Archive for the ‘Matthew’ Category

I am . . . Free

In Grace, Matthew, Romans, Sin, St Paul, UCC Annapolis on June 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39


Friends, I have a confession to make: last week, I broke the law of our city by jaywalking. That’s right, you now have a minister whom you know if a lawbreaker. And not only that, but one who broke the law consciously and without regret. But I did have a reason: You see, it was one of those intensely hot days. I was wearing my clerical collar, which does not lend itself to comfort in the humidity of Annapolis. On the other side of the street, there was a long, long stretch of glorious shade, and I just had to get over there. Just had to. So, not seeing any traffic on Duke of Gloucester, I crossed. Not that far from the offices of the City Council. And so – I broke the law.

Now, while I’m willing to confess along with St. Paul that “I am chief amongst sinners,” (1 Tim. 1:15, attr. to St. Paul) I suspect that I am in a sanctuary full of people who have broken laws. Raise your hand if you have never transgressed a law, ever. So: let me reiterate what we share in the beginning: God has loved you, God loves you now, and God will love you always. The parking ticket will be OK. All laws that you have broken will be forgiven. The grace of God is with you!

This is what St. Paul is saying in the beginning of today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. We are a people living in grace – we have already “died to sin.” What does that mean? Well, obviously it doesn’t mean that we don’t break laws anymore, and it doesn’t mean that we live lives where we don’t hurt one another, either. After all, we begin each worship service confessing that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We do this because, rather than struggling hard to say that we’re living perfect lives, we confess that we all make mistakes, but that we gather together nonetheless and we share in the joy that comes from laying down those burdens, together, free in the knowledge that “sin” is not that which defines us. Therefore, when Paul says we have “died to sin,” he’s saying that we are not a people defined by our sins and everything that has caused us hurt and to hurt one another. So if we are not a people defined by what holds us back, what are we defined by?

There’s an old saying that there are two certainties in life: “death, and taxes.” Paul focuses on the certainty of death in this passage: we all will die. That’s a universal law. I was once asked in this very church by one of our children, James, “why did Paul write to the Romans?” I think this very passage is the reason – to explain to us that we have to die. But Paul doesn’t see our death as the death that happens when the county issues a death certificate. Not at all! Paul, instead, sees that death as something we choose to make happen when we decide to live in the Jesus Way. When the first Christians felt called to be baptized, they decided to DIE to the way that they once had lived their lives, and now instead be resurrected to LIFE in the radical, subversive and alternative way that Jesus had exemplified for us. That’s the universal death that Paul talks about here.

Choosing to die to how we have lived is not easy – in fact, it’s excruciatingly painful. Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Letting go of all that which we know causes harm and pain to others, but gives us immediate satisfaction, is extremely painful. It is, I think, as painful as a crucifixion, which is why we don’t readily do it. It’s why we fear doing it, letting go of our “fictions of control.”

One such thing is our approach to stewardship of the earth. In that litany of praise to a God woven into the very fabric of the universe, Genesis 1, humankind acknowledges that it has been given “stewardship over all the earth.” And yet, as I write this, I know we continue to perpetuate a throw-away culture that fails to see the earth’s resources as finite, and our usage of them as damaging not just in the immediate time, but for the lives of ancestors we will never know about. A styrofoam cup takes at least 500 years to biodegrade; most plastics, if they can and are recycled, can only be recycled once before they, too, take 500 years to biodegrade. Yet, we accept excess packaging and one-use food containers as a “necessary evil” for delivery. If we accept them as a necessary evil, however, we are accepting these materials as a “sin.” How can we make aware the grace of God’s love if we are contributing to the sin of our negligent, if not willful, harm to the environment of our world? If you begin to even picture the scale of a societal shift that would be needed to create a change on this, you can see how changing this would be a painful societal shift. Think about our dependence on oil and gas, even to come here this morning and power these very lights? But the result of dying to that damaging, sinful ways of living, and being resurrected to a life in harmony with the world: Abundant life. Less air pollution in the creation of one-use items, less toxicity leaching into our waterways, less damage to our world. Is it doable? By all means! It must be. But we must have faith that we can do it, and work through the fear that we cannot. This applies just as much to War, Gun violence, and a myriad of other issues that plague us.

