Baptism: Lifeline for a Lifetime

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Today, this commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is a leap forward in time. It seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast, don’t they?!

What is it about this event that the Church calendar creators, in their wisdom, have put it right after Christmas and right at the beginning of the Epiphany season? Evidently, they thought that baptism was an important topic for us to think about, especially since a version of the story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the four gospels.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? 

Sometimes stories are the best way to get at meaning, so I’m going to tell two. The first comes from Pastor Janet Wolf of Hobson United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. She describes her congregation as wildly diverse, including “…people with PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’” 

As Pastor Janet tells it, some years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to the church. Fayette was homeless and was living with lupus and mental illness. She joined the new member class and was particularly taken with a description of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the class, Fayette would interrupt to ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and they’d go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Pr. Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced around the fellowship hall. 

Two months later, Pr. Janet got a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she says: “I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved.’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ 

Catching sight of herself in the mirror  – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”

That is what baptism is.

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The second story comes from Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University. This is how she tells it:

It was the last day of a pastor’s retreat. I had given them an assignment. They were to look through scripture over the three days and find the name that belonged to them. Or the story they couldn’t live without. I explained that Abraham Heschel talks about scripture: We do not say the Word, the Word utters us. There are pieces of scripture we belong to. 

To prepare for closing day, we made a circle of chairs, with one chair in middle. And we’d hear each other pronounce our names to all there, to identify the way the word had uttered them. It was going very well, with really powerful testimonies coming right out of scripture. Then a young man, young to ministry anyway, sat in the chair and didn’t say anything. We waited and waited. It got really uncomfortable. Finally I said to him,” Is there something you’d like to share with us, some name or some story?” He didn’t look at me or the group, just at his hands.

He said, “I looked for three days, and there were names I wanted. But none were strong enough to replace the name I have, that I’d been given. I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew.  My father gave me this name.” Then he fell silent again. 

After a moment I said, “Would you be willing to share, what is that name, what is your name? 

And he said, he said, “My name is ‘not good enough’. That’s my name; my father gave me that name. ” Then he began to cry.

We were in that room, we were watching him, and he was crying and it was like he was drowning right in front of us. We’re a bunch of lifeguards, and we didn’t know what to do. How can he not have a name or how to break the power of that name?

And then it was I think the Spirit did its work, because it was like a wind or maybe just an impulse. A group of us got up, without a word, without making eye contact and went to where he was on the chair, sitting weeping. And we laid hands on him. And then it wasn’t just one voice, it was several voices, like one voice coming up all together, like one flow, one stream. And what we said, to him, sitting weeping in our midst, with our hands on him was this: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. “

And then we just paused.  We just let the blessing rest. And then we all sat down. 

When we packed up and finished our business and got ready to go home, I saw him in the parking lot. I went over and said, “I need to know, I really need to know: will that make a difference to you, will what happened make any difference?”

And he said, “You know, I don’t know.  But I feel as if something in here was broken. And it isn’t now. But I promise you, every time I put my hand in the water to help name another human being in front of God, I’ll remember who I am.“

She ends her story by saying, “See, I think that’s the secret of our baptism.”

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Martin Luther is said to have often exclaimed, “I am baptized” when he felt his energy flagging, his doubt growing, or his fear strengthening. The story is told that when he was hidden away for safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle, he struggled with loneliness and anxiety. It’s said that he would scribble on his desktop ‘I am baptized’ in order to battle back his despair. His story reminds us that baptism is not an empty ritual or a one-time welcoming party. Nor is it a requirement for salvation, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s not. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world that’s informed by a moment in time when we were sealed with the same Holy Spirit that came to Jesus in his moment in time. To scribble or say “I am baptized,” especially in times of loneliness, anxiety, despair, weariness, fear, illness or fatigue, is our greatest resource when our light is faltering or the fire of our passion for life is in need of rekindling.

OK, you say. But how does that work? You mean if I just scribble “I am baptized” on my desk, all my troubles will go away? No, it’s not a magic potion. The Holy Spirit’s not a genie in a bottle to grant your every wish. Baptism is a lifeline – for a lifetime. Martin Luther said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.

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The most important thing to remember about baptism is that it’s about identity. That’s what this day is about. Epiphany is the season of revelation. Who was this Jesus who was drawn down to the river for John’s baptism? We get so caught up with the dilemma of why Jesus had to be baptized if he never sinned. We could argue about the validity of that assumption another time. Suffice to say for now, for Jesus, there was more to it than having his sins washed away. 

In all three gospel accounts, the voice of God speaks: “You are my beloved.” No mention of forgiveness of sins, just “You are my beloved.” That’s the revelation. That’s the gift Jesus took away from his baptism: his identity. Imagine what an epiphany that was for him – to be so known, so affirmed, so loved. Well, actually it’s the same thing that you were called in your baptism, so imagine that, savor that for a moment. You, yes you, are God’s beloved. 

For Jesus, secure in his identity, could then go into the wilderness to discern what his ministry would be and then follow through with it no matter where it took him or how difficult it would become. And it’s the same for us. The revelation is that we are beloved and the way forward is how we live out that identity. 

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In the wilderness, as he was spiritually tempted and toughened up for the ministry he was about to undertake, Jesus knew his ministry would be all about preaching and teaching what he called the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King would come to call it “the Beloved Community,” which according to the King Center “is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. 

“Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Dr. King didn’t think so. He believed the Beloved Community is “a realistic, achievable goal that can be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Jesus didn’t think so either. When he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, he debuted his mission: “to bring good news to those who are poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to those held captive, and liberation to those in prison.” Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in service to the Beloved Community. If the events of recent weeks have told us anything it’s sin and brokenness are alive and well in the world.

But just as Jesus knew himself as Beloved of God and was able to face the hatred and violence he later encountered, and as Martin Luther King, as a follower of Jesus, also knew himself deeply as Beloved of God and was able to carry on the work of non-violent resistance in the name of the Beloved Community, it is our foundational identities as Beloved people of God that, as the old Powdermilk Biscuits jingle from “Prairie Home Companion” used to say, “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

To remember that you are baptized is to know – even if you don’t remember it or didn’t hear the voice of God say it – it is to deeply know that you are beloved. Can we even begin to appreciate the wonder of that? To be beloved – all the time, not just when you’re being loveable, but in your very worst moments. To be beloved – when you’re all alone with your thoughts and feelings, some of which you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. To be beloved – when you can’t forgive or love yourself. To be beloved – when you’re tired, when you’re afraid, when you’re lonely.

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Remembering your baptism is allowing yourself to hear the words “I love you” and to allow them to sink down deep into your souls and permeate your every cell. But I suspect, most of us don’t take the time –at least not very often – to do that. Even as I was writing these words, I stopped and realized that it’s too easy to say this and know it on a rational level. But that’s not enough. It’s got to get down into the heart and soul if we are to be true followers of Jesus. So I stopped writing and I took a few minutes to meditate on those words. I already had my Epiphany candles lit, so the mood lighting was just right. The best way to describe those minutes is that it was like being in a Divine embrace. Yes, thoughts intruded. But coming back to the words, “I love you” or “You are beloved” was easy enough, especially concentrating on the light from the candles. The words that came to me were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Or as St. Paul called it, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

This is baptism, our lifeline. And yes, we will get called back into the world of personal problems, national dysfunction and international violence. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to be tempted, in other words to face the realities of the world. And so do we. But we go as precious children of God. No more special or precious than anyone else. Baptism doesn’t make us some kind of elite God squad. But remembering our baptism is our way of holding onto the lifeline, intentionally allowing the Spirit of Divine creativity and possibility to work in and through us – even when we’re weary, discouraged or afraid.

