The Community of the Common Waters

The Community of the Common Waters

Sermon for Jan. 13, 2019, Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year C. An audio of this can be found for several weeks here.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Scholars who study the historical Jesus are aware that very soon, stories were told about him that were completely unhistorical.  For example, there are stories of the little boy Jesus, making bird shapes out of mud, then miraculously giving them life, and they fly away.  We call a body of stories a “tradition”.  So scholars speak of how the Jesus tradition went through a period of development and expansion, as probably all traditions do. 

So how do you distinguish the historical from the fictional in the Jesus tradition?  Well, scholars developed some criteria, like, for example, the criterion of embarrassment.  If there was a story in which Jesus said or did something that would have been potentially embarrassing to the early Christian communities, then the fact that they remembered and recorded it must have been because it actually happened.  

The Embarrassing Story

The baptism of Jesus is just such an embarrassing story.  As a leading New Testament scholar put it,

Early Christians indeed were rather embarrassed by John’s baptism of Jesus, both because of the possible implication of Jesus’ sinfulness and because of his apparent subordination to John the baptist.”  –

Joel Marcus, Anchor Bible, Mark 1-8, p. 164

People could take Jesus’ baptism by John to mean that Jesus was as sinful as everyone else and needed a baptism of forgiveness of sins, which is how John’s baptism is described.  And they could take it that Jesus was subordinate to John.   As the tradition developed, layers were added to the story of his baptism that dealt with those issues.  

Here’s what I mean.  Mark, which came first, simply says that John baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  Luke, which we read today, rushes past the baptism and focuses on Jesus’ prayer and the mystical experience he had of the spirit and the voice from heaven.  

Matthew adds a conversation in which John protests to Jesus that Jesus should baptize him.  So you can see the tradition develop.  

The gospel of John, which came last, does not even mention the baptism at all.  Embarrassment indeed. 

Nevertheless, scholars are not in doubt that the historical Jesus started out as a member of John’s group and was baptized by John.  

This is one reason why the early church continued to practice baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, replacing circumcision, the sign of the Covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  Jesus was baptized, and we follow his example. 

That brings up an important point about how we read the stories of Jesus.  It is evident to me that one of the goals the gospel writers had, as they wrote their versions of the Jesus story, was that we should see Jesus as a model for us.   Jesus called people to follow him, and we should follow him.  

This means that we should see ourselves represented by Jesus, as he is baptized, as he is tempted, as he prays, as he hears God.  So we will talk more about this today. 

But first, I want us to reflect for a moment on baptism itself, and then we will look at this story and what it means to us.  Baptism, is, for Christians the sign of the covenant.  Jews practiced circumcision as a sign of the covenant with Abraham, but Christians replaced circumcision with baptism.  

Baptism has several advantages over circumcision: baptism is available for both men and women.  In addition, people who grew up with Greek ways of looking at the world considered body mutilation disgusting.  But baptism was readily embraced in the Hellenistic world.  One more advantage is that baptism is not limited to the descendants of Abraham, but is for everyone.

Baptism’s Meanings

So what does baptism mean, and what does it do?  Baptism is a richly symbolic act.  Originally, people went to places where there was water enough to stand in, and probably were either submerged or had water poured over them, symbolically submerging them.  

So the symbolism is both of a bath, a washing, cleansing, purifying act, and an act symbolizing a death and rebirth, going down under the water, and coming up again, or perhaps re-entering a womb to be born again.  

We baptize children, following the  Jewish community’s practice of circumcising infants.  We become children of the covenant in baptism, born of water and the Spirit, as the New Testament says; sons and daughters of God, members of the body of Christ.  

Now, when we say what we believe baptism signifies and accomplishes (seals) for us as Christians, we need to be careful to say that we do not believe in exclusivism.  We believe that God’s Spirit is at work all over the world in many faith communities.  We just want to talk about the meaning we understand by our practice of baptism.

The Story of Jesus’ Baptism

So now to the story itself.  Jesus joins all the other people who have gone out to the Jordan river to be baptized by John.  Luke does not focus on the act of baptism itself, but moves on to focus on Jesus’ mystical experience that followed.  But we should notice that going into and under the same waters as all the other people was a hugely important statement.  

Jesus put himself right there with everyone else, in all their brokenness and humanness.  He does not stay on the shoreline at a safe distance, he gets into the waters that washed them, without making judgments, without superiority.  

What does this mean for us?  He identifies with us, in our brokenness and humanness, with all our shortcomings and failures, and is there with us.  

In the same way, that sets the pattern for us.  We seek to live without judgments, without superiority, accepting other people without discrimination, but with radical hospitality and inclusiveness.  We are all in the same waters together.  

Jesus’ Mystical Experience

After Jesus’ baptism, then came the spiritual experience.  The experience Jesus had come in the context of his prayer.  Luke says,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened…”

I have known people who are reluctant to accept profound religious or mystical experiences as legitimate.  But right here, we see that Jesus himself had them.  Both prayer and mystical experiences are part of a normal, healthy spirituality.   

Mystical experiences are rare, it seems, and it is not something we go out looking for, but if and when we have them, we accept them as wonderful gifts.  Some of you have told me of your own experiences, and I thank God for them.  

Whether or not we have these experiences, all of us follow Jesus’ practice of prayer.  No words are recorded here of Jesus’ prayer.  Whether this was a word-prayer or a silent meditation, we do not know.  But Jesus practiced both, and both are part of healthy spirituality.   Christians are people who intentionally connect with God, who, we believe, is always present to us spiritually, through frequent prayer.

So, what happened next?  Luke says, 

“the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So two things happened: the Spirit and the voice.  First the Spirit.  Luke says that the Spirit came like a dove.  Why?  We are not told why, but it could well be to make a contrast with the way the Spirit was described as coming on people in the Hebrew Bible.  In some of the stories, the Spirit comes on people and makes them prophesy, even fall down involuntarily and behave almost hysterically (1 Sam. 10).  

But here, we see the Spirit descending gently, like a dove.  We believe that as baptized Christians, the Spirit indwells us.  To what effect?  What is the Spirit doing?   The Spirit is gently luring us, quietly coaxing us, offering us the possibility of cooperating with the good that God wants for the next moment.   

