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THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41
[Based on the sermon series “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” WJK Press]
In the news, when someone is described primarily with a physical quality, it implies there is nothing more to be said about a person. For example, during the presidential campaign, one of the candidates described a ‘differently-abled’ reporter emphasizing his disability. In the old days, a patient in the hospital may have been described as “the gall bladder” in room 317. The actress Hedi Lamar (google that name youngsters) might be described as a starlet, gorgeous, beautiful, as opposed to intelligent, scientist, or inventor.
In today’s readings we hear of men with miraculous power, king makers and sight givers, literally changing the destiny of two other men and possibly the Hebrew people. Samuel goes to Bethlehem to anoint a king, one who doesn’t seem to have too much going for him except pretty eyes. Samuel goes on God’s orders, the story tells us, and the people of Bethlehem are terrified when this man of power comes among them. Rejecting Jesse’s older, stronger, and upon first glance more qualified sons, Samuel anoints a shepherd boy with pretty eyes as the one who will be the king. It is not clear how that is to be, especially when you look at this kid, but that is the story we have. At this moment, it is as if David is the worse possible illustration of the power of God.
In the gospel reading, the blind man also begins as an illustration in a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The disciples ask Jesus about the effects of Sin across generations. Jesus responds that sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness, but “that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
See the old thinking was that if someone is disabled or disfigured or the victim of some tragic event, they must have done something to deserve it. They, or their parents, must have brought this upon themselves. It is a pattern as old as Job’s conversation with his so-called friends.
It is tragic when we do this to ourselves. I have heard many, many times, someone cry out “what did I do to deserve this?” When my oldest son Paul was born with significant birth defects, not visible, but significant enough to be on a ventilator for the rest of his life, Becky and I tortured ourselves asking, “What did we do to cause this?” The pediatric intensivist was wise enough to respond to our questions by saying, “nothing, now stop it.”
It is even more tragic when people define others in these derogatory ways. When I was a seminary student I completed a chaplaincy internship at Homestead Village in Lancaster. At my first meeting of the independent living council, they were considering a resolution to bar walkers and wheelchairs from the dining room. “Those people belong in a different level of care.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Most of them were one slip or fall away from a walker themselves. Historically, women have been treated this way as have minorities. This derision is born out of an ignorance or unfamiliarity with the people, the human beings, in question.
We might call into question, as Samuel did, the accepted conventional thinking about what is normal, respectable, well, or whole. It is good to question our assumptions about people, because Jesus does not come to see if we are good. He comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good” (Rev. Robert Farrar Capon). Nadia Boltz Weber, the pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saint’s in Denver, is tattooed and fond of the descriptive power of coarse language. She is not a ‘normal’ pastor, thanks be to God.
Her newest book, “Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People,” expands on her trademark exploration of finding God in the unexpected.
“When it comes down to it,” said Bolz-Weber, “the church is for losers. We connect to each other and to God through our shared brokenness, not through our personal victories and strengths and accomplishments. This is why it’s hilarious to me when people sort of write me off as hipster Christianity. You have definitely not been to my congregation. It is not hip.” [Jesse James DeConto, Why Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber Thinks Church Is For Losers,” Huffington Post, 10.04.2015]
The blind man is defined by others as a sinner in his very being, because he is blind. We don’t know if he contests that identity or not, we do not know. It seems as though the category of blindness was intractable in that time and place, attached to a set of assumptions that unquestionably defined a human being, like disability, race, gender, or sexual orientation in our time. Now Jesus has empowered him to redefine himself, to abandon the label others might assign. So who is he?
One Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer remarks on her blog:
It may be that the most damning point this Sunday’s gospel has against Jesus’ accusers is one that we easily miss: they did not know the blind man who was healed.
He sat and begged there daily, and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn’t be sure of who he was — others had to fetch his parents before they could be sure of the identification
We do not get a complete answer of who he is, but we know, because we know something about the human condition in general, that both the healed blind man and the anointed David remain flawed human beings. But that is not all they are.
In the gospel, Jesus said,
“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
I want to suggest to you that one of the biggest challenges of our day is to rid ourselves of the categories and superficial identities we use to label others. We need to get to know people who seem different. If we see as Jesus calls us to see, and, if we live as our faith drives us to live, then it only makes sense that we will live differently toward others.
I am increasingly convinced that one reason that we have such a hard time giving up assumptions and judgement about other people is that we have a hard time doing this for ourselves. Our disdain for others is a compensatory tactic against our own self-judgment. If we cannot see ourselves as whole and chosen in God’s sight, it is nearly impossible to see others this way.
But we can do this. We can see ourselves as worthy of God’s love and so see others this way too. This is made possible, of course, when we redefine ourselves, when we shed those old definitions that play in our heads – those perhaps, that have been thrust upon us by others – and claim the identity that God has given us, defined by the power of God working in us.
For, if we revel in singing the words “I once was blind but now I see”, we should also live as children of the light, because we have been healed and set free, named and claimed, by the immense and unending grace of God. Part of this life is recognizing this in others, and refraining what we think and believe about them.
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
March 19, 2017
[based on a sermon series in “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, WJK, 2016]
I was at a church meeting a while ago and during the devotions, read from the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, a woman sitting nearby pulled out the now ubiquitous nalgene bottle and took a big long swig. These water bottles, or those like them, are everywhere. Perhaps the stories of thirst that we read today have been taken to heart and we have all concluded to keep ourselves hydrated. In reality I think that we have finally come to see plain old water as a vast improvement over alternatives to drink. If it’s good water.
The need for clean drinking water is not something new. Back in the 1990’s Becky and I hosted a missionary to India while he was on home leave. He spoke at our church, and others, and stayed at our house. Before he left, I ask him, ‘what will you miss the most about the states when you return to India?’ He paused and said, ‘the only thing, is the ability to turn on the tap and get a safe, cool, glass of water.’