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Affirming our baptism together solidifies our citizenship in the Beloved Community – along with Martin (both of them), Fayette, the young pastor at the retreat, and all the beloved children of God, born of water and kissed by the Spirit of God. May we remember that we have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. May we live in such a way that others will know themselves as beloved of God – especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them. 

May the revelation of Jesus as Beloved light our way through this Epiphany season, so that we can clearly see who we are, and reflect to others their true identity: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. Amen

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Mark 1:4-11

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist; he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I will come after me. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. And immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

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The Magi vs Herod: Then & Now

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January 6 – a day that will live in infamy
Well, to say that it has been quite a week would be a huge understatement. Wednesday, January 6, was the official Day of the Epiphany – the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. I always look forward to that day. I keep the Magi in my Nativity scene a good distance away from the stable, moving them a little closer every day until they reach their destination on Epiphany. And I look forward to the Sunday closest to the 6th when we’ll celebrate in worship their arrival to pay homage to the newborn Christ. It’s my favorite holy day.

But you know what? This year, this Wednesday I never even got the Magi to the stable at all. I was glued all day and evening to TV coverage of the assault on the US Capital building and forgot all about the three wise guys. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that it was Epiphany, which made the unfolding violence even more repugnant. And in the days since, it’s been a challenge to sort through my own thoughts and emotions, as well as those of friends and colleagues. Not to mention the ongoing news updates and uncertainty of what might happen next. Just a week ago, we were giving thanks for the new year and offering prayers for better days ahead. But now we have yet another “date which will live in infamy,” along with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and 9/11. 

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Pushed to the back burner was the heartbreaking news of a record-breaking number of COVID deaths this week and a health system about to collapse. I looked at the lighted Bethlehem star we have in our living room. The light was still shining. But I seriously wondered how much more even it could take of this weary world. 

Epiphany is the story of the birth of the Christ to the rest of the world. 
But Epiphany doesn’t allow us to go down that dark road. It’s said that Christmas is the story of the birth of the Christ to the people of Israel and Epiphany is the story of the birth of the Christ to the rest of the world. 

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Although Matthew doesn’t name them or even say how many there were, an old non-biblical tradition claims that there were three Magi whose names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, each representing a different part of the world far beyond Israel – and another religion, probably Zoroastrian. On a happier day, I’d want to talk about the interfaith encounter that was the arrival of the Magi. 

Today, we’re going to try to find some gospel light to shine
into our troubled times. 

Why would Matthew, almost a hundred years after the birth of Jesus, include these figures in his Nativity scene? Think about it; everything is upside down in the story. The Magi are foreigners, most likely from Persia (today’s Iran); they’re out of place in Judea. They’re of a different religion; why are they be looking for a king of the Jews? And that star! What kind of star would lead them to a humble home, and not a royal palace, where they find that the newborn king is from a working class family, not a member of the royal court. We’re used to the Magi of Christmas pageants (brilliantly performed this year!); we hear the story every year. What’s really going on here? And is there anything that might guide us on our way through the maze of our current events?

To answer that question about any Bible passage we have to ask what the writer was stirred up about, what did they passionately want us to get from the story. The author of the gospel (who was not the apostle Matthew), lived in or near the city of Antioch, now in Turkey, but then part of Syria. Antioch was one of the great cultural and trade centers in the Roman empire. It had a large Jewish population, but it was also a central location of the spread of the Jesus movement to Gentiles throughout the empire and beyond. 

Matthew wanted to appeal to both Jews and Gentiles. So his Nativity story is radically inclusive. Not only are shepherds, who occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, the first to hear the angel chorus, now here come these Magi, who under other circumstances might have been considered ‘other.’   

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Even more radical, this new Christian community talked about Jesus as the son of God, called him ‘savior’, and ‘lord’ – words that sound like everyday religious language to us, but were back then actually political terms. Roman Emperors claimed to be divine figures; Caesar was called ‘Son of God’ and was acknowledged as ‘savior’ and addressed as ‘lord’. So asserting a claim to divine status for Jesus that outranked the emperors of Rome was a bold (and dangerous) act.

So when the Magi go to King Herod to ask where to find this new king, boom! You have the clash that inevitably comes when the kin-dom of God bumps up against empire. Matthew writes, “At this news Herod became greatly disturbed (other versions say ‘afraid’), as did all of Jerusalem.” 

The king is afraid. He fears competition for his power. His insecurity drives him to violence. Thankfully, a dream warns the Magi to stay away from Herod. But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Joseph, too, has a dream warning him about Herod and the Holy Family flees to Egypt. Meanwhile, in a version of “The Empire Strikes Back,” Herod, furious when he finds out he’s been tricked orders all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or under to be killed. It wasn’t until Herod had died that an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him it’s safe to return to Israel. 

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This horrific story of what’s become known as the Slaughter of the Innocents is not based on historical fact. The cruelty of King Herod has been well-documented; surely such a massacre would have been recorded. No, this is Matthew carefully crafting his message about what happens when the reign of Christ encounters the politics of authoritarianism and coercion. They are not compatible. 

OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE, MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, AND THE CABINET CALLING FOR THE REMOVAL OF

I’m sure you can make the connection to events of the past week. Calls for an immediate end to the president’s term in office, even with only 10 days remaining, are coming from both sides of the aisle. The National Council of Churches has sent an open letter to the vice president, members of Congress, and the cabinet calling for the removal of the president from office. Among other national faith leaders, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has signed the letter – as has our Sierra Pacific Synod Bishop, Mark Holmerud. You can find the letter below.

I’m not making a partisan statement; this is simply current events. I’m more interested in discussing how we as followers of Jesus respond to these events and those that will follow in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Something I heard from a theologian this weekend has given me a framework for thinking about this; maybe it will be useful to you. His advice is this: Dare to think. Dare to Act. Dare to Hope. Nice and succinct, but let’s see if we can unpack them. 

Dare to think. 
The Magi were the scientists of their day. They were astronomers who studied the locations and movement of the stars. And they were astrologers, who tried to make connections between the motions of the stars and life here on Earth. They observed, they studied, they discussed, and ultimately, they followed the science. 

I doubt I need to encourage you to believe the claims of science. But perhaps we do all need to be emboldened to seek ways to promote truth-telling, to counter falsehoods, to learn how to engage with those who may be recognizing that they had bought into something that wasn’t true. We’ll always need to dare to think, but perhaps in the days ahead we’ll also need to dare to be thoughtfully and truthfully compassionate. 

Dare to Act. 
The Magi didn’t just sit around talking about that star; they got moving. They didn’t even know where they were going. No maps, no GPS in their camels. But that didn’t stop them. Even when they made a mistake – going to see Herod – they corrected quickly and found an alternate route. Sometimes, the Nike ad has the best advice: Just do it. So I signed up for a Braver Angels event on Tuesday. It’s called “Hold America Together: A National Gathering.” If you don’t know them, Braver Angels is the organization that “brings together Red and Blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.”  It used to be called Better Angels, and I like the change – because, as their website says: “At this time of crisis, we need more than civility, empathy, and goodwill. We need courage.”