The Spirit is present in each moment, each breath,  inspiring us to live into our true selves, instead of our ego, false selves.  We can, in each moment, respond to the tug of the Spirit, or resist.  The Spirit, like a gentle dove, wants to persuade us to the good, but will never control or coerces us.  

The Voice 

So after Jesus becomes aware that the Spirit of God has come to him, he hears the voice from heaven saying, 

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is easy for us to understand that Jesus was God’s beloved child and that God was pleased with him; do we know this about ourselves?

A lot of us grew up with the teaching that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in danger of being cursed in life and in danger of hell after death.  I believe that is horrible and tragic theology.  

That view is an ancient Christian belief, but it was not the only one.  Early in the developing church, many believed that we were created in God’s image, created good, beloved by God, as God’s children, and that God is well pleased to call us his children. 

Now, of course, we are humans, with egos, with pride, with anger, with selfish impulses and brains hard-wired to fight off threats to our sense of wellbeing or security.  So, yes we are sinful.  We readily admit that.  But God is with us, even in our brokenness and lostness, ready to forgive us if we come to our senses and reorient ourselves to the Spirit’s good purposes.  

In other words, it is right to put ourselves in this story, to stand where Jesus was standing, and to hear the voice from heaven saying to us, 

“You are my Son, You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Believing it, Feeling it

My spiritual director wanted me to get to a place where I felt God’s love profoundly, so she asked me what my earliest memory of being loved was.  I told her about being quite small, maybe 3 or 4, sitting on my mother’s lap, and seeing her beautiful hands holding a book with glossy pages and colorful pictures in front of me, and reading the children’s poems to me.   I felt secure and loved, without having done anything to earn it.   My director said, “Now picture God loving you just like that.”

Can you do the same?  Think of your earliest memory of being loved.  Remember how it felt.  Now think of God loving you that way, now.  Feel how it feels.  

That is the truth that sets us free; free from needing our ego defenses, free from fearing God — remember, “there is no fear in love.”  Free to live without guilt and shame; free to respond to the lure of the Spirit; free to be grateful for being a part of the community of the common waters of the baptized, and free to know that all people are beloved children of God too.  


The Characters at the Crèche

The Characters at the Crèche

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018. The audio can be found here for several weeks.

The two Christmas Stories can be found here:

Matthew’s Story

Luke’s Story

At the Presbyterian Women’s Christmas party, all of the tables in Fellowship Hall had a Crèche with Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, angels, and the animals: the sheep, donkey, and cow.  This cast of characters comes from the two stories of the birth of Jesus by Matthew and Luke.  The stories are different in many respects.  There was never a single moment in either story in which all of these characters were together at the same time, as they are in the crèche.  

I was thinking about how those characters, and the others of the birth stories, like Herod and Pilate, are all important for understanding the Jesus story.  In any story, the characters matter.  So, on this Christmas Eve, let us consider the characters and what they mean.

People from the Margins

Matthew and Luke both tell us about  Joseph and Mary.  Luke adds the shepherds. What kind of people are they?  They are poor people.  They are people from the margins.  They can be pushed around by policies that make their lives even harder.  They lack resources. They have no power.   

Jesus grew up on the margins, and spent his whole short life ministering to people on the margins, and people who were marginalized.  God has always been moved by the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited and the discriminated against.  That is why we too participate in ministries of compassion and mercy to the marginalized.  And that is why we open our hearts and our doors in radical hospitality, without exception.   So, to tell the story of Jesus, we start at the margins. 

King Herod

Along with Mary and Joseph, Matthew’s story includes the account of King Herod.  King Herod the Great represents the monarchy of Israel, political leadership consumed by lust for power and wealth.  He is a brute. He is willing to lie, manipulate, and even order the killing of all the male children in and around Bethlehem to maintain his position like Pharaoh before him.  

From the very start, Herod’s kingdom is in opposition to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.  Jesus proclaimed a gospel opposed to violence and to privilege.  That is why we try to follow Jesus by practicing non-violence.  And, we follow Jesus by identifying the way privilege puts some people in positions of advantage over others.  We work towards a world in which people are equal and free.  To tell the Jesus story, we include episodes of opposition.

Wise Men

The Wise men in Matthew’s story represent Gentiles; the international community.  They are people of wisdom, but they are mysteriously drawn to Jesus.  Just like the star that the survivors of the mythical Trojan war followed to Italy, where they founded Rome and the Julius Caesar’s family line, so Matthew tells of the wise men following a star.  Matthew’s gospel begins with the foreign gentile wise men ends with the great commission in which Jesus says, “go into all the world and proclaim the good news.”  There are no ethnic borders.  Jesus’ story is for all the world.

Angel Choirs

Luke includes a whole Angel choir as characters in his story.  Why?  Because we have to understand the birth of Jesus as a God-thing.  We have to imagine what a radical and fundamental change in our religious orientation that Jesus made.  We used to think God was angry and judgmental, but Jesus taught us that God is love, like the love of a perfect Heavenly Father.  We used to think God demanded blood sacrifices, but Jesus taught us that what he wants from us is compassion, mercy and justice, and a personal connection through heartfelt prayer and meditation.  We used to think that God had favorites, but Jesus showed us that God’s love was for everyone, without exception.  So, to tell the Jesus story, we need the heavens to be filled with angel choirs announcing his birth.  

Baby Jesus

Finally, we come to the baby Jesus, “wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”  He is completely vulnerable, human, needy, hungry, and sleepy, as all babies are.  He is real.  He does not hover in the sky like an angel.  He does not just appear fully grown like Athena, showing up to help fight at Troy, before withdrawing back to Mount Olympus.  Jesus begins his life in a stable as a dislocated traveler.  Before he is a year old, in Matthew’s telling, he will become an immigrant, fleeing violence in his home country, crossing borders, seeking asylum.  When it is safe, he will return to grow, slowly, day by day, increasing in wisdom and knowledge and in awe of the God of Love.  

So, when we look at a crèche on the mantle or on a table, let us be thankful for all the characters gathered there, and for how they help us tell the story of Jesus, truly God’s gift to us, and to the world.

The Materiality of Spirituality

The Materiality of Spirituality

Sermon on Luke 3:17—18 for Dec. 16, 2018, Advent 3C.  The Audio version will be here for several weeks.

Luke 3:17—18 

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

I want to start with a bit about history, which, I believe, is helpful to understand this text, but then we will look at the message here for us today. 