Every time we turn away from that which harms each other, we die a little more to that way of life. And it feels like a death because we’re not sure what we’re going to do in its stead. Our old way of life, marked by excess stuff, selfish desires, or whatever it might have once been, dies a little more. That could cause us fear. Though it seems trivial, we are overwhelmed by the question of how are we going to get drinks to people in fast food establishments without styrofoam containers. The fear of an alternative that might cost too much has kept us from doing it. Yet we must die to that way of life, and have faith that we will be resurrected to a new way of doing things.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It’s one of the greatest paradoxes in the Christian faith, and it’s repeated by Jesus again in Matthew 16. God’s grace, woven into the very fabric of the universe, will be experienced when we let go of all those things that we’re afraid we cannot do without but yet cause harm and divisiveness: when we die to our old way of life, regardless of how much pain it causes to do so, and we live in the Jesus Way, a way that depends on faith, hope, and love. How much fear is in your life? What motivates you every single day – fear, or love?

For much of our lives, it has been laws that have helped keep us on the straight and narrow. But a law on its own motivates primarily negatively – fear of punishment if we don’t do what it says. Fear hardly inspires us to give up that which we are already living by. In the case of environmental change, no amount of fear mongering to date has yet prompted a real and visceral change in how the majority of our world is living its life. Same with our criminal justice system: tough punishment for crimes has resulted not in a decrease of crime, but a 500% increase in the population of incarcerated people over the past 30 years in the United States. The regional body of our denomination itself just voted to end “the New Jim Crow”, which has seen a disproportionate number of African American people placed in prisons on maximum sentences for crimes that other demographic groups receive little if no punishment for in that same 30-year-period. Punishment and fear do not, alone, motivate us.

So what do we turn to? No laws? When we die to the old way of doing things, having engaged with and worked through our fear of what it means to dispense of those old ways and live in an entirely new way, we live by three things alone: faith, hope, and love. We are resurrected from the deathliness of our old ways that were ossified and fixed into place by fear and brought with Christ into a way of living that is motivated primarily by love of the other, love of that which is different. To be free, we cannot be motivated by laws or fear, but by love.

Skeptics in our room will say, “I cannot love our way out of the homelessness crisis.” Love requires action, both individual and community-based action, and the development of structures and values that are developed in love and can change as the need requires it.  If we shrug our shoulders, though, Paul has assured us that grace cannot be seen. If we, those who purport to have been baptized into death with Christ and therefore dead to that which denies thriving and abundant life in the world, refuse to change our way, then we are not living as resurrected people through whom flows the grace of God. We must be the ones motivated by love to transform our world, co-creators with Christ, unveiling the freeing grace which heals all wounds, which heals all divisions, which unites us together.

Jaywalking was invented in the early twentieth century in the United States. It was developed by the automobile lobby as a way to ridicule anyone who was not driving and helped to fuel the transition of our culture from one reliant on walking and public transportation to one reliant on the individual automobile. It dressed itself up as a public service good, as the lobby funded social organizations such as the Scouts and Kiwanis to promote “safe” crossing alternatives in the rising wave of automobile crossing. Their announcements derided pedestrians as uncool: the term itself is derogatory: a “jay” was an uneducated, backwards bumpkin new to the city. To not be a “jaywalker” was to be someone who was a sophisticated urbanite, one who was dead to wonder and probably drove a car, because that was “the thing to do.” It’s a law only in a handful of countries, places where automobiles have primacy over people. The lobby behind it helped shape America’s twentieth century development such that public transport has become infeasible for so many communities. So yes, I broke a law this week when I crossed the street. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an act of civil disobedience, but perhaps it was. Perhaps it was meant as a repudiation of a shift in our lived architecture from walkable distances to spread out ones linked not by shared transport, but by individual ones. Perhaps it was a statement to all and sundry that what matters most is the people themselves who inhabit a place and not the machines that move within them.

And so, take it from this sermon and keep moving it: live by love first. Engage with that which you know is sin in our way of living in the world, and work through that fear that seems to freeze it in place. Know that God’s grace is with you, and that in dying to sin and resurrecting to life, it is illuminated for us and others. And, know too that you are never alone: Christ is with us, in this Body of Christ, in our prayers, and everywhere we gather to intentionally die to the old, harmful ways of living and be resurrected in the new ways of living in the world.



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.


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.

