preachsirmons

Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

God as Father

In Father, Jesus, Matthew, Relationality, Trinity, UCC Annapolis on June 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

A sermon reflecting on the idea of God as Father, existing within the Trinity. For Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day. Delivered June 15, 2014, at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Text: St Matthew 28:16-20

Lilian Daniel, a UCC minister known for her sharp witticisms, recently wrote about the approach of Father’s Day:

If all you did was watch the news in these weeks leading up to Father’s Day, you’d think that when men hit middle age, they suddenly become twittering twits with the self restraint and judgment of a starving cobra at a rat convention. Lately in the news, we’ve seen tale after tale of men behaving badly.

We are well aware of the idea of fathers bumbling about, or being deadbeats, or missing in action, and so many other things. The behavior of these non-restrained middle-aged people does not reflect fathering so much as individuals who have forgotten that they live in relationship with each other. Fathering does not exist without something to father in the first place.

In addition to being Father’s Day, the church also celebrates “Trinity Sunday.” The Trinity reflects the dynamic that God exists in active relationship. The historic formulation of this is “Father-Son-Holy Spirit.” Rather than see these as locked terms, however, we can dig into the relationship between these “names of God” that the ancient church, a product of a patriarchal time, might have been trying to convey:

-”Father” is the historic understanding of the aspect of God that calls to us. It’s not a gendered term.  . . . . The LGBT community is opening up what it means to be a father-figure, making us all aware that we each have, at times, a responsibility to be father figures.

-”Son” is the historic understanding of that aspect of God that responds to the call. Jesus came and showed us what this response looks like. His response continues to encourage us to respond today. And today, we understand the church to be not just a gathering of people on Sunday mornings, but the “body of Christ”, real and present in the world each hour of every day – and you are it – responding to the call of God that comes from the world.

-”Holy Spirit” is the awareness of that call from God and response from God moving all around us. We awaken ourselves to the real presence of God in the tension of these relationships, calling and responding in all corners of the world, as thick as birdsong in the morning hours.

At different times in our lives, we experience and participate in these aspects of God. At times we will be the ones who call others, whether it be the people in our household or around the world, to use their gifts and talents and be held responsible and accountable for their actions and behaviors. That call may not always be an explicit one, of course – it may be a slow, quiet call that emerges as a father cares for a child. How this is done can be very different. The voice of the father can be distant, cold and far away; or close, near, and helping in life.

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980

Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Inside the cracks between the words of this poem we hear echoes of anger and dislike. This is a father who wakes up in the blueblack cold and makes the world habitable – who polishes shoes so that the family can go out into the world beyond the walls of the house. Yet, the father is so disliked that no one says, “thank you.” It is doubtful whether the words “I love you” have been shared with him or by him.

Yet, this father still calls his children into the household and equips them to face the world. This father calls them to deal with the “chronic angers” of the house. We share this cold and distant fathering image of God, too – a God who does not feel a “very present help in danger,” as in Psalm 46. This is a distant God who demands of us to become ourselves in a world full of angers and hurts, of woundedness and trauma, death, disease, pestilence: a habitable world, but very inhospital. We’d rather that this God did not exist at times: we don’t want to praise the creator who pushes us into the fray. We don’t even like that there is a fray that we have to respond to! {{In the past we’ve tried to blame ourselves for this state of the world, saying we were the cause of the fall and sinfulness.}} Our feelings toward God in this case are nearer to Psalm 88: “you have caused my friends to betray me, my companions to shun me.” We’d rather not have to hear the call of this God demanding us to rouse ourselves and go into the world, giving up our own comfort to meet the needs of the world.

And yet, this father still calls us: and the writer, though harboring rebellion, still responds. Even by ignoring the call of God, we are responding to that call and affirming that a relationship, even if not a good one, exists. The story of Jonah, infamous for being trapped in the belly of a fish, is the story of a prophet called to share judgement on the city of Ninevah. He doesn’t want to do it – he would need to go outside of his comfort zone, outside of where he wanted to be. Granted, in trying to escape his responsibility of the call he goes all over the world, only to discover that God’s call is still reaching to him.

We can respect that distance. Psalm 8 praises a God who seems far away, but has earned that respect.

Fathering, as I said, comes in many different ways of being in relationship, however. It does not always come from a cold and distant God who calls us to respond to an angry world. Often, the father image of God calls us to respond by guiding us in ways to celebrate life despite hardships. Out of poverty comes this poem by Suzanne Rancourt, called “Whose Mouth do I speak with.”

I can remember my father bringing home spruce gum. He worked in the woods and filled his pockets with golden chunks of pitch. For his children he provided this special sacrament and we’d gather at his feet, around his legs, bumping his lunchbox, and his empty thermos rattled inside. Our skin would stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing and we’d smell like Mumma’s Pine Sol. We had no money for store bought gum but that’s all right. The spruce gum was so close to chewing amber as though in our mouths we held the eyes of Coyote and how many other children had fathers that placed on their innocent, anxious tongue the blood of tree?

Here is a father so close to the children that their skin “stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing.” When Jesus prayed what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he used the Aramaic term “Abba,” which we have called “Father,” but more accurately is “Daddy.” It’s a closeness in relationship, a relationship which does not distantly call, but is right there sticking to us, forging that relationship intimately by placing the “blood of tree” on our very tongues and helping us to taste the world and learn not to fear it.

We need both of the figures of the father image of God: a distant call that draws us out of ourselves, and a closer call that journeys with us as we traverse the boundaries of the known (store-bought gum) into the unknown (blood of tree). In doing this, we can develop a whole image of God as Father that is both present, and distant.

As children we need this sort of development – a distant call as found in Psalm 88 and Psalm 8, and a closer call, such as in Psalm 46, to guide us. We won’t always like what we receive from those calls. But when we respond to them, as the Body of Christ, we find that we are able to mature and grow up into the people we are called to be. Jesus has been partaking the role of the “Son” in our gospel accounts, responding the the parent and showing us how we could respond, too. However, through response Jesus grows and matures, too, until we get to that final chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. Here, Jesus has now been “given authority” by God. He now gives the disciples the Great Commission to go and share his love through that relationship to all peoples. In responding, they too will grow and mature to the point where it will be them issuing the calls, and another generation acting in joyous response. Today, we are all called to respond: some of us will be the ones making the calls into our church, community and world; others will be responding; some will be doing both. And in that dynamic of call and response, we can feel the presence of God surrounding the world and engaging with its chronic angers, taking joy that we can taste the world and be fully awake and alive to it. Amen.

 

On being a living grove together

In Acts, Churches Together, Jesus, John, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on June 2, 2014 at 4:41 pm

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On the first Sunday of each month, we share in an intergenerational service which offers an interactive “sermon-story”. Shared here are the notes I complied beforehand to help guide it, but the message itself is forged amongst us when we gather together. 

Key text: Acts 1:6-14

Read up first on the folk tale of the bundle of sticks.

It’s easy to break sticks individually. It’s much harder to break piles of sticks. And yet, this parable goes a little further than even that: take a bunch of sticks that we pick up, and pull them together. Do they fit comfortably together? Do they rub up against one another? Do you think them a “natural fit” if bound together? No! In fact, they’re very much like we are – each of us is different, and when we place ourselves in a group together, we’re bound to have our differences and things that make us uncomfortable with one another. And yet, if we remain bound together, what happens? We become unbreakable from whatever in our world might try and break us.

But I have a problem with this parable, as wise as it may be: the problem is, sticks are dead. They’ve fallen out of trees, or been plucked from them, and they have no life in them. They’re only changing into decay, and not growing more and more as one another. So, I’d like to propose a different way of reading this story: rather than have groups of sticks, what if we had groups of trees – living, rooted plants of all shapes and sizes growing in a forest grove? What about that? The winds that howl through the world have less chance of uprooting a forest than they do a single tree. And groves provide habitats for all sorts of ecosystems: what sorts of things might live in the ecosystem that a grove might form?

Large animals.

Small animals.

Plants.

Bugs.

Fungi. Did you know that one teaspoon of good soil contains two miles of fungi networks? All of that life comes possible when we grow together, because we create diverse and rich communities that enliven and strengthen us.

