Why Kill Jesus?

Why Kill Jesus?

Sermon for April 5, 2020 Palm Sunday A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Why does it matter to keep telling the Palm Sunday story in the context of a global pandemic? It does matter. This story goes directly to the heart of the issue raised by the Coronavirus pandemic: the problem of suffering, pain, and death.  

This story is one of the most misunderstood stories of the Bible, in my opinion. What kind of story is it? Is it the story of a triumph? 

It has been called the Triumphal Entry story; is that correct? In the days of the Roman empire, a general who had just won a war was rewarded with a “triumph;” a public parade in which he was honored as king for a day, and given a laurel crown to wear. 

You may have seen pictures of the great arch in Rome commemorating Titus’ victory over the Jews after the Jewish revolt which started about 30 years after Jesus walked the earth. 

On the arch are reliefs showing the parade; the victors are carrying the spoils of war, like the menorah taken from the sacked temple in Jerusalem. 

Is that what Jesus’ donkey ride was; a triumphal entry? I think it is obvious that it was not.  

As I was trying to think of a similar story, I remembered another parade that may help us understand this text. On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat, then president of Egypt was attending the annual victory parade which celebrated Egypt’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal which helped launch the 1973 Yom Kippur war. 

As he watched his military ride by, one soldier suddenly turned to face the grandstand, shouldered his assault rifle, and emptied it, killing Sadat, along with eleven others. So, that parade of celebration is now remembered as a time of death.

Jesus did not die during his donkey ride into Jerusalem, but it was likely the event that sealed his fate, according to some scholars. 

Why did the Roman government arrest and execute Jesus? We are all familiar with the gospel stories which tell us that it was the Jewish leaders who conspired to convince Pilate to crucify Jesus, but why did those leaders want him dead, and on what basis did Pilate comply? Why was Jesus such a threat?  

For years, Christians have read this story with a theological explanation in mind.  We have read it as a story of a parade honoring Jesus, whom we call “King.”  We say, with the crowd, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But that theological reading makes it hard to see what is going on here and why it matters so much. Let us put the story in context. 

Jesus and tens of thousands of other people were in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. It was Passover. Passover was like the 4th of July for Jews. It was their Independence Day. Passover celebrates the night on which the Jews escaped from Egypt where they had been enslaved for over 400 years. 

But what was the context in which they celebrated that memory? In the time of Jesus, Israel had been conquered by the Romans. For the Israelites, it was almost like being back in Egypt. They were under occupation, like France under the Nazis during the Second World War. 

The Germans prohibited their celebration of Bastille Day during the war for obvious reasons. Remembering your independence from your overlords makes people under occupation more likely to revolt.  

The Romans did not prohibit the celebration of Passover, but it did make them nervous. So, although there was a permanent garrison of Roman troops in Jerusalem, during the Passover festival, Pilate reinforced them with troops from his headquarters down on the Mediterranean coast. 

Imagine Pilate, on a big white warhorse, leading his troops with their swords, shields, spears, and helmets all shining in the sun, clanking and stamping into Jerusalem from the West.  

Meanwhile, perhaps even simultaneously, Jesus comes from the East, from the Mount of Olives, riding into the city on a little donkey colt. If you have ever seen someone try to ride an animal that has not yet been saddle-broken, you can imagine what it must have looked like; it was probably ridiculous — especially to see a full-grown adult on an untrained donkey colt.  

What was Jesus doing on that donkey, that day? This whole scene was pre-arranged. Matthew tells us all about the set-up with the donkey and its colt and the owner. Most of the words in this story are about the donkey. 

Jesus was riding a donkey colt into the capital city accompanied by cheering crowds and their hymns of praise. 

They were waving palm branches as their ancestors had done in another historic occasion of liberation, and naming Jesus “Son of [ancient king] David, ” which sounds a lot like calling him the heir apparent. 

But he is on a humble little donkey instead of a big white horse, like Pilate’s. It looks like mockery. It was a mockery. It was intentional parody.  

Was Jesus being celebrated as a King that day? Yes, he was. And remember, “King of the Jews” was the mocking title Pilate ordered to be displayed on his cross. 

This is the point Matthew was trying to make when, as he wrote this story, he said, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

But was that all a mistake? Was Jesus an actual threat to anyone? Wasn’t his kingdom, as the gospels report him saying to Pilate, “not of this world” and therefore, without anyone fighting for it, as Jesus pointed out? 

Wasn’t Jesus’ kingdom all about “turning the other cheek” and “blessed are the meek”? Why would that kind of a king threaten anyone? Why would anyone want him dead?  

Because of what he did when he arrived. He went directly to the temple, and, Matthew tells us, Jesus

 “drove out all who were selling and, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.

New Testament scholars have pointed out that the den is not where the robbers are robbing people; the den is where they hide the loot. By driving out the money changers and the dove sellers, Jesus was temporarily shutting down the temple. 

Why? To make a long story short, the temple was also the national bank, the place where the records of debts were kept, and the repository for taxes. 

The people running it and benefiting from it were the minority elite aristocratic class. These were the landed families who were, in the time of Jesus, increasing their estates by driving peasants off their land through debt foreclosure. 

These were the ones living in luxury from the temple taxes everyone was obliged to pay. 

These were the ones who were collaborating with the Romans, just as the Vichy government did with the Nazis. 

These were the ones, in other words, who were instruments of oppression; these were the ones who were the reason that the people who gathered to hear Jesus were hungry and needed to be fed with fish and bread. 

These were the ones who show up in Jesus’ parable as day-laborers who got paid whatever the landlord wanted to pay them.  

In other words, the “meekness” that Jesus advocated did not mean passivity in the face of injustice. 

The love of enemy that Jesus called for did not include turning a blind eye to oppression. Jesus’ methods were non-violent, that much is certain. 

But Jesus was leading a resistance movement that had direct economic implications for the power-elites running the system. He confronted them on the Passover day of independence, and they got the message.  

So, this parade of mockery, and the temple action that followed, provoked a backlash of violence. The elites got Jesus crucified.  

But the violence did not snuff out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Jesus’ words and his vision of a reconciled humanity live on, as people gather around inclusive tables, celebrating God’s unconditional love that binds them together into a new humanity. 

So, it is not wrong for the church to think of Palm Sunday as a day of celebration, a day to honor a king. But we must not make the mistake that has been made for so many years of triumphalism — as if Jesus’ kingdom was of this world.  

