Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

Sermon on Luke 11:1–13 for Pentecost + 10, 17th Ordinary, Proper 12 C,  July 28, 2013

Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

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Luke 11:1–13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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Teaching Prayer; Learning Trust

When I first went overseas as a missionary, I learned that the Hungarians like to say “Ó, Istenem” a lot.  It means “Oh, my God!”  The Romanians say “O, Dumnezeul meu.”  The Croatians say “Bože moj.”  It seems that everybody likes to say “O my God.”  Would that be the same as a Hindu believer saying, “Holy Cow”?  God only knows.

These are all prayers.  They are automatic for many people, almost involuntary.  I don’t pretend they are sincere prayers from the heart of believers; “O my God” is  just an expression meaning not much more than “wow!”  Nevertheless, it seems that most people are hard-wired to call out to God when something happens.

So what happens when people call out to God?  Usually, not much.  The people who call out “Oh, my God!” on Saturday night don’t necessarily show up for worship on Sunday morning with testimonial reports of miraculous divine interventions.

And that’s how it has to be.  If every desperate prayer were automatically answered, who would work hard for anything?  Who would go to school if a prayer got you an A on the test?  Who would bother to go grocery shopping if you could pray the ingredients into your kitchen?  Who would ever go to work?  Who would try to eat and live in a healthy way, if sickness could just be prayed away, and who would ever die?

Real life would come to a grand screeching halt if that were the way it worked.  No action would have predictable consequences – or any consequences at all.

If you let your mind wander down this imaginary trail, you quickly realize that a world of always-answered-prayers would be an absurd and literally impossible world to live in.

So what happens?

And that brings us to the problem of prayer.  We all seem to do it, instinctively, at least in emergencies, but what happens when we pray?  Anything?

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There are lots of really absurd ideas out there about prayer.  I watched a film called “The Great Santini” long ago about an Air Force pilot (played by Robert Duvall).  He was a severe father and had a love-hate relationship with his son.  After he crashed his plane and died, his son was pouring out his grief to his mother.  He said that sometimes in anger he had prayed that his father would crash.  He asked his mother if perhaps one of those prayers were floating around in the sky like a cloud?  Maybe his father flew into it and that was why he crashed?

Where he got that crazy idea about prayers, I have no idea.  But people think all kinds of things about prayer.  Some think it has to be said in a special sacred place, like a church.  Some think prayer needs to be accompanied by some ritual act – lighting a candle perhaps or a gesture of some sort.   I think candles and gestures are fine, but not that they are required to make prayer work.

Some people think the words of a prayer have to be formulated well for God to respond well to it.  Some think only prayers that have been written by someone official will work with God.

Some people believe that they have to be good enough for God to hear them.  I guess they picture God like a parent who will not give you your allowance if you broke one of the house rules recently.

The God we Pray To

In fact, the ideas that we have about God are the key to the mystery of prayer.  Who is the God we cry out to?  The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world.  This is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.

They observed Jesus at prayer, Luke tells us, and wanted to learn to pray as he did.  I’m sure they saw that his connection to God was profound.  Jesus was, as some call him, a “spirit-man,” in touch with the presence of God;  a person from whom God’s power flowed out to others.  Surely he must know the inside story about prayer.  So they asked him.  What he gave them as a model is what we call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father.

Starting with the Kaddish

Jesus did not start from scratch.  He was Jewish, as were all of his early disciples. To teach them to pray, Jesus started with the typical Jewish daily prayer they called the “Kaddish.”  Kaddish means “sanctification” – the Jewish prayer begins with a request that God’s name be sanctified, or made holy (see Scott McKnight’s book  Jesus Creed.”)  That sounds similar to the way the Lord’s Prayer begins “Hallowed (holy) is your name.”

The Kaddish says,

“Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world he created according to his will.  May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, an during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future.  Amen.”

So, Jesus started with this standard daily Jewish prayer.  He made some changes to it.  The first was that “Abba” father came before the request to sanctify God’s name.

“Father (Abba), hallowed be your name.”

Notice also that the Kaddish says “his name” while Jesus changes it to “your name” as if talking, not about God, but directly to God.

Both of these changes, calling God “Abba-Father” or even “daddy” and speaking directly to him show how intimately Jesus conceived of his relationship to God.

How do we pray?  We think of ourselves speaking directly to someone who is as personal and as caring as the perfect father would be; attentive, concerned, one who is a stake-holder in our concerns.

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Yes, but, Really?

But is that God?  Isn’t the God of the universe beyond all human categories of being?  Doesn’t God, as the bible says, dwell

“in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”? (1 Tim 6:16).

Yes, and this is part of the mystery of faith: that God is utterly unknowable, “wholly other” than we finite mortal creatures, beyond all thought or imagination.  The Being who is the source of all being.  We must never lose sight of this great truth.   God is good, but not tame; God has not been domesticated and cannot be.

This is exactly what it means to say “hallowed (or made holy) is your name”.  Holiness means god-ish-ness.  God’s name, God’s essence is divine, infinite, eternal, or, “holy.”  God is not a mortal to be messed with.

Neither is God a big masculine person in the sky.  God is not a man.  Nor is God a woman.  God is beyond gender; both Adam and Eve, as the creation story goes, are made equally “in the image of God.”

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Infinite only?

How would it be be for us, if this was all that we knew about God?  We would be overwhelmed with awe, probably fearful of what God might do to us, probably worried that we had not appeased him in some way.

But this is the beauty of our mysterious Trinitarian faith: that the infinite God can be experienced in the analogy of a loving “father” who loves his children as the perfect father would, and looks after them, to raise them well.

So, he is aware that they need daily bread, and he provides the conditions for them to have it.  God is aware that they will mess up, get it wrong, do the wrong thing, and God stands ready to mercifully forgive.  Only he requires that his children do the same as he does when they are wronged by another.

“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”

God’s Kingdom, Come

Just like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come.  But instead

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of thinking of it as a future event when God would come crashing down out of the clouds to crush the bad guys, Jesus helped us to pray that God’s kingdom, God’s realm would simply “come.”

In Matthew’s version of the prayer which we are more familiar with, this simple request is explained as “on earth as it is in heaven.”   This simply means “here and now.”  “Your kingdom come” simply means “May God be in charge here and now.”  Or, in other words, may we live as those who want what God wants, here and now, for ourselves, for others, and for our precious planet.

May justice be done.  May the hungry be fed.  May the homeless find shelter.  May the victims of discrimination and abuse find security and healing.  May the sick have access to health care.  May our water, air and soil be clean for us and for our children.  May love and harmony, forgiveness and reconciliation define our relationships.  May we be peacemakers; “instruments of peace,” as St. Francis prayed.

May we be able to come to God, trusting him to be our perfect father, with all of our concerns; with all of our hurts, our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings, our grief and our worry about the uncertain future.  May we be able to pour out our hearts to God with the confidence that he cares and that he has the capacity to redeem all the evil that has happened.