Today is the day we celebrate when Jesus leaves earth. Does that sound like something we should celebrate? Why do you think we do it, then?

Holy Spirit – when it comes, Jesus tells us that we will be his witnesses – the people who share his story and live in the ways he has taught us – to “all the ends of the earth.” Does that sound good, or does that sound scary? It’s probably a bit of both! It’s good because it means that how Jesus lives, we too may be able to live. We can, like a forest grove, come together and develop rich, deep communities that foster all sorts of life to all sorts of people, plants, animals and things unseen. And, we can enjoy that life together. That, to me, sounds heavenly!

But it’s scary, too: the disciples, and now us, are called to live like Jesus. Before he left, they thought they could simply follow Jesus, and have him tell them what was right, and what was wrong, and how to live good lives. But now that he’s gone . . . who can tell them those things? Who?

But I think that ultimately, it is exciting. Most things that are exciting and worth doing are both good and scary, like rollercoasters. Being together as a church should be both good, and scary. What are good and scary things about being a church to you?

As Jesus leaves, he invites his disciples to put their roots down into a community and enrich that community, and grow together as guided by the holy spirit. To become entire rich, fertile ecosystems capable of making and sustaining life together. And I think that’s what we should be. The disciples, after hearing all this, went and prayed. Perhaps the words of Jesus in John’s gospel were echoing in their ears as they prayed: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

“That they may all be one” is the slogan of the United Church of Christ. And by becoming one organizing full of rich life of all different varieties, we, too, can grow to be strong and fertile people of the world.

 

Being a good friend

In Authenticity, Fear, Jesus, Job, Lent, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on March 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Preached at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis on Sunday, March 23

Job 24:1-12; 25:1-6; 25:1-4, 9-14

Last spring I had an invitation to join in a roundtable discussion in Cambridge regarding the model that an organization, called ARMONIA, was using to “transform poverty into life” in the poorest parts of Mexico City and the far-flung parts of the Oaxaca Province in Mexico. The organization’s founder and director, Saul Cruz, was at the table, and he told us that he wanted us to come and be missionaries to his Mexico City complex. He wanted our churches to send youth groups and adult study groups to ARMONIA. That was not surprising. What was surprising was that he wanted us to come to learn from them how to be missionaries in our own communities – not theirs. Saul, you see, had been a fairly well off psychologist in Mexico City about 21 years ago now. He and his wife both had successful practices. They had good friends, good cars, and a good condo in which to raise their kids and live the good life. Yet Saul was fighting a nagging feeling that something was not right. Through a series of circumstances, he realized that he was called to build a community center in one of the most dangerous parts of towns, rife with drugs and poverty. Together with his wife, they began piecemeal to move into the community and, through the community network, build a community center with the local community, run by the local community, and for the local community, while they became a part of that community. He literally took what had been a rubbish dump and turned it into a place of life. He didn’t want experts coming from far off lands to dictate what was good for the people there. They knew what they needed. Today, several similar centers are around Mexico City, each with the goal of lifting people out of poverty and engaging them with a new life.

At first he was afraid of making this transition. Yet his faith compelled him to do something that made him engage with people, and to let go of all the certainties which he had, up until then, spent his life making. Now, he teaches people from America and Britain how to do the same thing. Churches go to ARMONIA secure in their faiths and secure in their doctrines. They come ready to dispense this goodness and their efforts to make life better for that faceless mass of people, “the poor.”

They leave shaken to their very core in the certainties of their faith and their life. The assumptions that they once held so dear are gone. They have engaged with poverty by getting to know people, and they cannot explain it away as some judgement from God for some sin. It’s so big that they have trouble even blaming it on systemic global injustice. Saul told all of this to a room full of theologians, people who are very adept and talking about troubles, but sometimes lack the empathetic ability to actually understand and engage with these circumstances from anything but academic levels. We were told this by a man who followed Jesus’ call to be Christ to others, and on faith and faith alone went and did it. As a future minister, I had to ask myself: how can I help people let go of their fixed beliefs and find faith – and the courage borne of such faith! – to be and do what God is calling them to do?

Counter this to another story I heard of a missionary trip to Tanzania not too long ago. A group of teenagers went to build a school, having raised money from their church for such a project. They arrived, and each day they built up the walls of the school in the hot sun using concrete blocks. Each night they went back to their dorms, tired and fulfilled with missionary zeal. The person who related this story to me discovered on the last day of her two-week trip that each night the local community went to the schoolhouse, tore down their walls, and then built them right back up to where they had been. Why? Because suburban-raised teenagers tend to know nothing about building concrete walls. The locals, glad to accept the gift, also wanted to make sure it was stable but not insult the giver. The terrible sadness in this entire “mission trip” was that there was never any interaction between the people: the youth arrived secure in their faith and literally built up unsound walls to sustain it each day. Had it not been for that accidental revelation at the end of that encounter, she would never have been challenged in her own beliefs of her goodness. She never would have had to confront the real poverty of the people. In the end, she realized that she never really engaged with them or got to know them. She arrived with her beliefs, and never once had to let go of those and go by faith alone.

A person can believe anything, but faith: well, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11.1, AV).  Faith is the ability to let go of the certainties of control, to not look at a person in a different situation and judge them based upon what you believe to be certain. It’s the ability to let go of certainties and take up the call of God on your life to engage with one another without judgement. Unlike Job’s friends.

Our reading this morning comes from the end of the conversation with Job with his three friends. Job has been stricken with terrible torments: his children all have been killed in the disastrous collapse of a building. On the same day, some raiders from the north stole all of the cattle he had, robbing him of all wealth. He gets stricken with suppurating sores from the ends of his toes to the top of his head. In response, he sits in an ash heap, with a broken fragment of pottery, a potsherd, and is silent for seven days. He is joined in this commiseration by his three friends. When they see him, they do not recognize him, so stricken is he. Upon seeing their friend, they tear their clothes and they throw dust on their heads. They make themselves uncomfortable. And they sit, for seven whole days, in silence with Job. Such compassion! But at the end of those seven days, Job opens his mouth, and what he says scandalizes them as much as it might scandalize us today:

“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ (3.3) . . . Why did I not die at the birth? (3.11) . . . Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? (3.23) . . . Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.”

Blasphemy! From the mouth of one so supposedly pious as Job! He wishes not for his life to end, but for it to never have existed! He does not curse God – Job never curses God – but he curses near everything else. In so doing, he casts doubt on the wisdom of God as far as the friends are concerned. By cursing the very day he was born, cursing his own birth (!), bemoaning that he has human comprehension (light) and yet cannot make sense of his pain, he is telling his friends that something is awry with God’s finely wrought plan for the world.

Job’s doubt was shocking to his friends because their doctrinal system of understanding was that if something bad happens to a person, he or she must surely have deserved it. They have three assumed beliefs which they brought with them to this travesty. The first two are ones that we are probably familiar:

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is just and good.
  3. Job is good.

Therefore, if Job is not guilty, how is it possible to explain what befalls him (Gutierrez 21) unless we doubt the first two? The friends assumed that Job was in denial about what sin now was causing him pain. They believe that to be good friends to Job, their task is to make Job understand the first two points and accept the fallacy that he is not to blame. It never occurs to them to actually engage with Job outside of these fixed assumptions and actually trust the experience and viewpoint of their friend. Rather than open themselves to Job, they impose upon him their own viewpoint of how the world is, and of how God is. Not because God is actually like that, but because if God were not, it would destroy how they understand the world.

Job can’t accept their view of the world and God as correct. He’s righteously mad at God. He provides a litany of injustices that the all-powerful God permits: “[The poor] go about naked, without clothing; hungry, they carry the sheaves” – implying that they will not eat any of the bread made from those sheaves! “Among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil” – for the profit of the wicked but not themselves! “They tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst. From out of the city the dying groan, and the soul of the wounded cries for help; yet God charges no one with wrong.” Where is this justice, Job asks his friends, of which you speak so certainly?

Bildad’s response, the one we read, is a last-ditch attempt to save his falsely pious view of the world. He hides behind his version of God. He declaims Job as being irrational at not accepting what is the prevailing wisdom about God. Job will have none of it: dripping with sarcasm, he charges the pious Bildad of dispensing not God’s wisdom, but his own (“with whose help have you uttered words, and whose breath has come out from you?”). Job concludes by acknowledging that no one can know God’s justice: God is a mystery, because the world is obviously not operating on just principles, and he’s mad at God because of this.