You probably don’t realize that in a file folder at my home office I have a license for Water Production for the state of Michigan. So when the issue with the water in Flint Michigan hit the news, I realized that it was not the product of shoddy management or even infrastructure. The problem was money and politics. In the United States of America there is no reason why anyone should not have clean, safe, drinking water.
A friend of mine was a missionary in Botswana. He ran a home and school for the children of native ministers. He once told me that their biggest struggle was clean water. I told him of my engineering background and public works experience and explained that digging a well, even in primitive conditions, was not only possible but could be done if we could raise the money. He told me, ‘money is not the problem.’ Once the well is in place it becomes a political issue, a financial issue, and the local militia will take it over and control who gets water and how much. If only there were stones today we could break for streams of living water!
We are utterly dependent upon water. Water comforts and cleanses, as well as destroys by its abundance or scarcity. We demonstrate that value by carrying around our own ‘reverse osmosis water’ in those plastic bottles. When it is hot, when we are exerting ourselves, we need to stay hydrated or our efforts in the task at hand may be compromised.
On this Sunday in lent we might notice that hydration does not only occur in the physiological sense, in the organic sense. There is a spiritual hydration that is an essential part of our Christian life. In today’s readings the people and then Jesus are simply thirsty. They ask for water. It is a reasonable request. The Hebrew people point out that they need water, which invites Moses into a conversation with God that creates from despair, water from a stone.
Jesus’ offering of water to this woman is chock full of political and social intrigue. She is of the wrong nationality, the wrong gender, and because of when and where Jesus encounters her, probably a woman who the other women shame. I do not think that Jesus is telling her that if she changes her ways that there is grace and forgiveness. I don’t think that’s it at all. I don’t think Jesus even needs to forgive her. Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance but to life-giving faith. I believe he is accepting her where she is at and inviting her to a deeper sense of God’s presence in her life.
Do you realize, that in John’s Gospel Jesus talks to the woman at the well longer than he speaks to the entirety of the crowds who come to see him? More verses of conversation occur here than in all of his speaking to the disciples! This stranger, this outsider, this woman gets more of a private audience with Jesus than with any other folk in the whole gospel. Jesus reaches out to her and offers her one of the basic necessities of life.
I like that. Perhaps next book I’ll be reading is the popular Lemony Snicket series by Daniel Handler. I decided that after I read this quote from one of the books: “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.” One thing to try this Lent is to offer some hydration to another.
Eugene Petersen translates part of this passage this way: “…the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come–when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself–Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration” (The Message).
This woman, out of a keen understanding of her own need and a marvelous openness to Jesus and all that he offers, asks, “Sir, give me this water!” Then Jesus shows her, in an interesting way, just how powerful he is. He tells her that he knows her, really knows all about her and her life. He doesn’t judge her or tell her that she’s welcome to the living water so that she can change her sinful ways. What he is doing is accepting her and calling her to discipleship.
We can learn from this. For one thing, we are reminded not to react like the other disciples. John, as narrator, gives voice to their unspoken thoughts: “Why are you speaking with her?” Too often these thoughts roll through our minds. Yes, Jesus, we know you love all people, but surely you don’t mean people like that!
We might also recognize that even today there are still people at the well in the midday heat, those written off by society, looking in from the outside. The gospel drives us toward them with a word of hope that transcends race, gender, nationality, marital status, and anything else the world would use to separate us. In Christ, all such division is transcended and healed. We are sent to those who yearn to have their long thirst satisfied.
So keep yourselves hydrated brothers and sisters so that you don’t fade while you are out in the heat of the day, doing this challenging work. May we be bold–fearless–in feeding hungry hearts and quenching thirsty spirits while sharing and caring for one another’s basic needs. We are all thirsty people. May your heart be broken open by God rather than hardened by this world, so that you may pour out prodigal, quenching love without fear of being emptied. Amen.
Snow days sometimes offer an opportunity for a different aspect of work. The last two days I’ve taken advantage of the time and worked ahead on worship. Another thing I did was finish some reading I started and had not finished. It isn’t unusual for me to have more than one book going at a time. It is unusual to have five unfinished. [I recently finished two of Diana Butler Bass’ books: (re-read) Religion After Christianity, and Grounded. I liked the latter better.]
Some months ago the whole political climate pushed me to re-read Cornell West’s Democracy Matters. This book is a followup to his prior book Race Matters. This one was reviewed as not living up to its predecessor in content or originality. I think it is uniquely West, but some of the structure (tripartite) seems forced and wooden.
I started this re-read because I wanted to revisit the chapter titled: “The Crisis of Christian Identity in America.” In the final paragraph of that chapter West writes:
I do not want to be numbered among those who sold their souls for a mess of pottage – who surrendered their democratic Christian identity for a comfortable place at the table of the American empire while, like Lazarus, the least of these cried out and I was too intoxicated with worldly power and might to hear, beckon, and heed their cries.
A 2004 NY Times review said of what West called a sequel to Race Matters that blamed a nihilism isolated in the African American community. Now,
West worries that nihilism has now spread to Americans of all races. “Many have given up even being heard,” he writes, and have succumbed to “sour cynicism, political apathy and cultural escapism.”
Unfortunately, West’s conclusions break down into a rambling disunity containing what can be seen as anti-semitism and odd attribution to everything from cocaine to weblogs. His conclusion in this book are not nearly as neat as his diagnosis. He attempts to offer a citizenship solution for the problems he’s outlined but that solution is confusing at times and disjointed.
In that chapter on Christian identity, West urges Christians “to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing…” which is to say in faith and trust. Although treated very briefly, it makes more sense to me than the democratic solution he offers later in the book. That solution, to me, is unconvincing. Nevertheless, it is this following, and ‘discernment’ of spirits that (I believe) is the core of a faithful discipleship in these days and times.
I’ve also been reading three other texts that might be categorized as light reading. The first, How’s Your Faith, by David Gregory; the second, The Road to Character by David Brooks, and the third, The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Gregory’s book chronicles his own journey toward spiritual clarity. Something more than mere curiosity usually precipitates this kind of personal exploration. For him, it was partially the loss of his job hosting Meet the Press. I saw that event as a ‘tipping point,’ and not necessarily the cause of his seeking. He identifies one early marker in his search when covering the White House for NBC and then President George Bush asked him: “How’s Your Faith?”