Trust in God as Father

May we have the trusting confidence in God as father to keep asking, even when we don’t see anything happening.  Even when it feels as fruitless as banging on a neighbor’s door at midnight.   The mysterious, infinite God of the universe can be appealed to as a loving father.  There is no way he would give his children a snake when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg!  Even a human father with all of his failings knows better than to do that!  How much more does God love and care for us?

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Praying (not understanding) 

I do not pretend to understand how prayer works, or why.  I don’t believe God needs to be informed, as if he didn’t know, or reminded as if he forgot.  I don’t believe he needs to be assuaged by groveling, and I don’t think he is holding out for the best deal I can offer him.  I don’t think he is waiting until prayers accumulate like sugar on a kitchen scale before agreeing to respond.

All I know is that I have this need to say “Oh my God” and know that there is someone there to hear, who cares, and who wants what is best for me more than I do for myself.  This is the God Jesus taught us to pray to: an utterly, infinitely holy divine being, whom we can trust and know as “Abba, father.”

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Eyes Forward

Lectionary Sermon for  Pentecost +6, Ordinary 13 C, June 30, 2013

Luke 9:51–62

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

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

Eyes Forward

I did not grow up in a mainline denomination like the Presbyterian Church.  The Christian subculture I grew up in, however, had its own ideas of what was important: it was to avoid doing the things that were wrong so that you would not fall into the trap of becoming “worldly.”  For example, we were tea-totalers, since drinking any alcohol was a sin.  And we weren’t supposed to go to dances, since it provokes “lust in the heart.”  Other groups of Christians I knew had even tougher  restrictions: they forbade going to watch movies and had strict hair codes and dress codes.

One of the worst sins you can commit is saying a bad word: swearing, or cussing, as we called it.  That’s what I thought, as a kid, growing up in a suburban American Christian home.  I’m not saying that anyone ever told me to believe that, but that’s the message I got.  Lying was something you should not do, so you tried not to, most of the time of course.  And “lust in your heart” was something you had to repent of as often as you experienced it.  But cussing was something you just never did.  Nobody in your Christian circles did.  None of the people in your family or church or youth group did.  It was that bad. It was that important.

So, from that context, it was a shock to hear what I heard one time.  A well respected Christian speaker, professor Tony Campolo was talking about world hunger.  He quoted a statistic about how many children die each day of malnutrition.  Then he said most of us didn’t give a “s____t” about it (insert bad word).  And then he said that most of us were far more concerned that he had said a bad word than that all those children were going to die tonight.

He was right.  It shocked me.  I felt as though I had been exposed as a fraud.  It was clearly true and obviously a terrible truth to discover about myself, that  I had a stronger gut-reaction to his use of a forbidden word than the reaction I had to the needless deaths of hungry children.

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Anti-Communists!

It gets worse.  The sub-culture I grew up in was virulently anti-Communist.  Communists were godless atheists who were persecuting Christians and shutting down churches wherever their poisonous perspective took root; so they had to be opposed.  Many of you may be nodding in agreement, but hear me out.

We never asked the question, not even once, what would motivate a person to join up with the communist cause?  We never discussed economic injustice or oppression.  So when the topic of apartheid in South Africa came up, apartheid was never questioned.  The subject was wether Nelson Mandela’s ANC was getting support from Marxist sources and had communist aims.  That was the only question.

Never mind the virtual enslavement of a whole indigenous population of South Africa.  Never mind the shame, the humiliation, the exploitation and hopelessness that defined apartheid.  We consoled our consciences with the thought that the blacks in S. Africa could at least go to church (their own churches, of course, not white ones).

I actually spoke with a missionary who had recently returned from South Africa back in the 1960’s who pointed out that all of the black people in his pictures were smiling.

If it were not already done, I could write a book entitled “Adventures in Missing the Point.”  Dancing, swearing, any use of alcohol – compared with oppression, injustice, hunger! I’m not blaming anybody: we are all products of our times and places, but the naked fact is that we had trivialized Christianity.  We had believed a distorted and anemic version of Jesus that left him utterly irrelevant to the compelling issues of the day.

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Mass Graves

As you all know, my life was changed by my years of living in Central Europe, Romania and the former Yugoslavia.  I lived within a half an hour’s drive of mass graves in more than one directions from my home.  I have seen what it means to have inherited and to practice a version of Christianity that is powerless to prevent genocide.  Serbs, who identify with Orthodox Christianity, and Croats who by-and-large identify with Catholicism, both repeat the whole Nicene Creed in church.  So what?  The Reformed Church (= Presbyterian) has it’s own brand of nationalism that I have witnessed up-close as well.

That was the experience of my lifetime.  Some of you lived through the WWII; you could tell stories that would make my experience pale by comparison.  I have visited Auschwitz and seen that pile of baby clothes and the crematorium.  That happened in so-called “Christian Europe” where lavish cathedrals with amazing organs first played the greatest compositions of music ever written, from Bach to Mozart and beyond, all in praise of the Christian God.   So what?

I am completely convinced now that the Christianity of the Creeds alone is vacuous, maybe even dangerous, as it has been instrumentalized so often by the powers-that-be to baptize the current political agenda, up-to and including their gratuitous wars.  Even Croatia’s former Communist-turned-nationalist president Tudjman lit candles in church when he found it helpful to be seen doing so, during the campaign of ethic cleansing of the Krajina region.

What kind of Christianity lets that happen?  The kind that has lost the point.

Jesus’ Warnings

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I believe that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to warn us about.  On more than one occasion that Luke has compiled nicely for us to read in one place, Jesus warned about the utter seriousness of his mission.  There was nothing trivial about it.  It had nothing to do with cussing or dancing.  It had to do with the number one essential point that if lost sight of, subverts all the rest: Christianity is supposed to be about compassion.

Compassion for the world and all of the people who inhabit it is God’s primary motivation.

God is love” the bible tells us.

“For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…”.

“No greater love has anyone than this: that he lays down his life for his friends” Jesus said.

And this love, this compassion is real.  When we have real compassion we feel grieved whenever people are suffering.  Compassion moves us to become involved, to look for solutions, to reach out and touch, to offer a hand.

Compassion means that not everything goes: there are right solutions and wrong solutions to problems.    If people get in the way of your journey to Jerusalem, as the Samaritans tried to do to Jesus and Co., what do you do, call down fire, like Elijah of old, as James and John suggested to Jesus?  No!  Whatever you think was going on in that Elijah story, those days are over.

What if a compassionate agenda causes inconvenience?

What if it means we lose some of our privilege and advantage?

What if it means power-sharing to open up  doors of access to people other than us insiders?  Jesus would say, (did say):

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

In other words: this is serious: and yes, it may include the embrace of inconvenience; even embracing suffering.

What if I can come up with twelve good reasons to put it off until some future moment when the time will be right?

“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the reign of God.” 

What if we start down this compassionate road and then, realizing the costs of loosing some of our power and privilege, we start to have regrets?  What if the way of compassion starts to bite into our lifestyles and puts limits on our luxuries, making us nostalgic for the old days?