Lead us from death to life: a re-orienting faith

In 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Fear, Matthew, Progressive Christianity, Radical Welcome, Relationality, UCC Annapolis, Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Texts: Deut. 30:15-18; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; St Matt. 5:21-37

I can imagine the people wandering the desert having listen to Moses. There he is, telling them about this fertile land that they’re supposed to be heading for, and he gives them all these stiff rules that they have to follow. They’ve been slaves for a really long time! They know how to follow rules. Wasn’t this Moses guy supposed to lead them to freedom? And yet here he is, handing down commandments and telling them how to act. It really is not cool. Plus, they’re stranded in the wilderness anyhow, right? So why would they actually want to listen to this guy about life right now?

Moses is telling the people traveling in the wilderness to follow the commandments which he has handed on. This comes as no surprise to us, really: in our lives and our work we are always told to “follow the rules”, and the fear of death used as the reason is surprisingly common. Or some sort of threat is given as to why we must follow the rules. A “Do Not Enter” sign on a road, for example, motivates you by fear of death and an accident to not drive down that road. The IRS threatens penalties and taxes for breaking the rules. The great thing about such rules is that normally we have no trouble following them. We comprehend them, and we therefore obey them in part because it is in our self-interest to do so. Making decisions about which rules to follow becomes all the more difficult, however, if what we should be doing is not in our own immediate self-interest.

Moses is making a hard case saying that “you will live and thrive and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering” if you “command the commandments I’m giving you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws.” I suspect he’s making a hard case because “loving the Lord your God” and obeying God’s commandments are not actually in one’s immediate self-interest. And indeed, if we were to study the Jewish Torah, which is loaded up with protections of widows, orphans, respect to neighbor, respect to illegal aliens, Jubilee years where all debts are forgiven, prohibitions against garnering up an excess of wealth, and so forth, we might have to agree: this book is NOT in our self-interest. The people are about to enter a land which is fertile, a land in which a person can make a really fantastic amount of money. They’re crossing the threshold of death – which is represented by wandering the wilderness to the East of the Jordan and where they’re entirely dependent upon things like manna – to life, a fertile land “flowing with milk and honey” that can be sustainably developed for life to continue peacefully in community forever. And yet, Moses warns that even this bountiful place of beauty can be overcome with greed and destroyed. The place of life can become a place of death. The “other gods” he warns about don’t have to literally be other gods – they are anything in the lives of the people that focus them away from God’s own beloved community, a community with rules that don’t protect the privileges of private citizens, but instead focus upon justice for the poor and the oppressed. Moses is convinced that the only way possible for the already fertile land to remain a place of life, and not a place of death, is if the people follow the commandments which prevent them from privileging themselves over the needs of a neighbor.

Moses makes it look clean and straight-forward. But we in this very church know that life is not clean and straightforward. Even the very best of intentions can become exploitative of our neighbor. However, in a community that practices neighborliness and keeps on practicing it, trying to be “good” regardless of how difficult, trying to “obey the commandments by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and keeping God’s commandments of justice and peace, it might be possible to cultivate an ethos of being good that is not motivated by immediate negative fears, such as death or a penalty.

In 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small Protestant village in the middle of France, began saving about 5,000 Jews. To borrow one quote, “never was a Jew turned away or turned in” in the course of the war. The people of this community had routines and they had ways of hiding the the refugees. They helped their refugees garner false identification papers. Their community, tightly knit, welcomed in the strangers who came and stayed united despite the obvious threat of death looming over their heads like swords of Damocles. They interwove their lives with them; some were killed for the mere suspicion of harboring Jewish refugees, including one clergy person. They heard stories of nearby villages that were completely destroyed by the Nazi SS for sheltering refugees. Yet they continued to patiently harbor and shelter and assist refugees in escaping. After the war was over, no one outside of the community spoke of it nor did they speak of it. I was not until the late 1970s that a man who as a child had been harbored there began to inquire about it. The response he received was different: “How do you call us ‘good’,” they said. “We were doing what had to be done.” You can see them shrugging their shoulders as they return to the task at hand.

For the people of Le Chambon there was no dramatic interpretation of Scripture or theological explanation for what they did. They did what they did because it “had to be done.” But what compelled them to do it, risking life, limb and community to save complete strangers who were not held in high esteem by the majority of Europe at the time? For them, it was out of a habit of neighborliness – a sense of being and doing what God required of them every single day, as a community. They had been doing this for a long time, never dramatically, but always because it “needed to be done.” Becoming a community is not something which happens quickly. I say “community” as while I know that many see this church as a family, I like to think of it as a beloved community, with people from all walks of life that lays out a extravagant welcome, and can talk openly and safely with one another without threat, jealousy, harm or pain.