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Dare to Dream
Personally, I’d add another dare to this list: Dare to Dream. There’s a lot of action going on in the dream world in this story. And the outcome would not have been so good if either Joseph or the Magi ignored the dream that helped to guide them on the right path. I’m part of a dreamwork group, where we share some of our unconscious adventures. The methodology we use states that:  “All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a bad dream’ — only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” (“Dreamwork Tool Kit” Jeremy Taylor)

Dare to Wonder
This could even be expanded to: Dare to Wonder. That is, go outside of the realm of thinking sometimes, not into falsehoods and misinformation, but into amazement and wonder of mystery – of dreams, and stars, and imagination, of poetry and prayer that can lead us into ideas, projects, ways of being that on our own initiative would be inconceivable to us. 

And finally: Dare to Hope. 
Vaccines for the coronavirus are slowly making their way to all of us. Isn’t it good to feel some hope that we’ll soon be able to be together again? But there are other places where we might not yet be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s where daring hope comes in. It’s the hope we spoke of in Advent when we lit the first candle and as we read: 
It is significant that the church has always used that language—the advent (coming) of Christ—because it speaks to a deep truth. Christ is coming. Christ is always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart. And so we light the candle of hope, and dare to express our longing for peace, for justice, for healing and the well-being of all creation.

And we prayed:
Loving God, we open up all the shadowy places in our lives and memories to the healing light of Christ. Show us the creative power of hope. Prepare our hearts to be transformed by you, that we may walk in the light of Christ.

Advent is over. Christmas is over. But that hope is still alive. It’s Epiphany! It’s the story of the birth of the Christ to the world in all of its splendor and wonder, as well as all of its disfunction and dis-ease. The Magi brought gifts to Jesus because they somehow had hope in this newborn prince of peace. Yes, wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, birthed the baby, cleaned the stable, baked a casserole, and brought practical gifts. (Oh, there’s another one: Dare to Laugh). Anyway, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were pretty good, too. More symbolism by Matthew. 

As we move further into the new year, not knowing what the days ahead will bring (I keep checking the news because another something big could happen at any time), we do not allow ourselves to sink into despair. Yes, there will be moments of fear, anxiety, flashes of anger, depths of sadness. We’re human beings, after all. But we do not succumb to the temptation to give into hopelessness. In fact, we dare to dream of the health and wholeness of our planet, the health and wholeness of our nation, of our families, of our church – and of ourselves. 

That’s the gospel light we’ve been given to shine into our troubled times. 

Can we Dare to Say Amen?!

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OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE, MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, AND THE CABINET CALLING FOR THE REMOVAL OF PRESIDENT TRUMP FROM OFFICE

Posted January 8, 2021

Our faith instructs us to take seriously positions of leadership, not to lead others astray and to be careful about what we say and do. In Philippians 2:3-4 we are taught to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

President Donald J. Trump’s actions and words have endangered the security of the country and its institutions of government by inciting a violent, deadly, seditious mob attack at the U.S. Capitol. His words and actions have placed the lives of the people he is supposed to serve in grave danger to advance his own interests. Further, he not only failed to stop or condemn the attack after the Capitol had been stormed but instead encouraged the mob by calling them patriots. This domestic terrorist attack resulted in at least five deaths, including a Capitol Police Officer, and more than a dozen police officers injured. The desecration of the Capitol building was also disgraceful and reprehensible. 

For the good of the nation, so that we might end the current horror and prepare the way for binding up the nation’s wounds, we, as leaders of the member communions of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), believe the time has come for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, to resign his position immediately. If he is unwilling to resign, we urge you to exercise the options provided by our democratic system.

In addition, we recognize the need to hold responsible not only those who invaded the Capitol, but also those who supported and/or promoted the President’s false claims about the election, or made their own false accusations. 

We grieve for our country at this difficult time and continue to pray for the safety and security, and ultimately the healing of our nation. Holding those who have abused their power and participated in these immoral and tragic actions accountable, in particular the President of the United States, is one step toward healing.

Signed:

Jim Winkler, General Secretary and President, National Council of Churches

Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ and Chair, National Council of Churches Governing Board

Bishop W. Darin Moore, Presiding Bishop, AME Zion Church and Immediate Past Chair, National Council of Churches

Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and Vice Chair, National Council of Churches

Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Dr. Néstor Gómez, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Paula Clayton Dempsey, Director of Partnership Relations, Alliance of Baptists

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Bishop Sally Dyck, Ecumenical Officer of the Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst, Ecumenical Staff Officer, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Eddy Alemán, General Secretary, Reformed Church in America

Rev. Jane Siebert, President, Swedenborgian Church of North America

His Eminence Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Ecumenical Director and Diocesan Legate, The Armenian Church, Eastern Diocese of America

Dr. Kimberly Brooks, African Methodist Episcopal Church

Rev. Richard Tafel, Swedenborgian Church

Carole Collins, Director of Operation, Alliance of Baptists

Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Progressive National Baptist Convention

Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, Chair, Conference of National Black Churches

Stephen M. Veazey, President (Head of Communion), Community of Christ

His Grace Mar Awa Royel, Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod, Assyrian Church of the East

Bishop Francis Krebs, Presiding Bishop, Ecumenical Catholic Communion

Rev. Dr. James Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Presbyterian Church (USA)

Give (Passing the Peace) a Chance

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Today we have lighted the Advent candle that symbolizes peace. It’s a word we hear a lot of in this season and on into Christmas. Angels announce it. Hymns and carols sing of it. Christmas cards wish for it. But it’s a word that can be bandied about without really going into depth about just what it is we’re wishing for. 

This might seem strange, but one of the things I’m really looking forward to when we’re able to be together in person for worship again is the passing of the peace. I know, not everyone likes this part of the service. But at least you get to stand up and move around a little – kind of like the seventh inning stretch, although without singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. I admit, passing the peace can be problematic. On one hand, visitors in some churches are left standing awkwardly at their seats, watching as members go about greeting one another, seemingly oblivious to a stranger in their midst. On the other extreme are the churches where a visitor might feel startled, overwhelmed, and maybe even offended by a hug-fest, the onslaught of affection from people they don’t know. 

I’ve actually gotten into the practice of giving instructions before setting the congregation loose. If there are visitors, I definitely explain what’s about to happen. I remember some guests who thought it meant the service was over and proceeded to leave. I’ve learned that there are some people who love to hug and some who don’t. Some don’t like to be touched at all. So we have to find ways to accommodate both huggers and non-huggers, introverts and extroverts. 

Still, I think that in this these nine months of handwashing, disinfecting, and social distancing, many people are longing for the human connection of a handshake, hug, or fist bump. It seems like eons ago that we thought we could just change things up a little and share the peace with elbow bumps or Namaste bows. Sharing the peace on Zoom is a challenge that no one seems to have solved. All the ideas shared on social media are from March, when we were still meeting in person. So, we do our best, with chat room and visual peace signs, and verbal greetings, but it’s not the same. It’s just one of the losses we’ve suffered this year. At least it is for me. Others may not miss it at all.  

So why do we even do it? We know that sharing the peace began with Jesus himself. At the Last Supper, Jesus said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And when Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, he greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” Later on, the apostle Paul began his letters to various churches with, “Grace to you, and peace.” It may be that in the early Church this was the way Christians greeted one another, kind of like their secret handshake.