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Fit” here means “useful.”  It’s not a matter of being rejected, it’s a matter of being unhelpful in the cause of compassion?  Why?  Because looking back with nostalgia for the former days, before the time when Jesus changed the religious paradigm could only mean one thing: that person didn’t get the point.

It would be like a former slave owner, after emancipation, being nostalgic for slavery; a fundamental denial of the essence of compassion.  Jesus changed the whole quest of the spiritual life from performance of ritual to compassion in action.

James got the message, as he wrote very soon after Jesus’ ministry these words:

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“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  (James 1:27)

In other words compassion; compassion which refuses to be seduced by dominant cultural values to the contrary.

It’s so sad when that vision is trivialized or lost.  The vision Jesus held out for us of living according to the reign of God is a bright and hopeful vision.  In Jesus’ vision, God is not interested in temple rituals and the blood of animals; God is the heavenly Father who supplies bread for the day.

God is not waiting in heaven to be called to come down and smite the Samaritans; God is making, Jesus said,

“his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  (Matt. 5:45)

Any version of Christianity that misses the point of compassion is useless.

An Alternative Vision

But for those who have, as the gospels say, “repented” of our default selfishness, defensiveness, our primitive, immature, lizard brain, fight-or-flight responses, in favor of compassion, imagine what is possible:

A world in which there are no more mass graves.

A world without children dying of hunger.

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A world without discrimination on the basis of anything: race, religion, sexual-orientation, social status, or gender.

A world in which our precious planet is safeguarded from degradation.

A world in which compassionate people dream God’s dream of liberty and justice for All –  that’s All, with a capital A; no exceptions.

The dream is unfulfilled so far.  The task is unfinished.  We, here now today, as prosperous Americans at the start of the 21st century are called to join the journey Jesus marked out for us when he “set his face for Jerusalem.”

We are called to dream the dream.  Jesus said then and continues to say now:

“Follow me.”

We are called to be followers of Jesus, full of compassion, accepting the struggle and the inconvenience, embracing even suffering as Jesus demonstrated, looking forward, not back, to the reign of  God; the God  of compassion.

And we are called to work out what it means to implement compassion in practical ways, in our community, in our nation, and for our planet.

Hand to the plow;

No looking back.

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The Politics of Wonder

The text: Luke’s story of Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Poli lookout point, Hawaii
Poli lookout point, Hawaii



Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

I was re-listening to Bill Moyers’ conversations with the late Joseph Campbell (from the PBS series “The Power of Myth”).  Campbell told a story of two policemen who were patrolling in Hawaii on a mountain top; a place where tourists come.

Sadly, it is a place where people have jumped to their deaths.  The policemen spotted a lone man near the edge and went to see if they needed to intervene.  Just as they approached, the man made his move to jump, and the nearest policeman instantly reached out and grasped him.  Campbell says that the policeman was being pulled over along with the man, and would have fallen had not the second policeman grabbed him.

All of them were saved from falling, but an important question was raised.  Why did that first policeman continue to hold the man who wanted to die, at the risk of his own life, indeed when his own life was in jeopardy?  He did not know the man, was not related to him.  Why, in that instant, did he so entirely abandon his self-preservation instinct, his duty to his family, all of his wishes and hopes for life?

When a journalist asked him why he didn’t let go, he said, “I couldn’t let go.  If I had let that young man go I could not have lived another day of my life.

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Why not?  What deep knowing produced that life-risking act?

This week NPR has been examining suicides among soldiers.  I heard a heart-breaking account told by two parents who lost their son to suicide after he had returned from a tour in Afghanistan.  In their grief they tried to find a reason.

They had heard him speak of a time in which a young Afghan boy, about twelve, the age of their son’s cousins, suddenly came around a corner with a Kalashnikov aimed at him.  It was a story he had told his parents about escaping from danger.

After their son’s suicide, his parents learned from the other men in his platoon that he was the one who had to shoot and kill that boy.  The post-traumatic stress that he was dealing with came from experiences such as that.  How could he live after having taken life away from others?

A policeman was willing to risk his own life to save a total stranger.  A soldier is so disturbed by having to kill a child who would have killed him had he not, that he takes his own life.

What is the deep knowing that produces these results?  Is it not that we share a common humanity with every person on this planet?  There is within us, a deep knowledge that we are one in a profound way that is far more significant than our surface separateness.

Where does this knowledge come from and what does it mean?  In our tradition, we tell a story about God as the ultimate source of everything – trees, birds, oceans and humans.  We are made by God who breathed into our lungs the breath of God’s Spirit, the breath of life.  All of life and all being itself has One source: One Creator.

The Name of Being

How do we know this God?  Moses was in the wilderness when he saw the continuously burning bush.  It was there that the voice, God’s voice from the bush named God, saying “I am who I am.”  Being itself is God’s name (if that is a name at all).

Elijah goes to the same mountain on which Moses received the ten commandments, or, as it says in the original, “the ten words” and meets the same God of the burning bush; the I Am, where Elijah is told “I AM” will “pass by” and make himself known.

Elijah is, at first, presented with raw power: mountain-splitting, rock-breaking wind, but “I AM was not in the wind.”

“and after the wind an earthquake, but I AM was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but I AM was not in the fire; and after the

"I Am who I AM"
“I Am who I AM”

fire a sound of sheer silence.”

Being itself;

I Am;

sheer silence.”

No words.

It is in our silence that we meet I AM.  When we turn off the steady flow of our own mental narrative, and become quiet, centered, still, we experience the wonder of being.

Exhaling, we let go of our constant, habitual judging; preferring; disdaining; we accept what is, as it is.

Inhaling we receive the oxygen freely given, that we did not earn, cannot buy, or hoard or restrict, but which we share with all breathing life.

The Crossing

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Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to make a crossing of the sea.  There is a storm – because crossing of borders and boundaries always causes storms of resistance.  But Jesus overcomes the storm with a word and settles the sea into the quiet of sheer silence.  No words.

They arrive on the shore of a world marked by strangeness, impurity, and taboo.  It is a place of tombs, of pigs and of unclean spirits.  It is Gentile space.  History tells us that in this region Herod the Great’s son built a city over a graveyard.   We are told that a Jewish revolt against Roman occupation there was met with predictable Roman force; the rebels were herded into the lake and killed.

In this space of complete otherness, Jesus confronts a man whose life has been ruined.  He is utterly de-humanized.  He wears no clothes; he lives among the dead, he inflicts self-harm and no one can fix him.

He senses that the boundary he has lived with so long has been crossed.  He attempts to gain mastery over Jesus by the ancient means: naming him.

“he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torture me.”

But Jesus who was not impeded by the storm in the crossing is not going to be named.  He turns the tables in this power-encounter, saying,

“Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

In our context, he would have said,

My name is Brigade, for we are many

A Roman army legion, as an American brigade, is comprised of several thousand troops.  Here is a man whose life has been ruined by Roman occupation, living a living-death, dehumanized and now in the process of self-harming.

But he is in the presence of a far greater power who has crossed over to him.  Jesus, brimming with the presence of I AM, will not avoid him, shun him, stigmatize him, shame him, or judge him.  He has just given the command that soldiers know well: “Come out” or as we would say today, “Dismissed!”