Part of our resistance to letting go of the concepts of a mechanistically just God is because we are afraid of letting go of the way our life is now. Like Job’s friends, we don’t want to let go and literally let God because we don’t want to give up our jobs, our way of life, or our friends. Like Saul Cruz of ARMONIA, we have goals of doing great things with this life, and a normal professional life demands that we control and organize that life. Plus, we like things the way they are. We’ve spent our lives striving for things to make just enough sense that we can manage them, and manage them we’re going to do. This is the view of Job’s three friends, and doubtless was his own view before this disaster knocked him from his false position of believing he could make sense of the world. Like the teens on the mission trip building shaky walls, he really was not aware of the world and the people in it, and just how weak his own structure was. (potsherd)

There is not reason to despair. We are held in this world when we do let go of false certainties and go by faith. Our needs will change when we follow what Jesus is calling us to do in the world and stop trying to substitute those with material needs and wealth. Jesus says, in the Gospel of St Matthew Ch. 11, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus never says that you will not have a yoke, nor a burden: but by going with the grain of God’s call upon your life, the burden goes from impossible to light, from death to life, from war to peace. It is a way that engages with each aspect of life. In that old way of life, you judged others not to make their life better, but to keep yours secure. That was the real failure of Job’s friends, as much as it was the teen missionary group building shaky walls: their action was designed to make them more secure in their beliefs, rather than challenge those by living and acting out in faith.

One Great Hour of Sharing is a campaign designed to have wealthy western Christians donate money to people in need throughout the world. It only works if we disengage from any sense of superiority in the world and re-engage as the people we are called to be, taking up Jesus’ yoke and developing the character through trial and suffering as urged in St Paul’s letter to the Romans. God’s world does not make sense: there are homeless people in this County living in a tent city they call the Death Camp down on Rt 198. It’s not pretty, but what brought them there must defy our simplified explanations of just treatment. We must challenge ourselves to be people of faith, as Saul Cruz’s ARMONIA program does, and not build shaky walls of belief absent of relationship with God’s people. We must trust God even when angry at God at the way things are, and take on the yoke Jesus offers us. This faith-based, rather than belief-based, life brings abundant life and makes us good friends to one another. Amen.

Being Perfect and Holy

In 1 Corinthians, Doctor Who, Holiness, Jesus, Leviticus, Matthew, Perfection, Progressive Christianity, UCC Annapolis on February 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-19; St. Matt. 5:38-48;

also: Mary Oliver’s “What I Have Learned So Far” (a beautiful rendering by students at Marquette University).

Delivered at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis, Sunday, Feb 23, 2014

In the British television show Doctor Who, the arch rival of the hero, Doctor Who, are the Daleks. The Daleks were once living organisms, but mutated to such a degree that their bodies atrophied and their brains expanded so much that they dispensed with their bodies and housed them in mechanical devices. Their brains, so it is rumoured, expanded because they were ever thinking on becoming perfect. Their bodies only served to keep them from being perfect; but they could think up the perfect mechanical body. They were bent ever onward toward perfection: becoming thinking, incorruptible beings who operated on a single, conforming logical code. Arriving at the feeling that they themselves were perfect, they realized that every other creature in the universe that was not like them was therefore imperfect, and needed to be exterminated. Thus their mantra whenever they invade earth (which happens often in the television series): “exterminate.” Their goal is to rid the universe of imperfection, creating one pure and perfect Dalek world. For them, perfection is conformity. Luckily for the world, we have Doctor Who, an alien with two hearts who can travel through space and time, to defend us without the use of weapons, and often uses love and relationships to engage with the negative forces of power and dominance.

The Dalek understanding of perfection through conformity is perhaps what we as people of faith living in modern America think of as perfection. How often have you said, or thought, or heard said: “I’m only human”? The implication here is that as one is only human, one is therefore imperfect. This means for whomever says this that there is some outside standard that defines perfection, and that we fall short of whatever that standard might be. A church in a neighboring village to ours in England had on its sign: “No perfect people allowed.” While it seemed a good welcoming, it also indicated that no one was, or ever could be, perfect, when compared to an external, divinely-ordained outside standard.

One such outside standard might be Jesus himself. We sometimes think of Jesus as the only perfect human being. But Jesus does not say, “I am perfect, and you are not.” Nor does he say, “I am perfect, and you must be like me.” He does not say, “Follow me; but ha-ha, you can’t, because you’re not perfect.” Jesus instead says: “You . . . must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, either we take that and say – we can never be perfect, so let’s just go about begging for forgiveness for the rest of our lives and pray for divine grace to make up the difference between ourselves and the external perfect standard. Or we can say, perhaps the definition of “perfect” that exists in our world now does not mean the same thing as what Jesus or God ever intended. Perhaps “perfection” has a totally different meaning altogether. Perhaps “perfection” is found not in a mechanistic realm of comparing ourselves to some perfect external standard. Perhaps Jesus would not have given us this teaching that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect unless it was attainable.

So what is holy perfection if it is achievable and possible by human beings? First, it is not the perfection as found by the Daleks. They are materially incorruptible, they operate on a scientific basis, but they lack humanity, the very essence of what makes them living, sentient creatures aware of their world and surrounding. No, this cannot be perfection, even if it is ostensibly achievable. Rather, the economist Adam Smith can point us back in the right direction: “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.” This is the definition formed by the same person whose economic principles have undergirded capitalism; rather than being a system of exploitation that relies on human greed, it suggests that its very founder was intent on it being used to harness selflessness.

Smith’s quote brings us back to Jesus, who is talking with a group of people and is taking issue with the way “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” has been interpreted. He knows that it is being used as a code of retributive justice, a way of justifying violence in response to wrongs committed. This was never the intent of Moses’ decree in Exodus: it was never listed as a system to justify violence in response to a wrong. It was given as a preventative measure to instill in people a fear that if a violent act were taken against someone, they would have that equally visited upon the perpetrator. Further, it was intended to limit the response to a wrong. An “eye for an eye” meant just that: if one’s eye were taken, the wronged person could take the eye of another person and nothing more: no imprisonment, no fine, no other penalty, just another person’s eye. And seriously, who would want someone else’s eye? It’s really an absurd system, because what you get in retribution really does not satisfy whatever rage you might feel at being wronged. When an enraged person is wronged, she doesn’t want just the other person’s eye: she wants their entire lives. Moses’ code was intended to prevent, not to justify, violent acts either in committing them or responding to them. Following this code means that when a violent act is committed, everyone loses because the exchange is not satisfactory.

Jesus is attempting to restore that balance and more by making it very clear that violence, either in initiating it or responding with it, is never justified. Turn the other cheek, he says. Give to those who ask you, he says. And he goes further than the balance of Moses’ code: if someone asks for your coat, give also to him your cloak! Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you . . . why? Because there is nothing distinctive to the character of your life if you operate it from the perspective of a legal balance sheet. There is nothing remarkable about hating your enemies: that’s expected behavior, and it has utterly failed to stop the cycle of violence. There is nothing remarkable about only greeting the people you know, of your own social class and mental awareness, or sexuality, or worldview: everybody does that. Instead, to be children of God, to be perfect as God is perfect, means to go against the balanced worldview and throw it off-balance: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with her two miles. Go beyond the commandments, beyond what’s required, because in this space beyond the legalisms and scientisms of our day lays perfection, lays love. Jesus is reminding anyone who will listen that the world is out of balance, and this is evidenced because there are people without coats and cloaks. The only way to correct that balance is to go beyond the commandments to love and serve one another, what he (and Adam Smith) calls “being perfect.”

