Elijah is on the mountain, like Moses, and will soon encounter God, as we read in this eerie, dream-like story.  

But there is a psychological realism at work as well.  Elijah is ambivalent about his prophetic vocation, about whether he can trust God or not, about the value of his life, and about how obedient he is willing to be.  

God tells him to come out of the cave and “stand on the mountain before the Lord,” but after the scary manifestations of power and the silence that followed, we read that “Elijah went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” — which means that he had not come out  before, when God told him to.

Maybe we don’t want to, but we can see ourselves in this ambivalent prophet.  Someone once said that most people want to be good, but not all the time.  That is probably true.  Most of us want to think that we are people of faith, acting in good faith, putting our trust in God.  That is probably true, to some extent.  But we have our limits.  Sometimes we get ego-centric.  God’s ways are not always our ways, if we are honest.  So, let’s not throw stones at Elijah.  

The Revelation

So the story continues: in spite of Elijah’s resistance and reluctance, God is not finished with him.  That is good news, for Elijah, and for us.  

So God wants to reveal Godself.  This is where this story gets so interesting.  When Moses was on that same mountain, many years earlier, God was revealed, the story says, in that the mountain quaked with thunder and lightning, and was covered in the thick smoke of God’s presence, and finally Moses heard God’s voice.  (Exodus 19)

Similarly, in this story, there are signs that nature has come unhinged: there was a mountain-splitting, rock-breaking wind, an earthquake, and a fire.  But unlike before, these were not the signs of the presence of God.  The text keeps repeating, “But the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake, the Lord was not in the fire.” And there was no voice.

Elijah had just recently experienced God in the fire that fell from heaven on Mt. Caramel to burn up his sacrifice; a feat which the prophets of Baal could not compete with.  But is that how we should expect God to be present; in miracles and displays of divine intervention?  Is that how it has worked for you?

I don’t know what your life experience is, but in mine, people who claim to produce God-miracles have mostly turned out to be phonies.  Anyway, the miracle on Mt. Caramel did not produce confident trust for Elijah.  

The Sound of Sheer Silence

The story reaches its climax with a conundrum.  God manifests Godself, it says, “in a sound of sheer silence.”  Silence makes no sound.  This is similar to a Zen koan, like “the sound of one hand clapping” — it is a cul-de-sac for the mind, with no way out.  The sound of God, is silence.  

I believe that this insight is one of the reasons this story was written and treasured and handed down through the generations.  It is in silence, not in flashy miracles, that we encounter God.  

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School wrote a book entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”  And that is the problem.  Wherever we are, our egos are there.  

All we need do to understand that is to try to be silent for a few minutes.  All kinds of thoughts immediately flood our minds.  There are things we need to do, there are memories we start ruminating about; we re-play past conversations and imagine future ones.  We become aware of our hunger or pain.  We imagine what others are thinking about us and whether we are adequately appreciated; we justify everything we have done.  Just try to be silent, and you find the ego there, chattering away.

Elijah was an ego-centric prophet.  He did some good, but even that was not enough to keep him from despair.  In the end, he got the message, but did he hear it?  The text is ambiguous.  God gives him three tasks, of which he will accomplish only one.  But those are stories for another time.

Learning from Silence

Anyone who has tried to be silent, for example, in meditation, knows how strong the ego-voice is.  But in meditation, we learn to say no to that ego voice.  We learn to die to the demands of our self-interested self.  Strangely, as we do, we become more attuned to the presence of God.  We find God “in the sound of sheer silence.

And then, after some time of learning silence, we notice that our egos have less power over us.  We become less ego-focused, less self-conscious, less selfish.  We become more other-focused, more compassionate, more forgiving, in fact, more loving.  That is the treasure of this text.  

I believe that when we have learned the secret of the practice of silence, we see things differently.  We see ourselves with more generosity and self-compassion.  

We see other people differently; things that used to irritate us about people we live with can become endearing characteristics; we are willing to let go of the irritation.  Insults are far less painful because we recognize that our true self, who we are as children of God, cannot be insulted; only our false self can be.  