Raised as an ethic jew in a dysfunctional family system, Gregory seeks clarification (I think) like I might, by writing. He organizes his experiences into chapters: Pain, Love, Purpose, Transformation, Sacrifice, Humility, Doubt, Surrender, Forgiveness. The prologue and the epilogue are only important as a context setting and an opportunity for conclusion. The stories told are real and human which makes them speak. The voice in this writing seems honest and never contrived.
Gregory’s own struggles with his family and his discovery of faith resources come to illumine his path. He uses these characteristics as labels for each chapter. There are times when the ache contained in the text seems insurmountable. But, what is faith if not the ability to see beyond the present difficulties. Another sage once said, “who hopes for what they see?”
Similar in structure to Gregory’s book, David Brooks’ The Road to Character contains chapter long stories about individuals that Brooks uses to illustrate a particular quality of character. They are: The Summoned Self, Frances Perkins; Self-Conquest, Dwight Eisenhower; Struggle, Dorothy Day; Self-Mastery, George Marshall; Dignity, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin; Love, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot); Ordered Love, Augustine; and Self Examination, Samuel Johnson.
The first chapter lays out an ‘old model’ for character and describes a shift to a new how and what of character. The Last chapter, The Big Me, is Brooks’ effort to knit together these qualities into a seamless garment. Each of the chapters are nicely full of the character and their qualities that lead to Brooks using them to illustrate a particular trait. It was easy to read a single chapter and put it down, pick it up later, as it didn’t really seem like starting and stoping at all.
What Brooks is building toward is a criticism of a social shift toward narcissism as a backdrop for our moral/ethical frame of reference. “The Big Me,” is his way of describing the shoddy and self serving ethics we witness in both the public square and in personal encounters.
Brooks describes our prevailing model as a “meritocracy, utilitarian, instrumentalist mindset.” In the end, this book is not a harkening back to the good ole days, but rather an attempt to capture the importance of the pendulum of character swinging back in the direction of those measures of greatness.
The Book of Joy is not altogether different. It is a wonderful account of two self-described ‘mischievous’ souls get together to discuss deep, deep, deep, spirituality. In the case of these two, this spirituality is born in the crucible of suffering. I don’t say this because suffering is a significant theme in Buddhism (which it is) or that colonialism in Africa caused immense suffering (which it did). I say this because the joy that these two masters speak about is not necessarily related to, or the product of, their suffering. What suffering sometimes produces is the ability to “lessen one’s self absorption.” In this way, the book of joy picks up where Brooks’ text leaves off.
Much of the book discusses the what of true joy, its qualities. For me it was fun to read these descriptive stories told by the Dali Lama and the Archbishop. Neither men are the ‘stuffy’ spiritual masters you might anticipate. They are self-described mischief-makers. The narratives make this abundantly clear. After this descriptive body of the book, it is the chapter on the “Five Pillars of Joy” that describes personal qualities that precipitate joy. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the end of the book has a resource of spiritual practices that can help us move toward more joyful lives. This chapter is no afterthought that slaps a couple of pages on the finished book as if someone else added a study guide. It is apparent that these practices are the product of the lives of these two leaders. It alone is worth the price of admission.
The fifth book is an academic book. I was at an inter-faith event in Philadelphia in the wake of the desecration of the Jewish cemetery there when I overheard Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian, Dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia mention he was reading, Why Can the Dead Do Such Such Great Things: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett. This book is thoroughly academic. The bibliography is almost 100 pages long. His comment went something like this: ‘why do we focus on the great things the dead do? Cannot the living do great things also?’ Don’t quote me on this.
Protestants like me have a certain disdain for an over emphasis on the Saints. But my own religious order (The Order of Corpus Christi) and its practice of morning and evening prayer runs you headlong into the observance of saints days. If you think about it, society has ‘canonized’ (or bastardized) the observance of certain saint’s days. Think Patrick, Valentine, even Nicholas. So it was interesting, if not exhausting, to read this very thorough account of how the saints became so important to the church.
Bartlett does due diligence in covering the early church through medieval church’s focus on the saints. He chronicles the shift from religious movement to religious institution and the parallel movement with the veneration of the saints.
While not really difficult reading this book is academic in its format and scope so is not for the faint of heart. For instance, the chapter on “Relics and Shrines” begins by discussing body parts. It isn’t until some 587 pages in when we finally get to what a reformed clergy person is waiting for: “Doubt and Dissent.” This opposition is not new, but is documented by Jerome as early as 400 AD, “Contra Vigilantium.” The upshot of this part of Bartlett’s study is that heretics and heretical saints should be suppressed. And, it is the powerful who get to decide who are the heretics.
In Bartlett’s chapter on “Reflections” he gets to some of the issues with the saints and the cult of the saints. One issue is that there are times when these saints are unrecognizable when compared to other pagan god’s. A human being, with a human life story, whose ‘afterlife’ is the source of supernatural power. There are similarities. There may also be similarities to the ‘cult of the ancestors’ found in many societies around the globe. But I would agree that similarity does not mean direct descendance or that they function the same within their own culture.
There you have it. Five books. My favorite? Two: The Book of Joy and Road To Character. The narrative in both made the reading enjoyable.
[This series is based on the resource: “Lectionary Sermon Series” by WJKPress.]
THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
March 5, 2017
“The Need for Change”
Lent seems long. Forty days and forty nights is a biblical way of saying a good long time. And that’s why we have forty days and forty nights in the season of Lent. We are getting ready with Jesus for the big stuff ahead. Jesus had to get ready to bear the cross for us. We have to get ready to bear our crosses for his namesake.