The unclean spirits, those occupation troops,  the blame targets need a place to go.  They are sent into the very emblems of impurity, into the pigs.  The “gaggle of new recruits” – which is actually what the word “herd” was used for (pigs are not herd animals anyway) then “charge” as if to attack, but end up in same water, in the same place, where those Jewish rebels were killed.  They perished the way Pharaoh’s army perished in the Red Sea; as all empires have or will do.  There is no one left to blame.

An Alternative

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There is another way; an alternative to the politics of separation subjugation and scapegoating.  There is a way to be at peace, re-humanized, clothed, healed, saved, mindful.  It is found where this new human now finds himself, where Martha’s sister Mary was, where all disciples find themselves: at the feet of Jesus.

At his feet, the unclean are clean.  There is no sea of separation between them.  As Paul would shortly say,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  |
(Gal 3:28)

There is hope and there is tragedy here.  The hope is that there is salvation: there is the chance that the victims can return home, as Jesus told him to do, fully alive, fully human, connected in family networks, full of joyous testimony.

But the tragedy is that the old ways of conflict are the best-known ways to be.  The reptilian brain we all have inside us that wants to fight everybody, to make distinctions and judgments, to maintain boundaries and to reject the concept of our common humanity is not impressed, even by healing.

The other swine herds spread the word; the majority would rather live with the devil they know than to have the devil leave them without scapegoats to blame.  It says,

“Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them”

Why did they not know what that Hawaiian policeman knew about our common bonds of humanity?  How could they not want to be healed from the miserable status-quo conditions they were living in?

Luke tells us they were afraid, after what Jesus had done.  Afraid of what?  Perhaps they were afraid of wonder?  Fearful of coming face to face, in silence, with the great I AM, as naked children, without pretense or hiding, or shame?

What a pity.

“There need be no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.”  (1 John 4:18)

  • We are invited to be the people who sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him.
  • We are invited to join him in living without boundaries of exclusion and judgment.
  • We are invited to go, as Jesus went, into the silence of prayer; in to the wonder of being, into the presence of I Am.
  • And from that centered space, we are invited to recognize the truth that will not let us let go of any other falling human, with whom, in fact, we are one.

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Dead Zones and Hope

First, the texts:

For the reading from click here

Luke 7:11-17

dead zone framed

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi.  Blooms of algae there consume the oxygen in the water such that nothing else, fish or plant can survive.  If you want to find the cause of the dead zone, you have to look upstream.  Agricultural run-off, primarily fertilizers, from states all the way up to Minnesota, are to blame.

Dead zones are not made after one season of run-off.  They take years to develop.  But once there, they say it will take years to un-do.  That’s only if we can adopt the right turn-around strategies up stream and stick with them as long as it takes, which right now, doesn’t look likely.

Dead zones are a handy metaphor for a lot of things that become hopeless and eventually lifeless.

Today we are going to talk about the subject that our texts presents us with: death and the possibility of new life.  This is going to get personal.  If we confront these texts as they were intended, we are going to have to ask ourselves lots of questions:

  • Where are the dead zones in me?
  • What was going on up stream that created these conditions?
  • What kind of turn around strategy is required now?
  • How long would it take to make a difference?
  • Is there any reason for hope?

After the self-exam, it would be worthwhile to ask those same questions about a lot of other areas of our lives:

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by Frederick Franck
  • Where are the dead zones in my relationships/my family?
  • Where are they in the church?
  • In our community?
  • In our politics?
  • In our nation?

Texts of Death and Life

Now to the texts.  We read a two-part story from the life of the great prophet Elijah and a story from the life of Jesus.  Both Elijah and Jesus perform miraculous resuscitations of the dead.

Question:  when and why do people of tell stories about the dead coming back to life?

The answer is obvious: when conditions look terrible.  When they look hopeless.  When they wake up to the fact that they are in a dead zone.  These stories come from what the people in recovery call the “moment of clarity.”  The time it finally dawns on us that it’s not working.

Dr. Phil asks famously “How is that working for you?”  These texts come from people who have concluded: it’s not.  Not anymore – if it ever was.

Elijah and the Dead Zone of Exile

The Elijah stories come from the Jews in exile in Babylon.  They are stories of a time of drought and hopelessness under political oppression.  Of course they are.    That is the story of the people in exile.

And so, they tell of God’s sustaining provision for the people outside the borders of the land – the oil and meal outlast the time of scarcity – but the oil and meal must be shared for the miracle to work.  The widow in Sidon shares with the prophet, and they all live through the drought.

Theses stories also tell of God’s ability to vouchsafe the future generation who is at the risk of death by suffocation under the overwhelming weight of Babylonian culture, language, and religion.

The only son who had become so ill that “there was no breath left in him” is restored to life and given back to his mother.  The nation in exile, just as the widow’s son will live to continue the family line, but needs the mother’s care: she will raise him in the traditions, values and faith of her people who will, as a nation, live again.

The dead zone is real, but it is not the last word.  The turn-around strategy begins by attending to the words of the prophet Elijah, whose very name means Israel’s God,  Yahweh, is God.

The Jesus Story: 2 Processions meet

The Jesus story too is told about a people in a dead zone.  It is the story of two processions.  Luke tells us that Jesus, and his disciples and a large crowd approach the gates of the city – forming one procession.  There they meet a funeral procession coming out of the city towards the cemetery.  A widow is coming to bury her only son, and with him, her hope.

These two processions meet at a watershed moment.  The Jewish nation looks like a widow about to bury her only son; the Roman occupation has all but ended their hopes as a nation.  Their religious leaders are of no help; quite the opposite in most cases.

Revolution too, is in the air, which to many (including Jesus) looks doomed from the outset.; a national suicide mission.  The dead zone is undeniable.  Time to commence the funeral to bury future hopes.

But then the funeral procession meets the Jesus-led procession.  We will look at what happens there, because it is instructive, but let us pause to notice something.

These stories are an assertion of hope in the context of apparent hopelessness.  The dead zone has become undeniable: but is that the last word?  People of faith tell stories of miraculous life after death because we believe that death is not the last word.  God has the power to transform dead zones back in to oxygenated lushness.

How?

How does the presence of God in the middle of dead zones work?  Let us learn from Luke.

It is interesting to me that nobody called out to Jesus.  The mother did not come begging for a miracle.  Jesus did not wait to be invited or call for a cleansing repentance as a pre-condition.   What then, got the miracle-action going?  Jesus simply looked and saw that grieving, hopeless widow, and Luke tells us:

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.””

Without pre-condition and without hesitation, even though the old purity laws of the Old Testament told him he shouldn’t touch the dead, Luke says Jesus,

“came forward and touched the bier…. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!… and Jesus gave him to his mother.”

Jesus’ Analysis

This scene and all of Jesus’ ministry show us Jesus’ analysis of the dead zone in practice.  He has concluded that the trouble began upstream long ago – the run off from hundreds of fields over hundreds of years had all contributed.  Now things had to change.