It’s not like Jesus is giving an entirely new teaching. He’s restoring an understanding of what Moses’ “eye for eye” teaching was supposed to mean all along. The book of Leviticus was written as the guidebook for the priestly orders. Yet the instruction we receive in today’s reading is “for all the congregation”: it’s directed to everyone. Instead of perfect, the term which Jesus uses in our gospel reading, we get the instruction, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Similar to Jesus’ instruction, it is given with the understanding that it is obtainable. It means that you can be holy. It then proceeds to tell you how you can be holy. The first is an agricultural image about leaving behind some of what is gathered from the harvest for the poor, hungry and alien to gather themselves, but the others are clearly the same. Let me interpret the first:

  1. When you work, do not let all of your work serve only for your benefit. Work also for the poor and the hungry, and let some of the food you have acquired for your own benefit be provided for them also.
  2. And now, what are the others?

These are what it means to be holy. Living in this way, and going beyond the commandments to love and serve one another is what it means to be perfect. Adam Smith had it right; the Daleks had it wrong because they focused entirely upon themselves. This is what St Paul meant when he reminded us that we are God’s temples and that God’s Spirit does live in us. Too often that teaching has been used to pile guilt on top of us, showing that we are missing some external perfect mark. But nothing could be further from what Paul is trying to share with us in that letter! He is saying that you always and already are God’s temple, the Body of Christ present in the world today, the people you are if you just be yourselves! And in being yourselves, God’s gifts to the world, you learn to value the gift that is the other person, so much so that you will happily give them your coat and your cloak if they are in need. To love them is to love yourself, and to love yourself is to love them.

The very fact that on our table today are empty paper sacks is a reminder that there are empty mouths out there. If you ate breakfast this morning, remember that agricultural saying that we should leave something of our own to give to those who have not. As Jesus is teaching us, we perfect people must go beyond the reactive provision for those in need now and begin to address the systemic problems that lie at the root of our world that causes there to be empty mouths. This is a big issue, but by going beyond the commandments, beyond our comfort zones, beyond what we think we can afford in time and money, we find that we are being God’s perfect temples in the world. This should energize us and ignite us. And as Mary Oliver said in our poetry reading to begin our worship, “be ignited, or be gone.” Amen.

We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together

In After Pentecost, Jesus, Luke, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on October 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Sermon given at the United Church of Christ of Annapolis for Sunday, 6 Oct 2013

St Luke 17.5-10

Our good friends in Cambridge, England, Andrew and Susanna, begin each meal together with a simple blessing: “We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together.” During the blessing, guests join hands and intentionally look at one another. Three things are acknowledged in this blessing:

  1. Being. I, as an individual, exist, with all my thoughts and emotions.
  2. Here. I, as an individual, exist here in this space, at this present moment. This is an event, no less nor more than any other event, but I am awakened to the moment of this particular event.
  3. Together. I, as an individual, exist here in this space, at this present moment, alongside other people, whom I see and affirm.

Through the three-fold process of the prayer, we are drawn to intentionally reflect on our own existence and recall that that alone is special; we then move along to expand our awareness to the place, all of those things that signify what “here” might mean during that event. And then, we go even further by growing aware of the people that we are with in that place and affirming that they are there with our eye contact and/or hand-holding. The entire three-fold activity is held together by a unity of thankfulness: we give thanks for each stage.

Thankfulness is one of the most profound of human activities, and yet one of the easiest to forget. Turning back to our Greek classics, those ancient heroes who forgot to thank the gods for their good fortune and instead decided it was solely their own skill that led them to safety or success would quickly find themselves no longer in the good graces of the gods. This was less because of any Greek idea of a bunch of angry gods, but rather the result of a society that saw gratefulness as the binding force of all that existed in the culture. Gratefulness for this culture was not something that was given after the fact, as in the proper response for a favor; rather, it was something that existed already in the world. It was a given that one would be thankful for the existence of another person, because in ways one might not even begin to understand, one was dependent upon that other person and always and already owed them. The heroes owed their success and good fortune to the fabric of the world and community in which they lived.

The most sinister of characters would be that person or group of people who felt that they owed no one anything, or worse, that the world owed them. To them, life in the community was a balance sheet of favors and debts. They would be guilty of what Gary Snyder called “stinginess of thought” in our worship preparation reading. Living a “good life” would be one where nothing was owed on either side of the balance sheet. In today’s world this is a phenomena we are accustomed to witnessing, played out on the grand stage of politics, healthcare, housing, minimum wages, our monthly bills, and interpersonal behavior. So often our system of rewards is based not upon a general, always-present thankfulness for one another, but rather a system of merit decided by those in positions of authority over another: did this person deserve this reward, or no? The thanks is restricted only to those who are deemed deserving because of a certain action, and not in the general sense of just being people interacting with our own household.

In that ancient world, where no one pretended to understand the complex web of interconnectivity between one another, to be always in a state of thankfulness was to be demonstrating some sort of faith. In our society today, we recognize God in a general understanding of thanking God when something just works, or a person recovers from sickness, and so forth. We do not presume to know how it works, and even when it can be easily explained, we just know that something happened that made it work. The choral response we sing today following our pastoral prayer, “Thank You, Lord”, reflects this sentiment.

Though Jesus was probably not drawing from the ancient Greeks, something of this understanding of faith arising from constant thankfulness is apparent in his short parable given in response to the apostles’ request. They ask: “Increase our faith!”. It’s one of the most ludicrous demands in the New Testament. It is a demand for miracles, for acts of unquestionable proof that Jesus is the son of God. It is not thankful for Jesus’ presence amongst them, but is rather a demand upon him to serve them. It is a selfish demand for Jesus to make a spectacle of himself in order to purchase their belief in God. Indeed, this is often what churches feel they need to do as they begin to discern how to grow or be more dynamic or vibrant: they feel that people are demanding that we as a church “increase their faith”. In response we feel obliged to put on spectacular displays for them. And so we are tempted to slick things up without a due regard to substance. That does not mean that a church should not have a party: lest we forget, Jesus’ first miracle is to provide the means to keep the Wedding at Cana going – and back then, weddings went on for days at a time. These activities bind community. Nor does it means that a church should not change in order to be more relevant. But what it does mean is that the church should not have a party for the sake of having a spectacle. Nothing a church does should be for the mere sake of appearances. Jesus answers the apostles’ demand with a substantive response, which is similar to that unity within my friend’s table prayer: to paraphrase, he says “increase your thankfulness”.

Jesus poses a question which assumes that the apostles, the very ones who are supposed to be living in the Jesus Way and showing this to all people, are slaveowners. They are in a position of authority with control of the lives of other people. The question assumes that they feel that it is perfectly natural to live in this hypocritical structure, with them as followers of Jesus, and their slaves as servants who have their own, different and subordinate, ways of doing things. Their lives are lived in a balance-sheet mentality; even their comment, “increase our faith,” suggests that they want that aspect of their lives increased so as to offset some other imbalance. They don’t see that by not living lives of thankfulness they are slaves to their own system. They don’t see that Jesus is teaching them to break out of thinking in those ways!

How often do we thank the postman, or the people laying asphalt to create roads, or the people collecting the garbage and recycling of our homes? Teachers? The people operating the networks that keep the internet and electricity in place? Those treating our wastewater or trying to solve the ecological challenges of the Chesapeake Bay? How often do we thank God for all the things that come together to make our lives possible? True, we pay people, perhaps grudgingly. Let’s face it, though: that transactional activity is not much different than slavery in the sense that one would provide the basic needs of a slave, in return for the slave to function as required.

In order for one to have even a modicum of faith in Jesus’ eyes, that “faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus wants the apostles to show how thankful they are for others who interact in their lives. To show this thankfulness, Jesus directs the apostles to how they treat the invitations to their dining table. Is it a place where all can eat together? Or is it a place where only an exclusive few are able to eat? Is it a place where some are standing behind the chairs actively serving the guests? Today is World Communion Sunday, and together with Christians around the globe we will sit at Jesus’ table. It is open to all; it is, as my friend the British-Caribbean theologian Michael Jagessar calls it, “a table with no corners.” It is a place where Jesus expresses his thankfulness for all of us, and selflessly feeds us with the spiritual food that represents the substance and lifeblood of his own life. It is a perpetual example of thankfulness for us to emulate.  In response to this meal, we give thanks to him. This is a thanks that is so much more than a thank-you note. It is a thankfulness that fills the core of our very being, overflows, and is demonstrated by how we act.