So first the history.  Once, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate had Roman standards with his image on them brought into Jerusalem by night.  When they were discovered, it upset the Jewish people who are famously anti-graven images, so thousands of them, including men, women and children marched down to the Pilate’s headquarters at Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, to demand their removal.   

Josephus says they “they fell prostrate around his house and for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position” (War 2.171).  We would call it a sit-down strike.

When they were ordered to disperse and the Roman soldiers drew their swords, the people exposed their necks to show that they were ready to die right then and there as martyrs, without resistance.  The governor backed down that time.  This is an example of non-violent resistance.  

Strategies of Resistance

I told you that story to illustrate the fact that there were several different strategies of resistance to the Roman occupation by the Jews in the time of Jesus and afterward.  Some were violent, others were not. 

Other groups at the time believed that the Romans would be violently driven out, but not by humans.  God would do it, like the plagues of Egypt or like the falling walls of Jericho.  

New Testament scholars believe that John held just such a view.  He went down to the Jordan River, where the Jews had, so long ago, crossed over, under the leadership of Joshua to enter the Promised Land for the first time.  

In a ritual reenactment of that crossing, John had people come down, get in the water where he baptized them, ritually preparing them to be the renewed nation, in preparation for the coming of the end of the present age and the arrival of Messiah.  God would then expel the Romans by force.  

So the images he used for that expulsion were violent images: the ax swinging for the tree, the chaff getting burned up in fire.  Meanwhile, the baptized people did not form a resistance army, but went back home to live lives of justice and compassion, having been made ready for the Divine intervention to come.

Jesus and John 

Jesus started out as a part of John’s movement. He was baptized by John.  But when John was publicly critical of Herod Antipas, he was arrested and executed.  There was no divine intervention.  No fire from heaven.  

Historians suggest that the lack of violent response from God was what laid the groundwork for Jesus to reassess.  Maybe God was doing something important, but not violently.  

In fact, perhaps it was necessary to re-think the nature of what it meant to be part of God’s family, and the nature of God’s kingdom.  Maybe being part of God’s family did not need to exclusively involve descent from Abraham.  And maybe the kingdom of God was not a territory on earth, but an embrace of God as king with everything that would follow.  

This is what Jesus preached: the kingdom of God was already present — for those who had eyes to see it and ears to hear about it — but not present to those who did not.  The kingdom was present, “within you” and “among you”, Jesus said, as a spiritual reality.  

As such, the kingdom does not need violence or judgment.  It is an invitation.  And to those who accept the invitation, it is not an invitation to a battle, but to a banquet.  

So, I said accepting God as King means embracing everything that follows from that.  What follows?  If God is king then God’s will needs to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”   What is God’s will?  To this day, Jewish people summarize it as “Tikkun Olam,”  the healing of the world.  Another way of saying it is simply, “Shalom,” wellbeing, peace, justice, human flourishing.  

John’s Message Assumptions

How did John respond when the people asked what they should do?  John’s preaching was completely in line with what the earlier prophets of Israel had called for, and Jesus continued the same call.  

John told them that they should “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  Specifically, to the crowds he said, 

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

There is Enough

There are several important assumptions being made here.  First, it assumes that there is enough for everyone.  It has been said often that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.  It is also said that we do not have a shortage problem in the world, but a distribution problem.  There is no reason for children in Yemen to starve to death, or for children in Fort Smith to lack decent food when the school cafeteria is on break.  Scarcity of resources is not the problem.  There is an abundance, enough for everyone.  

Enough is Enough

The second assumption is that there is such a thing as “enough.”  There is also such a thing as having more than is needed.  Two coats is John’s example.  One is enough; two is more than you need.  I like how John McQuiston puts it:

“Our wants are insatiable… Our pleasure, our needs, our wishes — all are mere self-interest, and the demands of self-interest are never-ending. Our desires are the path to disaster. At every turn, there is something more to acquire, something to distract our attention, something to divert the unchangeable footprints we leave behind.”

McQuiston II, John. Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living,15th Anniversary Edition, Revised (Kindle Locations 387-391). Church Publishing Inc. Kindle Edition. 

Contentment comes from believing that there is such a thing as enough, and being satisfied with it.

Love Connect Us

The third assumption here besides abundance and enough-ness, is that we are connected to each other in a deeply significant way.  Someone else’s need speaks to me.  You and I, and all humans on the planet, are connected in a web of relationships so that someone else’s need is a call for my response.  

I do not want to use words like obligation or responsibility, which sound like rules and duty, because I believe our connections are deeper.  I would never say I was obligated or responsible to feed and shelter my sons.  Of course, I fed and sheltered them; they were my children!  Any parent who would only feed and shelter their children because they felt obliged or responsible to an authority, we would say, had failed to love their children.  In the end, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It is basic and fundamental.  

Do the Right Thing

John continues as others ask what they should do in preparation for the coming of Messiah and the kingdom of God.  Tax collectors must not use their positions to defraud people.  In other words, they should act justly.   Tax collection is a governmental function.  The government is held to a standard here to act justly.  

Some people have argued that the ethics of Jesus and the New Testament are strictly personal ethics.  But that is not the case.  Governmental functions are included in the demands of justice. 

Similarly, soldiers must not use the power of coercion to extort people.  Might does not make right.  The ends do not justify the means.  Again, the connection between people must be respected.  Violence, and threats of violence, are dehumanizing.  

Today, Here

How does this text speak to us? First, it is amazing that Jesus moved away from that harsh, judgmental, violent conception of God.  Even though the Hebrew Bible is filled with violence as God’s tool, even calling God a warrior, Jesus revolutionized our understanding of God.  Later in the New Testament, we read, 

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 

(1 John 4)

Second, we see here so clearly that when we become aware that the kingdom of God is present, here, spiritually, it immediately has material implications.  There is a materiality to spirituality.  The two are tightly connected.  

What does repentance look like?  It looks like justice.  It looks like clothing and feeding the poor.  It looks like social justice.  It looks like human rights.  There is no such thing as genuine spirituality that does not seek God’s will to be done on earth, in the material world.  

This is an inspiring vision.  This is why we do what we do here.  We welcome everyone and share a positive gospel of a God of love.  We practice personal spirituality, we meditate, we pray, we worship with gratitude.  We believe in abundance, and we believe that enough is enough.  