First, a whole new approach to how to understand God’s will had to be taken.  The turn-around strategy Jesus adopted was a complete revision of the old purity code in the law of Moses.  It just wasn’t working anymore.

Not touching the dead, and all the other purity laws, had simply become a barrier to getting people in contact with God.  God is not waiting for us to become good enough, pure enough, or even to ask for help.

He wants to go to work on every dead zone – that is the measure of God’s love and mercy towards us.  It starts knowing that the very wake up call, the moment of clarity, the realization that there is a dead zone is already the work of God in us, and therefore, a sign of hope.

Part of our church’s dead zone is that we have put up purity barriers for many years, and now the runoff is killing us.  The church has had a history of being judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, anti-science, and way too tied into political agendas.

We have bought into the suffocating culture of consumerism.  We have believed we could be Christians without being people of radical forgiveness.  We have even  imagined and that showing up in church was the same thing as being spiritual.

We apologize for all of that.  That way led to death.

Compassion is Essential

That’s not all.  The dead zone that Jesus observed was the cumulative effect of years of misconstruing God’s essential character and motivation.  God is Love, and God is Good – that is what we come to see most clearly as we get to know God through the lens of Jesus.

Goodness and Love are God’s essential characteristics, and so his essential motivation is compassion.  Jesus shows us how God looks at dead zones, as he looked at that widow in the funeral procession: not with condemnation and judgment, but compassion.

So, Jesus models for us exactly the way our lives should be lived: with compassion instead of judgment on ourselves and with compassion instead of judgment on everyone else.  Compassion is all about offering forgiveness when wronged instead of harboring bitterness – a huge dead-zone ingredient.  And compassion involves actively reaching out and doing something about the suffering at hand, just as Jesus did.

  • We ask ourselves: where is there bitterness in my life?  That’s a dead zone.

    by Fredrick Franck
    by Frederick Franck
  • Where is there shame and guilt?  That’s what dead zones are made of.
  • Where is there addiction or self-medication?  The dead zones there are even neurological, but even those can be healed.
  • Where is there a response of “That’s not my problem, I don’t care” when we become aware of suffering?  That’s the sure sign of a dead zone.
  • When do we hear ourselves saying, “Nobody’s going to…” (fill in blank)
    • “… get what’s coming to me” or
    • “…tell me what to do” or
    • “…say ‘no’ to me”  – all of those simply expose the dead zone that pride creates in all of us.

Turn Around Strategy

So what is the turn around strategy for dead zones?

First we acknowledge them – everywhere they exist: in ourselves, in our relationships, in our institutions – everywhere.  The acknowledgement itself is a sign of life because it is a sign that the Spirit is already at work, waking us up.

Second, awareness of dead zones must be followed by stopping the flow of the pollutants.  This requires mindfulness over time.  Healing is possible, but not instantaneous.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the moments we are living in and making life-giving decisions in real-time.  The only way to accomplish this is through the spiritual practice of daily meditation.

This conclusion, first come to by mystics of every tradition is now what the neurologists are telling us.  Everyone of us can afford twenty minutes of silence every day.  It’s free, it has no negative side-effects, and it produces in us the number one resource that we need to counteract fear, anxiety, depression, anger, bitterness and all the other dead-zone ingredients: and that resource is compassion.

Listen, we are not in the funeral procession; we are in the Jesus procession.  We have been touched and have been given new life by Jesus’ compassion.  We are not without hope, even if, realistically, we are not in great shape.  But we are in this together.

As people of faith, we keep reminding ourselves of stories of life coming back into dead bodies because we believe in the Lord of Life whose compassion is inexhaustible.  There is hope!

As the Collect for Monday Morning prayer teaches us, our prayer is:

“Let his love show in our deeds,
his peace shine in our words,
his healing in our touch,
that all may give him praise, now and forever!”

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The Struggle and the Connections: Stories within Stories

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 2, 2013

First, the texts:

1 Kings 18:20-39  text can be found here

Luke 7:1-10

Francesco Trevisani
Francesco Trevisani

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

I saw a T-shirt worn by someone in an Advanced Placement English class which said,

We can write and essay about an essay within an essay.”

That sounds clever, but why would anybody want to do that?  The reason is that no story makes sense in isolation.  The meaning of a story is only known only when it connects with other stories.

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This is true for our personal stories, as we all know: my story is connected in a vast network of relationships – and you are part of my story, as I am a part of yours.

This is also true of the stories in the bible.  Their meaning is discovered as we see   connections to other stories in the bible, and to the story of the church, and finally to our personal stories.

We just read two stories: Elijah on Mt. Caramel, watching Yahweh, Israel’s God, beat the prophets of Baal and their god, in a great contest.  Then we read the story of Jesus healing the servant of the centurion from a distance, without even having to go to his house.

Collections of Connections

Who told these stories?  This is where it gets interesting.   Jewish scribes handed down the Elijah stories from generation to generation.  Those stories became part of a long collection of stories.  Included in that collection is the story about the non-Jewish army commander, a Syrian, who had the disease they called leprosy.  It’s a story worth mentioning because of its connections.

That commander with leprosy, Naaman, had a young Jewish servant girl who recommended that he go to the land of Israel, to the prophet Elisha, for healing.  Long story short: he did, and he was healed at a distance, without Elisha even coming out of his house.  (2 Kings 5)

You can see the connection between that story and the one about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant.  In both stories, a non-Jewish army commander seeks healing from a Jewish prophet, and receives it, even at a distance, without any in-home action.

Connecting Elijah’s story

Why the lectionary asks us to read the story of Elijah and the contest between the gods today, when we read the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant, instead of the clearly parallel Elisha story is puzzling – but also fascinating.  There is a connection there too, but it’s more subtle.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that story without seeing it, but this time I noticed something new: the author shows how Elijah’s story makes sense because of the past stories to which it is connected; one story in particular.  He says,

“Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the

Jacob and Angel - Odilon Redon
Jacob and Angel – Odilon Redon

LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”;

Remember the story of Jacob who wrestled with the angel through the night?  He actually won the match, and so his name was changed from Jacob “supplanter” to “Israel,” “one who struggles with God.”   (Gen 32)

Why, while telling the Elijah story, did the author bother to highlight the name change from Jacob to Israel?  Because Elijah is also involved in a “struggle” with God – not a wrestling match, but a struggle to see if God is going to let Baal beat him in the contest.

A Story told from a Distance: Babylon

Consider who told this story of that struggle.  We know from the last story in the saga that it was the Jewish community in captivity, in Babylon who told this story.  Now we see that this story of Elijah and the contest of the gods that Yahweh won was being told by Jews many years later, who probably thought that Yahweh had lost the contest with Babylon’s god, Marduk, (or else, why did they wind up in captivity?).

Talk about a struggle-with-God story!  How do you trust God in such circumstances?  How do you have faith when the bad guys won?  Can God even reach you at such a distance from Jerusalem and from the now-destroyed temple?