I believe that those who have learned the secret of the practice of silence, and who have experienced letting go of the ego, see the world differently.  We are less ready to need scapegoats and blame targets.  We care about suffering.  We care about injustice, but we are not motivated by resentment.  

We care about the things that are happening that cause pain now, and the things that are going to cause more suffering in the future.  

So we care about the broken systems that produce results that cause suffering: immigration systems that treat people like animals, criminal justice systems that produce mass incarceration of people of color,  economic systems that create  massive wealth disparity, and all the systems that impact our planet’s ability to sustain human life.   

We care about every manifestation of discrimination, because we care about the real people who suffer it.  And as people who care, we turn our caring into action on behalf of others.  

Jesus and Silence

I believe that Jesus learned the lessons of this text. He spent time in silence; that was his habit.  And from the silence, he learned to see God everywhere — from the lilies of the field to the “least of these” in need of compassion.  

Jesus truly was a person-for-others; a person who was not ego-driven.  That was why he was so giving, going out of his way to bring God’s healing grace to people, even to the people who had gotten themselves lost, modeling for them the inclusive love and restorative justice of God.  

Jesus, then, is the lens through which we look at the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus rejected violence, so we read these stories of violence, knowing that there is a better way.  We read stories of ego-driven people, understanding that there is a more faithful way to live.  

But while we see things in these text that need to be left behind, we take the lessons of these ancient texts to heart.  We, like Jesus, find God in silence.  And finding God there, we then find the people that he loves, and we let God love them through our lives of humble compassion, and fearless justice.  

What is the Spirit Doing?

What is the Spirit Doing?

Sermon for June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday, year C. Audio can be found here for a few weeks.

John 14:8-17, 25-27

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Sermon   What is the Spirit Doing

We just lost a bright young woman in her 30’s, a mother of two, a New York Times bestselling author, blogger, speaker, and bright beacon: Rachel Held Evans.  She died of a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics.  

Her work helped many people of her generation as they struggled with faith and science, faith and diversity, faith and gender and sexuality, faith and the institutional church itself.  She was always gracious and generous with people she disagreed with.  Many of us will miss her.  

I know that she is probably not well known to most of us here — the issues of her generation are not most of our issues — most of us of an older generation.  But I wanted to begin this Pentecost sermon with Rachel because I want to briefly discuss what I believe the Spirit is doing in the world today, and she was a great example.

Millennial Values

Rachel was a millennial.  They look at many things differently.  These are strange days.  We are living in the middle of a sea change in our culture.  We can see it happening, but no one can predict where it will end.  

The one example that is so relevant to us is the huge rise in people who are called “the nones and dones.”  When asked by opinion pollsters what their religion is, they say “none”.  And as for participation in an institutional church, they are “done” with it.  

Rachel started life as an Evangelical, but as she confronted gender issues like equality of gender roles in marriage, the role of women in ministry, she grew more uncomfortable there.  

Then there were the issues of science and faith; she was learning about evolution, but she was in a church that thought the creation story in the bible should be read literally.  She became aware that some of her gay friends were not welcome in her church, which she found increasingly problematic.  

As I said, these are not our issues.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) dealt with all of these already — many of them decades ago, if not longer.  Rachel would have been a very comfortable Presbyterian, in my opinion.  In fact, her journey away from evangelicalism eventually led her to become Episcopalian — a church quite similar to Presbyterians on these topics.  I took that same journey myself, and, happily, ended up here.  

Anyway, on her journey, as she wrote about her issues and struggles with faith and the church, she helped thousands of people in her generation who were having the same struggles.  This is a movement.  Surveys report that although so many millennials are “done” with the institutional church, a great many consider themselves SBNRs — Spiritual, but not religious.  They have a deep longing for transcendence and spirituality, they just do not believe they will find it in their parents’ churches.  

