A Jesus for the World

Sermon for Jan. 6, 2019, Epiphany, Year C, click here for audio (available for several weeks)

Matthew 2:1-12 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


I have a couple of really good jokes that I learned in Romania and Croatia.  I was just up in the Boston area visiting my brother and his wife over the holidays, and we went out to dinner with another couple, so I had a chance to tell them again.  They got great laughs.  But I always have to provide a bit of historical and cultural context before telling them, otherwise, the punch line would be missed.  Like the one about people waiting in line in Romania.  It comes from the Communist period of shortages, which all Romanians experienced, but we Americans, of this generation, did not.  

The Time of King Herod

So, similarly, Matthew tells a story to people who know things that we don’t, so to get the story we have to fill in some knowledge gaps.  The story starts “In the time of King Herod”. 

So, in other words, in the time of a power-hungry, brutal man, capable of having members of his own family, including a wife and a son killed because they threatened his power.  His background was Idumean, which the Bible calls Edomite (which will be important).  The Edomites embraced Judaism but were not ethnically Jewish. 

So his claim to be King of the Jews, even though it was conferred on him by the Roman Senate, was dubious in many people’s minds.  It took him 3 years of bloodshed to secure that title, leaving many other aristocrats dead on the battlefield, and leaving their estates in Herod’s hands.  You get the idea.  

He loved architecture.  He built palaces, a harbor complex, and was undertaking a massive renovation of the temple in Jerusalem.  These were all hugely expensive, but no problem, there was no anti-tax Freedom Caucus to stop him from bleeding the peasants dry.  So the story starts, “In the time of King Herod.”  

The story continues, telling us that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”  Jewish readers know that this is where King David came from, which is also significant for this story.

The Wise Men

After Jesus, who a descendant of David, was born in David’s hometown, Matthew says, 

“wise men from the East came to Jerusalem”.  

Wise men, or literally “Maggi” – from which the word magic comes, were probably Persian astrologers, with dubious reputations.  They were also, dream interpreters who don’t do well when tested, as when Nebuchadnezzar asked them to interpret his dream after telling what he had dreamt.  Only Daniel could manage that feat.  

These “wise” men ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews is,  who was born king, unlike Herod.  They asked as if they did not know that a rival to the throne from a different family would not be good news to Herod. 

The Star prophecy

At this point, the story starts to get other-worldly.  These gentile Persian people reveal that they have been on a quest, a journey.  They are seekers.  They explain that they are looking for this new king because, 

“we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  

Jewish people hearing Matthew tell this story would think immediately of that ancient prophecy by that strange character named Balaam (the one with the talking donkey) who was promised money to curse the ancient Israelites, but instead blessed them and offered a prophecy.  He said 

“a star shall come out of Jacob,” (meaning Israel)
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”; the two parallel phrases say the same thing: the star is a scepter –  the symbol of a king. Then he says, “…Edom will become a possession, … One out of Jacob shall rule,” (Herod was Edomite).  (Numbers 24)

So, the prediction of a rising star indicating a new king is an immediate threat to King Herod.  Herod gets it.  

We cannot help but notice that the story of Jesus is both a story of promise and of threat.  Jesus, a powerless peasant child, born to marginalized people, is a threat to Herod, and Herod a threat to Jesus.  Nevertheless, gentiles of dubious reputation have been on a journey, and have found themselves lured, drawn to Jesus, and finding him, find themselves star-struck.  

The Prophecy and the Plot

Back to the story.  Herod and the whole aristocracy is frightened by their report.  They go to the priests who know the prophecies of Micah and of Nathan, and put two and two together and say that when Messiah comes, he will be born in Bethlehem.

So Herod hatches a plot to use the wise seekers as his spies.  The threat-level goes to red.  They set out, and again, the mysterious star guides them.  Jesus who will turn the lights on in so many ways is found, we could say,  by unlikely strangers who are on a journey, seeking enlightenment.

The Gifts Given and Received

They find the baby Jesus with Mary.  Matthew says,

They knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 

Jewish people would hear echoes of Isaiah who imagined a future for Israel, after their devastation and exile, saying there would be a reversal of fortunes, so:


  Lift up your eyes and look around;     
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.  (Isa. 60:4-6)

I like how one scholar explained the gifts:

“There are royal gold and priestly frankincense to be shared. In addition and in a nod to [Matthew’s] literary vision that culminates in crucifixion, there is also among the three treasure gifts an odd gift of myrrh, a burial spice that prepares the child for cruciform [cross-shaped]  kingship.” 