Israel has always been a people who have to struggle with God, to understand what it means to have faith, to trust, when things look utterly bleak, and the distance seems great.

Luke’s Centurion Story

How about the other story?  Who told the centurion story?  Luke did.  Luke was a non-Jewish person, a gentile, writing for his non-Jewish church community, about the healing of a non-Jewish soldier’s servant.  And the whole story comes to a climax in Jesus’ amazed-statement:

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Long after Jesus is no longer physically present, this story of the faith of a gentile is being told to gentile believers, the vast majority of whom probably never saw Jesus.  Now he is as distant as it gets.  It’s probably a struggle to have faith in such circumstances.

Miracle signs and faith

Elijah
Elijah

Let’s dig down deeper.  Both of these are miracle stories: Elijah gets the fireworks from heaven, the centurion’s servant is healed.  Both stories are told by and for communities that do not expect the same.  The Jews in Babylon had no Elijah nor even Elisha performing miracles for their benefit, and similarly, the gentile church that Luke wrote for did not have Jesus standing among them either.

If it is a struggle to have faith, it is especially a struggle when there are no great signs, right?

Well, maybe a sign would help, but maybe not.  Look at the stories: in Elijah’s case, what good did it do the nation that Yahweh beat Baal that day with pyrotechnics galore?  The nation eventually wound up as exiles in Babylon.  The score at half-time is irrelevant after the game is over.  The bad guys finally won.

And the same is true in the centurion story.  Maybe some people believed because they saw the sign, but not many.  Were any other centurions converted?  How about the Jewish witnesses of the healing?   Jesus, remember, was deserted at his arrest, and died without anybody speaking up for him.

Jesus’ Story

Jesus in garden - Goya
Jesus in garden – Goya

And that brings us to Jesus’ story.  Jesus himself struggled with faith – think of the sweat on his forehead as he prayed for the cup to pass from him in the garden, just before his arrest.

Did Jesus get a miracle?  No.  There was no big dramatic divine intervention that night, was there?  Judas gave Jesus the famous kiss and the soldiers hauled him off for the mock-trial.  He was not spared by fireworks from heaven while they scourged him and crucified him.

And yes, he did struggle, even on the cross, crying out,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

There is no greater distance than the chasm of god-forsakenness; and Jesus experienced it all.

Jesus shows us Radical Trust

Here’s the point: Jesus models for us the kind of faith that doesn’t have to see fireworks, cures, nor last minute rescues.  He shows us that it is possible to have the kind of faith that accepts the struggle and trusts God, in spite of the felt-distance.

This is the radical trust in God that Luke’s community needed to know was possible for Gentile believers.  So, first they hear a story of a Gentile like them, a Centurion, having faith, as they struggle to do; and then they hear the story of Jesus, and learn what trust in God looks like.

Our stories

Creation - Marc Chagall
Creation – Marc Chagall

So what is your story?  What is happening in your story now?  What are the struggles that challenge you?  Maybe you are in, or have been in, one of those god-forsaken moments.  Can you trust in God even when the bad guys are winning?

Yes, because your story is not alone.  Your story, and my story, find meaning in being connected to a vast, intricate web of stories that include each other, our families, our histories, and our faith.  So, we are connected to the stories Luke tells and the stories of Elijah and Elisha.  We are connected all the way back to the creation story itself, which, in turn, connects us with every story on the planet.

From these stories we come to know God’s loving embrace of all of the people he made, as the story says,  “in his image.”  We come to see ourselves as included in the story in which the Creator “blessed them and said, be fruitful.”  So our story is a story of the blessed people for whom God wills fruitfulness: shalom.

Our story also includes scenes of temptation and failure – like Adam and Eve’s, but that’s why it’s a redemption story!  A story about God’s relentless mercy and love.  In fact, to sum it up, it is a love story!

The End: Love Wins

And this is why we are able to continue to trust even when we feel forsaken, even when the bad guys are winning: we know the end of the story.  We know that in the end, God does get what God wants: Love wins.  Resurrection happens.  New life comes out of the grave.  Eventually we will, as scripture says, “participate in the divine nature.”   Even “death is swallowed up in victory”!  (2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:54)

And this is exactly why, just like those early believers that Luke wrote about in is volume two, the Book of Acts, we are able to be so fully engaged in our world on the side of love.  Just like those early believers who were even willing to sell what they had to give to the poor we are engaged in all kind of ministries of compassion and mercy.

It’s simply because we understand our story as part of God’s great redemption story.  We understand how deeply connected we are to the stories of all the people  of the world, and even our planet’s story.

So, we tell stories about stories within stories – and in the end, it’s all one story.  It’s God’s story; and we are all in it.  It ends in love.  In the mean time, we struggle, we feel the terrifying distance, and yet, like Jesus, we trust.

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“All that the Father Has:” when Memorial Day weekend meets Trinity Sunday

John 16:12-15

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for

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he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

All that the Father Has

Memorial Day weekend nearly always falls on Trinity Sunday.  This always complicates my life.  Memorial day is a secular holiday for Americans alone; Trinity Sunday is a Christian holiday throughout the world.  And on the surface they are quite different.  Memorial Day honors the sacrifice of men and women who died in service to their country.  Trinity Sunday is about the nature of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tornado Shelters?

And yet this year I made a connection I never saw before.  Perhaps it was born of my reaction to hearing news reports

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about the tragic tornado in Oklahoma City this past week.  The news media spent a lot of time on the question of storm shelters.  The school where those six children were killed had no storm shelter, though other schools did.

Of course, shelters are expensive.  Schools and education are already expensive enough; adding shelters only adds cost.  All of that cost is paid for by taxes.  Should the law require storm shelters in schools and homes?  The mayor said that Oklahoman’s are a pretty independent lot who do not like anyone, especially the government, telling them what to do.

Oklahomans and the Military

But Oklahomans are a patriotic lot; they are 6th in the nation in percentage of people who serve in the military, just ahead of 7th place Alabama.  I’m sure Memorial Day is personal for them as it is for many of us.

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Question: what is essential for a successful military?  Certainly discipline ranks as one of the highest characteristics of a successful military

What does discipline mean?  Strict obedience to the commands of a superior.  Every salute reinforces discipline, and every “Yes sir” reaffirms the duty to obey  commands.  Regardless of their personal feelings, fears for safety, doubts about potential success, fatigue, hunger, sleeplessness or any other cause of resistance, when the command is given, disciplined soldiers obey.

Command and Response at Creation

Command and response is what we see in the biblical Creation story.  In the perfect world, at the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, there was a perfect synchrony of command and fulfillment.

God said, ‘Let there be…and there was.”  “Let there be light; and there was light.”  “Let the the dry land appear; and the dry land appeared.”

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God gave the command, and in the perfect world, God’s command was perfectly obeyed.

Until people came along, that is.  Then, things changed.  God said

Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.

But they ate.  It’s as if the human’s first response to God’s command was on the level of a four year old who says to his mother, “you can’t make me!”  It takes a lot of hard work to make a disciplined soldier out of us humans, given the way our brains are initially wired.