But: This is not a point at which we can arrive quickly. It takes years of patient growth, practicing welcome and developing as new people come in, former people leave, and approaches to issues evolve. When St Paul writes to the Corinthians, he refers to them as “infants in Christ”, a newly-formed community that was still exploring what it meant to be a church. Yet whatever prompted the letter to the Corinthians convinced him that they were not a growing congregation: they had not matured, and were still plagued with in-fighting and jealousy and strife. He does not give up on them: he prays for them without ceasing, and gives thanks for them. He urges them, however, to change their ways, and to re-orient themselves in the spirit of the good news to love and serve God, rather than be slaves to their own self-interest.

This is the crux of the Jesus message. The citizens of Le Chambon knew this message, and had been living as the beloved community for many years. They had matured into “spiritual people” whose values moved away from themselves and toward God: that is, God’s world and God’s people (who are all people) who were in need. They disobeyed the human laws of Vichy France and put their lives on the line for complete strangers when others like them were dying, and the vast majority was fearfully cowering for their own lives. The people of Le Chambon lived in such a way for such a long time that they no longer even needed to be told to obey the commandments in the didactic style which Moses employs in Deuteronomy, or the disappointed pastor in St Paul does when he enjoins the Corinthians to cease being vindictive to one another. Their long-term faith journey re-oriented them away from the selfish concerns of avoiding death to focusing on fostering and flowering life. It only became noticeable to the world when a crisis fell upon them: but before that, it had been there, being practiced in the ordinary everydayness of life. It did not require a crisis to happen.

In order for us to be a people of faith, we must put away those relics of our selfish times. In the beginning, we will need rules and regulations to help guide us. But as we evolve and grow as a people of faith, we become more confident of how to navigate the path in front of us and assure a just and peaceful and welcoming community that knows, implicitly, the right thing that God is calling us to do in that time, in that place. We need to do it as a community: it cannot be done alone. This again is why I so strongly believe we need a church, even against those arguments that one can “find God on a morning stroll through the woods.” True, divinity is present everywhere, as a Unitarian prayer goes, but as it continues: “but in certain places and certain times we feel a speciality of presence: may this be such a place, and such a time.”

In our gospel reading, Jesus tells us what happens when we go beyond the structures that held us up in our faith infancy. We no longer just say “killing is bad”; we say “anger is bad,” and saying terrible things about one another is bad, just as bad as killing. It is so bad that if you come to worship with anger in your heart, Jesus tells you to get up, and go back to the person with whom you are angry and be reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and be able to worship God in the sanctuary with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and indeed, with your entire being. How many of us came into worship with hatred in our hearts for someone, something? And yet, who here is ready to leave? You may. There is no shame in following the teachings of Jesus. Come and worship God reconciled with one another. This is what it means to pass the peace: we remove anger from our hearts, and take away hard feelings.

Living in a community and growing in faith together will make it possible to not even need to rely on the basic commandments, but will make it possible to go beyond the commandments. Our Scripture readings, though from old documents that have lived with communities in very different times, continue to help guide us, calling to us to live out the good news of Jesus. We have received the commandments, but we can hear in these Scriptures where Jesus wants us to go: beyond the commandments. We move from the self-interest that exploits our fertile lands and brings death and re-orient our community to the sharing in the journey that leads to life. We pray for our communal faith to so occupy our bones that we find when a crisis DOES happen, we can respond in the same manner as the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne: “We were doing what had to be done”.


Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

8 Carvel Circle

Edgewater, MD 21037

(410) 266-8596 x200

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. 

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.

Standing on holy ground

In Authenticity, Chaos & Nonlinaer thought, Exodus, Holy Ground, Matthew on September 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Sermon delivered on Sunday, 28 August 2011