How we act upon thankfulness is evidenced every time we break down the structures that perpetuate inequality and mere transactional zero-sum relationships. We give thanks to Jesus and this meal on the communion table every time we give thanks for the lives of our sisters and brothers, those we know, and especially those we do not know, when we affirm that we love them in thought, word and deed. When we recognize how inter-connected we always and already are in our lives, and we are moved to give thanks, we thank God for it. It’s an emotion we can share in common with those ancient Greeks, and an emotion we give thanks to Jesus for reminding us about in this parable, in his life, and in his own open invitation to the table.

So much in our world drags us back to zero-sum thinking. It’s hard to pay an electricity bill with thankfulness. Those whose are furloughed in our congregation from the shut-down, and the many of us directly affected by it, will have trouble getting back to work on thankfulness. Zero-sum structures are part of the fabric of our society, and balance sheets keep us out of a lot of financial trouble. They can be approached prayerfully. Jesus recognizes that there will always be those structures. Yet he refuses to acknowledge that these need to dominate our approach to life together. He wants us to put mutual appreciation and thankfulness in front of our thinking, and let the balance sheets follow such an approach.

He also reminds the apostles that if we only do that which we’re required to do, our lives will end in “zero sums” ourselves, and we will count ourselves as “worthless slaves who have done only what we ought to have done,” no more, no less. In contrast, a life lived out in thankfulness overflows in meaning. When thankfulness overflows, we are able to find meaning in our own being. We can give thanks for being. We are able to open ourselves up more to the place in which we are: we can give thanks for being here. If we can give thanks for being here, we can go so much further and give thanks for being here, together. We find that the prayer itself is a table with no corners, for it works itself around in a circle. Because we can give thanks for being together, we are able to find in the affirmation of ourselves from one another meaning in our own individual being. It is a cycle of building up that continues, and can only be achieved in the feeling of mutual thanksgiving. That is what we do in this church every Sunday, if not every day.

And so, I ask us now, from where we are sitting, to reach out our hands and join them with those around you. Let this be a beginning of a mutual appreciation of one another. Some of you won’t know the person next to you, but know that your life is as connected to them as it is to a parent, a partner, a child: as we prepare to approach the table which Jesus has joyfully prepared for us, which is put together by so many hands in the Body of Christ around the world, let us say our prayer as we take in the space around us, and the people around us: “We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together. Amen.”

Bibliography: http://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining (2011)

 

 

 

Radical welcome and “take up your cross”

In Authenticity, Grace, Jesus, Matthew, Prophetic, Radical Welcome on June 6, 2013 at 10:28 am

For Morning Chapel at Westminster College, 6 June 2013.

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” So goes one of my most-loved mottoes from my denomination, the United Church of Christ. If I am engaged in trying to radically welcome a person to a church. It goes well on flyers and billboards, or spoken at some point during the service when people are invited to stand up and make themselves known so that they can be accosted by the diaconate at coffee following the service. It is far better than the ubiquitous “All are welcome” sign that I suspect comes with the rejoinder, “All are welcome: to become just like us.” It brought me through the church door when I was a teenager, and the concept kept me going back throughout my adult life. No matter where I was, I could always come back to the church. It is a message we need to hear in more than just a church concept; it needs to be a part of our cultural community fabric.

But it is only a partial concept. It stops short of any radical change demanded either of the church or the person coming in. Nor did Jesus say “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This places the locus for action no longer on coming into a place, but going outward. This is about being a people of action. It also challenges us: if “no matter who we are, we are welcome here” is to be our motto for church, then we are also implicitly saying that we are content with whomever we are and whomever anyone else in. Gone is the radical nature of church which challenges people to get engaged, viscerally and without limit, to the work that the church is called to be in community. Church is, as far as I can tell after three years of training in this College, this Federation, this University, a place for challenging. Without challenges of self-denial, we create an atmosphere of entitlement both within the church and in the individuals. I suspect this creates many sort of issues.

This passage of self-denial serves as the crux of Jesus’ theology. For Calvin self-denial stands in radical opposition of every shrewd Christian adjustment to the circumstances. The commentator Ulrich Luz says this: “The contradiction which arrests [this biblical passage] is that [hu]man[kind] is required to make the greatest possible sacrifice to dedicate [its] whole life as a sacrifice – and wherefore? There is no wherefore. “Then it is madness,” says the understanding. There is no wherefore, because there is an infinite wherefore.”

This self-denial lies at the crux of what I have learned in this place. It is a self-denial that is undertaken not for any reward or wherefore, but because this is what it means to follow Christ. It is a self-denial that allows for the formation of communities that can be truly inclusive in actions so vibrant that no poster boards are needed to advertise it, no slick websites, but because we are shaping ourselves toward that cross, Christ-like to one another. But we also live in an entitlements society, where we deserve this and that. I’m no saint in this regard: I have far more self-denial to learn. Nor am I arguing for Christian asceticism for the sake of asceticism. I am saying that self-denial is about all having enough, just enough. As I look at statistics about which children perform the best, I cannot help but see a resonance with those that are neither rich nor poor but who live on just enough.

This culture of enough is catching on, and I hope in our self-denial as Christian leaders we can harness some of this energy. “Join Wall Street. Save The World,” a recent article in The Washington Post, details how young people are living on just enough – which their contemporaries might call ascetic, while giving the vast majority of their inflated salaries to charities around the world. The people doing this want to impact their world, and make good things happen. I think the world is looking for our message, looking for this challenging message of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Without wherefore or why, beyond reason itself. These young professionals are not doing this out of a professed faith, but because they know that they need to do something positive in the world. What we as people of faith bring is the grace of God, something that can resonate with the experiences that they want and desire to share. This is good news both for the church, her ministers, and the people.

The journey, a word I use hesitantly because it is too linear to describe the process by which we follow Christ, is indeed a long one. But as I prepare to leave this place now, I look forward to it. While I think we have started here, there is still much that needs to be done in order to pick up the cross. 

Speak!

In Jeremiah, Jesus, Little Baddow Chapel, Luke, Prophetic on February 4, 2013 at 10:13 am

A homily for a communion service at Little Baddow Chapel (URC) on Sunday, 3 Feb 2013. Our focus texts were Jeremiah 1.4-10 and Luke 4.21-30.

What could I say right now that would just make you furious? What would make you really upset? What could I say that would prompt you to drive me out of town, and force me off a cliff? That’s what Jesus said. And not only that, but he’s a local star. This is Joseph’s son! He arrives, and he tells them some gracious things, about which they are really excited. They have heard the miracles he has performed in Capernaum, and they’re ready for those miracles to happen to them.

Does this make sense? Here they are saying appreciative things about Jesus, marveling at how this really is Joseph’s son, the boy who used to run down the streets, who trained to be a carpenter? Why would Jesus rebuke them? They are being nice to him. He has been gracious to them. He’s been accepting how nice they are toward him. He’s being what we would call “civil.” But they begin to want to heal them, as if he were some sort of magician. We can almost hear someone asserting that certainly they are as worthy as those people in Capernaum to receive miraculous cures.

This is all too much for Jesus. This is when Jesus goes into revolutionary mode. He says: “No prophet is ever accepted into his own country.” They could argue this, could they not? Not only are they tolerating his presence, but they are welcoming him into their presence. If he wants to call himself a prophet, that’s fine by them. But really, are they welcoming him as a prophet, or as a magician? The world of Jesus’ time was as full of mystical healers then as it is of quack doctors on the internet peddling miraculous cures now. But he has not come to heal them magically. He has come to bring them a message.

Hospitality is a serious thing in Jesus’ time. It was a requirement, a duty, to be hospitable. The people of this town are being more than hospitable, but he has just announced that he, the prophet, is not welcome here. This cannot be well-accepted. But again, is he being welcomed unconditionally for who he is, or have they placed conditions on the welcome in order for him to be whom they want him to be – a healer, a magician?

He says something which angers them to their very depth of being. He suggests that God’s prophets, God, the Holy One of Israel, actually performs miracles on people who are not part of his chosen people, Israel. These are people whom these Galileans don’t like. God’s preference, he says, is not just for the Israelites, but for all those who act in obedience to God, and are not just desirous of it. How many times have we asked, God, if you’ll only do this for me, I’ll do x. It doesn’t appear to work like that.