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Strange as it may seem to us, especially outside of a few minutes in church – or a few seconds on Zoom – it’s very common for others. As-salamu alaykum (Arabic for Peace be upon you) is used by Muslims, but it’s also used by Arabic speakers of other religions, such as Arab and Indian Christians. These words are more than a Hi, how are you; they are  meant to convey a blessing to the one being greeted. 

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decorative plate with the image of a dove carrying an olive branch and inscription peace in Hebrew and English

It’s the same thing with shalom in Hebrew. Most people know that shalom can be used say both hello and goodbye and that it means peace. But again this peace isn’t just a  hello or goodbye. And it’s not limited to the absence of war, or conflicts, or quarrels. The word is derived from a root that denotes harmony, wholeness, completeness. Throughout  Jewish literature shalom is connected to another word, shelemut, also defined as wholeness, but also as perfection. It’s not the same as the Greek word in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, “Be perfect as God is perfect,” but the idea is similar. How much better to hear Jesus’ desire for us as wholeness and completeness, as opposed to absolute moral perfection! Then there’s shalvah, also from the same root, meaning contentment, inner calm. So, when we say “Shalom,” we are offering a blessing, an expression of divine grace.

Along with this aspect of passing the peace is the desire for reconciliation. Again from the Sermon on the Mount: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that a fellow believer has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift.” 

The Didache, an early Christian writing encourages the community to “come together on the Lord’s day, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Anyone who has a quarrel with his fellow should not gather with you until he has been reconciled, lest your sacrifice be profaned.” This confirms that what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount became a weekly occurrence in the early Christians’ practice of Holy Communion.

These writings don’t deny the fact that there are times we get into disagreements with others. They take seriously our need for guidance when it happens. So passing the peace takes on a deeper meaning when we do have a quarrel with another or others. Can we offer our hand in peace without the intention of really living into peace with one who has harmed you or who you have harmed?   

I thought about this, strangely enough, when I was binge-watching The Last Dance, the documentary about basketball legend Michael Jordan. One of the episodes went into the rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. 

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At the time of the 1991 playoffs, the Pistons (known in that era as “Bad Boys”) had scrapped their way to win the NBA championship twice. But that year they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Bulls, and they walked off the court without shaking hands with any of the Bulls players. 

Then I read this commentary on peace: “Post-game handshakes are a time-honored tradition. Little League baseball players, traveling soccer teams, and NCAA athletes never miss this ritual of sportsmanship. During the game they ‘fight, engage in ‘battle,’ ‘conquer,’ or suffer ‘defeat.’ But at the end of the day athletes are not at war. By a simple hand gesture, athletes declare that they are at peace.”

The documentary, as well as interviews since its release, make it abundantly clear that there is no peace between Jordan and some of the Piston players to this day. 

The commentary went on: “Communal practices like post-game handshakes are simple but profound in meaning and significance. They are actions that speak louder than words, actions that reinforce our values. Although we usually devote little thought to these actions, we are shocked when they are abandoned or perverted . . .”

It’s offering a blessing of Christ’s shalom in every circumstance. It’s offering a moment of reconciliation in the midst of a quarrel or conflict. It’s extending a hand (or elbow) in solidarity of the values we share as followers of Jesus. 

This is what we are about when we pass the peace, although it’s only been since the middle of the last century that we began to reclaim the practice. And I’m not sure we’ve done well at understanding or living into the fullness of what it means. And now that we can’t shake hands or even elbow bump, we have to try to find new ways to share this blessing.  An opportunity of this pandemic time is time to think about what we’re doing in the passing of the peace – both before (in person), now (online), and in the future (whatever that will be like). 

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I don’t have any better ideas of how to ritualize our online version. I actually like hearing everyone calling out “Peace!” It certainly feels like y’all mean it. I know I do. Perhaps all I’m suggesting is a brief pause before we do that, just to allow the blessing of the shalom that I’ve sent out to you to soak down into your soul. And allow a moment for me to do the same. So, when we’re typing in the chat room, or making the peace sign, or folded Namaste hands, or calling out “Peace,” we know that we are sending out a blessing to each and every one in our Zoom room for harmony, wholeness, completeness, contentment, inner calm, and divine grace. And I sure need all the harmony, wholeness, completeness, contentment, inner calm, and divine grace I can get. How about you? 

There are a whole lot of places in the world that are in need of peace. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been so caught up the past few years with news from this country that I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. But, scanning the BBC, I saw that just in the last month, police used tear gas and water canon against pro-democracy protesters in Thailand. French police clashed with protesters in Paris. Thirty people were killed by Islamist militants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season finally ended, as the most active and the seventh costliest one on record. The Syrian civil War is in its 10th year, and the US has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. Oh, yes, plenty of need for peace. 

But as the Dalai Lama has said (and I am sure Jesus would agree), “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

So we’ll try it out today and see how it goes. We’ll take a brief pause before we share the peace today. In that pause, there is no need to think or figure out what to do with blessing that has come your way. Just allow it to wash over you like a gentle wave or a refreshing  breeze. Then, when you hear the chime, you can send the blessing back to me. And maybe later we can share some thoughts about the experience.

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.

peace

 

 Peace be with you in American Sign Language

 

 

Joy Sunday? In a Pandemic?

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I have a confession to make. I lit the joy candle on my Advent wreath a day early. I couldn’t wait because I’d been thinking and thinking and thinking about joy – and coming up empty. Which is a problem because we’re fast approaching the season of Christmas joy, preparing for the birth of Jesus, who would later tell his disciples – and through them us:
These things I’ve said to you: that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.

Honestly, though, I’m feeling more like the John the Baptist of Matthew and Luke’s gospels, when he sends his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we to look for another?” That’s quite a change, isn’t it, from our reading from John’s gospel today, where the Baptist is full of confidence, preaching with power about the one who is to come. But years later, he sits alone in a dark and dank cell, questioning his earlier confidence and perhaps his very mission and identity, as he sends word to ask Jesus this poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one or should we look somewhere else?

The movement between these two portrayals of John is from a sure, and certain confidence to a questioning doubt; from fiery conviction to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. We’ve all been there, right? Charging ahead with dreams and plans, moving forward with optimism about the future, only to be stopped in our tracks: maybe by illness or injury, loss of employment, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our equilibrium. And when our heartache, uncertainty, disappointment, and desperation isn’t only about ourselves, but our entire nation – as it is now in the midst of the pandemic – the anguish is overwhelming. As it was for John, I imagine.

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As it was for the exiles in Babylon, too – the ones Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote to hundreds of years before John. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a breath of good news, of hope – kind of like the news of the imminent rollout of a vaccine against COVID-19. It’s not here just yet, but it’s coming. But this is Chapter 61! There was a whole lot of angst that came before, as they wondered how they could have gotten into such a bad state, humiliated, taken away from their homeland and all they held near and dear. I doubt the words from Psalm 137 could express their heartache any more poignantly:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

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Of course that kind of despair isn’t unique to ancient Israelis. Exile is defined as banishment, being forced to live away from one’s native country or home. It’s a condition in which many people find themselves today: refugees and displaced people from Syria, South Sudan,  Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar, among others; the hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border; political exiles such as the Dalai Lama.

But we don’t have to go far to find others in exile. And we don’t have to limit the definition to being displaced from your native land. The holidays can be an especially difficult time for many LGBTQ people who have been banished from their families. Now, in the pandemic, there are those who are living at home, but with limited or no access to community support and, in some cases, quarantining with unsupportive family members.