— Jarvis, Cynthia A.. Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 732-733). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. 

The threat and the promise come together.  

Home by Another Road

The newly enlightened gentiles have just given gifts to the baby Jesus, and this time, get a dream interpretation correct, and shirking Herod’s decree, go home by “another road.

So what do we do with this story?  What do we get out of telling it?  We get to see how Matthew wants us to understand Jesus, who came proclaiming the alternative kingdom of God, or we could call it, the reign of God.   

We understand that from the start, the reign of God may threaten the interests of empire.  The blessings of God’s reign come, not to the Herod’s, the cut-throats in power, but to the “poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice,” and to “the pure in heart.”   In this kingdom, the bottom line that guides decision making is compassion, not consumption.  

We get from this story that the door into the kingdom is wide open.  Gentiles of shady character who are on an honest journey find themselves lured and drawn to Jesus, just as we have been.  Jesus is for the world.

But notice that it is not just that they are welcomed to come, what is even more amazing is that they come bringing gifts, and the gifts are received.  We are continually receiving gifts from outsiders, from those who are “other”, from strangers to our tradition.  We do not claim to have an exclusive grasp of the Divine.  So we can learn from the gifts that other traditions bring to us and receive them with joy.  

From Muslims, we can receive the gift of their example of disciplined lives, of answering multiple calls to prayer every day, and their humble shoes-off, head-to-the-floor submission to God. 

From the Buddhists, we have received the gift of the language of mindfulness and the way meditation has been let out of the confines of the monastery where now, everyone can participate. 

From the Hindu tradition, we receive the gift of humility, acknowledging that though the Divine is One, that humans have an endless variety of ways of conceiving of God’s characteristics and express them in multiple colorful ways.  

All of this changes us.  We could say that the star of Jesus enlightens us.  It leads us to go home by a different road.  The journey continues, and on that journey we are transformed.  We do not follow the dictates of culture or the powers that be.  We are open to dreaming a different dream.  

We dream of a world made right, made whole, made just, made inclusive, where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  In our dream, we keep seeking Jesus on this different road, and as Matthew will later recount, we keep finding him.  We find him in marginalized people, the “least of these,”  the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners of conscience.  And as we find them, and offer our gifts of compassion and mercy to them, Jesus takes it personally.  

Our journey, our different road, our dream, our star has led us here, to this moment.  We will soon come to the table to share the bread and cup together, remembering the sacrifice that the gift of myrrh foreshadowed, of the one who would rather die than kill, who spoke truth to power, and who forgave his enemies.  We remember his death, but we celebrate his life in each of us, which still shines as brightly as it did, back “in the time of King Herod.”


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. 

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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.

Scarcity, Abundance, and Faithful Response

Scarcity, Abundance, and Faithful Response

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44 for Nov. 11, 2018, Pentecost +25B

The texts can be found by following the links, and the sermon assumes you have just read them: 1 Kings 17:8-16,  Mark 12:38-44   The audio version will be available here for several weeks.

 I taught the Old Testament in Croatia for 10 years, and I came to understand that the stories in the Hebrew Bible are not cute or simple.  These stories were probably first told orally before they were written down.  People tell stories because they say something about who they are and how they believe the world is.  People remember and write down stories, and hand them on to the next generation because they believe something essential and important can only be learned and remembered through stories. 

We do that too.  We tell stories all the time, although in different forms.  There are the stories we read in books, the stories we see in films, the stories we hear in radio and podcasts.  Did you ever think about the news as a form of storytelling?  It is.  To say “story” doesn’t imply true story or fictitious story.   There are both kinds of stories.

Another word for story is narrative.  We hear narrators narrate stories all the time. Actually, in all of our heads is a mental narrator, narrating our lives to us as we live them.  It is the voice we hear in our heads that tells us that we like what is happening or we do not like it, telling us we are doing a good job, or failing, telling us we are good enough, or not good enough, that we have enough, or that we do not have enough of whatever we need at the moment, or for the future. 

It is important to believe true narratives.  It is important to live into true narratives.  True narratives teach us; they guide us through life, and help us to be the people we were made to be; the unique, beloved, children of God that we truly are. 