Jesus gives two examples. The first is of the widow of Zarepath, a town in Sidonia, a coastal town in Lebanon. There are many widows in Israel, he says, but the prophet of God first goes to this one. It is she who receives God’s blessing, and whose son Elijah raises from death. The audience would have known this story. But like us, they might have identified with it as themselves, forgetting the key ingredient: this is happening to an outsider, a foreigner, someone who God surely wouldn’t be wasting time upon? Another, more subtle point is raised: are not all people of God charged with taking care of the widows? If this commandment were being obeyed, then God would not have to take any action to make it so: it wouldn’t matter to the community that the widows in other places were receiving God’s prophets. Further, when the prophet Elijah spoke to the widow after invoking God’s name, she obeyed even though by her standards her actions would have left her destitute. She obeyed the prophet, and placed no expectations upon him.

The second example is Naaman, the Syrian general, an avowed enemy of Israelites for many years. Having a skin disease was a serious problem in Israelite culture: it automatically made someone “unclean”, and to be unclean effectively made on untouchable. Skin diseases were often outside of the control of people, and yet were socially fatal to receive. In the past, English translators have translated this as “leprosy,” but really it could be any skin condition, no matter how small. Jesus recalls Naaman to their memory, who travels to Israel to receive a cure from the prophet Elisha. Now Naaman wants something, a cure, but he also wants it on his terms. Elisha, however, sets the terms and doesn’t budge despite all the grandeur of this Syrian general’s retinue. Naaman grumbles at first, but he then obeys Elisha’s commands, and is washed clean of his skin disease in the River Jordan. Jesus’ more subtle point here will not be lost on his Galilean listeners: engagement with those who are suffering from skin disease and are, therefore, unclean, is part of what is needed to help them overcome their problems. Instead, it was cultural to blame the person with the skin disease for having it; if they could not blame the individual, they blamed it as a punishment arising from a misdeed of an ancestor. These Galileans could easily say, as we often do ourselves, “it’s not our problem.” Jesus makes it clear that even if we don’t act or have any involvement, it very much is just as much our problem as everyone else’s.

In order to awake the Galileans from their reverie, Jesus throws their lack of selfless hospitality into their faces. They are being hospitable only because they want something. They want him to heal them, just like he did with those rich folk down in Capernaum. They want him to make all their social ills go away. They want him to be the Messiah and kick the Romans out of their lives, and put them back in charge. Heck, they want him to do a lot of things for them. And therefore, they’re being nice. They are trying to charm him. They are not doing what God commanded. They are not protecting widows, nor are they helping those afflicted with uncontrollable ailments. They’re lining themselves up to be fixed, and yet have no record of obedience to the prophets.

Jesus challenges them by not being nice. He speaks out. And we remember his words. How many people do we have recorded saying nice things to the Galileans? How many times do we actually have Jesus himself saying nice things to people? Sure, we have him talking about ideas that sound nice, and his behavior is exemplary. But how often do we have him simply talking nicely? Or any other of our biblical prophets, for that matter. Do we recall them being nice, or do we recall them challenging?

So if the Church is the body of Christ, part of our purpose in life is to challenge ourselves and one another to act upon commandments. We must ask ourselves, how much of what we say is “nice” or sidesteps the issue? How much of what we say is challenging? How much of that is back up by our own patterns of living? It is probably mostly nice, and very little of the challenging. As followers of Jesus, should we not seek ways to change that the other way-around?

Our Scriptures are loaded with statements of people expressing their resentment against Jesus. Isaiah 52 likewise concluded that people would make whomever the Messiah was suffer. Yet as our reading suggested, people were waiting for a Messiah that would do what they wanted him to do – and not do what would bring about abundant life for all of God’s people. Jesus was not that guy.

Does this mean that the church needs to be making itself unpopular with the locals? Perhaps not purposely. But recall back to a previous lesson we’ve learned about the mustard tree. If the kingdom of God sprouts into a mustard tree, then it is, by the standards of its time, an undesirable weed with a pungent odor. It would be completely ridiculous to want it. Yet this unwelcome presence to society is a much-sought refuge for the birds of the air and the creatures of the land – the widows and afflicted of our day – the people on the fringe.

This unwelcome presence should be the result of being Christ’s body on earth: radically welcoming to the point of hanging out with outcasts, affirming of difference to the point of being with society’s lepers, and outspoken to the point of annoyance regarding issues that matter to our community. We are called to be this mustard-tree to imagine a way of being in the world regardless of whether or not we think it practical, and follow in that way. These qualities, although grating to those who did not wish to be changed by them, were what brought people to Jesus in droves.

There is a very important caution here. Such outspokenness and prophetic behavior can make a hubristic assumption that we are always in the right. We’re not. We make some pretty awful mistakes, and historically have forced some terrible things to happen because of what we call our “convictions.” Humility is required of us – it is part of journeying in the way of Jesus. If we are acting out of love, and not simply that ancient human temptation to be “in the right” or for our own gain, then we recall and live the words of 1 Cor 13 – love is patient, love is kind. Where love is present, and in the spirit of love, we must challenge and correct those around us not by being brash and loud about it – but engaging them with ourselves and accepting that this will make us vulnerable. Being vulnerable means we might get viewed as the widow, the outcast, the societally awkward, the wrong, out of no fault of our own. But this is true love, this is our calling. If we are to love, it is not some namby-pamby thing of nice sentimental thoughts. It is being willing to take the blame for the ones whom you engage with. You could easily say, then, that the one who was without sin, Jesus, was blamed by the authorities, those people in power, for the manners and outcastedness of those with whom he walked alongside.

So, I ask you again: what is it you could say, that is true, that needs to be said to effect change in the community?

Once and for all

In 1 Peter, Baptism, Chaos & Nonlinaer thought, Fear, Jesus, Lent, Little Baddow Chapel, Mark on February 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Delivered for St Mary’s Church of England, in a United Service with Little Baddow Chapel (URC), 10am

Scriptures: 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15

In our gospel reading this morning from Mark, we have a very quick account of the baptism of Jesus.

  1. It went something like this: Jesus visits John at the Jordan and gets baptized in that same river. Then the Spirit descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven proclaims: ‘You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.’
  2. And then what happens? We would expect some sort of celebration, a party, a reception, some photos, and an acknowledgment from everyone that we will care for the person who has just been baptized.
    1. We do these things because we want to savour the importance of this moment. We see it as a purifying moment, at the beginning of a new life (whether done as an infant or as an adult), and we wish so much to enjoy it. We try to hold on to that moment because we know that once that child, that adult, that man or that women crosses that threshold, she may be crossing into the wildnerness. That world holds new temptations, new challenges; and while that baptism has declared that person as a child of God, she is not absolved of the responsibility of living in the world, and all of the temptations that come with that.

i.     So, too, with Jesus. Jesus is baptised and is immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. The word ‘driven’ is quite specific, both here in English and in the original Greek. There is no time even to savour that moment, or that acknowledgement. And the spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

ii.     It seems like tough love. Here is God, whom we declare as a compassionate, caring, loving God, driving the Son out into the wilderness for forty days, to face temptations … wild beasts … and yet not alone (angelos).

1.     We know when we have crossed into the wilderness in our own travels. Our feet tell us that we have crossed a threshold, a boundary, which is distinctly different from ‘home,’ or even the familiar. It is a place both unusual and uncomfortable to us, and we have trouble recognizing God in those places.

2.     This is not to discount the very wilderness which exists in our own bodies – the turmoil that glares at us from within when we explore distant and shameful memories, memories which have not disappeared despite baptism, despite the promises of a new life in Christ.

a.     These memories arise from those chaotic parts of memory over which we have neither ownership nor control, no matter how strong the mental lock we try and place over them. Have you ever sat and contemplated a memory, and felt viscerally horrified by your own reactions, your own behaviour? Nor does it help in the least when we realise that this particular wilderness in our own minds does not belong to us alone: it involves other people, known or unknown; like the wilderness out there, that memory does not belong to anyone.