The Spirit of truth — unmasking falseness

This is not bad news for me.  I believe this is, in fact, a movement of the Spirit.   Why?  Because as John’s community intuited so long ago, the Spirit is moving in a particular direction.  In their version of the Jesus-story, Jesus calls the Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” whom, he goes on to say, “will teach you everything….”  

I believe we Presbyterians have been listening hard to the Spirit and, consequently, we have been led to the truth by the Spirit’s teaching in many ways.  Many, many years ago, we heard the Spirit of truth teaching us about science, and we opened our hearts and minds to serious biblical scholarship.  Together these tools led us away from a rigid literalism to a more spacious appreciation of our ancient wisdom tradition. 

We were able to learn the truth about structural racism in the civil rights movement and we got on the right side of that issue.  We heard the truth from the Spirit of truth about women, and so we changed our constitution to require balance on our sessions and we started ordaining women for ministry.  Women will account for five of the twelve new session members after today’s installation service.  

We have heard the Spirit teaching us that although the majority of people are attracted to people of the opposite gender, and thus for so long, we have lived in a culture of, what they call, heteronormativity, nevertheless, other people are born to be attracted to the same gender.  We have learned to affirm and celebrate their love and bless their unions.  

Authenticity

Rachel Held Evans was as genuine and authentic as they come.  Authenticity is a major issue for millennials.  Characteristically, they despise pretension and hypocrisy.  They unmask power-plays and discrimination of all kinds.  This is one reason they have fled from so many institutional churches.  

But again, I think this is a positive movement of the Spirit.  And, I believe, we can be and are a church that is committed to authenticity. Our spirituality is not merely formal and institutional.  

We do not claim perfection, but when we come together in public worship we always have moments of honest confession of our shortcomings.  To be honest, I think our church is perfect for millennials, although it might take them a while to get used to our music and liturgy.  I’m encouraged by the fact that Rachel discovered the Episcopal church and fell in love with the sacraments and the liturgy.  

From Christian to Jesus Follower

There are so many good, positive and hopeful things that I believe I see the Spirit doing in these turbulent days, but I want to mention just one more.   There is a new movement of people who are uncomfortable with the label “Christian” because of all the baggage it has acquired from Constantine to the Crusades, and from the rich televangelists, to the clergy sex-abuse scandals.  

But these people want to be followers of Jesus.   Today there is an outpouring of books, seminars, conferences, festivals, music, blogs and videos by people who are calling us back to the true fountain of our faith, back to Jesus.  This, I believe, is a movement of the Spirit.  

This is exactly what should have always happened, according to our Pentecost text from the Gospel of John.  We see it clearly in the story of the dialogue between Philip and Jesus.  

“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

God is invisible and infinite; beyond our human capacity to correctly conceive.  But we can see Jesus, at least we see versions of him, through the stories recorded in our gospel texts.  Whatever God is like, God must be at least as compassionate as Jesus; at least as inclusive as Jesus, at least as forgiving like Jesus.  So to understand God, in our tradition, we go to Jesus, as John’s gospel tells us to do.  

So, in these days, we are waking up to the fact that Jesus never made his people swear allegiance to a creed.  Our liturgy of ordination and installation requires it — should it?  Jesus never built a church or told us we had to sit in rows.  Jesus never laid out a liturgy for us to follow beyond the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.  So, while we love our traditions and find all of this meaningful, we know that it is all here because of historical development over time.  

We could do things differently, and that would be okay.  We do not turn our noses up at people who worship in different styles.  When we set our sights on following Jesus, rather than the layers and layers of traction that have built up around him, we will be getting back to the true fountain of our faith.  This is happening; this is what the Spirit is doing. 

So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let us rejoice in the Spirit, our advocate, the Spirit of truth, the one who prays for us, binds us together, and leads us into an uncertain but hopeful future. 

Oneness

Oneness

Sermon on John 17:20-26 for June 2, 2019, Easter 7C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

 John 17:20-26

[Jesus said:] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

I just finished reading Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here.”  It is a wonderful and beautifully written book, but painful to read, as a white person, because she describes what it feels like to live as a black person, specifically a black woman who has to negotiate white spaces.  