Jesus is king, but his kingdom, as he said, is “among us;” it is “within us;” it is “at hand.” That is what we act out as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even in this awkward way, each of us at home. 

That is what we live-out, as we make 1400 muffins, as the team did this week, for the Sack Lunch Program that feeds so many in this city. 

That is the kingdom we show our allegiance to every time we pick up the phone or write the email or send the text to people we are checking in on, in this time of physical distancing. 

This is the kingdom we affirm as we hold up each other in prayer.  

Why did Jesus die? Jesus died fighting injustice and oppression. But his death was not a tragic failure. Two thousand years later, all of those elites in Israel are long forgotten. 

But in Jesus’ name, millions of meals have been served to the poor. In Jesus’ name, people have marched for justice, for freedom, and full inclusion. 

In Jesus’ name many people have embraced the ethics of non-violence. Because of Jesus’ vision, many people have engaged spiritual practices like meditation that helped them confront their self-seeking egos. 

In Jesus’ name, thousands of hospitals and clinics have been started all over the world.  

We are not triumphalist. We do not believe that celebrating Jesus as king excludes the notion of God’s work in other religions. 

Neither do we believe that the Spirit is unable to lure people of no particular religious faith to act in loving, even in self-sacrificial ways, just as so many are doing in response to the pandemic. 

But this is the day we celebrate Jesus’ demonstrated willingness to sacrifice his security on behalf of the people he loved. 

In that sense, we can join the crowds saying, “Hosanna! God save us” and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  

Trust

Trust

Sermon for March 29, 2020, Lent 5A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

John 11:1-6; 17-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 

So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 Ezekiel 37:1-14

We never imagined that we could be in this situation. Here it is, the last Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. In two weeks it will be Easter, and by the looks of it, we will still not be able to gather together safely. 

America now has more victims of the Coronavirus than any other nation. Oddly, here in the River Valley of Northwest Arkansas, very few cases have been reported. So, we wash our hands and keep our distance, waiting for what is surely coming. No one knows who will be affected, or how severely. Young people who feel invulnerable have been warned that they are not immune.  

In this time of waiting, we have been presented with two texts from our wisdom tradition, the Bible. Both of them are about resurrections, albeit of different types. Ezekiel’s story of dry bones is about the resurrection of the nation as a nation. 

The Gospel of John’s focus is more personal. Ezekiel imagines a solution to the problem of national extinction, after the horrors of the Babylonian invasion and exile. John’s gospel works on a deeper problem: mortality itself.  

We are all focused, with good reason, on the potential deadliness of COVID-19 because already, it has claimed thousands of lives. And yet, at a deeper level, the issue of mortality haunts all of us. There will be a time when we are not; at least not here, not like this. 

What does that mean? Does the fact that we only have one act in the human drama, one shift, one watch to be responsible for, undermine the value of our lives?  I heard many sirens yesterday. 

Even before the virus gets here in full force, accidents still happen, people still have strokes and heart attacks, cancer still claims more victims. How does our wisdom tradition speak to us, given the givens?

Ezekiel’s vision came true. The nation of Israel did come back together, like the re-assembling of bones back into skeletons, and skeletons into living beings. The rebirth of the nation, however, was not instant nor miraculous like the resurrection of Lazarus was. There was a long, slow historical process of returning and rebuilding, full of setbacks and opposition, frustration and discouragement.  

By the time of Jesus, Israel was a nation-reborn, but a crippled one, deformed by the weight of the Roman Empire it had to bear every day.  

To dip your toe into the subject of national rebirth and resurrection, as Ezekiel did, is to venture into murky waters. There is more below the surface that is unseen than is seen, even by the best prophets.  

Lazarus

Now, let us turn to the other resurrection story from the Gospel of John. My philosophy and English professors told me that I should never do what John does as he tells the story of the raising of Lazarus: equivocate; use one word to mean different things. 

If you are going to say “dead,” or “alive,” you are supposed to mean one thing. If something is dead, it is not also alive. 

But John does equivocate, which is part of why the water is murky. As John’s Gospel tells the story, Jesus says, 

“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

To make sense of this, we have to unscramble the equivocation. We could add the words “physically” and “spiritually” to help. So it would go like this:

“Those who believe in me, even though they die physically, will live spiritually, and everyone who lives physically and believes in me will never die spiritually.”

But it gets even more confusing because the story narrates a kind of physical resurrection — the decomposing Lazarus does come back to life. But Jesus tells Lazarus’ sister Martha that he himself is “the resurrection and the life.” 

Oddly, he says that he is “the resurrection and the life,” even though his purposeful delay in coming foreclosed the possibility that he could have healed Lazarus’ illness and prevented his death, as Martha pointed out.  

John: the Mystical Gospel

How are we going to understand this, and how is it going to help us today? The very short answer is that to understand what is going on here, we must read the Gospel of John in a way quite different than we read the other gospels. John’s gospel is different. 

Even ancient writers in the early church understood that this gospel was different. Clement of Alexandria called it a “spiritual gospel.” Today we would call it a mystical text.  

Here is why it matters: in John’s gospel, the storyline exists simply for illustration. The real meaning is mystical. We have to look at the characters in the narrative in a mystical way. 

What does it mean to be a character in a mystical text?  I remember being shocked when I first heard the notion that God is a character in the Bible, just like Moses and Elijah are characters. It seemed odd to me to think of God as a character. 

But, after I thought about it, it was obvious. These texts are words on a page, written by an author, a story-teller, who writes about characters and gives them words to say and actions to perform. God is one of them. 

Jesus is also a character in the bible. In John’s mystical Gospel, Jesus is a character that plays the role of illustrating what God is like.  John says exactly that, in the first paragraph. He says that the eternal “Word,” the “logos,” was “made flesh,” so that we would be able to do something that you cannot do with God: see him. 

What do we see then, when we see the character called Jesus in John’s gospel? John says we see his “glory,” — a word used for God. In other words, in John’s gospel, the character called Jesus acts out what God does, and says God’s words, so that we can see and hear. The Divine Word is flesh.

So, with this understanding, we see that when Jesus raises Lazarus from death to life, John is telling us that is what God can do: bring to life that which was dead.  Not that physically dead people will spring from their graves, but that spiritually dead people can become spiritually alive.

