THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
April 2, 2017

“Dead Ends”
John 11:1-45

[This sermon is based on a sermon in the series: “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016]

There comes a point in every trial or tribulation when it seems difficult to go on, as if all possibilities for the future are lost. We are speaking of those times when in life when we can no longer do what we used to be able to do.  Perhaps because of a chronic illness or financial problems, the loss of employment or a divorce, or a physical condition that makes each day difficult.  We are talking about where life has suddenly grown empty.  We are talking about what those first moments must have felt for Mary and Martha as they stood beside their brother’s grave.  Their world changed forever.

The road to Easter runs through a cemetery.  As in so many times in life, we struggle before we arrive at our destination.  Despite our best efforts, the future seems sealed away. Things die. Ideas. plans. hopes. There is a point in every difficult test where there seems to be no vision for relief or revival.

On Wednesday evening we focused on Psalm 130, where the psalmist, from a place of deep despair, speaks “out of the depths.” There are many synonyms for “despair” which make very clear the sense of hopelessness and pain associated with that deepest of human emotions: desperation, distress, anguish, misery, or wretched. And in that place of darkness there may well be no hope or anticipation for anything better in life. Even if there is, the one in this darkness is usually too dispirited or pessimistic to be able to rise above it.

In his despair the psalmist turned to God with this cry: “…I call for your help. Hear my cry, O Lord. Pay attention to my prayer. Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive…?”

Human beings have come over time to understand death and what happens to bodies after death in great detail. In various ways our ancestors have artfully or brutally found places to put the bodies and sometimes actively engaged the decomposing body to facilitate a complete end. Whether in caves, in holes, in fires, or on towers, the body decayed and people understood well how it happened. Death was a one way street. The fact that our modern society is largely unfamiliar with death does not change its reality or finality.

As if we did not know the biology of such things, the prophet Ezekiel is asked: can these bones live?” If I join the prophet in his loathsome valley, I know what my answer would be: “Are you kidding? Dry bones are just that, dry and dead.” Ezekiel is more circumspect, as he answers, “YHWH God, you know” (Ezek 37:3). In the gospel lesson Jesus leads the disciples into a dangerous situation for him and his followers, because some people there want to kill him. It’s likely Lazarus is going to die. So Thomas says, “let’s go and die with him.” If ever there was a ‘dead-end’ and a place to avoid, this is it. Thomas predicts it. Even Jesus plainly tells them “Lazarus is dead.” Yet he, at the same time, insists this is not the end.

Today’s readings from the prophet Ezekiel and St. John challenge what we do know about death, literally and metaphorically. These are not healing stories. It is not an account of feeding large crowds. It isn’t the provision of water from a rock. It does not involve spit and the dust from the road. No. Every possibility for living has ended. Life is over; only the stench and decay remains. There is no reason to be emotionally invested or newly concerned. Wondering what could have been or what had been promised would be like being mired in a long-ago past. In both situations hope is dead, appropriately, and into this valley of death God drags the prophet Ezekiel, and Jesus drags his disciples. The prophet and the family and friends of Lazarus know that life is no more. Before their eyes, however, that reality is defied. Life returns to the lifeless.

But it doesn’t return quickly or easily. Delay. Delay. Delay. I am reminded that the Israelites spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt until Moses lead them out. And then they did not take a direct route but wandered in the wilderness for another forty years until entering the promised land of freedom. This is the story of our lives.

Why doesn’t Jesus drop everything he is doing and rush over to see Lazarus? “Don’t you realize how needy I am?” “If you love me, why don’t you respond immediately?” Those are the questions we demand of each other, aren’t they? Ah, but it is not the people who respond most urgently and most anxiously who love us most. Often, the people who are willing to drop everything and help us are the ones least equipped to help.

What is seemingly the worst outcome happens. The neighbors come, other members of the faith family come. They come to do what we all do, bring some food, some consolation, some affection. They immediately come. They comfort, but the situation remains. In the Hebrew tradition, we might do this for seven days, literally ‘sitting shiva.’ Cover the mirrors, don’t bathe, and don’t go to work. It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools, or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being “brought low” by the grief. Upon leaving an Ashkenazic shiva house, visitors recite a traditional blessing: “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The sadness is communal.

Some friends come, but later. The friends who help us most are those not driven by the tyranny of the urgent, those not in the biggest hurry, those who are not most anxious, those who do not panic. The ones who love us most sometimes take longer to arrive than others. Maybe it is after the hustle and bustle of the initial attention that the mourners receive and when the initial visitors have left that it all becomes real. Then a friend comes. So it was with Jesus. He heard the news that Lazarus was ill, and he waited two days to respond. It was a long time. It was not because he did not love Lazarus. It was because his strength did not need to respond according to urgent schedules and anxiety. This kind of strength, this kind of health, is beyond our notions of time.