We practice the materiality of spirituality, as well, by feeding the hungry, providing for ministries of compassion, justice, and advocacy.  We shelter children and help people get back on their feet.   

And we keep reminding ourselves of the vision of the kingdom: a vision of a world reconciled, a world healed, a world of brotherhood and sisterhood where there are no more coatless or hungry people, no oppressed or extorted people, and no violence done to anyone.  

The Advent of Opportunity

The Advent of Opportunity

Sermon for Dec.9, 2108, Advent 2C   The Audio will be available here for several weeks

Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out
in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill
shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

Quite a few of the books of the Hebrew Bible we call the Prophets begin with a sentence telling the reader who was king at the time.  

These books are not meant to be read as simply free-floating sayings, like mystical texts or collections of wise proverbs are, but we are meant to hear the prophetic message set in real historical time, addressing real situations, often political and social as well as religious situations.  

Setting a story in human history also makes it different from many religious texts about the gods, like of Zeus or Venus and their pantheons, whose stories take place in mythical time.  We read that Zeus conquered Kronos, but not at any specific time or place.

Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Luke sets the story of the ministry of John the baptist in the context of the politics of the time we now call the first century.  His readers would have known that those times of the recent past, for them, were terrible times.  

There was a Jewish revolt brewing, that eventually, by the time Luke wrote, had happened.  It ended with thousands dead, the temple destroyed, and Rome in complete control.  So this story is set in the days just before all that happened.  

In the rest of the Roman Empire, it was a time that included a long and costly civil war, Romans killing Romans, multiple emperors at the same time, vying for power, and threatening the food supply from Egypt.  

But in the middle of all of this tension and trouble, something happens that changes everything.  Luke says,

“the word of God came to John”

Just like the word of the Lord, coming to the prophets, so the word of God comes to John.  Luke is signaling that we are to hear John’s message as the message of a prophet.   

The word does not come to John in Jerusalem at the temple,  nor in King Herod’s palace.  In fact, the word of God that John receives is going to be big trouble to both the religious and the civil powers that be.  

Prophets typically spoke truth to power in Israel’s past, and frequently paid a high price for it.  John will too.  

The word of God comes to John, Luke tells us, “in the wilderness.”  That location too is significant on multiple levels.  The wilderness is considered not just a desolate place, but a dangerous place.  

It was where the Israelite ancestors wandered around for forty years, experiencing faith-testing calamities and hostile enemies.  

But the wilderness was also where Moses encountered the eerie presence of God in the burning bush.  Wilderness, away from the noise of politics, commerce, and even social life is perhaps a place in which God’s word can be more clearly heard.

It was where Isaiah pictured the road of return from Babylonian exile would be built. 

Luke, and early Christians, came to understand John’s ministry as a prophetic prequel to Jesus.   In fact, many New Testament scholars are convinced that Jesus was part of John’s movement, probably until John’s arrest and execution by Herod Antipas.  

Josephus and the Jewish Revolt

We will turn to his message in a moment.  But first one more word about that Jewish Revolt against Rome that failed so badly.  We know a lot about that revolt from a Jewish historian named Josephus.  Who was he?

Josephus was a Jewish aristocrat and scholar.  When the war started, he commanded the Jewish rebels in Galilee.  But his troops were forced to surrender, and Josephus was taken captive.  

That was not just a personal catastrophe for him, it was also a theological crisis.  What was God doing?   How could it be that the Romans were winning?  

He came to the conclusion that God was punishing Israel for its sins, using the Romans as his instruments.  

This is the same conclusion that the Hebrew Bible came to in several books; foreign enemies were God’s means of punishment.  Those armies were God’s “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” as Malachi warned.  

By the way, one of the ways Jesus liberates us is that he set us free from that kind of primitive and judgmental view of God.  For Jesus, God is Heavenly Abba, not the Grand Inquisitor.  

Jesus taught us that “the sun shines and the rain falls on the fields of the evil and the good.”  “Mercy triumphs over judgment”.  So, thank God for being liberated from that primitive view of God, but it was the view that Josephus held.

Some historians speculate that probably the only reason Josephus did not get executed, was his prophecy that the attacking Roman General, Vespasian, would become the next Roman Emperor.  He did, and he subsequently became Josephus’ patron, allowing him the leisure to write his famous History of the Jews.  

Josephus switched sides in the Jewish revolt, and tried to convince the other Jewish rebels that were still fighting that they too should switch sides, telling them to change their minds, literally saying “repent” – the same word John used.  

Repent: Change Your Mind

I took the time to tell you that so you could know for certain what John’s prophetic word that came to him in the wilderness means.  John’s message was a proclamation of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  What does that mean in this context? 

Repent literally means change your mind — which of course leads to a change of behavior.  John practiced the symbolic ritual of baptism, just as other Jewish groups did, as a way of enacting the cleansing and forgiveness that a change of mind can produce.  

Negativity Bias in our Brains

I believe we constantly need to hear the prophetic call to change our thinking in lots of ways.  Brain scientists tell us that we have a negativity bias hardwired in our brains.  

We scan the world for dangers and threats — not just threats to our physical wellbeing but threats of all kinds: economic threats, threats to our social standing, threats to our egos — and there are always plenty of them.  Our auto-pilot mode is to think the worst.  

We do what they call “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing.”  We think every crooked stick on the ground is a snake, every new pain could be a tumor, and every idle comment is an insult.  We even attack and criticize ourselves: we tell ourselves that didn’t do it right, or not right enough.  We tell ourselves that we are not worth much, or capable, or significant, or loved, or forgiven or good.

Our True Self 

So we constantly need to “repent;” to change this judgmental, negative mind because what it tells us is so often untrue.  Our true self is who we are in God.  

We are made in God’s image, which, all by itself, is reason enough to know that we are significant.  But there is more.  We believe that we are loved by God.  We are upheld in goodness in every moment.  

So, the call to repent, is a call to change what Richard Rohr calls our “stinking thinking” to align it with what is most deeply true.

But can we change?  The good news is, yes, we can.  Scientists know that our brains are constantly changing.  They call this neuroplasticity.  Every time you experience something connections are made in your brain.  By repeating experiences you can make permanent changes in your brain’s wiring.  That is good news.  

Spiritual Practices

This is why spiritual practices are so important, and it is also the reason they work.  When we practice meditation, it changes our brains.  We become less reactive, less negative, less fear-based in our reactions.  