As I begin to consider this, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about change for the sake of change, like getting tired of the draperies in the bedroom. I am speaking about a spiritual sense of gone wrongness that is not always easy to abide. I remember stories about Mohandras Gandhi, who for the sake of improving conditions for the ‘untouchable’ caste in India, for the Freedom movement, undertook seventeen fasts. Three of which were 21 days. This was part of his objection to caste separation, and a non-violent protest.
I am not suggesting that anyone here take up such a plan. But I am suggesting that taking the gone wrongness in our own lives and in the life of the community is important, if difficult, work; and it deserves a physical manifestation.
It isn’t easy getting prepared for any challenging task. Just look at Jesus’ trip to the desert. I’ve titled this sermon series “Boot Camp” to remind myself that I am not only preparing myself for something important, but that my ability to perform in the future is in some way dependent upon the work I do now. Some of you who are veterans might remember the literal place, ‘boot camp.’ I remember having to go to workouts twice a day to get ready for the football season. What I am trying to capture with this description is the idea of some intentional, intense, practice, so that we might be ready for life.
One thing that happens in such environments is that changes are made in our practices that improve our performance. I remember never ending drills on footwork, hand work, agility, all in an effort to do something that on its first glance is quite simple…to get in the way of another guy who wants to tackle your quarterback.
Lent is, of course not exactly like this. Lent invites us, not requires us, to a season of introspection and discernment of sin and all that separates us from the knowledge of the love of God for us and our neighbor. Lent is a time to practice those things that might become second nature and in their use draw us closer to God and one another. Lent, literally, is a time to ‘repent,’ to change.
One of the greatest temptations each of us face is to deny the need for change.
As individuals we could spend endless hours in reflection on where and how we need to change, but that might be a temptation in and of itself…spending all our time contemplating change and never getting around to actually doing it. If Lent is like a training camp for the soul, what is the hard work that can be done in this limited intensive forty days?
One thing that might be done in these limited days is to learn to look at a big picture. Where are our temptations as a people, in this nation, or in our community? Where does the collective us behave in ways and believe in things that deny the goodness of those whose lives are defined by exclusion or suffering? Christianity in general is not exempt from the need for repentance.
Now look at that big picture sin. It may not be a factor in your life. Maybe it is. But how does your day to day living help reduce the existence and effect of that ‘big picture’ sin?
In the Gospel, the devil offers Jesus power over others, and he denies it for a kingdom greater than this world. Each of us has some position, some power, even the very least of us. And each of us is tempted to use that power for our own appetites. What do we want at the moment? Do we really need this or that? The tyranny of the urgent tempts us to exploit our power for something less than God.
What power are we tempted to seek, and how might we instead work for a kingdom-level-justice that might seem impossible in this world?
Let us consider these temptations that Jesus faced. How we acquire our daily bread and at whose expense? How do we understand what it means that how we live our lives has an impact on the creation around us? Do we recognize that all too often we use the power we have in ways that are inconsistent with God’s desires for peoples and nations?
What I am trying to say is that if we cannot be honest about our situation, the fact that more often than not we act out of our own, isolated, selfish, fearful, greedy, bigoted, motives, then we too easily believe our motives are pure when they are not. And what happens then is that we do no realize how far distant we have become from the people God created us to be.
Fredrick Buechner in his book Secrets in the Dark writes: “The truth, of course, is that holiness is not a human quality like virtue. If there is such a thing at all, holiness is Godness and as such is not something people do but something God does in them, if there is such a thing as God. It is something God seems especially apt to do in people who are not virtuous at all, at least not to start with. Think of Francis of Assisi or Mary Magdalene. Quite the contrary. If you’re too virtuous, the chances are you think you are a saint already under your own steam, and therefore the real thing can never happen to you.” It’s funny but Buechner seems to say that too big a desire for change can get in the way like not seeing a reason to change.
As we begin this boot camp season, there are so many things that need changing that we might be overwhelmed…or should be. Let us consider how we as individuals need to change, how our life together as Christ’s church needs to change; and let us do so without fear, for as the Psalmist claims, God ‘surrounds us with glad cries of deliverance.’ (Psalm 32:5-7) “The tendency is to think that God will love us if we change, but God loves us so we can change.”
“No Reason for Fear”
2 Peter 1:16-21
February 26, 2017
The disciples, on the mountain top, in the fog, get a glimpse of a remarkable scene. The glory of God comes down, not to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the top of Mount Sinai, but onto and into Jesus himself, shining in splendor, talking with Moses and Elijah, drawing the law and the prophets together into the time of fulfillment. The disciples ‘see’ this extra-ordinary thing for a short time, and then, as quick as it came it is over.
What do they have? Let’s call it a ‘religious’ experience. That’s what it is. A religious experience is an experience of the Holy (as Rudolph Otto might say, the numinous). By definition, the disciples are experiencing something that is not explainable by modern perceptions. A religious experience, to me can be everything from a ‘still small voice’, which nags you from time to time…to a powerful vision from a sickbed or an answer to prayer. In each case it is an experience of holiness. It is an experience of God. And in this situation it is a glimpse of something that is not a myth, but to be trusted. It is an affirmation of a present reality that might be missed otherwise, might be misunderstood.
As we all know too well these days, fear mongering can be quite effective. It is a common tool of despots and tyrants. Some would say that it is a weapon that God wields from time to time.
Yet the purpose of such an encounter is not to scare the disciples (or us) into submission to the almighty, although it may do that. It is not to generate a certain ‘fear of the Lord’ that would make us better christians. The purpose of this revelation of who Jesus actually is, isn’t to cause disciples fear. The revelation comes to grant us courage. When the cloud terrifies them, Jesus speaks words of reassurance and re-direction. Again and again he does this to those who seek to respond to who he is, in all his Holiness, he touches them and says: “Rise, and have no fear.”
Not everyone has such experiences. Which is to say that most people do have ‘religious’ experiences. It is simply that for most of us our experiences carry with them much less drama than Peter and James and John experienced.