How does that kind of resurrection happen? In this story, Jesus says it happens by “believing.” Jesus says, 

“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Belief as trust

Now, we must pause here and look at the word “believe,” because we live a long time after John wrote his gospel, and the word “believe” has gone through changes. We need to hear what John meant by “believe” to understand it correctly. In John’s time, the word “to believe” meant “to trust.” 

It evolved to mean, “to think that a statement is true.” When people today say, “I believe in science,” they mean, I believe that what scientists tell us is true. 

In John’s time, when people said, “I believe in God,” they did not mean, “I am not an atheist, rather I believe that there is a God.” Rather, they meant “I trust God.” 

So let us hear this again, using the word trust instead of believe.

“Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trust in me will never die.”

To become spiritually alive, in other words, we trust Jesus. We trust that the Jesus-way of life leads to spiritual aliveness. 

Jesus lived a life of complete trust in God, whom he often referred to as his Abba, his father. 

He told us that we could live like the birds of the air, who trust God to meet our needs every day, rather than gathering up food to store in barns. 

He told us we could live like the lilies of the field who dress better than King Solomon did, without worrying about it. 

He told us that the kingdom of God belonged to those who would receive it as children do, in uncomplicated openness.

Of course, Lazarus died. So did Mary and Martha. So do we all. We are mortal.  Whether it is the Babylonians or the Romans, the pandemic or simply old age, something will bring our earthly lives to a close. 

But every day that we are alive on this earth, we have a choice. We can lean into trust, or we can resist. We can accept the unchangeable facts of our existence with equanimity, or, serenity, or we can live with anxiety. The Jesus-way is the way of trust.  

Each day is unrepeatable, therefore, every day is holy. Every moment is the only moment we ever get to live in, therefore every moment that we can live in mindful trusting presence is significant. 

Trust in God, is the key that unlocks the door to the spiritual life. Trust does for us spiritually what Jesus did for Lazarus symbolically. It raises the spiritual life back from the dead. 

God is present, in each moment, spiritually with us, whether we are gathered in a church or quarantined at home. Trust, means living as if that were true.

Dag Hammarsköld, former General Secretary of the United Nations and, himself, a mystic, wrote a prayer that sums up this beautifully. He said, 

“For everything that has been; thanks. For everything that will be, yes.” 

“Thanks” means I accept everything that has been my life up to this moment as the path that brought me to this moment. 

“Yes” means I trust that in every coming moment, I will be surrounded by, and supported by God, and whatever comes, it will be okay. 

Until my final breath, I can live each day, spiritually alive, connected the Source that gave me life, present, with gratitude, for every breath.  

Enlightenment and Healing

Enlightenment and Healing

Sermon for March 22, 2020, Lent 4A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

An online version of our worship service will be available during the times in which we have had to suspend live services because of the Coronavirus. It can be found at the Youtube channel of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR. here.

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Healing stories are complicated. What do we do with them? What is the message we should take away from them? 

Scholars of the historical Jesus are confident that his ministry included healing. In fact, that healing was important; many people heard about Jesus and became interested in him for his healings. 

But stories of Jesus healing people are complicated for us, for a number of reasons. 

First, Jesus is not physically present to us. We cannot go to where he is and have him touch us as he did when he walked the earth.  

The second complexity is about our beliefs about what is possible. We are living in the 21st century. We are children of the age of science. We know about cellular biology and immune systems. 

In these days, we are all focused on a microscopic virus that is wreaking havoc around the world. Where is God in this? What do we believe are the causes of sickness and what are the possibilities for healing?  

I have met people whose beliefs span a wide range. At one extreme are those who believe that no help is available, except the help that science understands and provides. 

At the other extreme are those who believe all illness can be believed-away or prayed-away with sufficient faith. Many people are somewhere in the middle, believing in a mix of science and prayer. 

That is where I am. I have seen two kinds of experiences that make this issue complex for me. I have seen good people suffer and die before their time, despite many prayers. I do not understand that. 

I have also seen remarkable recoveries of people we have prayed for, some of which have baffled medical professionals. I don’t understand that either.

So, for this time of crisis, I am going to take every precaution I can, hand washing, surface cleaning, and social distancing. And I will pray. 

I believe that God is infinite, and therefore, beyond my understanding, but that God is real, God is present with us, and that God is good. I believe that God experiences the world as we experience it, both when we have joy and when we suffer. God laughs with us, and cries with us.  

And I believe that healing stories can teach us some important, even crucial truths. It is rather remarkable that the lectionary reading for this Sunday during this pandemic is this one: it is perfect for this Sunday. So let us try let this story teach us what we need to know and believe.

Who Sinned?

First, one of the most important questions in the whole Bible is the one Jesus’ disciples asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

Why do people get sick? Why do people suffer? Why do people die? Are they being punished by God? 

Let this question get personal: have you ever wondered or believed that your illness, your hardships, your problems were punishments from God? If you have, please hear this:

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;” 

Jesus did not believe that suffering was caused by God. He made that point repeatedly. “God,” he said, “causes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the fields of the righteous and the wicked.” (Matt 5:45). 

When he was asked about the people who died when the tower fell and crushed them, he responded with a question: “do you think they were the worst sinners?” And then he answered it, “No!” (Luke 13:4-5)

Is your suffering a punishment from God? Jesus said, no, it is not. It doesn’t work that way. God is not like that. 

That view, that blessings come to good people as a reward for being good and that suffering is God’s punishment for being bad is simply mistaken. Let us be clear. That had been the view of how it worked for most of the Old Testament. 

But even in the Old Testament there are exceptions, and there are objections to that view. All you need to do is read the book of Job to see that not everyone back then believed that suffering was God’s punishment. 

Anyway, Jesus did not believe it, and neither should we.

Many more people will get the Coronavirus disease COVID-19. Some will die. The reason is not that they are worse than others. The reason is not that they are being punished by God. Let us hear it once more:

“[Jesus’] disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned”

Light

The second truth this story teaches us is about enlightenment. That word, “enlightenment” does not come from the Christian tradition. It comes from the Buddhist tradition. Nevertheless it is fitting, because this story is all about becoming enlightened to things you were previously blind to. 

There are two cases of blindness in this story: there is the man who was literally born blind, and then there is the blindness of the religious authorities who are upset with the cure. As is typical of the Gospel of John, first there is a literal meaning, which quickly gives way to a metaphorical meaning (remember “thirst” from last week?).  

Early Christians and Jews

One historical note will help us understand why this story was written the way it was. By the time of John’s Gospel, at least six decades or more after Jesus walked the earth, many things had happened. 