We know also for the past four years, there are many people who are estranged from family and/or community. And now, in the pandemic, our whole country has been thrown into exile. A virus has forced us to go about our lives in very different ways. We might very well sing, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered the way life used to be.” Is this our home now? We don’t recognize it anymore. How can we sing God’s song in this foreign land? 

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Oh, wait a minute; this is Joy Sunday. I really haven’t forgotten. So there I was last night with my Advent wreath candles burning down: candles for hope, for peace, and for joy. And I realized that this has been one of the most spiritually challenging Advents that I’ve ever experienced. With everything that has happened just in 2020, I don’t know how it’s been for you, but I’ve had to go a lot deeper into these words, into the season. Spiritual platitudes won’t do – not for me, and I’m certainly not going to spout them to you.

But just as hope is not the same as optimism and peace is more than absence of conflict, joy is more than fleeting happiness. Remember the old camp song: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Down in my heart? It’s not just a dumb old camp song. Sometimes those old chestnuts get at a profound truth. Down in the heart is where we find the hope, peace and joy that passes all understanding.

Now getting down there might not be so simple. We let our hearts get pretty well defended, especially – let’s just admit it – against God. Because if we really allowed ourselves to feel the presence of Divine Spirit within us, well, it could shake our world even more. We might be inspired to do something that would totally mess upour vision of the way life is supposed to be. And I’m not going to tell you that couldn’t happen. But I am going to tell you that by opening our hearts to Divine Spirit, we also open ourselves to deep joy.

That must have been what Isaiah experienced. What else could have caused him to proclaim to the people who dwelled in deep darkness, the exiles in Babylon: 
Adonai has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve in Zion – to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.

And again: 
Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus!
Let it blossom profusely, Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
Those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.

Maybe some of those who heard Isaiah’s words thought he’d gone off the deep end. There was no rational reason to think that any such thing would happen. But there it was – a song of joy in the midst of sorrow, gladness in the midst of grief.

And that’s what we’re called to do in Advent. Advent reminds us that, against all evidence to the contrary, another world is possible. We can return from exile. New life can emerge from the ruins. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God keeps on creating and calls us to be creative as well. We owe it to ourselves and the world to find this place of joy down in our hearts.

But what is this joy?

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The Dalai Lama has said that “the purpose of our lives is to seek happiness,” which he sometimes calls Joy. Thich Nhat Hahn, another Buddhist teacher, occasionally tries to make a distinction by saying “if you are very thirsty and you see a glass of water, you will experience joy. But after drinking the water you will experience happiness.” 

Psychiatrist Georges Valliant, author of Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, has a chapter on joy.  He starts out by clarifying that happiness is “secular,” “cognitive” and “tame,” while joy is “spiritual,” “a primary emotion,” and “connection to the universe…Joy is laughing from the gut.” 

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That reminded me of my friend Dolores White who practices and leads laughing yoga. I did find a good YouTube video. It’s not the same as in person, but it will have to do while we’re still social distancing. And then, of course, there are the “disco goats.”

Will laughing take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will act as a tonic for your soul. 

Another thing Vaillant said is: “It is so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it.”

A friend recently sent me a quiz to determine if you’re more right brain or left-brain. She had scored 50/50: evenly divided between analytic, rational, objective left-brain and the creative, imaginative right brain. My results, however, came out 70/30 on the analytic, rational, objective side. My comment was, “Sigh! I’ve really been trying to engage that creative side more.” My friend wrote back, “I think your analytical side is very creative.” My left-brain response was, “I’ll have to think about that.”

Now I realize that my answer should have been “I’ll have to sing about that.”  

What happens when we sing is that we go down into our hearts where we can find that deep joy. Of course, it’s better when we can sing together. That’s another of our sorrows in not gathering in person. I hear that the technology is being developed so we will be able to sing together on Zoom. And that will be a joyful thing. In the meantime, we make do with singing along with Michael in our own spaces. and there’s no reason we can’t sing out loudly and joyfully. 

One of the things from the laughing yoga video is an exercise at the very beginning. Everyone stands up and brushes off each shoulder. That’s to get rid of all the judges telling you that you look silly or can’t sing well or whatever your inner critic loves to get on you about. Now that they’re gone, you’re free to sing – as a perfectly good spiritual practice. Maybe even dance. Sufi teacher Pir Vilayet Khan asked “Why aren’t you dancing with joy at this very moment? It’s the only relevant spiritual question.”

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OK. I know. Not all of us are singers or dancers. But the message of both quotes is to do something to engage that creative right brain: sing, dance, make art, read a poem, write a song, listen to music, create a new recipe, play silly games that make absolutely no sense. Laugh. I wish we had Dolores here with us right now to do laughing yoga. That would be the perfect thing to do on Joy Sunday.

Again, will this take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will create joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. 

And finally, if you just can’t get in the Christmas spirit this year, don’t sweat it. Christ being born is not dependent on our being in the right mood. Some people have very good reasons to not be joyful right now. 

NEW-Blue-Christmas

A relatively new tradition called Blue Christmas is held at many churches, often around the solstice, the so-called “longest night.” It’s usually offered for folks who have lost a loved one at this time of year. But it has also become an alternative for those who have suffered a loss of any kind, for those who suffer from depression especially over the holidays, for those estranged from their families, for anyone who can’t get into the holly-jolly-ness of the season – a place to not have to pretend and perhaps even feel the kind of deep peace and joy that is the true gift of the Christ child. If you are one experiencing something other than joy or peace during this season, I’ve included a prayer below that might be meaningful for you. Or if you know someone who struggles with the season, it might be the best gift you can give them, to let them know you understand. 

We are all in an exile of sorts this year. We may grieve different things, but without a doubt we’ve never experienced a Christmas like this before. The good news of Jesus Christ is liberation from exile – of any kind. We can hold onto that promise even as we sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Maybe we can even sing through the tears. Maybe even laugh. Not as denial or irreverence, but as a way to find joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. And from that holy heart of it, the world – your world – will change. 

Amen

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BLUE CHRISTMAS PRAYER 

Around us, O God, the singing can be heard: ‘Joy to the world…let heaven and nature sing.’ This season is to be one of hope to ease our minds, when peace soothes our hearts, when love warms our souls, and when joy comes each morning.

But there are many who do not feel this joy. Some might try, others have given up trying. ‘Where is this joy for us?’ they ask. The world has found joy but some feel as if it has passed them by. Our minds are not at ease…we feel too much doubt. Our hearts are not at peace…there is too much to do. Our souls are not warmed…the chill of death is too troubling. Where, O God, can joy be found? We ask this as we come before you in prayer, opening ourselves to the possibility that hope, peace, joy, and love might still come to us.

We pray for the lonely, that they might find comfort in another’s touch.
We pray for the downtrodden, that they might find relief from their burdens.
We pray for those wrestling with depression, that a light of calm might bring them peace.
We pray for those dealing with stress, that they might find the courage to let go.
We pray for the grief-stricken, that they might experience the newness of life that you bring.

May joy come to the world, O God, and may we grasp some of that. We do not pray for joy that is temporary or fleeting, but a joy that runs deep and sustains us even in moments of despair. We seek this joy in a season that can be less than joyful. O God, hear our prayer.