When Jesus finally arrives on the scene, you can hear the dejection in the sister’s voices. “If you had been here,” they say. The King James version, with it’s poetic language records Martha, the sister of him that was dead, who “saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” He stinketh. This is the absolute recognition of the end without possibility of a different resolution.

So, today we stand in the stench, sorrow, and maybe even blame of death, and God acts to revive us again. We have a foreshadowing of what is to come next week, a little encouragement as we prepare for the hardest week of the church year. We also have a reminder that our brutal, death-filled world can be flooded in the reality-shattering light of God again.

11:40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’

The raising of Lazarus is not the only sign. You may have noticed that after Lazarus comes out of the tomb Jesus turns to the crowd and commands them: “untie him and let him go.” The people are not simple observers. Those interested in this miracle are charged with something to do as well as to believe. Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.  The community has a chance for resurrection too.

We will soon see that death is not the end. There is no ultimate separation from the love of God. The breath of the prophet enlivens the bones that have given up all flesh. If this is so, then what power can death have over us? What limit is there to God’s love for this world? The answer is, that despite all appearances otherwise, there is no limit to God’s love. None. Nada. We can participate in this miraculous reality, or simply be observers, an audience, which of course is not what Jesus had in mind. We are capable of heeding the call of our savior. We can embrace this good news with our lives. Depending on it, hoping in it, the future is not a dead end.

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MIDWEEK WORSHIP: CONRAD WEISER MINISTERIUM

“PENSIVE, POWER-HUNGRY, PILATE”

John 18:28-19:22

When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.

Pontius Pilate arrived in Caesarea by the Sea in 26 AD. Tiberius had named him prefect of Judea, and he was coming to take over that position. He belonged to the lower nobility of the equestrian order, not to the more aristocratic senatorial class; in the eyes of those above him, he was a man who had to make a career.[1]

Pilate has high aspirations, but at the moment is in a backwater of the empire. It is one of those places that is the product of imperialization or colonization, depending upon how you want to look at it. But he has a challenge before him because there is a conflict arising among the people you see, and conflict is not good for commerce, and commerce is really the reason he is there in the first place.

The prefects’ primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as—in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem—the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest Caiaphas.

Now, Caiaphas is not the focus here today, but let me digress enough to say that sometimes people draw a sharp distinction between him and the guy I am talking about. Caiaphas is a religious person who has political influence. Pilate is a political person who has religious influence. Why? Because he is a roman in the roman empire whose official religion identifies the Caesar as god. And because everyone knows that there is only one God, or at least Caiaphas and the religious folk know that, there cannot be two. So either somebody has wrongly identified their object of worship, accidentally; or somebody is a blasphemer…claiming God’s rightful place for somebody or some thing that is not God. It happens easily when something other than God becomes the object of our ultimate concern. And his influence on behalf of the emperor cult comes on the edge of a sword.

There was a person[2] at the time who wrote down an occurrence of just this kind of religious clash. He said that while past prelates had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, This man allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to this guy to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, He had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Finally the images were removed. I find it hard to believe that Pilate did not anticipate the problem with caesars ‘graven images.’ Any chance this was done intentionally? Do you feel the tension there?

In the midst of all this the religious authorities are about to get unhinged at another guy. This local rabbi has attracted a crowd of followers whose faith practices contradict the ‘way we’ve always done it,’ and whose allegiances don’t allow for Caesars. The religious leaders are mad because he questioned the entire economy of the temple. The focus on money at the expense of doing ministry was eating away at him. He sees this injustice first hand, and bothers him so much that he chases the money changers and merchants out. This idolatry is not limited to the first century, we are guilty too.

Because we have baptized capitalism, made a sacrament of low taxes, and defined money as free speech, I wonder what tables Jesus would turn over today. I also wonder if what Jesus now regrets is that we no longer let the abuse of the poor make us angry.[3]

The same religious leaders who are nervous about his growing following, who are upset by his calling out the injustice in the temple, also believe he has blasphemed by claiming to be the ‘Son of God.’ So, he has to go. But here’s the problem. Their own ethics don’t allow them to kill somebody. In fact, if they did that with any frequency they’d have the Romans coming down on them for disrupting the peace. So what is a pious, upper class, religious leader to do to keep the system of privilege going? Why get the system to kill the one who is questioning them, that’s what. So they take him to my guy, Pilate.