The early Christians were all Jewish, as Jesus was, and many continued to worship in the Jewish synagogues after Jesus was no longer present physically. 

But eventually, as it became apparent that they were not being totally Torah-observant and that they were associating with Gentiles, the Christians were kicked out of the synagogues. So, when John writes about “the Jews” and describes their blindness, we can sense the bad blood between them. 

Again, let’s be clear: it was Jews angry with other Jews at that time. In a post-holocaust age, we have to acknowledge that texts like these have been used throughout history to justify anti-semitism. There is no excuse for that. 

Anti-semitism is completely wrong and never justified; it is bigotry, plain and simple. It is even more inappropriate for Christians, whose leader, Jesus, was Jewish. 

It is even worse for Christians to be anti-Semitic since Jesus taught love, even love of enemies. But because these texts have been ripped out of their historical contexts to justify anti-semitism, we must take the opportunity to say “No!” All forms of bigotry are wrong.  

What Can You Believe?

So, back to the story about blindness. There are many truths embedded in this story. We have time for only one more. 

Did it seem crazy to you that Jesus’ opponents were not willing to believe that he healed the man, even when confronted with the evidence of their own eyes? There he was, standing right in front of them, seeing. There were his parents. This was not New York city; everybody knew who the blind beggar was. Everybody knew his parents. 

And if they didn’t know them before, their questions were answered. This was the guy. He was born blind. Now he can see. What’s the problem?

This is exactly what we need to think about. We can only see the things we are willing to see. The religious opponents of Jesus were simply not prepared to believe that he could heal people. 

Or, since we know that John is using blindness as a metaphor we could put it this way: they were not prepared to believe that Jesus was the source of enlightenment. 

They were not prepared to believe that Jesus was, as John has him say, “the light of the world.” They had their pre-conceived notions about God, about theology, about suffering as punishment, about the Sabbath restrictions against work, and about what was important to God, and that made them unable to see what was right in front of their eyes. They were therefore blind by their own wills.

Now we are back to the question of healing in the modern world. What are we prepared to believe about healing in this scientific age? What do you believe when you hear a story about something that looks like miraculous healing? 

For some, no matter how many personal testimonies they hear, they simply are not prepared to believe them.  

For me, I am open. This world is full of mystery! There are so many things to marvel at. 

If we pause, if we turn off the TV, if we are able to take time for silence, or if we go outside and just let ourselves notice what is right in front of our eyes, we may find reasons to feel awe. 

Yes, these are difficult days with the virus making our lives complicated, but it is also springtime. The earth is coming back to life; leaves are budding on the branches, the forsythia is in full color; how can we not take all this beauty as a sign pointing to a mysterious, wonderful life-force at work in a depth dimension?  

This is what Jesus was teaching us when he said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; …do not worry”. (Matt 6:26-31)

Is suffering caused by God? No. Can we be open-eyed to see that God is good, that God is present, and that God is with us, no matter what? Yes, Jesus is, for us, the light of the world that helps us see what spring teaches us; God is the mystery we receive by faith, that allows us to trust, even in the days of a pandemic.

We do not believe that faith will keep us magically invulnerable, but we do believe that we can lean back into the arms of a good God, and trust ourselves, body and soul to the mystery we call God.  

The Deep Drink

The Deep Drink

Sermon for March 15, 2020. Lent 3A

John 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

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March is Women’s History Month, so it is fitting that the lectionary reading for this Sunday is the story whose main characters are Jesus and a woman. 

This story may seem unremarkable to us because of our familiarity with it, but it is, in fact, stunning, for multiple reasons. 

Frequently, as I encounter scripture and reflect on what to say to you all, I am struck by how important it is to try to help us all stand back, to reassess these familiar stories, and allow them to strike us as amazing, which they are. 

In this story, as we have it in the Gospel of John, some shocking things happen, some shocking statements are made with far-reaching implications for us today. Let us look at some of them together.

The Woman Theologian

First, in Women’s History Month, let us notice that this is not just a story about a woman, it is a story about a thinking woman. 

This woman has a developed understanding of theology, including a theology of worship and a theology of salvation. 

Worship, she knows, is a controversial topic between her people, Samaritans, and Jesus’ people, Jews. 

The issue is location: whose temple is legitimate? That is not our question nor our issue, but let us just notice that it was an issue then, and this woman is both informed about it and has an opinion about it, and is willing to engage a man in conversation about it. 

She also has thoughts about salvation, which, in her context, is all about Messiah. On this topic too, she is willing to engage a Jewish man. She is a woman who can think theologically. 

Remarkably, Jesus engages her. He welcomes the dialogue. That means he sees her as a full person and respects her. The fact that she is a woman does not even come up at all, until the disciples return. It is their issue, but it is not an issue to Jesus. The teaching is clear: disciples of Jesus should emulate him; Jesus valued women and took them seriously. 

If men have a problem with that, they have not reached the spiritual maturity that Jesus was modeling. They need to take a lesson. 

We value the gifts and calling of women here in the Presbyterian Church USA. Women are clergy, they are elders and deacons, they chair committees, run programs, teach both adults and youth, and are the backbone of any congregation. They are chaplains, theological professors, authors, and spiritual directors. 

Jesus has led us to examine our traditional assumptions about gender and to be open to God’s gifts in both genders, male and female. 

Further Thinking About Gender 

Today, we need to push the gender question further. We, in the mainline Protestant denominations, have come to understand that Jesus and Paul’s radical views of women, as fully equal with men, was toned down by the later writers of texts that have been included in our cannon. 

New Testament books like Ephesians and Colossians are important to us, but scholars recognize that they come from the hand of a person living after the historical Paul’s life, and represent some views that he did not share, like the subservience of women to men. 

Books like Timothy and Titus go even further in limiting women’s participation. We see a tendency in the developing cannon of the New Testament in the second generation of Christians to soften the radicalness of Jesus and Paul, probably to make the early Christian movement more acceptable to a wider audience, as it spread in the Roman Empire. 

So, the question of gender was unsettling to some, and the knee-jerk reaction seemed to be to retreat to a safer, more traditional perspective. (By the way, the very same softening of radical views happened within the cannon with respect to the issue of slavery as well.)

Gender: Further Discussion

The question of gender is again on the table in our day. Just like many other issues, we have come to understand that a binary, black or white perspective on gender simply does not account for the facts on the ground. 