Matthew does not include Mark’s explanation that Peter spoke as he did because “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” But it is clear for Matthew that Peter’s offer to build three tents is a trivial, ludicrous outburst. Matthew’s Peter seeks to engage this revelation of God in a concrete way, a rational way…let us build something. His response is like lots of other seemingly rational talk, ill timed and diversionary. We end up discussing matters to death, arguing the fine points of the budget or the implications of some sliver of biblical testimony, swooning in the ecstasy of our perceived understanding of God. In mid-sentence, we are interrupted by a voice that speaks what is really essential, really assuring: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
In second Peter, the author is addressing some believers who have been swayed by the idea that the return of Jesus Christ was a “cleverly devised myth” (1:16) which it would be good to discard. These detractors are suggesting that we are getting our hopes set upon that which cannot deliver what we hope for. The author of 2 Peter combats this misleading idea. Like Matthew’s disciples, 2 Peter urges paying attention to Jesus. It suggests that Jesus can be trusted and that trust effects our life. In 2 Peter this kind of listening means that the parousia hopes of Christians have profound ethical consequences. In other words, the expectation of Christ’s return makes (or ought to make) a difference in the day to day lives of those of us who expect it. That difference is in how we live. Our lives ought to be characterized by things such as faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love (1:5-7).
The author of 2 Peter says to his readers: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” For those who were not present on the mountain, those without the experience, still it would be good to be attentive to these things. Some may still not get it and ask, attentive to what?
Why anticipating the presence of Christ, redeeming all of creation, that’s what. Parousia simply means ‘presence’ or ‘arrival’. It sometimes get’s translated as ‘second coming’ but it does not mean ‘second coming to end the world’, although it gets treated that way by many people. It is the Greek word used in the New Testament to describe the first-century arrival of Jesus’ presence into his Kingdom, or gathered body and hearts of believers. I think that is what Diana Butler Bass is getting at in her book “Grounded.” She writes:
The heavens live in us, with us, as the reality under all things, as part of creation. In Christian theology, Jesus brings together sky and earth, the God who dwells with us.
Consider another transfiguration story from another time and place. Nicholas Motovilov (1809-1832) visited Seraphim of Sarov, a well known saintly hermit, and asked him how one could know that the Spirit of God was really present. It was a cloudy day, and they were sitting on tree stumps in the woods. He describes what followed:
Then Father Seraphim gripped me firmly by the shoulders and said: “My friend, both of us, at this moment are in the Holy Spirit, you and I. Why won’t you look at me?”
“I can’t look at you, Father, because the light flashing from your eyes and face is brighter than the sun and I’m dazzled…”
“What do your feel?” asked Father Seraphim.
“An amazing well-being” said Nicholas.
“…this is as it should be, for divine grace comes to live in our hearts, within us.”
When all else fades — and indeed, we know some dark days — Jesus remains, reaching out in help and healing. Jesus is the place where God’s time and our time meet, where God’s new creation intersects with ours. This reality is to be participated in here and now, not waited for. Scary? Maybe. Impossible? No.
At the very close of Matthew’s account, Jesus will gather with these and all of his disciples on another mountain, and promise that he will be with them even to the close of the age. This, too, is an affirmation of a reality that can be denied when difficult and frightening things are going on all around us. What is this? It is another way of saying, there is no reason for fear.
THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Leviticus can be seen as commentary on the most basic of God’s commands to God’s people. The “Ten Commandments” of biblical and movie lore. Then we hear a part of a sermon, by Jesus, interpreting commands such as these. The commands we hear this morning from this section of the sermon on the mount can be confusing. Once scholar suggests that we cannot understand them apart from the one who is saying them. After all, this is the same Jesus who (later in the gospel) says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them..”(Matthew 23:2-4)
Greg Carey (of Lancaster Theological Seminary) reminds us, “These sayings emphasize doing what Jesus says…the thesis insists upon righteous conduct, including Torah observance, that exceeds even that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is calling for a deeper and more radical way of following God. And it is important that he is saying these words for personal reflection, not to be put upon others.
Diana Butler Bass in her recent book “Grounded” describes the understanding of how to be a faithful person is shifting. She says: “Who and what, along with their authoritarian answers, have been traded for the experiential and open-ended concerns of where and how. This idea might help us understand these texts and move away from a rigid literalism. (Bass, Diana Butler Grounded, Harper One: New York, 2015, p. 10)
These instructions were offered to God’s people as they returned from exile, spoken to a people who knew what it meant to try and live a holy life in the midst of a culture that was quite different. Jesus speaks to a people who knew these same commands by heart. The preacher Jesus is suggesting that through the years these instructions have not been properly understood.
It is not Judaism that is the problem, it is institutional Christianity. We need to realize that we are the recipients of a tradition that has turned these sayings into a justification for docility and obedience to ‘the way things are.’ Many people of color, women, persons of various sexual orientations, and the poor have found themselves at the blunt end of the powers that be that have used Jesus’ words as a way to control and manipulate them by insisting upon their marching in step with a particular, and privileged, arrangement of the world.
Jesus’ words have been twisted to insist that somebody else be ‘obedient,’ and that an other not be persistent in their justice work, but be docile and compliant. “Turn the other cheek” can be used by those in power to keep others in line. These are situations that Jesus is not envisioning here. The exercise of self-giving, and of “going the extra mile,” are meant to be liberating and not enslaving. It is there, in being generous and offering grace, that God dwells. Let me tell you a story:
Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.
“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”
Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.
“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.
Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.
“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”
Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”
“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” (A story from NPR, Morning Edition, 2008: http://www.npr.org/2008/03/28/89164759/a-victim-treats-his-mugger-right)
On this seventh Sunday after Epiphany, it may be difficult at first to identify the promise God offers in these texts. Jesus here is “at his ornery best offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one that is giving it.” As with much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is waking up a generation of people for whom the Law–now so associated with the powerful who are guardians of its precise following–only presents itself as a burden and obligation. The religious people, at least the ones we bump into in the Gospels, have become disconnected from God and the ordinary people, but Jesus speaks of these obligations from a personal place, offering for all who hear a reinterpretation that brings life rather than death.