St Columba’s United Reformed Church, Gosport, Hampshire

Readings: Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:1-5

Our scripture readings today deal with the question of identity. Moses’ own identity is revealed to himself when he seeks out the ‘light’ of the burning bush and responds to God’s call for him with the telling response, “Here I am.” He comes to the realisation of what he must do, as indicated by the messenger of the burning bush, as he realises he is standing on holy ground.
Jesus also reveals his identity. We explored earlier how the “Son of Man” language, not used in our Scriptural reading version this morning, bears a resonance with the texts of Isaiah and Ezekiel. But we also explored how “Human One” may be closer to the Aramaic meaning Jesus would have been using to underscore his humanity. What is important here is what happens when Jesus’ disciples are told not only Jesus’ true identity, but what the implications of this authentic identity must be: that he must suffer; that he must die.
Naming this true and authentic identity causes shock and denial amongst his followers. His disciples have already decided who they think Jesus is. They would prefer this image that they have come to know to remain the same, for this life of challenging the fixed notions of their own society to remain unchanged. They forget that they, the challengers themselves, have developed a fixed notion of Jesus and are projecting that idea on him.
Peter is so disturbed by this that he rebukes Jesus. This cannot possibly be right, Jesus must be out of his mind right now. But Jesus knows himself and he knows the implications of this identity, and in turn rebukes Peter in an uncommonly stern way, going so far as to call Peter “Satan.”
This is a constant challenge for us as human beings. We feel in our society that we must live up to the labels and understandings of ourselves which we have both sought and which others have placed upon us. These definitions become fixed and rigid; they do not necessarily conform to the shape of our own personalities and ideas. In response, we may feel the need to add other labels or rebel outright against the labels which may have been pressed upon us.
For example, if we take the label of “Christian,” we have a set notion of what a Christian does, how she behaves, what her reaction will be to certain community activities and changes. We may even construct an idea of the exact set of values which a Christian will take on as she moves through the world, and be able to predict – or think we may be able to predict – her future choices based upon these so-called understood values. It is not just the people inside these walls who have this idea – it’s people outside of them, too.
As we jumble more labels upon ourselves to help guide our definitions of how we should react – “as the mother of four children,” as a “Conservative,” as a “Lib Dem,” as a “Englishman,” as an “American,” – we can form a sense of who we must live up to be entirely by definition sets which arise from outside of our control. By stringing together these labels we may arrive at something which approximates ourselves – a middle-class, church-going Englishman who lives in Gosport and drives a Toyota, for example – and feel that we have some control over our self- definition.
But instead we find ourselves living up to each of the perceptions that come with these labels, and we become image-concious and easily manipulated by a system which insists that, “as a Christian, surely you must do this and that,” and so forth. We can hear Peter forming in his mind a similar statement, “as the Messiah, surely you must continue to confront the Roman forces and free Israel from the heel of domination.” When placed in this context, does this not sound similar to the temptations Jesus faced in the desert? Resisting those urges to live up to outside expectations are so important to our Christian heritage that we have enshrined them in our observations of Lent. And yet, we still have labels and we still seek affiliation amongst those labels. We want to belong.
Of course, there are also times when we seek to defy the labels. Perhaps we should channel that activity as we seek to understand how Jesus, in humility, refused to follow the prescriptions of labels placed on him.
Let’s revisit the preconceptions – or shall we call them misconceptions and prejudices – of what it means to be a “Christian.” These preconceptions, both ours and those of others, keep us from authentically interacting with each other. They form a barrier between ourselves and the people around us. The preconceptions and baggage associated with this label act as stumbling blocks from our own self-realisation, for instead of responding to the authentic reality of who we are – something only each individual can know – we inflict on ourselves many misnomers, and allow ourselves to be shielded from from the divine light which is your own personality, complete with your own God-given light.
Moses does not realise he is standing on holy ground until after he responds to the burning bush, “Here I am.” Moses is not telling God physically where he is. He is telling God that all of him is present in that very moment, fully aware that God is calling his entire authentic person, and he is ready to receive. Nevermind for the moment that he is an ordinary shepherd from a seemingly ordinary family. Nevermind that he is not without sin himself: we should not forget that Moses has killed a man, and fled from his own Hebrew people because of his fear. He does not respond at that point “Here is a shepherd, a Hebrew, a man raised in the Egyptian Pharoah’s household.” Only when Moses shows fear at his assignment does he provide these labels as excuses: a false humility.
But he responds to God with questions about his identity: who am I? What am I to say? He reverses the statement I am to the question am I. And God replies with the model which Moses himself, without thinking, understood from the very start: “I Am Who I Am.” It is a message to Moses: be your own “I am” and answer the challenge to which I am asking you to respond. God does not tell Moses who Moses is, either: God places the challenge there in front of him, confident that as Moses figures out his authentic person and voice, he will be capable of taking on this seemingly impossble task.