The problem with binary categories is that they simply do not account for real life. Binary categories work great for us when we are children, but we are called as adults to put away childish ways.

Today, scientists know that many binaries are simply inadequate to account for real life. We now know, for example, that between one in 1500 and 2000 babies are born each year, in which gender differentiation at birth is so ambiguous that a specialist is called in. Decisions are made, one gender manifestation is preferred, the other removed. (see http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency)

Physical manifestation of gender ambiguity is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that chromosomal ambiguity, in other words, not XX or XY occurs in one in 1600 births. There are XXY chromosomes in one of 1,000 births, according to a Brown University study. 

The list of medically defined non-standard conditions is long. The male-female binary simply does not adequately account for reality. It is a conventional way of looking at the world, but an inadequate one.

I had a philosophy professor in college who pointed out to us that everything in the world is either a chair, or it is not a chair. That binary is true, but completely unhelpful. That is how binaries work. They are inadequate.

In the ancient world, most people accepted all kinds of binaries: male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, pure and impure, kosher and not kosher, but Jesus, a person of deep spirituality and enormous courage, could think beyond those categories. 

He taught us to look at every human being as a person God created, God loves, and God values. So now, we need to engage questions of transgendered persons and other non-binary identities with seriousness and openness to Jesus’ radical inclusion.  

Thirst

There are so many profound ideas in this story but we have time only for one more. The central question that the story opens with is about thirst. 

John’s Gospel repeatedly uses a literary strategy that we see here: a person in a conversation with Jesus, in this case the Samaritan woman, mistakes his message because they take literally what he intends to be taken spiritually. For example, Nicodemus thinks new birth is about being a baby in a womb again. 

Here the question begins about literal thirst, so it concerns a well, a bucket and social rules about who can drink with whom. But quickly Jesus moves the conversation to the spiritual level, making the issue of thirst much deeper. 

The woman in the story has certainly lived a life of unsatisfied thirst. Probably with great hyperbole, we hear that she has had five husbands and is now living with a man who has, for some reason, not become her sixth. 

So, she shows up at a well to get water, but reveals a thirst for a meaningful, lasting relationship that, for reasons we are not told, has been utterly frustrated. She has a longing, a thirst the has gone unquenched her whole adult life.  

So Jesus deftly re-directs her attention. They talk about her past, her many husbands, and her present relationship. 

Why? Because she believes her deepest thirst will be quenched by finally getting into the right relationship. There are so many inadequate thirst-quenchers that people seek, but probably the most common is this one: the right relationship will solve everything for me.  

I love Mary Oliver poems, and she has one that tells the truth beautifully:

“Two or three times in my life I discovered love.

Each time it seemed to solve everything.

Each time it solved a great many things

but not everything.”  

— From “Sometimes” Devotions, p. 105, originally in Red Bird, 2008.

Being in love, being in a committed relationship is a gift of God, maybe one of the best gifts you can ever receive. But there is a quest in our hearts that goes even deeper. We all long to be truly known for who we are, and to be accepted and loved, even with all of our warts and failures; even with a past that may include things we are not proud of. 

We long for a connection with God, who is Spirit, who knows us intimately and completely, and who, despite our past, still calls us beloved children of God.  

So we see Jesus, bringing up her past, with all of its complications and frustrations, and what does he do? Judge her? Shame her? Call for acts of contrition? Not at all! He simply tells her that the God whom he knows intimately as Father is seeking worshipers who will worship him “in Spirit and truth” — God is seeking people; people to celebrate their belovedness, not looking for people to condemn as unworthy.  

That is why she runs back to the village saying to everyone, “”He told me everything I have ever done.” He told me, with out condemning me! That is awesome! And in so doing, he taught me what to thirst for: for living water; spiritual water, the water of knowing who I am in God, and that changes everything!

We want all kind of things, and we need all kinds of things. Many are legitimate to want. We all want to life healthy lives, to have good relationships with our families, to have close friends, and to be materially successful enough not to be in want. 

We want a healthy planet for our descendants, we want good government. We want human love. All of those are wonderful. None of them is ultimate. 

Let this story teach us what to thirst for: the water of the spirit, the water provide from the deepest well; the well of God’s love that is inexhaustible and given freely to men and women and to every other gender identity. If this is what we learn to this for, we will experience a “a spring of water gushing up…” so that we need never thirst again.

Risking Being Children of Abraham and Sarah

Risking Being Children of Abraham and Sarah

Sermon for March 8, 2020, Lent 2A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

 Genesis 12:1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

They say that you cannot choose your parents. True, but there is an exception to that rule. You can be adopted, and adopted children can choose to “adopt” their new family’s history and claim it as their own. They can choose to embrace their language, their tastes in music and food, their perspective on the world, and their values. 

This is exactly what the Apostle Paul expected his new Gentile Christian Communities to do. They were supposed to consider themselves adopted into the family tree of Israel, and they were expected to adopt the Israelites as their ancestors. 

Paul called those Gentiles the “seed of Abraham” (today, he would have said, the progeny of Abraham and Sarah — to be less patriarchal about it). We should not rush past that idea. It carries benefits, but it also includes risks — some of them quite large. 

But anyway, I think that’s right. We Christians are to embrace the stories of the Israelites as our family stories. Paul would say that we are “in Christ” and therefore, included in the family tree of Israel. We are to embrace their family stories as if we were carrying the same DNA.  

In fact, I do not believe this is an illegitimate or fanciful way to take the stories of our ancestors in faith, because I believe that they were written for that purpose: that we would see ourselves in the characters and come to understand things that are true for us too. This is the assumption that the book of Hebrews makes as well, giving us a lesson in what it means to live by faith, citing this story, saying, 

“By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” (Heb. 11:8)

So, in that sense, when we read stories of Abraham and Sarah, the founding father and mother of Israel, we read them asking the question: “What does it mean to be a person of faith?” As I said, there are both great benefits as well as substantial risks. Let us look at the story.

Go!

Without any given explanation, the first word God says to Abraham is “Go”. It is an imperative. It is a calling. That is where we start. 

To be a person of faith is to be addressed. To be addressed is to embrace a spirituality of a particular kind.  We not only believe that there is something more to this world than meets the eye, something transcendent, some depth dimension to life that is deeply meaningful, we also believe that whatever the Divine is, it is personal. 

The Divine — or God — is not just a force, not even just a force for good; the Divine has the capacity to address us, person to person. We have been addressed. We have been, in the more traditional language, “called.” 