My subject today is not racism, but as I was reflecting on our text for today, a passage from her book seemed poignant.  In the book, she includes a letter she wrote to her son, as he was developing in her womb.  She wants him to know that he is loved by her and her husband.  They will raise him, she writes, to know that he has respect and dignity, that he is valuable, and that he has gifts to give to the world.  

But she also knows that it will not be easy for him to grow up as a black man in America.  How old will he be, she wonders, before he is made to feel inferior?  She will not be able to protect him from that.  But she will try to instill in him a sense of his own worthwhileness at a deep level before it happens.  

Imagine growing up without those positive affirmations.  Imagine growing up being told you were bad, or unworthy (maybe some of you did grow up that way?).  

Imagine growing up thinking of yourself as a deeply flawed person, who deserves to be treated badly.  We all know that if a child was raised that way, she would need a lot of time and work to heal from the damage it would cause.  

Original What?

But here is the tragedy that we are all living with: we were all told of our unworthiness and flawed nature, right here in the church.  We were told that our original condition is sinful.  

We were told by our pastors and teachers, and even by our creeds that we are entirely tainted by original sin, so that we are separated from God.  

We were told that God, our judge, would punish us, and that we deserved it — even with hell, forever — unless we were saved by grace.  

But how you can feel a baby kicking in your womb and imagine her already sinful?  How you can look into the eyes of a newborn and see original sin? It is — or should be — unimaginable.  

That is what fourth-century theologian Pelagius taught.  He was a Celtic Welshman.  He taught that our original condition was beloved by God.  He taught that our nature is sacred.  We are wounded, of course, and in need of healing, by God’s grace.  But Christ, he said, restores us to our true depths.  

All of this is described beautifully in John Phillip Newell’s book “Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation.”

Two Competing Visions 

Pelagius’ ideas were condemned by the Roman church.  He was banned from Rome, his writings forbidden, and eventually, he was excommunicated as a heretic.  

Augustine, the winner in that theological debate, was a champion of the doctrine of original sin.  We got it from Adam’s first sin, he said, and it has literally been passed down through the father’s side during reproduction, so that all of us carry that contaminated condition.  

(Some of us may take issue with the historical and scientific assumptions required by his view, even beyond the theological issues it raises.)  

But Augustine’s theology of original sin, as it turned out, was a much more convenient doctrine for the Roman Empire to hold, as it conquered its enemies.  It is easier to kill someone whom God condemns and who deserves to go to hell, than to kill someone whom God loves and cherishes.  

Pelagius, however, continued to write and teach, and that more generous and positive Celtic Christianity grew and thrived for several centuries until the Roman mission finally arrived in their area.  

Celtic Christian communities, like the one on Iona, in present-day Scotland, had produced beautiful liturgies and prayer books that celebrated God’s good creation, including God’s good creation of humans in God’s own image.  

In the seventh century, the Roman church banned that prayer book and called the Celtic Christians heretics.  There have been waves of suppression ever since.  But Celtic Christianity has never been eliminated, and today flourishes again on Iona and in many communities around the world.  

Mystical Comments from the Upper Room

So that is how we got here today.  The original sin side won.  But that did not have to happen.  The gospel text for today, and so many other texts of scripture, tell a far different story from Augustines’s story of original sin.   Let us look at this text.

The setting is the upper room, on the night before Jesus’ arrest.  Scholars call John chapters 13—17 the Upper Room Discourse.  Unique to John’s gospel are these lengthy speeches by Jesus.  Much of this speech comes in the form of a prayer.  The writer, (we will call him John, though it may have been a team effort) pictures Jesus praying to God.  By this literary device, we come to hear John’s version of Christianity.  

John is clearly a mystic.  He believes that in prayer we have direct access to the Divine, whom he understands in mystical, but also personal ways.  In other words, we have a relationship with God.  In fact, the relationship is familial: God is pictured — in that admittedly patriarchal world — as “father.”