This revolution is not unlike the revolution going on now. It is not so much that people do not believe in God, but that their faith in the institution has failed or is failing. This sense of failing is that we have put our hope in the wrong things. God is present in acts of mercy and kindness and healing and grace. Holiness is not only a demand, it is a condition. That is the promise. There is justice in this kind of faithful following.
THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
February 12, 2017
“God: Choose Life”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
I know someone who faced a terrible choice. It felt like a life-or-death decision, except that early on in the decision making process it felt to him like both options are fatal. He could stay where he was, knowing his current circumstances cause him soul crushing conflict. He could venture into the unknown, but at a terrific risk. Who is to say which would be the more difficult choice?
Sometimes he wishes that he could just forget about the spiritual compass that has lead him to this point. Sometimes, even though he doesn’t believe in it, he wishes that fate would decide for him. This is the disciple’s proverbial “being stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
This is life. It is messy, painful, ambiguous, frightening. It requires difficult decisions to remain true to yourself and that in which you believe. Decisions, and the follow-up on those decisions, are so difficult that it is easy to understand why so many people are willing to exchange life for the status quo. If I am unwilling to make hard decisions that are in keeping with my faith as it relates to the world, then I must give into the lie that it was simply ‘fate’ that brought me to this place…this intersection. The intersection is choosing to honor God, or choosing to honor our own self-centered concern.
Sometimes choosing safety is actually a decision for death, spiritual death. Sometimes choosing to ‘take care of our own, first’ is actually a decision for death. This life and death decision making can run counter to our base instincts.
It is true that there are things in life that are outside the realm of our control. We are free. Everyone else is also free. Forces beyond us act upon us without our permission. Our freedom is not absolute, and we certainly aren’t guaranteed the wisdom or the insight to be good stewards of the freedom we do have. My grandmother would frequently remind me, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
As I said last week, God promises us guidance. You and I have this text from Deuteronomy. We, as if we were standing on the mountain ourselves, can hear God’s booming voice: “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Here on the mountain, in the shadow of God’s presence we cannot avoid or run away from the reality of this decision. We cannot say “nobody told me.” We cannot say, “I was forced to go along with everyone else.” We can do nothing to escape this weighty decision. The decision is ours. Do we turn toward God, or do we turn away from God.
Now that our pews have cushions we can comfortably sit here and ponder this question. As someone who spent a good deal of time in philosophy and theology courses, it is a wonderful pastime to hold up the question to the light, turn it around in your hand and observe the reflection and refraction off of the idea. In the comfort of this place it may seem easy to decide. Of course we will make the right decision, sitting here, as it were, in God’s presence and in the company of God’s people. Who would choose death? Not me. Not ever.
Well, except for the time when my neighborhood buddies and I decided it was a good idea to lean a plank on the rail of the railroad tracks making a ramp at the bottom of a 30 foot steep hillside so that as we careened down the hill the plank would launch our bikes (and us) nearly to the top of the other side. I arrived at home with bent handlebars, a chipped tooth, and cuts and abrasions too numerous to count. As my mother applied the mercurochrome to these wounds I was interrogated. “Why on earth would you do that?” My reply, “everybody else did” received that cold stone stare that only mothers of sons have perfected.
Look, We confuse so many things with choosing life. We confuse comfortable surroundings with life. We confuse reactions to fear mongering as choosing life. We confuse pragmatic business decisions with life. We confuse remaining in our own familiar surroundings with those we are most familiar with, those who are least likely to say ‘hey, wait a minute’ with choosing life. We confuse financial security with freedom. And, I am only talking about the church here. Individuals have as many or more little prisons in which we quite voluntarily serve a life sentence. In the language of Deuteronomy we have many idols that are not God that we bow down and worship.
The choice that God sets before the Israelites today echoes in our lives, and in the life of the church, every day. It’s a choice we must continue making, a path we make, as Brian McLaren says, ‘by walking.’ And it sin’t always clear which choice is life and which choice is death.
That is why the one thing that is helpful is prayer. Last Sunday our Consistory president asked us to pray for the church. I would add that you must, in this prayerful attitude, ask questions and listen. There are some keys to ‘discerning the spirits.’ Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us. Discouragement can easily move us to do the right thing, or keep us doing the wrong thing. Joy can also move us to stay in an unhealthy situation or confirm a movement in the direction God would have us go. That is why prayerful discernment of the spirits of desolation and consolation is a spiritual practice. Choosing life requires practice. And courage.
We should hear the invitation to choose life in the context of the greatest of all Ancient Lies: “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘Your surely will not die!'” The denial of death thus competes with the invitation to life. We must make a choice. We cannot avoid this choice, these choices. We have been promised freedom, and we have furthermore been promised consequences according to how we use that freedom. You will notice that Israel did not cease being God’s people when they made a bad decision. But there were consequences. Some say that if you leave Egypt today, on foot, it would take two or three weeks walking to get to Palestine. The Israelites took 40 years because they didn’t always choose well.
The hard part about “choosing life” is that instead of making one big choice that you make once and then go about your business, you have to choose life in lots of little choices that you make every day. If we want to choose God’s ways, we have to make that choice over and over again every day.
This may be hard, but it isn’t impossible. Earlier in the chapter, Moses tells the people:
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
We can grasp this terrible, wondrous freedom that God so generously gives us by the reins and courageously ride it into the land of the living. Or not. The choice is ours. To choose, or not choose. And, not choosing is still a choice. We can go the easy and wrong way or the hard and right way. But remember this: God promises life.
THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY
February 5, 2017
“God: I Will Guide You”
In the Anchor Bible Commentary, the NRSV of Matthew 5:13, says The salt hasn’t “lost it’s saltiness,” but it’s “low-grade” salt. The Greek word here translated as “low-grade” is μωρανθῇ (mōranthē).
Etymologically this word is related to: moron. Imbecile. Just store that fact away for a bit.