That is why this story of Abraham and Sarah begins this way. Their story is a paradigm of the story of people of faith. It begins as God takes the initiative and calls us.  

What is our calling? It is disruptive. It is risky. It is a call to “go.” To make a change. Abraham and Sarah are told to leave three locations that start general and become increasingly more personal and intense. They must leave their,

country and [their] kindred and [their] father’s house.”  

How do we identify ourselves? How do we know who we are and describe ourselves to others? I am an American, I am of European origin, and I belong to the Kurtz family.  I identify with each of those: my country, my kindred, and my father’s household.  

What would it mean to be called to leave those identity markers?  It would mean taking on a new identity that would define me at an even deeper level.  

This is the essential call: identify yourself first and most significantly not by what your driver’s license or passport says about you, but by what God says about you. Since we have adopted Israel’s family-stories of creation we take a lesson from them. 

They tell us, in the profoundly true words of ancient myth, that we were created “in the image and likeness of God.” That we, were created “good;” in fact, “very good.” We are beloved by our Creator, who has personally addressed us. So we respond, willing to the mandate to “Go,” as Abraham and Sarah did, away from every other, lesser identity, and take the risk of knowing ourselves as beloved children of God.

So, in this story, Abraham and Sarah answer the call, going forward into a future that is uncertain in every way, except that God has called them, and is with them as they go to, as God says, “to the land that I will show you.”

The Promise of Blessing

 Along with the call to a new identity in an uncertain future is the promise of blessing.  In the language of ancient covenant treaties, God binds Godself as suzerain to a vassal, promising to be an ally to their allies and an enemy to their enemies. The ancient language uses the terms “bless” and “curse.” From this promise, we come to understand that God’s relationship with us is essentially “for” us; God is on our side, not against us. God’s will is our blessing, our “shalom,” our flourishing. God wants what is best for us.  

It turns out that what is best is not a life of leisure, but of mission. The mission we are blessed with goes way beyond ourselves. We are to be the instruments by which God’s intention for humanity is accomplished. God tells Abraham and Sarah, 

“…you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, …; and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

We are blessed in order to be a blessing. The world was made, according to the creation story, “good.” But that was not the end of the story. The mystery of evil is never explained, but it is powerfully present. Bad choices are made. Desire burns in every human breast. The stories capture it dramatically. The forbidden fruit looks delicious.  Evil crouches at the tent door waiting for us to come out unsuspecting, as Cain did, and ignoring the warning. He chose not to be his brother’s keeper, and the ground of the good earth began to absorb human blood, and has never stopped.  

So the world (Olam) is now broken, and in need of repair (Tikkun). How will the “Tikkun Olam,” the repairs to the world ever be made?  By people who have heard the call to go away from parochial identities, and venture out to embrace the identity of beloved children of God, who understand that they are blessed in order to be on a mission of blessing to others.  

The idea that humans are essentially autonomous individuals without responsibility for each other is not just a myth, it is a monstrous myth. The world Ayn Rand created in her fiction, a world in which the triumphant individual is free from responsibility to others, runs directly counter to the biblical vision of the human family, the human community, or, to fast forward to the ministry of Jesus, the “kingdom of God.”

And so our story begins with people who have left home, immigrants to a land they are not native to, on a mission to bless all the people of the earth. How can we not notice here how many times immigration comes up in our family’s stories? After Abraham and Sarah’s immigration to Canaan, their descendants have to immigrate to Egypt for economic reasons — there is a famine in Canaan. The people who survive the Babylonian conquest, centuries later, become immigrants to that empire.

Even Jesus’ family must flee political persecution, according to the story in Matthew, to survive Herod’s decree as immigrants to Egypt.  Our scriptures, our wisdom tradition, is the story of immigrants.

We all are quite aware of how the treatment of immigrants in our times has been politicized, but that sad fact must not blind us to our most fundamental vision. The whole human family is most deeply one, and each is responsible for the wellbeing of all. Therefore, we are called to create systems that are fair, just, and compassionate, to people who, like our ancestors, both literally and spiritually, were also immigrants.  

We have the privilege of living in an amazing country. We love America. We love the fact that we get to vote for our leaders. We celebrate the fact that, as we have recently seen, even if you have billions of dollars, nevertheless, the voters get to decide which candidate they support, and sometimes, the billionaires lose.  

But we are not just Americans. We have been addressed by a Higher Power who has called us to embrace an even deeper identity. We are children of a loving God, whose love knows no boundaries, no racial or ethnic limitations. 

The Creator God, the calling God has told us to go from our country, our kindred and our father’s house to a broken world in need of repair. So the call comes with a blessing; God is for us, blessing us in order to be instruments of blessing to “all the families of the earth.”  

This vision, this calling was what Jesus became aware of at his baptism — that he was indeed God’s beloved Son. And as such, he set out on a life of repairing the world, one person at a time. Those people included the non-persons of his world: women, children, the sick, the disabled, both from his own country and foreigners, without distinction. 

He took up their cause, which meant taking the risk of opposing the powers of oppression headquartered in the temple-complex. He died, sacrificing his life for justice. But we are here because he lives in our hearts and in our community today. 

His vision of a boundary-less kingdom, the kingdom of God still inspires and calls us. That is why we can risk being children of Abraham and Sarah, our spiritual father and mother, answering the call that they answered, embracing an identity great enough to a blessing to all the families of the earth.

The Journey Begins in Wilderness

The Journey Begins in Wilderness

Sermon for March 1, 2020 Lent 1A

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I was recently in the company of people who were using “colorful” language. Noticing that I was there, they felt somewhat apologetic about it — not enough to stop using the language — but enough to feel the need to say something vaguely contrite.   

So I told them of an experience I had many years ago.  I was listening to a famous Christian author and professor who was speaking to youth workers like me, about global poverty.  He told us that according to the World Health Organization, 15,000 children die of hunger every day.  

Then he said, “And most of you don’t give a S*#*! about it.”  And then he said something I will never forget.  He said, “And the fact is that most of you care more that I said S*#! than that all those children will die of hunger today.”  And he was right.  

I was shocked by that realization.  It made me re-examine my whole approach to what was ethically important.  Language, I concluded, is trivial.  Global poverty, the death of children is not.  

Sometimes it helps to step back from the details to get a big picture view of things.   The church has had a habit of trivializing temptation.    