Each person here, and each person out there, has God-given gifts which become revealed when we – and by we I mean humanity – no longer hide behind ourselves and the conglomeration of labels we have constructed. This is what Jesus is saying when he says we must give ourselves up. Not to become mindless followers of an idealised definition, but instead to become fully and authentically ourselves, just as he is doing. Who is it who identifies Jesus as a carpenter? Not Jesus himself – he identifies himself simply as the “Son of Man” or the “Human One”, and only rarely as “Son of God.” He identifies himself as fully human, just like every one of us. That’s it, folks. It’s like you and I saying we’re members of the human race. Paul captures this sentiment perfectly in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (CEB). We have recognised something extraordinary in this fully human and inexplicably fully divine person of Jesus, but the emphasis of the statement “Son of Man” or “Human One” is that he is “fully human.”
Wherever we are when we can say, “Here I am,” is on holy ground. It is not confined to a church, nor to a living room, but to anyplace where we are not following prescriptions of labels, but instead are opening to ourselves and being who we are. That “inner light” no longer stays hidden as under a bushel: when we are in the state of fully being ourselves, that light consumes us as the fire consumes the bush. Yet it does not change the shape of the bush, nor does it exist around the bush. It consumes it to the core, a light shaped by the authentic, natural shape of the bush. This shining beacon of authentic light we give consumes us, but retains our shape. We become fully engaged in this place: Moses takes off his sandals and feels the earth between his toes! Think, too, of the hottest point of a fire, that blue part at the very centre of the flame: it is at the core of our being that we find our “true blue”, barefoot, selves. This is what Jesus means when he tells the disciples they must give up themselves – give up your false ideas, give up your inauthentic yearnings and labels, take up your cross – your true form – and follow me.
Moses departs from this meeting with a shining face and a challenge. People have to turn their faces from him because they are not ready to deal with the real, authentic Moses: they are used to the Moses they have cultivated in their mind and the same one who lives by the ideas they have projected upon him. But Moses has discovered within his very depth of being the gifts of God which is his own personality and which he must go and use. And he is not sent to an easy place to
be authentically himself – he is sent into the belly of the beast, the core of the problem, the heart of contention. He will waver at times and continue to ask questions: at no point is Moses described as being in any way more than a human. But each time he doubts and wavers, he is reminded that he, the ordinary Moses, is capable.
Jesus must go as the Human One, the Son of Man, to respond to his own calling. The disciples don’t want their journey together to stop. They want their understanding of Jesus’ ministry to continue. But it cannot – Jesus sees the pattern of the world, and he knows what he must do in response, unpleasant and unwanted as it may be. We should not forget that it is Jesus himself who cries out in Matthew 27:46, repeating from Psalm 22, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, My God, My God, why have you left me?” (CEB). It is a cry of pain and hurt.
We inhabit a world which is constantly and dynamically changing. Not too long ago we thought we lived in a world which lived by fixed rules and operated as a steady-state machine. We formulated algorithms and mathematical equations when we found these patterns, amazed at the simplicity of the formulas and how they produced such a wealth of complexity in our world. And yet today, our understanding of the world has changed simply because we’ve realised that the world is changing. I’m not talking only about societal, cultural shifts which have been much debated since the recent riots. Nature itself is in constant flux. And as we try to use the patterns and equations we developed to predict how natural phenomena, people, and even financial markets, should react to something, we find that they don’t follow a fixed and straight path. We have learned that all of the world is governed by its interaction with something we don’t understand all that well at all: chaos. Our formulas do work – but the results are unpredictable, even if they are clear in hindsight.
Chaos is neither crackpot theology or science. It is commonly accepted in the world. It is not something to be feared, but it means that we cannot predict future events in a way we once thought was possible – hence the very real frustration with global markets and our lack of understanding of crowd dynamics. But it does mean that things are constantly changing: and the only way we can respond to it is to be authentic to ourselves and recognise that these dramatic shifts are taking place on holy ground. We can be fully aware of them when we are able to respond to the challenges they present when we can say, “Here I am.” We respond by allowing that divine light to shine forth from our divinely-given personalities, holding our shape and yet acting as a beacon for all to be one, fully themselves and fully one, as Jesus himself was fully human and fully divine. We can gather up and remind each other, as Moses and Jesus did, that God’s still-speaking presence is with us, fully responsive to the shifts of the created world.
Jesus asks us, ‘what will you give in exchange for your life?’ When you know it is life you gain, you will find your feet planted firmly on holy ground.