We are more able to turn our attention to the good around us and within us.  Regular meditation, in other words, is how we can practice the kind of repentance, the change of mind that we long for.  

In our meditation practice here this last Wednesday, some  people, who have only been meditating for a couple of months, reported that they have already experienced less stress and less reactivity, and that other people in their families have noticed the change.  

Changing Politics

I agree with Richard Rohr who says that the practice he calls “contemplation” which is the same thing as meditation, not only changes our internal negativity, it also eventually changes our politics. 

 How?  We become more compassionate.  We have more empathy, we are more sensitive to the pain and suffering around us and in the world.  

And, we become aware of the way people try to use fear and insecurity as a political weapon.  We see through it.   Their policies of discrimination and exclusion grieve us.  

Remember we said that the words of the prophets come to specific historical situations, speaking truth to power.  The question for us is, what are the situations happening in our times that need to be spoken to?  

For example, what would a faithful immigration policy look like?  I do not believe it would look anything like what it is going on down at our Southern border.  We are called to welcome strangers.  

That is not a minor footnote in our scriptures; it’s actually a major theme, both for the prophets and Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.  We need policies and systems that can do effectively and compassionately welcome strangers, without chaos and brutality.  

We have a prayer for refugees in our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.  It says, 

“Help us to recognize your face [O God] in the refugee family, seeking safety and protection… in the asylum-seeker, seeking security and compassion; in the unaccompanied child, traveling in a dangerous world.  By the gift of your Holy Spirit, encourage and empower us to cross borders of our own— showing kindness, seeking justice offering welcome, giving shelter. This we pray in the name of the one who fled as a child to Egypt, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.” 

These are important issues to repent of and to change our minds about.

Repentance is not about guilt and shame.  It is a call to take the opportunity to change, to become more authentic, more faithful.

Listen: you are loved.  You are a child of God.  You are not being punished by God, as that voice in you head tells you.  Rather, you are probably punishing yourself.  But we can hear that call to repent, to change our thinking as a wonderful opportunity.  We can change.  

The Ground of our Being is at work in every now, every moment, luring us, even right now, towards the good, towards, compassion, towards love:  Love for ourselves.  Love for God.  Love for our neighbors.  Find a piece of wilderness, away from distractions, a place of quiet in which you can reflect on this, and hear the call of the prophet.  

Being on Guard

Being on Guard

Sermon for Dec. 2, 2018, Advent 1C       Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 21:25-36

[Jesus said:] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 I want to start with the first stanza of the poem, “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, which I’m sure is familiar to many of us. 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  

 The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

That is about as apt a description as possible of how I feel about our times now.  I’m sorry to be so negative, but that’s where I think we need to start.  The text from Luke starts there too.  Yeats used images like “blood-dimmed tied” which is an image drawn from nature.  It pictures nature gone wrong.  

Apocalyptic Imagery: Calamity Coming

Well, Luke did that too.  He spoke of the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars giving signs.  He pictured the sea roaring to such an extent that the nations are “confused,” which means to be in such perplexity that you experience anxiety. Today we say that events like 9/11 are “earth-shaking” in the same way.  In other words, you have no idea what’s going on or what to do about it.  That sounds about right, to me.  

The custom of using nature-gone-wrong imagery is typical of a style of writing called Apocalyptic.  The book of Daniel has apocalyptic images like monstrous beasts with horns, which stand for empires and kingdoms.  Actually Luke draws on some of the images in Daniel.  

One image that throws us off is the image of the Son of Man.  It sounds like a single person, but actually, it stands for a group of people, just like Uncle Sam does.  In this case, it stands for the faithful in Israel who receive the kingdom of God.  In Daniel’s image, the Son of Man goes up to the Ancient of Days who provides the Son of Man with twelve thrones – one for each of the tribes of Israel — so clearly, the Son of Man stands for the faithful in the nation of Israel.

So, why all the images of nature-gone-wrong, and perplexity and anxiety?  Because Luke describes Jesus as predicting the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the palace of the king and the temple; in other words, a horrible, almost unimaginable calamity for the nation.  By the time Luke wrote his gospel, it had all happened.  There was a Jewish revolt, and the Romans came and utterly crushed it.  When the dust settled and the blood stopped flowing, the ancient historian, Josephus said that hundreds of thousands of people were killed.  Jesus predicted that it would all happen within their generation, and it did. The year was 70 of the Common Era.  

Nevertheless, Jesus said, that horrible calamity would signal that the kingdom of God was truly present, because it did not need a kingdom of Israel to exist and it did not need a temple or blood sacrifices as a means of connecting with God.

Being Perplexed, Being On Guard

So, perhaps if we feel that our times are heading toward calamity in earthshaking ways, leaving us perplexed about what to do, we are on common ground with the people Jesus was addressing.  So what do you do in such times in which “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”?  

Let us look at what Jesus advises us to do.  First, he says, 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life”

In other words, days like these are dangerous.  Our hearts can get so weighed down that we turn to self-soothing, self-medicating — which of course never makes it better.  Some of us here self-medicate.  It’s understandable, but it’s totally unhelpful.  If you are in that situation, please seek help.  

There is help available, but you have to want it.  Please know that the path of self-medication is not a mystery; in fact, it is so well known as to be predictable.  It is all downhill and destructive of yourself, your relationships, your security.  “Be on guard,”  Jesus says.

Feelings as False Guides

There is more to this admonishment to be on guard against a heart weighed down.  Our feelings are not necessarily good guides for us.  When things are chaotic and confusing, we may go to dark places in our hearts.  But don’t trust your gut.  In stress, your gut may just be telling you what your primitive lizard brain is saying, which is usually a version of either fight or flight.  

Fight and flight often manifests itself as denial.  What is the first thing you hear people say when they see something tragic?  “Oh no!”  That is instant denial. “Oh no, it cannot possibly be happening!”  But if it is happening, “Oh no!” does not make it go away.  

So if all the honest scientists in the world agree that the climate is changing in ways that will be catastrophic if nothing is done, it does not good to say “Oh no!”  Or to deny it.  People are going to die because of climate change.  People are already dying in hurricanes, floods, and fires as we have never seen them before.  Nobody’s guts are going to solve this. So be on guard against listening to your lizard brain.  