We have made things like language, meat and chocolate important at Lent, instead of things that actually matter in the world.  Let us not do that.  There are big issues going on here that we need to look at.  

We always begin Lent with the story of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.   That is a good place to start our 40 days of preparation for Easter, as long as we keep the big picture in mind and refuse to trivialize what is going on here. 

Desire

First, let us notice the big picture issue that this whole temptation scene is about desire.  As Matthew presents this story, Jesus has been fasting.  He is hungry.  He is physically weak.  He is in the wilderness, which means he is alone, isolated, without any social support. He is experiencing desire on every level.   

Let us remember this story in the context of Jesus’ life, as the gospels present it: Jesus has just been baptized, which was a hugely significant moment for him; a spiritual experience; a mystical moment in which he heard the voice of God calling him God’s own beloved son.  And immediately he goes from what must have been an exhilarating feeling to being isolated and needy.  This seems to be a pattern.

Jesus’ personal life echoes the experience of his people, the Israelites.  In the Biblical story, they crossed the Red Sea, set free, liberated from slavery in Egypt, as God’s chosen people, and immediately found themselves in the hungry, empty wilderness of unmet desire.   

Why are these two stories told this way?  And why are they so much like the creation story in Genesis, in which the first experience of the original man and woman is the Garden of abundance, nevertheless they come to the forbidden tree and experience desire, as if they lacked something? 

We call these texts our “wisdom tradition” for a reason.  Long ago, people of spiritual insight understood that to be human is to be both a beloved child of the divine, and yet permanently hungry.  We live with a sense of being loved and of  longing.  We have an aching desire at the core of our being for a union that escapes us.  We experience it as a lack.  Something is missing.  

There is an incompleteness, even in our best moments of joy.  Intense pleasure can also carry pain.  As one poet put it, “tears can sing, and joy shed tears.” (Bruce Cockburn)

The First Temptation

The essential temptation we all live with is to try to fill up that inner empty space with things that cannot possibly satisfy.  Like cotton candy, when what you need is a decent meal, the sugar tastes good, but no amount will help. So, the first temptation is to try to fill that lack on the cheap.  

This is the first temptation Jesus  faced.  Make some quick bread out of stones.  Self medicate. Keep yourself distracted from feeling your hunger feelings. Keep the TV on.  Go shopping.   Everyone has their own go-to spiritual junk food.  The more we gorge on it the sicker we feel.  

Nothing else substitutes when the hunger is for God.  Union with God is what we long for, not for empty carbs.  So, Jesus says to the tempter,  

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  

The word that Jesus has just heard is that he is God’s beloved Son.  That is the word we all need to keep hearing until we believe it.  

The late Henri J.M. Nouwen, who wrote and taught on the spiritual life said, 

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection….When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions….Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”  

All of those empty carbs seem attractive, until we internalize the word that God says to us: you are beloved, you are my child.  With you I am well pleased.  Don’t give into the temptation to settle for less.

The Second Temptation

The second temptation is to turn to God, but only as a cheap crutch, a rescue from a bind; a bail out.  Throw yourself off the tower and then call for help.  

This temptation is seductive, because it comes close to the real thing — after all, the desire is for God, not for phony substitutes and pain-killers.  

But the God of the sudden rescue is not the real God at all.  God is God, not a dog that responds to the  “fetch” command.  

This way of looking at God actually set us up for the biggest problem that people of faith confront: the problem of pain and suffering. If God is sitting there watching us go through the wilderness — whatever that wilderness may be for us, depression, addiction, grief, failed relationships, financial hardships, family issues, or being the victim of systemic injustice, just to name a few — if God is sitting on “his” hands doing nothing, even when we cry out for a rescue, then why?   

But God is not a being like that at all.  God is the Ground of all being.  God is like light — not a thing to see, but the means by which we see everything.  So God’s presence is real, but not like Superman.  

Rather, God is present by the Spirit always and everywhere, luring us to the next right thing, to goodness, even after evil, to love, even after suffering.   So the answer Jesus gave is perfect: 

“do not put the Lord your God to the test.

The Third Temptation

The third temptation is the cynic’s temptation.  Having found no help in the rescue God, the cynic concludes that God is, after all, not on offer.  Having not found the version of God he was looking for, he concludes that there is no God at all.  So the temptation is to assuage that aching inner desire by pure materialism.  All the kingdoms of the world are available if you sell your soul and go after them.  

But, as they say, “all that glitters is not gold.”  And there is never enough glitter to satisfy.   A whole book of the bible is devoted to this insight.  Ecclesiastes is the testimony of a person who had it all, and found none of it helpful.  

There is no spiritual union possible when the call of the Spirit has been muffled under piles of possessions.  

Temptation and Desire

Temptation is not trivial, it is existentially real.   What do we desire?  Every Sunday I ask you to set your intention for the service.  I ask, Why did you come?  What do you need from this service?  My hope is that at the root of your desire is a quest for a connection with the real God, and nothing less.  

And my belief is that a real connection with the real God can be transformative.   Jesus walked out of that desert into a life of ministry, a life of meeting human needs, a life of compassion in the face of suffering and oppression.  He gave his life to that purpose, because he had learned to overcome the temptations of desire.  

He listened to the word of God calling him his beloved child and walked away from cheap substitutes.  Let us follow Jesus.  The journey begins in wilderness.

Jesus’ Yes and No

Jesus’ Yes and No

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 for Feb. 16, 2020 Epiphany 6A.

Audio can be found hhttps://soundcloud.com/stevendkurtz/february-16-2020-jesus-saysere for several weeks

 Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I don’t know if it always does, but I know it can. And familiarity can breed less strong emotions too, like simple apathy. 

Every famous person probably has family or close associates who see them all the time, and are simply not at all star-struck by them like the rest of us are.  

I think that can happen with us and Jesus. We talk about him all the time. We sing about him, we make our kids put on bathrobes at Christmas time to be in cute plays about him as a baby in a manger. Does that have an effect on us with respect to Jesus? 

In the film Talladega Nights, there is a scene at the dinner table in which someone offers prayers to the “Lord baby Jesus.” His wife challenges him, saying, “Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” But he says, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”  

Familiarity breeds — what do we call that? — benign dismissal; or at least total disrespect. Are we too familiar with Jesus to hear him? I wonder.  

Well, if so, let us just try to hear him as if for the first time today. What he says should first shock us, then make us curious, and finally utterly amaze us. What was Jesus doing in this part of his famous “Sermon on the Mount?” And how does it affect us today? Let’s look at it together. 