Primitive “Lizard” brains in us

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains have evolved from a primitive state into the highly sophisticated organs they are today.  We still have the primitive part of the brain that some call the “lizard brain.”

It’s not very smart.  It’s job is to keep the animal alive.  It knows it wants food, it knows it needs to reproduce, it knows how to run from danger, and it knows how to fight.  This brain doesn’t reason, it just reacts.  The

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world is black or white, either/or, all or nothing, fight or die.  No compromises, no logic, no rational reflection.

Lizard brains are all out for themselves.  They do not cooperate.  Even in higher primates cooperation is missing.  One scientist said that the one thing you will never see two chimpanzees doing is carrying a log together.

Cooperation for the Common Good

But cooperation turns out to increase the chances of survival of a group (see E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth).  Eventually we homo sapiens developed more sophisticated brains and a concept of the common good that requires cooperation.  We developed the brain-capacity to tell our “me-only” lizard brains to be quiet.  This is called discipline.

This is what the military reinforces.  When someone yells a command at us in a harsh, demanding voice, we instinctively react negatively.  We want to say “Nobody tells me what to do!” But we have reasons to resist that primitive response in favor of obedience, for the common good.

Even adults have a hard time controlling that primitive “nobody tells me what to do” lizard brain response.  Even when the common good would clearly be served.  Even among people who have a high respect for the military and understand chain of command.  Even among Christians who know, at least in theory, about turning the other cheek and caring for others.

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Unbearable Truths

This primitive, or we could truthfully say, immature reaction to being told what to do is probably one reason why Jesus did not tell the disciples everything he wanted to.  He knew that some things they would just find unbearable.  Every time a person hears something that does not agree with their present beliefs and recent history, we say, “No way! That cannot be true!  Prove it!”  Our primitive brains  resist new ideas.

Jesus told his disciples:

“12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

Perhaps he was thinking of unbearable truths like the fact that slavery had to end.  Perhaps he meant that women were one day no longer going to be treated as second-class citizens, in the home, the work place, or even in the church.   Maybe he was thinking about racial discrimination – or any form of discrimination against people who are different.  There are many things those twelve men around that table in the upper room would have found unbearable, even though Jesus knew they were needed, for the common good.

The Spirit’s Teaching Continues

But thankfully, on Trinity Sunday we celebrate the fact that Jesus’ teaching ministry continues by his Spirit.

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

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We can still learn more of the “many” unbearable things that Jesus left unsaid as we pay attention to the Spirit.  We pay attention by daily contemplative prayer, which also helps control that lizard brain of ours.  We hear the Spirit as we, as a community, study Jesus who shows us God’s character and God’s perspective.

This is exactly what Jesus said would happen:

he [the Spirit] will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The Spirit keeps glorifying Jesus by taking what Jesus taught us and showed us by his lifestyle, and helping his future disciples to be able to “bear it.”

So we study Jesus – we learn about his compassion, his love, his concern for the weak and vulnerable, his resolute commitment to forgiving enemies, and his willingness to utterly sacrifice himself for the common good.

Father Son and Spirit

15 All that the Father has is mine”  Jesus said, to close the trinitarian loop.  Jesus by his teaching and lifestyle was showing us the Father.  Let’s be explicit on this Trinity Sunday: We know God the Father and God’s will because the Spirit continues to teach us the “many things” that Jesus had to leave off the table because, at the time, they were “unbearable.”

Remaining Questions 

Why is it that the concept of the “common good” has been so unbearable for some of us?  Why is it that after all of these years and all of the evidence, we still find it hard to limit our own personal interests for the sake of others?

Why is it that the very thought of someone telling us what to do still evokes that primitive response?  How is it that this immature thinking that it’s “all or nothing, either/or, we’re totally free of obligation to anyone, or else we are somebody’s slave” is so alive in adults, even in Christian adults?

And how is it that a person can bring up the subject of coercive shelter laws and taxes, even before the bodies of those children are laid to rest?  Don’t we all need bridges to drive on that are not “functionally obsolete” and safe aircraft to fly in?  Is there no such a thing as the common good?

Military Lessons for Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day weekend, can we not learn the great lesson that the military teaches us: that there is enormous success that can be achieved when a group cooperates for the common good?

There is a huge benefit to all of us when we acknowledge that there are times when it is right and good to be told what to do.  That is is not unbearable to learn the truth that I was not put on this earth simply to serve myself and my own private interests.

We can function on a higher level than chimpanzees.  We can even listen to the teaching of the Spirit as he glorifies Jesus, and leads us to do the Father’s will; in the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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God’s Mothering Wings

Mother’s Day, May 12 2013,  The Book of Ruth, & Matthew 1:1-6

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Matthew 1:1-6

1:1   An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  2   Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,  3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram,  4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon,  5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,  6 and Jesse the father of King David.

Mother’s Day may have been created by the Hallmark card company to generate revenue, as the cynics say (actually that’s not true) but it has become much more than a crassly commercial day.  Now, it is a special and significant day for most of us.

I know there are sad and even tragic exceptions, but most of us have positive memories

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of our mothers.  And although Mother’s Day is not a religious holiday, nevertheless, God’s work in and through mother’s has always been enormously important.

It’s not just that there have been significant mothers in the bible, it is also important for each one of us to have known a mother’s love.  Some psychologists tell us that our sense that the world is a safe place where there is such a thing as love, and that we ourselves are worthy of being loved is the direct result of the loving care our mothers gave us as newborns.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my mother’s lap as she read to me  from a Childcraft book.  It is a memory filled with love and security; relaxed happiness.  The world was wonderful; my mother blessed me with that feeling.

Matthew’s Mothers

We read the first part of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  Most of the time Matthew only mentions the fathers, but there are four mothers who show up, like unexpected  lumps in the mashed potatoes – we notice them.

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There is an odd back-story in each case: Tamara had to disguise herself as a prostitute to become a mother.  Rahab (or her namesake?) was already a prostitute when the spies entered Jericho.  Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” was an already-married woman when David saw her and took her.  Ruth was a foreigner; not just any foreigner though, she was from the hated, despised land of Moab.

There would have been no King David without three of these four unusual mothers, just as there would be no Jesus without another unusual mother: the unwed Mary.

These mothers all played crucial roles – which is, I’m sure, why Matthew included them in the genealogy.  Each of them were part of odd plot twists, creating unexpected developments.

Ruth: the unlikely mother

Today let us look at the story of Ruth.  The whole story reaches its climax when Ruth becomes a mother.  This is the most unlikely thing that could have happened, given the way the story begins.  But after a tragic start, through a series of happy coincidences, all ends well.  Ruth becomes a mother, and so continues a family line that produces Israel’s famous king: David.

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” so says Albert Einstein, in The World as I See It.

Coincidental Names

All of the names in the book of Ruth are part of this seemingly coincidental world.  Coincidently in the time when the judges judged and there was no king, a man whose name means “God is king”, Elimelech, has a problem.  He lives in the  city called the “House of Bread” or Bethlehem, but there is no bread.  He is forced to emigrate to the hated, despised land of Moab (lots of past history!).