See, salt is an identifiable substance because of certain qualities. Salt is identifiable because of what it does. This is not unlike the term ‘Christian.’ Yet, frequently folks identify with this term, christian, solely on the basis of their perceived status as ‘being saved’ not by qualities of action.
The apostle Paul, the great champion of the idea of salvation by grace, is exasperated at one point; in his letter to the Romans he writes, “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” The epistle to James emphasizes the importance of good works to such a degree that grace-loving Martin Luther longed to strike it from the canon. Christians have long pondered their relationship with the law, and most are content to ignore it even though in this Gospel passage, Jesus unequivocally states that he came ‘not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets.
In a nutshell, we are saved by grace – and yet, what is next? how do we live in response to this extraordinary gift? Thus, we need guidance.
That word, response, is the key to understanding. Our actions do not save our lives; God’s action does. After that, the ball is back in our court, so to speak. We can choose to live in a way that honors the incredible gift we have been given, forgiveness even though we do not deserve it. We can choose a life that embodies the love and justice of Jesus Christ, or we can choose to live in a way that denies it. There is a huge difference between a follower of Jesus and a believer in Jesus.
For instance, some people are uncomfortable with Justice and Witness ministries. But if, as faithful Christians, we do not protest and fight for the values of justice that Jesus himself described, then we never were followers/disciples and our fellowship is nothing more than some sort of self-aggrandizement gathering. We might associate our fellowship with this idea of Christianity, but we are not really followers of Jesus.
The OT Lesson today is from Isaiah 58, where the prophet says:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…
It is not as if we, and Israel, have no directive. The promise I am considering today is this: God does not leave us without direction. If we prayerfully and faithfully craft a response to God’s grace, even with consideration to our own gifts and abilities, our own limitations and shortcomings, we are shown a path forward. We are not left to sort it out alone. We have the prophet’s cries for righteousness and repentance, from Isaiah to John the baptist. We have the law as it is expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and as it is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. We have Jesus’ teachings, those invaluable (if seemingly unreasonable) invitations to overthrow the status quo. Lazarus and Dives makes this claim obvious (Luke 16:19-31). The division of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:44) makes this plain.
Still, the promise of these life-giving mandates does not compromise our freedom. No one is asked to do more than they are able. Benedict, founder of the benedictines, crafted for his young community a ‘rule of life.’ There is a beautiful tension between obedience and freedom; once vows have been made, monks and oblates are bound to order their lives according to the rule of life. But each member submits to this rule only through his or her own abilities and resources.
The rule doesn’t save a Benedictine any more than the law saves the sinner. But the rule, the law, the commandments – the way – is itself a form of grace. We need a map. We need markers reminding us to pursue justice and love kindness as we walk humbly with our God.
There is a promise within the promise here. Remember the psalmist’s words: “happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” To put it as plainly as possible: we are better off when our response to the grace of God is to honor God with lives the reflect God’s values. We are happier when we are truly the salt that we were redeemed to be, and we will surely know sorrow and regret if we lose that.
Every now and then someone says to me that the church should not be political. It is only in the last couple of months that I realized that it isn’t so much that the church is political, but that the politics of the world do not square up, in any way shape or fashion, with faith – that is the faith that calls for a response to the radical grace of God. The Beatitudes, of which todays Gospel reading is a part, is literally Jesus’ big speech where he turns to his followers and tells them (and that means us) not to be an embarrassment.
See, there is a line, and if you cross it, you go from “Christian” to imbecile pretty quickly. It’s hard to define where that line is…but we all know it when we see it. We all know it when we stand squarely on the other side of the line, and looking back we see Jesus standing there shaking his head. We all know it when we turn on the TV and another yay-hoo who claims to be a Christian is giving their support for torture or racism or the exclusion of one group or another.
Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth.” He names and claims this for the disciples, and to us. In response to God’s grace, great things are expected of us in the name of justice and righteousness, and we can do great things in the name of God and God’s Kingdom. So, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
And don’t be a moron.
THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
January 29, 2017
Psalm 15; Matthew 5:1-12
The bible is fairly clear about those things that bring curse. “Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows…” (Deuteronomy 27:19) Jesus said, “…39When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ 40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.…” (Matthew 25:39-41)
The promise of blessings is also there in the bible, just not the way some prosperity gospel preachers would like you to understand it.
For example, the Beatitudes present a list of such promises, but frankly, most of them are not the promises we would prefer. Rather than hearing ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” we would rather hear, “You won’t mourn.” Rather than hearing, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we would rather hear, “you shan’t be persecuted.”
These are odd promises.
One of the problems is how we generally define the word ‘blessings.” Some translations use the English word “happy” in place of the word “blessed.” The Good News Bible seems a little too cheery for me when it promises, “Happy are those who mourn, for God will comfort them.”
Then there is the French version of the New Jerusalem bible that famously translates this same word, μακάριος (blessed) as debonair. “Debonair are the peacemakers.” This is the French term we usually think of as defining stylish or suave. What it really means, however, is de bon aire, ‘of a good disposition.” We might say “content.”
This same Greek word can also be translated as ‘honored’ or ‘favored.’ It is the same word that the Angel assigns to Mary, Jesus’ mother. It is not always easy to get from one language to another, nor is it easy to determine all that this entails and all that it does not include. Still, we might well wonder, what good it does Mary to be favored if she is without her son?
No matter how you translate μακάριος, happy, ‘a good disposition,’ or honored, the blessing of the beatitudes is God’s promise of something good. That something good is God’s presence.
Let me circle back on this a bit. Psalm 15 is describing this blessing, as present in the kind of community within which God dwells. When the psalms were being collected, many Jews who had been scattered all over Asia minor would never experience Temple worship. Psalm 15 encouraged them that communities of honesty and justice, wherever they may be, were themselves dwelling places of God. In this sense they are blessed.
For Christians, this concept evokes the confidence that it is not merely we who dwell with God but God who has chosen to “tabernacle” to ‘dwell,’ with us (John 1:14).