Six times, of which we read the first four, Jesus says something like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” In every case, the thing that people have heard it was said was not just rumor or hearsay, Jesus is quoting scripture. So, we should hear each one as Jesus saying, “I know that the bible says this…but I say that.”  

Now, we should just stop right there and take a breath. “The bible says this, but I say something different.” That should shock us. Even more shocking is that most of the time, the part of the bible Jesus is quoting is the ten commandments; the very heart and soul of the Law of Moses. Remember, according to the story, told both in Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses got them directly from God. 

So what does that mean when Jesus starts with the ten commandments and then says, “but I say to you…?” Each time, Jesus invites us to pause and think. What’s going on in that law? Why is it there? What does God really want from us? Whatever it is, in the first place, it is not simply slavish obedience to a law, just because it’s a law. In each case, Jesus challenges us to ask questions and reflect ethically. So, after being shocked that Jesus calls us to reflect beyond the level of law-keeping, let us be curious and look at what he calls us to. 

Anger and Relationships 

The first case is about anger and relationships.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;” 

So Jesus is not approving of murder, but he is elaborating the commandment. There are words that destroy relationships and people. That’s a form of murder. It kills the ability of people to work together; it kills the spirit of cooperation in groups, it makes relationships toxic. We all know families, churches, clubs, bands, and all kinds of human associations that are ruined by reckless, hurtful words.  

Why is this significant?  This is not just Dear Abby’s moralistic manners-advice. This is serious because Jesus had an agenda. He was about creating communities of people who could disrupt the whole social structure, as it was accepted and practiced, and replace it with justice, equity, and inclusion. 

These Jesus-communities were supposed to model a radically alternative way of being. Men and women, slaves and free people, people of every ethnicity, from Jews to Greeks were to break bread as equals, share their resources to meet each other’s needs and work for liberation from oppression. But none of that could happen if they allowed their community to become poisoned by bitterness and resentment. 

Reckless words like “you fool” could kill it. So, you have heard that murder is wrong: well I say to you, don’t murder your community. 

It is more important to reconcile with each other than to go to the temple offering gifts to God. 

The other side of this coin is another core teaching of Jesus: the demand to forgive when we have been wronged. No one should call you names. But if they do, don’t let that kill your relationship. Forgive them. Then, get on with your mission to the world. 

Adultery and Lust

The second example is also from the ten commandments. It is about adultery.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 

Jesus used exaggeration for effect — but what is the effect of this exaggeration? Lust is all about objectification. It is all about seeing another person as a means, and not as an end. It is about instrumentalizing another human being as a vehicle for one’s own pleasure. 

This teaching should have launched an ancient #metoo movement. For Jesus, humans, men, and women are all beloved children of God. It is, or it should be inconceivable to treat them as anything less than that. 

Hell?  No

Now, something else needs to be said here. You have heard me say that I don’t believe in hell. Well, doesn’t Jesus threaten people with hell here, saying,

it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell?

No, he didn’t. Jesus did not say “hell”, he said “Gehenna.” If you need to verify that, take out the pew bible, and look at the footnote in the NRSV for Matt. 5:29. It says that the word is not hell, but Gehenna. 

But translations have their own way of being conservative, and new translators are hesitant to break with old traditions, even where they were wrong. Jesus didn’t say you were in danger of being thrown into hell, but into Gehenna.  

So what is Gehenna? It was the name of the valley just over the Southwest wall of Jerusalem. Lots of horrible things had happened in that valley over the centuries. In Jesus’ day, it was a smoldering trash dump. 

So Jesus is saying, don’t waste your life like garbage: treat everyone as ends, not means. Treat them, as philosopher Martin Buber taught us, as “thou” not as “it.” 

Let love be genuine, let attraction be beautiful and pure; there is no room in this community for treating people as lust-objects instead of as full humans, beloved by their Creator.  

Divorce

Next, Jesus tackles divorce.

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Historical context is everything here. In Jesus’ day, divorce was easy for men, and only for men. All they needed to do was to write a certificate of divorce for just about any reason, and the marriage was over. 

Where did that leave the women — and we may assume her children? They had two options: return to her father’s house, if she still had a father and if he had a house and if he would or could take her back in. Otherwise, all that was left to her was to take to the streets in the world’s oldest occupation. The options for her were terrible. 

This is more about the huge injustice and evil done to another person than staying married. There were reasons to break a marriage; Jesus names unchastity, which most take to mean unfaithfulness. 

Later, Paul felt the freedom to broaden the marriage-breaking causes to include those marriages in which one has become a Christian and the other hasn’t. He allows them, if they need to, to go their separate ways. In Paul’s Hellenistic world, women could be business people, like Lydia, for example, so the ethics of ending a marriage were different. But clearly, the goal is to stay together in a mutually affirming relationship if at all possible.  

Oaths 

The final example is about swearing oaths. This one is the most distant from our culture. We don’t swear to the truth by heaven or earth or Jerusalem. But the point is so clear: be a community of honesty. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” Say what you mean, mean what you say, so that you will be considered reliable and trustworthy. A community of deception and subterfuge cannot be a community of healing and reconciliation. Use simple speech.  

Relationships 

I hope you can see that this is all about relationships. When we relate to God as our loving Creator, we know that we are all valuable. We all have dignity as persons. So how could we not treat each other as equally valuable? How could we treat each other with anything less than respect and honor? 

This community has the capacity to make into full persons those who the Roman empire treated as non-persons, but only on the condition that we keep living up to and into our vision of a reconciled humanity. 

That was Jesus’ vision. It went way beyond keeping laws. In fact, it fulfills the intent of those laws. You will remember that Jesus said he came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This is how the law is fulfilled: by looking beyond the words of the laws to the motivations. And the motivations are always about relationships. 

So, we are committed to following Jesus. We are committed to his long-term agenda. We are committed to being a community of people who control our mouths so that our speech to each other is life-giving, not murderous. 

And we are a community committed to practicing forgiveness when we are on the receiving end of harsh comments. We believe too strongly in our goal of being a healing, reconciling community to let speech subvert us. 

We are are a community that treats each other with respect and dignity, as persons, not as objects or means to an end. We are a community of bonded relationships that are not easily broken. And we are a community of honesty and reliability. In these ways, we are a community of healing and restoration in a world that desperately needs both.