We wait for Emanuel, God With Us, to come into our hearts once again. May we experience your love in new ways as we in turn love each other. We pray this in the name of the One who is to come. Amen. 

written by coffeepastor, and posted on Philosophy Over Coffee 

*FIRST READING ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11

“The Spirit of Adonai Elohim* is upon me, for Adonai has anointed me and has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor;
to heal broken hearts;
to proclaim release to those held captive;
and liberation to those in prison;
to announce a year of favor from Adonai
and the day of God’s vindication to comfort all who mourn
to provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.
They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by Adonai to display God’s glory.
They will restore the ancient ruins, and rebuild sites long devastated;
they will repair the ruined cities, neglected for generations

For I, Adonai, love justice; I hate robbery and sin. So I will faithfully compensate you, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. Your descendants will be renowned among the nations; and your offspring among the people; all who see you will acknowledge that you are a people Adonai has blessed.

I will joyfully exult in Adonai, who is the joy of my soul, who has clothed me with a robe of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden brings its seeds to blossom, so Adonai Elohim makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.

THE HOLY GOSPEL John 1:6-8, 19-28

Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. John himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.

Now the Temple authorities sent emissaries from Jerusalem—priests and Levites—to talk to John. “Who are you?”

“I am not the Messiah.”

“Who are you then? Elijah?”

“No, I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

“No.”

“Then who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I am as Isaiah prophesied ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight our God’s road!’”

“If you’re not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing people?”

“I baptize with water because among you stands someone whom you don’t recognize—the One who is to come after me—the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy even to untie.”

This occurred in Bethany, across the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.

The Christ of the Divine Milieu

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God save the queen
Have any of you been watching the Netflix series The Crown about Queen Elizabeth and her family in Great Britain? I was really enjoying it until it got to this season which is all about the unfortunate marriage of Charles and Diana, and I admit that I had to stop watching. My opinion of the system of monarchy – of course as an American I’m glad we broke away from it – was relieved of any romanticized notions. 

The Origin of Christ the King
But let’s go back almost 100 years. In 1925, Pope Pius XI was very troubled by the political climate of that time. Dictators, like Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were exerting alarming authoritarian power in Europe. Pius, concerned about rising nationalism, as well as the decreasing authority of the Church, introduced a new day onto the Church calendar – the Feast of Christ the King. By doing this, he was hoping to show that the authority of the Church was separate from and free from the state. 

Having said that, I’d venture a guess that Christ the King Sunday hasn’t been a particularly meaningful day on your calendar. Maybe you recognize it as the last Sunday in the church year, the Sunday before Advent. I  confess that I’ve often looked at this day as an archaic remnant of a bygone time. Thinking back, most sermons I can remember giving began: “Now we live in a democracy, so it might be hard to get the idea of being subject to a king.” 

Be careful what you wish for
Of course, we can read about it in the Bible. The reading from Ezekiel is a condemnation of Israel’s kings, whose failed leadership led to their captivity in Babylon. I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because Samuel had long before tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them: 

He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.

And so it did. What’s really important about this warning is that’s an expression of the tension between prophets and rulers. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel weren’t predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state -which is still the role of prophets today. 

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Dismantling Patriarchy
Which brings me back again to Pope Pius and Christ the King. Even though the original intent of the day was a good one, there are still some problems. As you’ve gotten to know me, you may have learned that inclusive language is very important to me. I’m a firm believer that language matters, and that includes the words we use in church. In fact, I was part of a panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2018 on “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy.” (Part 1; Part 2) And #1 on my list of action items was: “Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God” – which, by the way, we got incorporated into the ELCA’s latest social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.”

“We don’t have a king.”Monty Python
So I’ve always resisted using ‘king’ language because of the gender issue. Many churches have switched over to the gender-neutral title: Reign of Christ. But that doesn‘t completely solve it. If you’re a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you might remember the scene where Arthur reveals himself to a peasant as his king. The  peasant, who is not impressed replies, “Oh, King, eh, very nice. And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society?” 

You see, patriarchy isn’t just a gender issue. It’s about hierarchies of power, of one group over another: white over black, straight over gay, privileged over poor, etc.  And in light of our growing awareness of these issues, we’ve also begun to question our understanding of a God who is ‘up there’ somewhere reigning ‘over us’ – embracing instead the realization of the presence of God all around us and within us.   

The ‘Basileia tou Theouhas come near.
Now I’m not big on throwing out words and images just because they’re not working for us anymore, at least not throwing them out without an attempt at transforming them. This is still a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21st century in the midst of the issues of our day. Therefore, along with ‘king,’ there is also the question of ‘kingdom.’ ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But ‘basileia’ is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Some New Testament scholars are even calling it the ’empire’ of God – because Jesus’ main agenda addresses his major antagonist, the ’empire of Rome.’

Others aren’t so enamored. Theologian John Cobb, who describes ‘basiliea tou theou’ as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the ‘divine commonwealth.’ Kin-dom of God is coming more and more into use. 

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Living in the Divine Milieu
As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind ’empire of God,’ I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to ‘kin-dom’ or ‘divine commonwealth’ because they get us away from feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the ‘divine milieu’ of early 20th century scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin. 

In this ‘divine milieu,’ Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ. For Teilhard, Christ isn’t just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops, like living cells in a huge organism. 

With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teilhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He shows how, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king, but a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love. 

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If that sounds too far out, remember that even a spirituality of the divine milieu includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day. Our relationship with the Divine is a personal one, as near to us as our breath. 

And when we look at each other, we can even see Christ embodied. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that. Simple when it’s the people we love or the people who are like us. And even that gets challenging at times, right? The face of Christ in the spouse you’re fighting with? The child having the temper tantrum? The parent being intrusive? Even harder when it’s the people we don’t like, the unlovely and unlovable. The difficult, the challenging. All these people matter to God, as Jesus always made clear. 

This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem too big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or our national and global challenges, the truth is that in this commonwealth, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message of this final Sunday of the church year. 

It is a countercultural way of being – being willing just to be open to loving all God’s people and thus being open to finding ways to love even the most challenging. It’s a recognition that we live in the gracious reign of Christ, the commonwealth of God, in which love rules – not political maneuvering, economic gain, national boundaries or military might – in this realm the only legitimate exercise of power is the non-coercive way of the open heart.

How do you live out your faith in your life?
A while back, I got a call from a local high school student who needed to interview a Christian for her paper on world religions. One of the questions she asked was how do you live out your faith in your life. That might seem like a no-brainer for a pastor; after all I get paid for being a professional Christian. But after giving that smart-alecky answer, I gave my real response. I said that I’m called – as every Christian is – to follow the wisdom of Christ in everything I do: what I eat, where I shop, who I love, how I respond to those I find hard to even like, how I vote. 

The Charter for Compassion
I’m talking about how we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, the Alpha and Omega into action in the world. And I’ve come to one conclusion. One word: compassion. Maybe you think that’s too simplistic and unrealistic.  But at the of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in both 2015 and 2018, I learned more about The Charter for Compassion, a global movement that connects organizers and leaders from around the world to create networks to provide all kinds of resources for creating compassionate communities and institutions.

The charter, adopted in 2008 and endorsed by more than two million people around the world, calls upon “all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion – to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate – to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures – to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity – to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.”