Pro-Active Responses

That advise was negative.  What can we do constructively as we are being “on guard?”  Jesus says, 

Be alert at all times, praying….”  

In other words, be constructively engaged in spiritual practices.  Prayer, including meditation, is crucial in times like these.  But it demands alertness, as Jesus says, or discipline.   It requires us to make decisions about our day: how am  I going to use my time?  When am I going to go to bed, when am I going to get up so that my day includes time for spiritual practices?  What do I need to do to limit distractions, with the TV, and the phone?  

Now, spiritual practices will not make the calamity go away.  Whatever is going on with the climate, or the economy, or with Russia and Ukraine, or Saudi Arabia and Iran, or in Washington DC, or down on the border is still going to happen.  But spiritual practices, especially meditation changes how we react to it all.  

Spiritual practices are the way we deal with that part of ourselves that makes the calamity worse, and that is our false self, our ego self.  The false, ego-self is going to react to calamity, or the threat of calamity, with fear, resentment, anger, criticism, complaining, accusing, blaming, and bitterness.  

There are people to blame for the coming calamity, that is true.  And there are things to be angry about and there are things to fear — as the administration’s latest report on climate change made so clear.  But there is a huge difference between being upset by what is happening and at the people causing it, on the one hand, and becoming an angry, bitter, resentful person, on the other.  

There is an important distinction between opposing the policies of a party or a government and hating or resenting the people behind those policies.  But the ego gets a lot of pleasure out of righteous indignation.  Always flag the feeling of righteous indignation for what it is: spiritual immaturity, and spiritual poison.  It is nothing to be proud of.  In fact, displaying it should embarrass us since it shows how far we have to grow.  Jesus said, “be alert at all times.”  This is a big one to be alert to.  

Love, Compassion, and Now

Our goal is always to be motivated by compassion and love. This is only possible by learning to be awake and alive to the present moment.  In the present moment, we can detach ourselves from our ego-driven false self and observe the thoughts we are having.  When we are mindfully present in the now, as Eckhart Tolle says, we can start seeing the thoughts, the righteous indignation, the resentment, the hatred, in us, and decide instead to re-focus.  

Instead of hating things that produce greenhouse gasses, we can have compassion for our planet and for our grandchildren who will live in the future we make for them.  We can be peace-lovers, instead of being simply war-haters.  But that takes a level of self-awareness and presence that can only be achieved through sustained spiritual practices like meditation.  

In the end, the advice Jesus gives leads to a life of peace and equanimity.  It is a life lived with the unshakable conviction that we are beloved by God.  We are upheld in goodness and grace every moment of our lives.  That was the conviction Jesus lived with.  

That self-identity, which is the true self, of who we are in God is what gave Jesus the ability to face the calamity he faced at the end of his life on this earth.  It did not prevent his arrest, mistreatment, nor his death, but he faced them without resentment and recrimination, but with peace and trust.  That is what I want for myself.  That is what I want for all of us.  So, “Be alert at all times, praying….” even as you do the work of seeking justice and righteousness in this Advent season.

Living the Kingdom

Living the Kingdom
Peaceable Kingdom

Sermon for Nov. 24, 2018, Christ the King Year B on John 18:33-37.  Audio will be here for several weeks.

John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I was listening to a discussion, on the radio, about a film that is in the theaters now.  The host of the radio program warned us, listeners, saying, “Spoiler alert.  I’m going to talk about the ending so if you want to see this film you may want to stop listening.”  We hear spoiler alerts all the time now. 

Sometimes it really does ruin a story to know the ending in advance, but other stories we keep returning to again and again, even though we know the ending.  The Christian story is like that: we know the ending, but we find great value in re-telling the story. 

We are going to look at one part of our story and reflect on what it meant in its setting — what Pilate meant and what Jesus meant, and then we will look at what it means in our context today.  This is Christ the King Sunday, so it is the right time to regather our sense of the whole, the big story, the nature of the kingdom of God.

Our Alternative Narrative

One of the reasons we need to keep hearing the Christian story is that it is such a starkly different story from the stories our culture tells us.  We need to keep telling our counter-narrative, in order not to be overwhelmed by the stories our culture tells us to the point that we start believing them.

Our culture is seduced by power and the powerful.  But here we have a story of a person who is unafraid in the presence of power — Pilate represented the power of the whole Roman Empire — but Jesus behaves as if that kind of power is of no consequence. 

Pilate has the power to execute him, and people are clamoring for his execution, but Jesus does not let even the threat of imminent death upset him.  Our culture tries to avoid pain any way possible, even if it requires opiates.  Jesus accepted suffering without flinching.

People are hurling accusations against Jesus, but unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t seem to feel compelled to refute them. 

Our culture is enamored of violence. Jesus has many followers he could have called upon, but he rejects the idea that they should take up arms, even to defend him from an unjust and brutal death. 

Jesus looks at everything so differently, from the way the others do that we can only marvel.  The values here are counter to the dominant narratives of the culture — then and now. 

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

This story tells the reason for the difference.  The difference is found in Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom of God.  He believes the kingdom of God is actually a present reality.  And he believes it is possible to live into that reality; to live as if it were true. 

In all four gospels Pilate asks Jesus point blank if he is a king, and in all four, Jesus says, “You say so.  His answer is a little cryptic.  So Pilate presses him further

What have you done?  Meaning, have you raised an army?  Do you have a plan?  Have you already been responsible for some of the political assassinations that have been taking place? 

Jesus makes it clear that he does have a kingdom, but not the kind Pilate is thinking of.  Jesus answered,

“My kingdom is not from this world.”

Then Jesus offers proof that his kingdom is not a physical one, saying,

“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

His non-violence is proof that his kingdom is different. 

But Pilate has a lot of pressure from the local elites, and eventually acquiesces to their demands and orders Jesus’ execution.  Rome was pragmatic, and the death of one, even an innocent one, was better than a riot, or a revolt. 

What Would Reliable Witness Have Said?

If Pilate had actually conducted a legitimate trial, if he were able to find reliable witnesses, what would they have said they heard about Jesus’ kingdom?

Jesus,” they would have testified, “said things like:

“the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15)

whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.  (Mark 10:14)

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.  (Luke 17:20-21)

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16)

Reliable witnesses would have recounted Jesus’ kingdom parables.   What is the kingdom of God like?  It is like a mustard seed.  It is like yeast in dough.  It is like a treasure hidden in a field.  It is like a pearl of great value, worth selling everything for.  It is like a king who forgives an enormous debt.  It is like a net that scoops up an enormous variety of fish, who all end up in the same boat together.