So John pictures Jesus in prayer, describing this relationship to his father as perfect unity: oneness.  Jesus prays:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…”  

They call this “mutual indwelling”.  Jesus dwells in God, just as God dwells in Jesus.  But this mutual indwelling is not unique to Jesus and God.  Jesus’ prayer tells us that this mutual indwelling extends to Jesus’ followers as well:

“…may they also be in us… so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

Jesus goes even further.  The best shorthand way to describe God, or the Divine, is the word “glory.”  It means something like pure radiance.  Glory is what God has.  But Jesus says that because of mutual indwelling, it is what we all have.  He says,

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one…” 

Participants in the Divine Nature

In other words, we all participate in the divine nature.  If you think that sounds dangerously close to heresy, it means that you have been raised in the Augustinian tradition which ignores and even denies this.  But listen to how explicit is in 2 Peter 1:

“[God’s] divine power has given us everything needed…so that you…may become participants of the divine nature.”

Richard Rohr famously said that if your religion is not helping you to know, understand, and live in union with God, then you need to get a new religion.  

Now, so far, this all may sound simply mystical and impractical to us, but let’s let the other shoe fall.  This affects everything!

So let us go back to Austins’ baby boy who is going to grow up hearing “I love you” from his mother and father.  He is going to grow up hearing, “You are beautiful, you are valuable, you have gifts to give the world, you were made in God’s image, just the way you are, from your skin color to your genetic code.”  

That will go with him his whole life long, and give him the fortitude and resilience he will need, to handle whatever the world throws at him.  

And that is exactly the message we all need to keep hearing from God.  If you could see yourself as God sees you, you would see something glorious — something radiant and beautiful.  And you would know that you are dwelling in God, just as God is dwelling in you.  How could that not affect every moment of every day of your life?  

Essential Relatedness

And there is more.  That mutual indwelling, that oneness also connects us with each other.  We are fundamentally one with each other, just as we hear Jesus pray,

“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

So, every single relationship is a relationship of oneness, not separateness. This is not just mystically irrelevant.   If we knew that, if we lived like that, how could that not affect every aspect of our lives?  

How could we ever hold grudges or become bitter and resentful if we understood our essential unity?  How could we ever allow people to live in poverty, or without adequate housing, or without sufficient food, clean water, and health care if we understood our essential unity?  

How could we ever execute them or go to war with them, or turn them away when they come to our borders in desperation?  How could we throw away most of their lives in prisons for non-violent offenses?  

In short, how could we not be people of compassion and champions of restorative justice, if we knew that we were beloved, glorious, and one with God, and with each other?  

Richard Rohr’s ministry in Arizona is called the Center for Contemplation and Action.  He named it according to his understanding that Contemplation leads to Action.  

He explains that in contemplation, in silent meditation, we lose the ego-control that otherwise dominates our thinking, and we become awake to our belovedness and oneness with God.  When that happens, we become more compassionate and we take action to help others.  

The Two Mountains

Rohr likes to describe the two halves of life, that characterize the journey from our sense of ego-driven separateness to that non-dual sense of oneness.  Recently David Brooks has written a book called “The Second Mountain: the Quest for a Moral Life.”  He describes nearly the same sequence with the metaphor of climbing two mountains in life.  He describes nearly the same sequence with the metaphor of climbing two mountains in life.  

The first mountain is all about establishing your identity, your career, your place in the world.  The second mountain is about the meaning of your life and what you will leave behind of lasting value.  

The first mountain is a very individualistic mountain.  The second mountain is all about your sense of connection with others.  On the first mountain, you may manage people.  On the second mountain, you want to mentor people.  Happiness may be found, in moments, on the first mountain, but lasting joy comes from climbing the second.  

Our gospel text challenges us to climb the second mountain, in which we understand the profound inter-connectedness we share with all things; people, God, the entire biosphere, and even the cosmos.  

It is God “in whom we live and move and have our being” as scripture says.  We are beloved.  And we are here to make sure everyone else can live the life of the glorious beloved community as well.  It is not a fantasy of the mystics; it is what we believe is most true: we are one.