But bad narratives are destructive.  They mislead us.  They hamstring our ability to love, to grow, to blossom, to thrive as God wants us to. 

So, today we have two stories before us.  They were remembered and shared, written down and handed down to us.  That means they are part of our wisdom tradition, our scriptures.  Both stories are stories of widows.  We will look briefly at both of them and try to see the deep levels of meaning that they contain for us. 

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

First the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in Sidon.  Elijah is a prophet, so this is a prophet story.  We expect that prophets are agents of God, speaking for God, and acting as God’s instruments.   But this is also a widow story.  Widows are type-characters.  We know that this is going to be a story of scarcity.

scarcity, abundance

Widows were one of a set of three types of people, a trio of characters, that the Hebrew Bible draws frequent attention to.  The other two are the orphan and the stranger, or resident alien, or, what we call the immigrant.  This trio of characters is notoriously vulnerable, unprotected, without adequate means to maintain themselves.   So, the Law of Moses has many provisions for making sure that the community comes together to help them.  Every third year, for example, the tithes (we would call them taxes because they were not voluntary contributions) were specifically collected to support the widows, the orphans, the immigrants and the Levites who had no land of their own. 

But the Elijah story takes place outside of Israel, in the land of Sidon.  There is no Law of Moses there, so this widow has no social safety net.  She is on the brink of starvation, she and her little boy.  Scarcity is her narrative. It defines her.  She has no hope.  One more meal, and that’s it for them.   Then they die.

But something new enters the narrative.  The prophet of the living God shows up.  On the surface level, what Elijah asks of her is horrible – he wants her last meal.  But on the deeper level, we see that the prophet, as God’s agent, is there to reverse the narrative of scarcity and transform it into a narrative of abundance.  We see again and again that God’s orientation is directed towards the poor.  Not just the poor Israelites but the poor on the other side of the border, in a foreign land, in Sidon. 

Jesus will recall this story, according to Luke’s gospel, specifically to draw attention to the fact that God’s care for widows extends beyond the borders of Israel.  When Jesus said that, it made the nationalist of his day angry.  They tried to kill him then and there, but Luke says cryptically,

he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4)

Back to the story: when an agent of the living God shows up, hopelessness is transformed into hope.  There is a future where no future had been imaginable.  God is a God of compassion without limits and borders.  God is oriented towards the poor.  So the meal never ran out, and the oil remained abundant.  The narrative of scarcity was transformed into a narrative of abundance.

The Widow’s mite

Now let us look briefly at the other widow story.  This is a Jesus story, so again we expect it to be a story of an agent of God teaching us something important.  It is a widow story too, and so we are prepared to understand that type-character, with all the baggage of need, of vulnerability and scarcity, included.  But this widow is inside Israel where the Law of Moses has many provisions for widows, right?

Not so fast.  The Law is there, but is anyone paying attention to it?  Well, we may think, maybe many average people could have been neglecting the Law of Moses, but surely not the religious leadership?  We would be wrong if we thought that.  In Jesus’ day, the temple leaders were of the aristocracy.  They had their own vested interests to protect.

Pre-story Warning

How does Mark tell this story?  Before getting into the story, Mark recounts a strong warning from Jesus to his disciples about those aristocratic religious leaders.   He says,

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,  and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!   They devour widows’ houses…”

How would you devour a widow’s house?  The next story shows how.  I used to think of this story as quaint, or perhaps cute.  It used to be called the story of the widow’s mite, the old King James’ translation of the copper coins she contributed.  I heard it as an example story: we should all be like the humble woman who contributed her last two coins to the temple.  But that was a misread. 

This is not a cute example story.  It is a scathing criticism.  Instead of collecting money from the community to support this poor widow, the leadership was extracting money from her, making her scarcity even more extreme.  Her house was being devoured before their very eyes, by people who had more than enough, but whose appetites for more only grew larger along with their growing wealth. 

So what does Jesus, the agent of God do in this situation?  He draws our attention to the widow, to the one in need.  Maybe we had been paying attention to the big donors, but if so, our eyes were misdirected.  Our attention, like God’s, should be on the poor.  Jesus exposes and names the injustice.  The gap between the rich and the poor was widening before their eyes.  Widows’ homes were being devoured.  Look at it; face it; name it.  It goes against everything we believe in. 