Now, Pilate doesn’t want to deal with this. He knows a zero sum game when he see’s it. He is in trouble no matter what he does. But some of the reporters of the time remember that he is a ruthless egomaniac that is willing and able to squash any opposition by force. If Jesus was making trouble, he was making trouble for both Caiaphas and Pilate – and trouble for Pilate was still trouble for Caiaphas. It would seem to be a ‘gimmie’ to take this “brown skinned, marginal, jew” to the ruling whites from Rome and have them take care of him.

Pilate is playing a chess game with the Sanhedrin and the people. He is aware of the pitfalls. When they bring Jesus for judgement, Pilate realizes that there isn’t (technically) any reason for him to intervene. But the religious leaders know that Pilate has intervened plenty of times in the past with less reasons than this. His ethic is entirely situational. His violent tendencies are his only predictable quality.[4]

Listen, he once spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. The religious leaders complained. So he had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them and, when Jews again protested his actions he gave the signal for his soldiers to randomly attack, beat and kill – in an attempt to silence Jewish protest.  It happens. If people are speaking out, even if they are right, there are ways for the powerful to do their best to silence them. You can brutally turn them back. Or you can pass legislation that allows the government to seize their possessions. Power does that stuff to shut you up.

And that is what the religious leaders were doing. They wanted Jesus shut up. They were not as powerful as Rome, so it would be helpful if they could get Pilate to do their work. Ordinarily this might have not been a problem. Pilate was a guy who regularly killed people and dealt in alternate facts. During his interrogation, Jesus tells Pilate:

‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’[5]

You can read Pilate’s response as an honest and straightforward question. Or it can be read as rhetorical, not expecting an answer, from a man who is used to speaking lies in the place of truth to get what he wants.

It is understandable that Pilate freely substitutes the concerns of commerce over justice. But the religious folk? Even those you expect to know the truth sometimes get the object of their faith mixed up. Instead of God, it becomes something more convenient. Sometimes it is easier to hitch your wagon with a known tyrant whose violence can be predicted rather than a God who works independently in subtle and mysterious ways.

Then, Pilate brought Jesus out one last time and said to the religious leaders,

‘Here is your King!’ 15They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’[6]

And then Pilate knew he had everyone right were they needed to be. Despite appearances, the religious question is a convenience. The real issue is that Jesus has transgressed is the economy of Rome and the economy of the temple. Now there is no going back.[7]

“So Jesus’ crucifixion is not a terrible mistake, or the result of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. The Son of God is executed by the representative of there Roman Empire, at the instigation and initiative of the local (religious) aristocracy.”[8] This is not the last time that religious leaders enlist the help of a ruthless tyrant in service to their own ends. In the case of Jesus, history has wanted to blame the religious leaders because this gospel was written at a time when the church was interested in getting cozy with the empire. And it is easier to not offend the empire if you place the blame on the Sanhedrin.   But Pilate, despite his protests of innocence, is the one who allows this to happen. Blame is shifted somewhere else by the powerful all the time.   Both the religious establishment and the politicians have shown just who they are and unfortunately, not everyone believed them.

This story easily translates into our times. Jesus is saying that God does not bless the current state of affairs, no matter how much we like it. So there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. For people like Pilate, especially among those who love the empire more than anything else, it is easy to get your facts wrong and commit all kinds of atrocities. For the sincerest folks, even the religious establishment, who are attempting to be faithful, there is always a danger…the danger is that you confuse the emperor, whoever it is, with God. In both cases, what you lose in that bargain is your soul.

When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.

 

[1]Jose A. Pagola, Jesus: A Historical Approximation, Convivium: Miami, 2007, p. 361

[2] Josephus, The Jewish War

[3] Michael Piazza, “The Liberating Word,” March 9, 2017.

[4] Pagola, p. 362

[5] John 18: 37-38

[6] John 19:14-15

[7] on Pilate and Caiaphas’ complicity, see Pagola, p. 363.

[8] Pagola p. 367

[9] John 18:19-22

THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
March 26, 2017

“Redefined”
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

“Hydrate”
John 4:5-42

[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 westAmerican 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 Gregorypoint,’ 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 Brookshow 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 book of joyabsorption.” 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 Deadabout 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”
Matthew 4:1-11

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.”

Amen.

TRANSFIGURATION SUNDAY

“No Reason for Fear”
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

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
Matthew: 5:38-48

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”
Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

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:
Isaiah 58:1-5
58
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.

Amen.

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