So what is the kingdom of God? It is precious.  It is subtle.  It is unstoppable. It is radically inclusive.  It is truly good news.  People who embrace the kingdom as a present reality become different people.   How?  They become compassionate.  They become awake.  They start seeing the suffering around them and they respond. 

Luke says Jesus,

sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.

People who are alive to the reality of the kingdom of God form communities together.  They gather around tables of hospitality, disregarding worthiness as a category, ignoring social rank as a category, ignoring nationality, gender, or purity as categories for exclusion. 

Living the reality of the kingdom of God means you understand God in radically new ways.  God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous, without distinction.  God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, so seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all the necessities of life will be added to you as well.  The person who lives into the reality of the Kingdom can relax and know that they are beloved by God.  They can pray as though they were addressing a loving parent, “Our Abba in heaven.”

Here and Always Coming

Is the kingdom then fully present?  In a sense, it is, yes.  But in another sense, it is always coming.  It comes as people become aware.  It grows as people allow themselves to live into it more fully; as they integrate the values and perspectives into more and more parts of their lives, as it permeates more deeply their relationships.  So Jesus taught us to pray “may your kingdom come, may your will be done (because the two phrases say the same thing) on earth where we live, as it is in the realm of the Divine

The kingdom comes when people see the needy and help them as if they were helping Jesus himself.  It comes when the “least of these” are treated as we would treat Jesus if he were hungry, or thirsty, or lacked adequate shelter or were arrested for conscience.  The kingdom comes when people realize that love of God and love of neighbor are all God cares about.

Political Consequences of the Kingdom

Did Jesus know that speaking of the kingdom of God would get him in trouble with Pilate?  How could he not?  We are used to referring to the Roman Emperor as Caesar, but to Romans, that meant king.  It was a political critique to proclaim an alternative kingdom. 

And even today, the values of the kingdom of God are in conflict with politics all the time.  The politics of compassion and justice are often in conflict with the politics of exclusion and discrimination.   The politics of the powerless are often at odds with the politics of power.

Some people I have read have suggested we use an alternative term to “kingdom,” since “kingdom” suggests politics and power. They have suggested we use “kin-dom” which emphasizes the new sense of kin that we share with each other.  I like that term, and I’ve used it, but it is also important to me to keep the political consequences of the values and perspectives in sight. 

Kingdom Authority

Kingdom also implies a kind of authority.  The authority of the kingdom of God is not coercive, like Rome’s authority, but it is the authority of a compelling vision, the power of persuasion, like the power of beauty to draw us in.   

I have been drawn in by Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, present within and among us, and always coming.  It is the most perfect, most beautiful vision of a reconciled humanity, fully at peace, where everyone’s needs are provided for by a community that seeks the common good.  Where people know themselves as beloved and at one with the Divine and each other. 

So, today we have come to the end of the church year.  Next Sunday a new year starts as we begin the season of Advent.  Christ the King Sunday is the culmination of the year for us.   It comes, every year as a call to all of us:  how can we live more fully into the kingdom of God?  How can we integrate more of our lives, our perspectives and our values to the kingdom of God and God’s justice?  How can we live more trusting in the God of the lilies and more confident in our status of belovedness?  How can we wake up more fully to the reality of the kingdom’s presence and make the kingdom come within us and within our politics? 

At the culmination of this year, we will answer the call by gathering around the table to break bread and share from a common cup, and we will pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, in me, in America, and in the world.” 

The Story of the Stones

The Story of the Stones

Sermon on I Kings 8:12-13 and 27, and Mark 13:1-2 for Nov. 18, 2018, Pentecost +26B  An Audio version will be available here for several weeks.

1 Kings 8:12-13, 27

Then Solomon said,
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.

 have built you an exalted house,
a place for you to dwell in forever.”

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!

Mark 13:1-2

As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

I just had a conversation with someone who grew up here in Fort Smith.  He was part of the youth group back when it had 40 or 50 kids, he told me.  Now, we do not have a youth group. 

These are different days.  I have several sources I regularly read that report church news and trends.  Many times I read about the decline in church attendance which is happening in every mainline denomination.  I often read of the increase of people who identify as “None” on surveys of church affiliation. 

Many people now identify as SBNR’s – Spiritual, But Not Religious.  Many of them practice personal spirituality in a dizzying variety of forms, from personal mysticism, to dabbling in modernized, Westernized versions of Buddhism and similarly, in other religions.  Millennials are rather rare in many churches, ours included. 

There are lots of reasons for this, and many theories to account for it.  Certainly, one thing is clear: the future of the church will not look like the past. 

Screen Shot 2018-11-17 at 11.56.54 AM

Past Upheavals

But this is not the first time there have been moments of massive change.  Think about what it must have been like in the fourth century when the church that had been subjected to waves of persecution by the Roman Empire suddenly became legal, and shortly thereafter became the official religion of the empire.  All of the sudden public buildings were turned into cathedrals.   The Empire sponsored the building of new churches across the empire, and put the bishops on the payroll.

That change transformed the church.  We could discuss whether it was for the better or not.  In my opinion, becoming the chaplaincy to the Empire was a bad thing on most levels (the one exception would be that persecution ended).   

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century was another time of massive change for the church.  We are the descendants of that upheaval. 

The Current Upheaval

We are now living in the strange times of another massive upheaval for the church.  Maybe there is a silver lining inside this dark cloud.  Interestingly, we have just read two texts that both undermine the necessity of worshipping inside structures of stone.  We need to look at them carefully.

Solomon’s Temple Dedication and Deconstruction

In the first, we heard a snippet of Solomon’s great prayer of dedication of the temple he had just spent 20 years building.  The text we heard is part of long, detailed description of the lavish temple constructed from costly stones, imported timber and luxuriously gilded everywhere.  But in the most bitterly ironic tone imaginable, seven times during his dedication prayer he, acknowledges that the temple he has just built for God to dwell in is laughably insufficient.   Seven times he asks,

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

The Creator God that Israel knew could never be localized or confined in a man-made structure.  Yahweh, the God whose name, “I Am” suggests Being itself, is impossible to conceive of adequately, much less confine spatially.  So, we could say that Solomon’s question in his prayer de-constructs his whole temple project.  Can God be contained in a temple?  Certainly not.