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There, his two sons, Sickness and Spent, or  Mahlon and Chilion make matters even worse by marrying women from the hated-despised Moabites.  The name of the one was “Back of the Neck”, Orpah, and the other was named “Friend” – Ruth.

The two brothers, Sickness and Spent die.  Now, “Back of the Neck,” Orpah and “Friend” Ruth are widows, along with their mother-in-law “Pleasant,” Naomi.  This is now time for Naomi to reach the only conclusion that the facts of her life allow her to draw: that she is cursed.  She says, “the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”  “Don’t call me Pleasant,” she tells people, “call me Mara, Bitter.”

She has nothing left to do but to return to her motherland, Judah, and to Bethlehem, the city of bread, where, as unlikely as it was a short time ago, now, there is again bread to eat.  Orpah shows her the back of her neck as she returns to her “mother’s house” in Moab, but Ruth proves to be a true friend and stays with her mother-in-law Naomi.

You know the story, about how Friend Ruth goes out to glean and just happens to work in the field of Mr. “Strength” – or Boaz, who turns out to be a relative  of  Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelech. Boaz, Mr. Strength shows enormous strength of character, doing the most unlikely thing: he decides to marry this despised Moabite foreign woman, Ruth, to allow the family line of Elimelech to continue.  Ruth the friend becomes Ruth the mother.

Mothering Wings

There is more motherly care in this story than is immediately apparent.  If you remember the story, you know the scene at the harvest festival when all the reaping and gleaning is over.  After a night of celebration, when all are resting, Ruth sneaks over to where Boaz is sleeping, and when he discovers her beside him, it says:

“He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”  (Ruth 3:9)

Literally, though we translate it “cloak,” she asked him to spread his “wing” over her.  She was asking him to do for her what a mother bird

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does for her chicks: spread out her wing and cover them, giving them shelter and security.  “Be my mother-bird” she is asking, in effect.

Boaz knows that image of the mothering bird very well.  When he had first met Ruth and learned that she had stayed with her mother-in-law, as a true friend, to help her survive, he said to her:

“May you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12)

Boaz was willing to be the mother-bird to Ruth, because he knew that Yahweh had been a mother bird to her already, spreading her wing of safety and protection over that young widow.

Some people are offended by speaking of God in feminine terms, calling God “mother” as well as “father” but we see that the mothering care of God is found in the bible, and is exactly what we need to believe, in order to know the nature of God’s loving care for us.  God’s love is motherly love.

So, Boaz did spread his wing over Ruth; they married, and the “Friend” of “Pleasant” Naomi became the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.  God used unlikely circumstances and uncanny coincidences to make a foreign woman the mother of the greatest king Israel ever knew.

Family Lines

Let us take a moment to notice one more unlikely feature of this amazing little story.  With all of its attention to family lines and motherhood, this story seems to emphasize the importance of ethnicity.   Five times when Ruth is mentioned, she is called “Ruth the Moabite” – and that’s in addition to the fact that the story told us they moved to Moab and the brothers married women from there.   It is as if the author wanted us to think of the foreignness of Ruth as her most dominant feature.

Nevertheless, what Boaz commends her for, even in spite of her despised foreignness, is her lovingkindness shown to Naomi which he believes proves that Ruth has indeed come under the Lord’s mothering wing.

And again, in spite of her foreignness, Boaz takes Ruth under his wing as well.  This story, that seems to be all about family lines and ethnicity, ends up turning ethnic purity on its head.  In the end, David, the most significant king the nation of Israel ever knew had Ruth’s foreign blood in his veins.  Not just foreign blood, despised Moabite blood!  And that was God’s doing.

Mothering Love

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In the end, the overwhelmingly powerful love of a mother bird for her chicks is the best way to describe the Lord who arranged all of the unlikely coincidences of this story in order to show her mothering love to her people.

If there is any one characteristic of mothers it is the unconditional love they have for their children.  No matter what condition they are born with, no matter what happens to them in life, a mother’s love sees only her child.  No matter what that chick grows up to do or be, even ugly and horrible things cannot prevent a mother from loving.  Even to the point of self-sacrifice.

When I was first in the world of the Hungarian Reformed churches of Romania I saw a remarkable symbol.  In the churches, most of the pulpits are raised, which emphasizes the elevated importance of the proclamation of the scriptures.   Above the   minister’s head is what they call the “pulpit crown.”  On top often is a carved image of a mother bird surrounded by her chicks.  Her head is bent down, as she takes flesh from her own breast to provide food for them.  It is a symbol of self-sacrifice, and so, a symbol of Christ, as a mother bird.

Personal Wings

Let us notice how this happened in practice in the story of Ruth.  Who sacrificed self in order to save Elimelech’s family line?  Of course Ruth did.  And so did Boaz.  Boaz allowed his own estate to be split up so that Elimelech’s line would continue.  Ruth’s son Obed, and then his son Jesse, and his son, David inherited land that Boaz could have kept for his own heirs.

Isn’t is often the case that the way God does God’s anonymous work in the world is through real people; people who are willing to practice the ethics of the imitation of God – the imitation of a mother bird.

We are all the recipient’s of God’s mothering love – first, for the majority of us, through the powerful sacrificial love of our own mothers, and then later through many people who took us under their wings at just the right time.  Does God love us and care for us now?  Yes, just like that mothering bird.

And we are all here for a purpose, just like Ruth and Boaz.  We are not here on earth to look out for ourselves and our own kind alone.   We are here to be the wings of love for others – not just others in our own family, our own race, our own nation.  We are here to be the wings of love completely ignoring the racial or ethnic status of the ones in need, and completely willing, like Boaz, to ignore the cost.

A Practical Suggestion

Kiva.org
Kiva.org

Now, on this Mother’s Day, I have a practical suggestion.  All over the world there are mothers who are raising children for whom they are the sole or primary bread-winner.  Women around the world are growing or selling vegetables, managing bakeries or small shops, sewing, raising animals, and all kinds of cottage businesses in order to support their families.   Often with just a small bit of capital, they can do much more.  Sometimes a group of women get together with a plan to run a small business that will provide for all of them.

Now, through the modern tool of the internet and through the effective efforts of micro-finance groups around the world, it is possible for us to be the wings of love spreading out over real people in need.

Organizations like Kiva are a good example.  Through Kiva you can select a person from pictures and descriptions, from around the world, make a loan of any size, and then track them as they put it to use and repay it.  When the loan has been repaid you can take your money back, or re-invest it as another loan that you choose.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our conversations at church were something like this:

“How are your investments doing?” 

“Great, my sewing business in Uganda has already paid back 50% of their loan, and my farming co-op in Guatemala has gotten off to a great start.  How about your investments?”

This is just one example; there are a wide variety of ways we can be the wings of love over people, and by so doing, be the way God spreads wings of love.

Where are people at risk?  Where are people in need?  What are the resources God has blessed me with that I can use to bless others?  What is my purpose in life?  These are the questions that we ask ourselves on mother’s day from our blessed place, under protective wings.

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