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As Christians, we come to the table of initiatives like this in awareness of our mandate from the teachings of Jesus. As difficult as they may be to follow – and let’s admit it, they can be difficult – they comprise our job description as disciples. Thankfully, we also know that as hard as we try and with all our best intentions, we can’t save the world. Sometimes we’re even the goats in the gospel story. Knowing our limitations, knowing the complexity of our response to the call of discipleship, we are grateful to be able to run to the offer of grace always open to us. And then return, with renewed conviction to the ethic of the divine milieu, the kin-dom of God. 

Which then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. For as Pope Pius worried about the political climate of his day, so we worry about ours. We live in an unprecedented time. Our government in crisis, we’re a severely divided nation, our very environmental system is in crisis, we’re suffering the effects (physical, economic, emotional) of an out-of-control pandemic. Add all that to our individual lives with our everyday stresses and strains. Add it to the church, where we long to go for comfort and peace, yet already before COVID struggling to adjust to new realities. 

The Cosmic Christ in the World
How do we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Alpha and the Omega into action in this world? As we stand on the cusp of a new church year, ready to enter the season of Advent waiting and expectation, we are gently reminded not to succumb to discouragement. Because as we go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, we go knowing that we’re loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. It’s bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we take heart – and action. In the name of Christ, the true anointed one.   Amen.

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Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
For thus says the Holy One, the God of Israel: I, I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when their flocks are scattered in every direction, so I will search for my sheep and rescue them, no matter where they scattered on a day of cloud and thick shadow. I will bring them out from the countries and bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by its streams and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them on good pasture land, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing ground. 

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and have them lie down, thus says the Holy One, the God of Israel. I will seek out the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 

I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, for you shove aside the weak with flank and shoulder; you butt them with your horns until they are scattered in every direction. I will save my flock and they will be ravaged no longer. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will set up over them one shepherd to care for them: my servant David. He will care for them and be their shepherd. And I will be their God, and my servant David will be their leader. I, YHWH, have spoken.

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Matthew 25:31-46
“At the appointed time the Promised One will come in glory, escorted by all the angels of heaven, and will sit upon the royal throne, with all the nations assembled below. Then the Promised One will separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed on the right hand, the goats on the left.

“The king will say to those on the right, ‘
Come, you blessed of God! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world! For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
Then these just will ask, 
‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?’ 

The king will answer them, 
‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.’

“Then the king will say to those on the left, 
‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones! Into that everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome; naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’ 
Then they in turn will ask, 
‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’ 
The answer will come, 
‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’ 
They will go off to eternal punishment, and the just will go off to eternal life.”

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Occupy: The Kin-dom of God

There are some places in Bible that, if we take them literally, make it really hard to find good news. Some of these difficult stories never appear in the lectionary. Take, for example, the tragic tale of Ananias and Sapphira from the early days of the church in Acts 5.

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The Grim Tale of Ananias and Sapphira
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died.

Geez! Imagine this as your text for stewardship Sunday!

Well, today’s story did make into the lectionary – to many a preachers’ dismay. The obvious problem is that if we treat The Parable of the Talents as an allegory, then the landowner is God. And the landowner is not a nice person.

Another problem is that Matthew’s version of the parable is put in here at end of church year, when the lectionary wants us to think about the Second Coming of Christ and/or a Day of Judgement. His closing line from Jesus, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” doesn’t appear in Luke’s version.

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Character matters
In spite of its difficulties, this parable is often used for stewardship Sunday! The idea of risk – investing time, talents, treasure for the kin-dom of God – is a popular theme. And that’s initially where I was going. But to be honest, I just couldn’t get past the character of the landowner. It seemed like I had to do a lot of exegetical gymnastics to get around this elephant in the room. If indeed “character matters,” how could I ignore this man who did not disagree with the slave who called him “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter”?

Parables 101
So instead I decided to go back to Parables 101. I’ve gained a lot of perspective on Jesus’ parables from John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable. So:

Rule #1: Remember that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means. These stories have become so familiar, domesticated; we think they confirm what we already know or think is the right answer. But that’s not how parables work.

The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to put parallel or put alongside.’ It implies that two things are being thrown together, a kind of biblical mashup. Jesus used this form of teaching, not to moralize or to tell his listeners how to be good religious people. He told parables to stir things up, to encourage debate, to engage in the great Jewish tradition of lively discussion, spirited theological banter. This might seen like arguing to us, because it’s something Christianity lost along the way and really must recover. The video series Living the Questions is a good example of this recovery, as we learn that it’s OK to ask questions, even to disagree. Because in the exchange of ideas, when texts are questioned, wrestled with and explored, new insights and understandings can emerge for our collective edification.

Rule #2: Try to imagine what your reaction would be if you were in that 1st century Jewish audience. In other words, read the parable within its historical and cultural context.

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Three bazillion dollars!
First of all, we’d have understood what a talent was. It wasn’t referring to your ability to sing or dance. A talents was an amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 denarii. One denarius would be a worker’s daily pay. So we’re talking millions of dollars in our time. Jesus got the attention of his audience with a “fairy-tale” amount of money. Like, “So there was this landowner, and he gave the first slave three bazillion dollars.” Now that would get your attention!

About the slaves
As 21st century people, we have to recognize our discomfort with the fact that those given this money were slaves. There’s no getting around the fact that slavery was an accepted reality in the time of Jesus. And we unfortunately know that this fact was used to support the institution of slavery in this country for far too long – another reason to take biblical exegesis – historical/cultural context – seriously. Taken with Jesus’ message of liberation, it is impossible to find justification for one person ‘owning’ another.

About the interest
Then there is the matter of interest. We hear this parable in light of our own economic system and think the first two slaves made sound business decisions; they invested their money and got a good return. But Jesus’ audience would have been shocked. This story is the only place the New Testament where the word ‘interest’ appears. It’s in many places in the Old Testament – in a negative light in each one.

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It’s Mr. Moneybags
The subject of interest is not a good thing. The landowner is not a good person. He represents oppressive business practices. He doesn’t care how the slaves made more money for him. He’s not bothered by the third slave’s description of him. The “joy” into which he welcomes his “faithful” ones is entry into the 1%: excess wealth gained by systems that made him a perpetuate oppression. We shouldn’t have any trouble thinking of people like that today, people considered ‘smart’ for their ruthless and immoral practices that have made them extraordinarily wealthy.

But the third slave was having none of it. His act of resistance to this ‘harsh’ system made him a representation of the 99%. If it was Jesus’ intention to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. The people in his audience lived in the mash-up of Roman tradition which was pro-interest and the anti-interest teachings of the Torah.In this interpretation, Jesus is clearly siding with Torah – and with the 99%.

But it wasn’t just about money. This wasn’t a call for the Judean version of Occupy Wall Street. It was a call to Occupy the Kin-dom, which includes all our interactions in the mash-up of our beliefs and the ways of the world. Of course, then as now, money plays a very large part in our individual and corporate lives. So if we do interpret this parable with the third slave as the one who was really faithful in Jesus’ eyes, then we are called to make our financial choices accordingly. And now, as then, it can be complicated and controversial. For example:

Where are my pension funds invested?
I remember when the ELCA wrestled with the decision to divest from companies trading with South Africa in the time of apartheid. Today, I can choose to employ screens to eliminate companies, such as fossil fuel industries, weapons manufacturing, and those identified with the denial of human rights. These may or may not yield the highest interest. What is the criteria of the kin-dom in making these choices?