One story that illustrates what I mean is the story of Jacob and Essau from Genesis. Jacob had a fabricated idea of what blessing meant and he pursued it through deception. Jacob wanted the birthright and the blessing and would do anything to obtain them. Yet, He totally misunderstood both. Jacob quantified the blessing. To him the blessing was a substance. He confused the result of blessing with the reality of blessing. Blessing, however, is living life in covenant relation with God. It is to have and know the presence of God in your life, realizing that God is committed to you and will walk with you and provide for you and care for you.
The problem we have with this is that God may not care for us how we want God to care for us. We are prone to want God to care for us in the way Jacob viewed the birthright and blessing. Jacob wanted stuff and all that came with it. He wanted luck, happiness, and honor…and wealth. It is the height of irony that the man who connived so to get the blessing leaves home empty-handed.
So, understood this way, the idea that God is present with those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the meek, isn’t all that strange. Throughout the bible, it is made plain that God has a preference for these folks. Which makes it entirely possible that God would rather tabernacle with those folks who were detained at JFK overnight that to sit with all us good folk in church.
See, to be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth — not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.
Blessing can be observed in our healing ritual today; drawing together as the family of God, seeing each other as God’s beloved children, meeting each other at the points of our brokenness, and conveying to each other our and God’s promises of regard, presence, accompaniment and, above all, worth. You are worthy of blessing, so are refugees and immigrants, for God Almighty has created us and called us so.
CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY
“An Odd And Precious Kingdom”
You might have heard that the day after our election, the server that handles requests for immigration visas to Canada crashed. It was overloaded.
I suppose that there were some people who were taking action on their promise if one candidate or another won they were moving north, across the border.
Now, in my view, Mr. Trudeau is an attractive leader. He has many qualities I admire. But he isn’t Jesus. Neither is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Despite the hopes of some back in 2008, Barack Obama was not the Savior either.
Apparently, this identity confusion is an easy mistake to make. It is with some frequency that people assign messiah status to someone. I don’t know how. I realize that hoping for someone to come along and set everything right is a powerful motivation to incorrectly assign someone the title of messiah.
Still, there is some relationship between what we hope for and what we observe. When we say things like, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” we make a legitimate connection between core beliefs and identifiable qualities. Behavior, you see can betray what our core beliefs actually are. Moreover, these same actions reveal something of our character.
That is to also say that on the basis of what we observe in terms of allegiances reveals something about ourselves and, more importantly, whom we serve. Another way to say this is to ask, “Whose kingdom do you choose to live in?”
Now, this kingdom is actualized no matter what. Odd, I know, but even if no one follows this king it is still in effect. But the only way that this kingdom is experienced by the wider world is if its citizens live in it.
This is why the early church, particularly the writer of Colossians, said of Jesus, “He is the very image of the invisible God.” What they meant by that is when we look at Jesus and we see Him feeding the hungry, we see the image of God in action. When we look at Jesus and see Him healing somebody who is broken and in need, we see the image of God in action. When we see him balancing his life between prayer and service, we see the image of God in action. It’s hard to see otherwise, isn’t it? The same is true for us. You can tell who we serve by watching.
Have you heard the story Jesus once told about a ‘rich young ruler.’ This prince came to Jesus and enquired what he must do to inherit eternal life. The usual practices were listed. Observe the Ten Commandments. You know what to do. And the man was like so many of us who can say, “I have observed all of this since my youth.” Then Jesus tells him one more thing: “go, sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
The Evangelist Luke says that the man went away in a funk because he was wealthy.
This may lead us to erroneously say that the root of all evil is money. It isn’t. The quote is, “the root of all evil is the LOVE of money.” I wonder if perhaps the issue was that the Rich Young Ruler was unable to set aside other ‘rulers’ in his life. That was what Jesus was asking him to do. That is why it is only at the end of the conversation that he says ‘THEN, come and follow me.”
See, citizenship in this kingdom does not convey privilege. It demands responsibility. You have to get your allegiances straight before you can participate in this kingdom.
The fact that the reign and rule of this Messiah refuses to follow the logic of the world is no more evident than in the reading from Luke this morning when the Thief recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. He does so, not along a dusty road in Nazareth as he healed the sick; not in the temple where he taught ‘as one with authority;’ not at a wedding in Cana where the wine ran out and he miraculously duplicated the reserve. Not even on the Mount of Olives when Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus ascended into heaven.
The Thief recognizes Jesus as he hangs, brutally beaten, nailed to the cross. By all outward appearances this is simply another poor, Palestinian Jew, made an object lesson for anyone who might threaten the Roman Empire…the obvious ruler of the land according to all worldly logic. It is there, in suffering, in pain, in unwavering allegiance to God alone that the Thief recognizes where real power resides and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Do you remember when I told you last week, “Winning is no indicator of God’s favor, Reconciliation is?” I might well have said that in anticipation of the readings today. This scene is a reflection of St. Paul’s words to the church in Colossae: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It seems to me that the Thief was miraculously transferred in the darkest of moments to a place with the brightest of hope.
This may seem like something going on in a ‘spiritual plane,’ but Paul is writing in a most practical way, describing participation in real life in a most odd and precious kingdom.
I once heard the story of a teacher who, while cleaning out her attic found a cross she had received as a gift years earlier. It was a crucifix, a cross with the figure of Jesus hanging on it. She put it on her desk for several days. Then, like on my desk, things got cluttered so she put it on top of her bills. It made her think about how her faith impacted her finances. Are they really ‘under’ the cross of Jesus? A few days later, papers from students arrived and the cross was moved there. How does faith affect work? A few days later the cross ended up on top of some recent photographs of her family. How did her faith impact these relationships?
For several weeks that cross lay on her desk, and it seemed to ask her, on a daily basis: “What does it mean if Jesus, truly, rules my world?” On this Christ the King Sunday, what does it mean to us that Jesus’ reign and rule begins right now?
 Luke 18:18-23
 Colossians 1:12