The Second Temple, and Jesus’ Absence

Many years after that prayer, the Babylonians would come and demolish the temple.  When the Babylonians fell to the Persians who allowed captured peoples to return, the Jews did return to Judah and rebuilt a smaller version of the temple.     So the time of Jesus is known as the second temple period. In Jesus’ day, King Herod had been enlarging and refurbishing the temple for decades as part of his attempt to secure his legitimacy. 

But there are two important ideas to consider, concerning that temple.  First, the adult Jesus never went there, from what we read in the synoptic gospels, except one time, at the end, when he went in, and symbolically shut it down for a day.  He never went to the temple in Jerusalem for worship or sacrifice.   

Second, he actually predicted that the temple would again be destroyed. 

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

On the one hand, it did not take a prophet to know that if you keep poking a bear in the eye it may not be long before the bear reacts vigorously.  Various rebel groups had been doing that to Rome.  The day that the empire decided it had had enough would be a very dark day, as Jesus predicted.  And that is exactly what happened several decades after Jesus, and his prediction was fulfilled by Roman General Titus in the year 70 of the common era. 

But what do we make of Jesus’ prediction and of his temple absence?  Clearly, Jesus did not think we needed temples to worship in.  In fact, his ministry was conducted around tables, in homes, and out in the open spaces, by the sea and on the hilltops of Galilee.  Jesus was obviously spiritual; was he also religious? 

It is dangerous to ask complicated questions without time for complex discussions — which I have just done.  The gospels do picture Jesus attending synagog gatherings, so the answer must be nuanced. 

The early church considered it normal to meet in private homes in the early years.  Their practice of reading scripture, hearing teaching and singing “psalms hymns and spiritual songs” as Paul calls them, seems to have replicated the synagogue service. 

Why Are We Still Here?

So, here we are, all these years later, with our churches of stone and our declining attendance.  Why are we still here?  What is the purpose of what we do here?  What is the value of what we do here? 

First, I want to say that if lots of us did start meeting in homes again, I would be in favor of it.  I think it is powerful when small groups gather, and maybe that will turn out the future of the church. 

But in the meantime, I do think that what we do here is also powerful and important for all kinds of reasons.  Let’s think about some of them.

First, humans need ritual.  We make rituals all the time.  There is a pageantry and liturgy to every football game.  There is a ritual to every wedding, every graduation, every yoga class,  and every committee meeting.  If we do start meeting in homes, we will fall into patterns that will harden into rituals before long – and that is what we humans do.  And it is good.

Tuning to Gratitude

But it is not just that we need ritual in general; we need, I believe, the specific kinds of rituals we do here.  In my opinion, we desperately need to have our attention regularly turned to the good.   Most of what we do here involves gratitude.  We take time out to focus on the good gifts we have been given.  We give thanks in prayers and in songs.  Gratitude is the basis for the spiritual life.  Gratitude turns our attention away from ourselves.  We stop complaining, comparing, competing, and instead orient ourselves to the good. 

We now know, because of the work of brain scientists, that all of this focus on gratitude and goodness is actually beneficial for us physically, emotionally, and mentally.  When we pay attention to the words we are singing and saying, they can help us to be better people. 

John McQuiston says it so well:

“Solitary meditation or prayer, like solitary life, must be balanced with community.  We cannot shift the center of our lives away from ourselves if we are too much alone.”

Shifting the center of our lives away from ourselves is what we do when we gather here. 

Confession and Forgiveness

Besides gratitude, I believe we need the ritual of confession too.  I believe it is a crucial part of every spiritual life.  We need sober self-assessment.  We need to be reminded of our highest values and to acknowledge that we fall short of them all the time.  And then, we need to be re-affirmed in our essential belovedness; that we are not condemned for falling short, but rather we are forgiven and continuously lured by Spirit into new ways of being. 


We need the ritual of giving away our material resources. This is also crucial for our spiritual lives.  I  believe everyone needs to give some of their treasure away regularly, for whatever cause they believe in.  Giving is necessary to break money’s mysterious grip on us.  Which is probably why, for most of us, it feels good to give.  It is spiritually powerful.  So, even though my giving is by automatic bank draft, I love the ritual of passing offering plates as a sign of a deep, significant spiritual reality. 

Ministries of Compassion

On the subject of money, we do far more good than we would if we did not gather as a group.  I know some of us go to fundraisers and benefits, like the yoga benefit, which are great.   But the long-term effect of our regular collections here does far more good.  And because people have been generous in their bequests over many years, we are able to do substantial ministries like the Child Development Center that we could never do out of our own pockets. 

People being spiritual on their own cannot afford to run food pantries, Sack Lunch programs, Salvation Army suppers, give scholarships to college students and all of the other things which we do regularly.  I do not think house churches can do big projects like these either, so I have fears for what the future will look like for the poor among us. 

Spiritual Food

I hope everyone has a sense that God is present here when we worship together.  I hope we experience God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s acceptance of us on Sundays.  But even if we are not overwhelmed with awe and wonder every Sunday, nevertheless, just as each meal sustains us, even if it is not a banquet, we are fed spiritually by the act of worship and prayer together.  And just like anything you do in a group, whether it is meditation or yoga or running or bike riding, doing it as a  group makes the experience better. 


Everything we do together forms us as a community.  Baptisms, breaking bread at the Eucharist, weddings, funerals, ordinations, all of them bind us together in a covenant community; a beloved community. 

We become family for each other.  We visit each other in the hospital, bring food over in times of need, we eat with each other, we express our concern for each other, we pray for each other.  We bear one another’s burdens because our regular meeting together shapes us into this kind of compassionate, inclusive community.  We are a safe place where we do not have to hide our identities, but where our personal stories are considered sacred.

Our Story and These Stones

So, perhaps, in the final analysis, we could live without these stones that form this church, just as Jews had to learn to live without a temple, but we would be impoverished in deep ways without them.  I am in favor of house church groups that meet in addition to our large group Sunday gathering, but we would be far less effective in the world if we did not do this together as we do. 

We have something precious here.  We are used to it, like we are to clean drinking water and heated homes, but let us never take it for granted.  We inherited much of what we have here, and now, we are the generation tasked with offering it all in gratitude and service.