  1. It is 1943 in Berlin, Tegel Prison. Allied bombs are raining down, and a direct hit has occurred in one of the building where the prominent prisoners are held. There is screaming and mass panic, dust and rubble. These are the political prisoners of the Nazi regime, the people who have opposed Hitler. Where is God in this? Why would God, whom we assert is just and right, allow this to happen, to the people who have bravely stood up to Hitler?
    1.  In the midst of the panic, this chaotic wilderness, under a table, is Dietrich Boenhoeffer. He is calm, in the prime of his life, despite the panic and sense of God’s absence in this place and time.
    2.  Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who became involved with the ‘Confessing Church’. He became a minister in the early 1930s, a time of ‘wilderness’ in Germany. Power was increasingly concentrated into the hands of a charismatic dictatorship, which elevated the superiority of some people based upon their race and religion, and de-humanised others for that same reason. The state Lutheran church, in part due to the political pressure placed upon it and the demands of a people enthralled with populist politics, increasingly turned a blind eye to the horrors happening around them.
    3. Bonhoeffer joined the ‘Confessing Church’ movement in response to this, teaching at an illegal seminary other people who were flying in the face of their culture and resisting the Nazi movement. Very difficult things for them to do.

i.     He could have run away. One of America’s best seminaries actively attempted to recruit him, and he did go over on two occasions, before finally returning to Germany shortly before war was declared.

ii.     I must demur and make certain I am not creating a saint out of him. He was a human being, like you and I, tortured by his mistakes and weaknesses, and the choice he made to participate in a plot on Hitler’s life was one which flew into the face of any fixed belief structures he had. Today we want, wish, to paint Hitler as entirely inhuman, other-human: and we, like Bonhoeffer, cannot do that. Hitler was all-too-human; the 2004 film ‘Downfall’ shows this aspect of this person who was able to concentrate a real and visceral evil. Bonhoeffer realised that he was walking into the wilderness in this Nazi regime as one of God’s children, making a decision to support the taking of the life of another of God’s children. It was against his principles, his morals, his theology.  But for him, it was obedience to God:

1.     This from a letter Bonhoeffer placed in his attic while awaiting arrest following knowledge of his involvement with the Resistance (over a year before the assassination attempt!):

a.     Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action to faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God. (Letters from Prison, 15-16).

2.     Faith, for Bonhoeffer, was not a matter of taking a stance, but of being a follower of Christ. Who and what is Christ for us today? And notice that for Bonhoeffer Christ does not triumph in power. He was awash in a society which saw power as the ultimate objective, control of others as true authority: where today is this? Jesus was a person, a human being, for other people: fully divine, yes, but fully, absolutely human.

3.     If the church exists as the body of Christ, then that makes us a body which exists with others. And I would amend this to say a body which exists with all people, as when we say ‘others’ we can imply an us/them understanding.

  1. In our reading the first letter of Peter, the water of baptism is linked with the flood in Genesis – that one which Noah built the ark for, and which God covenanted with ‘all flesh’ to never allow to happen again. In that story, the water which covers the earth plays is symbolic in all of Genesis (the creation story, for example) to be a force of chaos.
    1. So when we are baptized with water, in our appeal to God for a ‘good conscience,’ as Peter writes, we are baptized with an emblem of chaos.

i.     But we have the covenant of God to know that in this baptism with chaos, we are always already included in God’s covenant with all flesh, and that we are not alone when we venture out, inevitably, into the wilderness. By ‘all flesh’, we should understand that even those wild beasts in our gospel reading are part of God’s covenant.

ii.     We are baptized with chaos and driven into wilderness.

    1. Today is the first Sunday in Lent, four days into the forty days season where we reflect on what suffering and endurance in the wilderness which is much of our world to us is like. When we think that we are alone, when we wonder why we live in a world in which God allows for hardships, let us reflect on the reality that Jesus, the one who gets baptized and proclaimed as the Son with whom ‘God is well pleased,’ is driven into the wilderness. Nor is he alone – he has the wild beasts, and God is present with him – ‘angels’ mean God’s presence.
    2. When Jesus dies following his crucifixion, there is no immediate mention of a happiness in heaven despite this suffering, but a descent to those who are imprisoned – by their pride, their greed, by who knows what – the reasons they are imprisoned are not given by Peter – before the resurrection.
    3. Engraved on one of Bonhoeffer’s memorials, at the top, is the Greek word hapax. It is the same word that is translated as ‘once and for all’ in Peter’s letter to describe the effect of Christ’s actions; it is the Greek approximation of the Hebrew for God’s covenant being ‘once and for all’ at the end of the flood.

i.     It does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen again. It does not mean that we will never endure suffering – if we believed that to be true, why would we ever observe Lent?

ii.     As the remainder of these forty days stretch out in front of us, what are the temptations that we have had, and what will be the challenges we know we must face? Are we living in that wilderness, are we attuned to the demands that might arise? Are we being honest to ourselves, to our memories, symbolically exposed to the sun, the wind, the scorching earth, the debris of pain and struggle?

iii.     It is not until the end of that forty day struggle that Jesus goes out into Galilee and begins to proclaim the good news, that the kingdom of God has come near. Without that struggle, which brings us closer to one another, it is probably not possible to see that approach of the kingdom of God.

1.     My friends, we are not alone of that journey or during that struggle. There is a person beside you, in front of you, and behind you here in this church, and in this community, walking in that same wilderness, though perhaps seeing different challenges and struggles. Bonhoeffer reminds us that Christ is the person with us. Let us then go through this season being as Christ to each other, once and for all.

Judgement, Belief and Faith in the vineyard

In Authenticity, Doubt, Exodus, Fear, Idolatry, Jesus, Matthew, Pharisees, Progressive Christianity on October 4, 2011 at 9:23 am

‘Judgement, Belief and Faith in the vineyard’

A message delivered at Buckland United Reformed Church on 2 Oct 2011.

Exodus 20.1-20

Matthew 21.33-46

The most obvious connection between our two scripture readings this morning is fairly straightforward: we have a set of rules, and if we don’t follow them, something bad happens to us. The rules were set out rather explicitly in Exodus, and the story is expounded in the parable which Jesus tells us.

But perhaps it is not so clear. After all, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. We are long given over as Christians to immediately equating Pharisees with wrong and evil. However, many biblical scholars have successfully refuted that idea: after all, Jesus was often having conversations with Pharisees. Further, Pharisees were respected members of their society precisely because they were trying so hard to live by the rules set to them and worked very hard to create a model society of model citizens precisely as they understood the biblical text. There were different schools of thought, but by and large they figured they had a clear mandate to reform society and bring people closer in line with God – particularly as they felt the entire fabric of their culture threatened by the globalising presence of the Roman empire. Pharisees felt that their people were called and chosen to be God’s voice and presence on this earth, but they felt that their people could not hear God’s voice if they did not strictly adhere to the rules God had put forth very clearly in the books of Torah. And they set about making sure that everyone knew what those rules were about before the overwhelming allure of Roman society, with its easier rules and morals, led people away from their covenantal relationship with God.

To us, their rules may seem arcane at best. Leviticus 19.19 prohibits the wearing of mixed-fabric clothing. We may ask why: the Bible doesn’t tell us that. Scholars assume it was because Canaanite priests wore clothing of mixed materials, and as such a similar identification would make their priests appear as non-Hebrew priests. But we don’t really know. What we do know is that such a custom genuinely marks the follower as Jewish, and not Roman or anything else. Establishing and maintaining such clear rules and customs allowed an entire culture to maintain its identifying marks in the face of overwhelming pressure to assimilate.

So when Jesus challenges the Pharisees, we should try and empathise with them. They were the defenders of their culture and their custom. In a sense our worship today is meant to preserve a Christian identity, and with a few alterations we carry it out each week, remembering that we have a responsibility to be obedient to God by worshipping. Perhaps their mistake was that they were convinced that they were in the right: we’ll return to what happens when a group of people is absolutely convinced they are in the right.

Jesus tells them a parable in which they cannot help but agree that the tenants are indeed up to no good. We established earlier that they were engaged in doing something terrible indeed: they were conspiring like Jacob’s sons to kill a person; but unlike Jacob’s sons, they achieve their aim. They somehow think that they will gain his inheritance, which is presumably full ownership of the vineyard – full ownership of their own world, their own destiny – without the need or desire of an owner to be nearby. And every time the owner sent them messengers to remind them of their duties, every time God sent prophets, they had beaten them up and ignored the message they had come to give.