There is no miracle here.  No endless supply of meal and oil for this widow.  Because the problem that has driven her to utter poverty and scarcity is not an individual problem to be solved individually.  It is structural; it is systemic.  The whole system is set up to squeeze her last coins from her bony fingers, and to stuff the bulging pockets of the wealthy.   

Our Story

How can we possibly hear these stories and not see our own situation being described?  We are surrounded by narratives of scarcity, telling us that there is not enough to go around.  Not enough food in this country to feed all of our hungry children.  Not enough money to provide adequate health care for everyone.  Not enough to end homelessness.  Right here, right now, we watch as the backpack program gets severely reduced.  And we are told that the poor people of other nations do not count.  In fact, we are told that we should fear them, as if God was partial to native English speakers.

We do not believe these narratives of scarcity.  We believe the earth has enough to support us all. We believe that our attention as a people is properly directed to the poor.  We believe that we are now the agents of God for our generation. 

So, it is important to look at the systems and structures of our day that contribute to the problem.  We have been fed the narrative that the free market always makes the wisest decisions.  But we are people who have had our eyes opened by a vision of abundance that we call the kingdom of God, which has helped us to see things.

We see that the market does not care if you have a job or not.  The market does not care if you have health care or not.  The market does not care if you are a widow, or an orphan or an immigrant and you are suffering.  The market does not even care if your water is poisoned or your air makes you sick.  The market is not a Christian.  It is not even a humanist.  The market does not believe that the poor in spirit are blessed nor does it believe the meek will inherit the earth, but Jesus did, and as his followers, we do.  We do believe that there is such a thing as enough.

So, we live into this alternative narrative. We will take some of our abundance, and we set it aside, dedicating it to God for the sake of this faith-community and for the sake of our mission to our neighbors.  We believe the narrative of abundance because we believe in a living God who lures us toward goodness, toward love, and toward compassion.   We believe that we are not isolated individuals but that we are a community.  That means we believe we have responsibility for each other, and especially for the poor.  And we do not believe that national borders confine our love.

And from here we will go out and work to make the structures and systems of our world more attentive and responsive to the poor.  We will work to do what the market cannot do: bring the values of the kingdom of God to bear on the structures of our world.  We believe in inclusion, in welcoming the stranger, and in making sure that everyone has a seat at the banquet table, because this is where we find our blessing, our joy, and our peace.  This is our response of faithfulness to our Living God of abundance. 


Money and the Meaning of Life

Money and the Meaning of Life

Sermon for Nov. 4, 2018, Pentecost +24B on 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:6-12  Audio available for several weeks here.

The Apostle Paul spent two years taking up a collection among his Gentile congregations to support the poor Christian Jews in Jerusalem.  He is about to visit the Corinthian congregation, so this is his advice to them about how to prepare to participate in the collection.

8:1We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;  2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—  5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,  6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.  7 Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.  10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—  11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.  13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  15 As it is written,“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

9:6  The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.  9 As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;  12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 

I had an experience as a child that I will never forget.  My parents always took us to church.  They always gave us a coin, usually a quarter, if I remember correctly, to put in the Sunday School offering.  We always did. 

One Sunday, the church put on a scavenger hunt for the kids.  It was not for Easter eggs or candy.  They had taken a whole jar of coins and spread them on the church lawn.  The coins were everywhere.  All the  kids thought this was fantastic.  So, before Sunday School, on the signal, we all rushed out to the lawn and tried our best to collect as many coins as possible.   I remember getting a pocket full. 

But an odd thing happened to me.  When it came time for the Sunday School offering, suddenly I had the urge to keep the quarter my parents had given me instead of giving it.  I kept it.  I still feel badly about that to this day. 

Continue reading “Money and the Meaning of Life”

Anti-semitism, history, bible, complicity, and response

Anti-semitism, history, bible, complicity, and response

In the wake of the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue

I have been thinking a lot about the eleven people who were killed and six wounded in the shooting at the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh last Saturday, and about the ideology behind the gunman.  It just fills me with grief.

It is so uncanny that anti-semitism is still with us, given the two millennia of Christianity in the West.  Jesus and all the disciples were Jews, so were most of the people in the early church. 

Continue reading “Anti-semitism, history, bible, complicity, and response”