But here’s the odd part to all of this: the Pharisees who heard this story could not help but recognise that Jesus had called them the tenants and accused their entire tradition, the one in which he shared, of murder! And yet here they are, actively trying to purify their own culture, to keep it acceptable in the site of God. Can you imagine the absolute cheek of some guy from the backwoods insulting the very people who were trying to keep Judaism pure and good? Who on earth was Jesus to judge?

And yet, they did not arrest him. You can probably see why they would feel perfectly justified in thinking that he should be arrested. If he goes about undermining the authority of the only organisation keeping Jews from becoming Romans, what would happen to the entirety of Judaism? But they were aware that people thought he was a prophet, and so they left him alone … yet in the past, prophets had been beaten and killed by those who held power and authority in their communities. Speaking of which, the Pharisees as an organisation were not that old – we cannot place the persecution of the prophets on them, either. And oddly enough, is it the Pharisees themselves who crucify Jesus? No – it is the people whom they despise: the Romans.

The Pharisees are following the Ten Commandments and any other commandment they could have brought before them. Yet why, then, are they being blamed for being bad and poor servants of God? What has gone wrong that those who are most devout, who know the rules and keep them carefully, are nonetheless ‘wicked tenants’ accused of unfathomable evil by Jesus, who we today recognise as the divine son of God?

We cannot assume that the vineyard is not being well looked after. It may have been a well-cared for garden, providing rich wine and in good repair. They may have, in fact, have been following all of the rules as prescribed to them by the tenancy agreement – which, for the sake of ease, we’ll say was following the Ten Commandments. That is, until someone reminded them that there was still something else. Of course it was in the tenancy agreement, but perhaps the tenants had misread it or misunderstood it. The disagreement caused much anger and uncertainty, though, for the tenants killed the servants. They harmed them. Thou shall not kill.

What could it be that they had missed? What had happened to cause such a disagreement? I suggest we should think two things had happened: first, the tenants – who are us, lest we forget – did not like to be told that they were wrong. They had developed a very solid understanding of what was expected of them, and they were, as far as they were concerned, absolutely correct. They had a corner on the truth, the land was given to them by God, and they knew what God expected of them. Sound familiar?

The tenants missed something: that is, they misunderstood the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were busy interpreting that as not becoming Roman, or following the rules precisely as they understood them. Many of our fellow Christians today see that as knowing exactly what to do in following Jesus, and then telling others that if they don’t follow Jesus in this way, then you’ll find yourself in hell. They have a certainty of belief that they are worshipping God exactly right, or at least, as right as human inability can possibly raise up worship.

I ask you, though: is that worship? When we say we have a corner on the truth, a corner on what is the exact right way to do things, are we worshipping God? I think not. Instead, we are worshipping our own rules and our own abilities to transcend them, to be forgiven when we fall afoul of our rules. These rules could be a rigid form of any faith – Christianity included. They could be a worship of the infallibility of our financial system. They could be an inflexible atheism, too, or a belief that mathematical equations will always work according to certain rules – something chaos theory has proved isn’t true.

These systems of inflexible certainty are idols. We may not call them that, but that is what they are. They create boundaries between who is ‘in the know’ and who is ‘out.’ In Jesus’ time they created boundaries between the Jews and the Romans, denying to the Romans themselves the very realisation that they are just as loved by God as each Pharisee. The owner of the vineyard – God – kept sending people to the vineyard, to Creation, to correct people on their way.

Moses tells us these visits and course corrections will always come, and he tells us not to be afraid. These corrections help us hear God’s voice in each generation, in each moment, guiding us step by step in a process of growth which all Creation is continually going through. We are partners in this process, and because the contexts of our world is continually changing, we have to listen carefully to the voices of our modern-day prophets to know what step to take next to keep following carefully in our tending of the vineyard of the whole earth which God has given over to us to care for.

We get these corrections because we doubt. And doubt is perfectly okay. Even Jesus had doubts. The disciples were riddled with doubt. It is in our human nature to doubt. When we conduct a scientific experiment, we formulate an idea and then try to make it fail! If we don’t try and make it fail, the rest of us don’t recognise the experiment as valid.

There is a difference between faith and belief. We are a people of faith, gathered together in this church to try and discern what God’s word is for us today. We are here to refill ourselves so that we can bring that good news of the gospel out to a culture that may be totally different from the one in which we grew up in. We are here because we have doubts, we have questions, and we don’t always know what the right things to do is. I have the privilege of preaching today not because I am giving you hard and solid answers. And if you invited me here to do that today, I am so sorry to disappoint you. I don’t have them: theological schools are not places where one goes to get answers, but to ask questions and be pointed toward paths which may have answers: but they may not.

But we don’t journey in doubt alone. We journey with the incarnation of Christ which we experience when we press our hands into another’s. We journey with another when we hear their doubts and express ours, too. We journey with them when we share the good news with them too that we are a called people. We are called to tend to the vineyard, to protect it from the dangers of global warming, injustice, and inequality. When we break bread together and share the communion we do so to draw strength to be able to be disciples. And those other doubters, equally loved as much by God as each one of us in this church today are, are also called to be disciples: full of doubts just as the original ones, but further to know without doubt that we are loved and can love one another in ways which defeat the idolatry of our worship of war, wealth, and other structures which sow inequality in our world.

I learned something interesting recently about predestination. How many of you believe in predestination? How many have heard of it? Well, for me it has always been something that limits our free will. And if we are in a world in which we are called to bring about the perfection of God’s kingdom, how can we be called to be a part of it if we do not first have free will? And yet I heard an argument from a Presbyterian minister in Des Moines, Iowa, who notes something entirely new about predestination: he argues that predestination means that we are already loved by God. The love of God is our destination. The ‘pre’ part is that we are already loved!

God’s love is not dependent upon the questions we ask or the answers we give. We participate in a process of living our lives together. We are loved, and because we are loved first, we have the freedom to ask, to question, to explore our faith without fear of breaking it. To love others and know that the boundless love of God is the source. We may fail sometimes: but that’s OK. We will doubt: good! We keep on learning and studying, participating in the process of faith and living, without living in fear. God loves us. We can love because of that solid footing, that always sturdy cornerstone which so often is rejected, and yet is the strongest rock.

Many people are afraid, and they lash out in that fear. We see it often. Moses tells the people not to be afraid; the test of which he speaks is not fearful, but it is peaceful. It is a course correction, it is a change. Look around you: so many are afraid, afraid that they don’t have the right set of beliefs or the right house or the right job – the media, the church, the government may be telling them they don’t have these things right. They have these fears because they are unable to doubt, they are unable to question, for that means that they were wrong: and no one wants to be wrong. But to be rigidly holding oneself to society’s scrutiny in such a way is to be holding those societal standards higher than the love of God. And when the messenger of God comes along, their fear overcomes them and they may hurt the messenger. But God redeems the messenger: it is why Paul writes that if Jesus was not resurrected, then our faith is in vain. The one who recognises that God is still-speaking through us, encouraging doubts and questions, may be hurt in the process of spreading that love. But she will be redeemed, too. Christ is with us today: we felt that physical presence when we shared the peace together.

When we realise that God is allowing us to ask questions, to be doubters, to explore who we are and what God is calling us to do; when we listen for that call and respond; we will find that our responses are effortless. They are entirely and genuinely ourselves. There is no fear within it. We do this because we are loved, just as we are, growing, questioning, changing, processing further.

We are free from the fear which causes us to set up the idols of belief sets, as the Hebrews did when they created the golden calf because they were afraid Moses had abandoned them in the desert. We are free from the fear which causes us to hurt or maim any who does not agree with us. Empowered and emboldened by liberating love, we are able to draw in and embrace the stranger amongst us, to share the bounty of our vineyard with them, to convince others that the greedy practices which are destroying our shared world and lives around it can be overcome. We are able to hear the concerns of the messenger when we’ve gotten it wrong, and do something about it.

God is still-speaking, and we are still-listening. Amen.

I owe gratitude to the brilliance of Rev Chris Alexander, Associate Minister at Countryside Community Church, UCC, Omaha, Nebraska, for the inspiration of bringing the need for faithful doubt into today’s message.