Where do I bank?
During Occupy Wall Street, we were encouraged to take our money out of the big banks. I made the decision to move over to a credit union, but I confess that I still have accounts in one of the offending banks. I haven’t yet been able to wean myself off of the security I feel (rightly or wrongly) in it. But I am aware that in that choice I am aligning myself with the ‘harsh master’ and a different choice needs to be made.

Do I buy clothes made with child labor or pay more for goods made in a union shop for fair wages and benefits?
When you’re on a budget, it’s tempting to go for the cheaper goods. But I also recognize that many people on a much tighter budget than mine do not have the privilege of choosing the higher prices. As a consumer, I can make my own choices. But as a follower of Jesus, I must also advocate for a standard of living for all of us, that is also fair to local economies and the environment.

What about politics?
It’s popular in many parts of the church to warn pastors to keep out of politics. However, in this reading of The Parable of the Talents, Jesus (as he so often does) addresses issues with political implications. I vote according to what I believe are the ways of the kin-dom of God. It’s not left or right, Democratic or Republican. It’s about the choices I make when my spirituality is mashed up with our current culture.

I believe we can read The Parable of the Talents in at least two different ways. On any given day, I might be challenged to be the wise investor, to take a risk with my time, talent, and treasures. But at the same time, I can be challenged to look closely at whatever systems are in operation today that are not worthy of my investment, and even in need of reform.

Bottom line: Occupy the Kin-dom calls me to invest and/or divest in all things in light of the way of Jesus. Can I get an Amen?

Matthew 25: 14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The Parable of the Mean Girls

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To tell you the truth, as of last evening, I still wasn’t sure where this sermon was going to go. This past week was one roller coaster of a ride, wasn’t it? Not knowing election results for four days was anxiety-producing to say the least. Watching and wondering how people – on both sides – were going to react to the final tally was  worrisome. Compulsive news checking was a thing, even when we knew it was too early to know anything. 

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By Wednesday, I was all ready to start Advent early. Advent’s theme of watching and waiting seemed to fit perfectly. I redid the bulletin. I picked out a graphic of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and edited in “Advent” in place of Christmas.  The sermon was going to be all about waiting patiently. Then yesterday morning the election was called and the waiting was over. Lighting Advent candles didn’t seem as appropriate. So I put the bulletin back to the way it was and started looking at the gospel again – in the context of where we are now.

And where we are is with yet another parable from Matthew. Now, I love the parables. But even I have had just about enough, especially since the last three parables before Advent really does begin on the 29th all talk about the second coming of Christ and a day of judgment. And there are textual problems with them and theological differences of opinion on what they mean. But – reading this one again yesterday, I did have some new insights. 

First of all, I started really thinking about that wedding that those bridesmaids were in. If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know there are a lot of details involved – from the design of the invitation to the table decorations at the reception. Nobody wants to forget any of these details. You want to make the day as perfect as possible. If you’ve ever been a bridesmaid, you know that certain details fall to you. I know that’s true for groomsmen, too. Even these days, when those who stand with the wedding couple might be of any gender (I was “best man” at my brother’s wedding), there still are specific responsibilities. And one of the main ones is to take care that at no time attention is diverted from the wedding couple to you. 

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There are websites where you can read stories of weddings going awry, like the one where the bridesmaid who had refused to try on her dress before the wedding showed up late in a dress with straps that were too long and had to be fixed with safety pins. She’d also smoked a cigarette in the car on the way to the church and the dress had a small burn front and center from ash blowing back in. I mean friendships and family relationships are irrevocably broken over stuff like this. 

But our customs would sound very strange to people in Jesus’ day, when wedding festivities typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the celebration. In the scene in the parable, the bridesmaids are awaiting the arrival of the groom. This was their big moment, their specific duty: to wait for the groom – either at the bride’s house where he would come to fetch her or at the home of his family where the wedding would take place. All of them have either lamps or large torches, so that when the groom arrived, they would lead the wedding party in a procession of lights.

Now, unlike our weddings, that are supposed to start at a specific time (and there are plenty of stories about when that didn’t happen), in Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for there to be a delay. For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s relatives over the gifts to be exchanged. The story doesn’t explain the delay, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The bridesmaids would have known that a delay could occur. Or they should have. The parable describes the debacle of five bridesmaids who missed the procession and undoubtedly incurred the wrath of the bride and groom and their families, and the distain of all the wedding guests. If this was a morality tale, the moral of the story would be: don’t mess up your best friend’s wedding. 

But we know that parables are more than that; there’s always at least one (and often more) deeper meanings to be mined from what, at first, seems like a straightforward cautionary tale. And frankly I’m relieved there’s more to this story because, on the surface, I really don’t like it. 

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For starters, I don’t like the wise bridesmaids. They sound like mean girls to me. Or just selfish ones. Instead of sharing they send the others away to try to find oil. No shops would have been open at night; they would have had to bang on doors of friends, relatives, and shopkeepers begging for help. Really? I can’t think of any other place else in the Bible that such selfish behavior is called ‘wise’? They say, “We can’t share because we might not have enough for ourselves. Just to be safe, we’re not sharing what we have.” It seems they’re operating out of scarcity and fear. We know what that looks like. I’m sure they would have been among those hoarding toilet paper and sanitizing wipes at the beginning of the pandemic.  And these were the wise ones?

But, you know, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the foolish ones either. They should have known better; they should have been prepared. They shouldn’t have listened to the mean girls and gone off in search of oil. Surely the knew that, with the groom approaching, it was too late. Their foolishness guaranteed that by the time they got back, they were left out in the cold and dark. The groom probably thought he’d been deserted by his so-called friends. Maybe he thought they’d simply given up and gone home. And I don’t even want to think about what happened when the bride heard about it! Did she know that when the foolish five did show up, her husband barred the door and refused to let them into the banquet? It seems there was a lot of foolishness going on.

The only distinction between the wise and the foolish ones was preparation. Five were ready when the groom arrived; five were not. They all were judged on the basis of how well-prepared they were. And we get it, right? We get that the bridegroom is Jesus and that we’d better be ready or at least appear to be, like the billboard says:

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But, like with many of the parables, we squirm a little when we really listen to it. Which is good, because parables are supposed to cause us some discomfort. If we’re honest with ourselves, our discomfort comes when we acknowledge that we can relate to both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids and sometimes even the groom.

I’ve been the foolish whose lamps have run out. I’ve been the wise who feared sharing and losing what they had. I’ve been the bridegroom who refused to let people in. And maybe that’s what this parable does. It allows us to really see ourselves. 

That could be why this parable is so troublesome. It creates a stark duality of either you’re wise or you’re foolish; either you’re ready or you’re not; either you’re in or you’re out. But we know we’re more complex than that. and I’m pretty sure God knows that, too. Recognizing ourselves in all of these characters can go a long way in making us better disciples. 

So, when you find yourself feeling foolish, like the foolish bridesmaids, stop and wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It can be a holy place where God will meet and transform you. When you find yourself feeling like the wise bridesmaids, tempted to hoard what you have, stop and remember to share, even if it scares you. And when you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, angrily closing the door against others or erecting barriers to keep certain ones out, stop and open the door to the banquet feast. 

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The second troubling thing about this parable is that it just doesn’t sound like Jesus. The separation between those who are in and those who are out is in stark contrast to the inclusive nature of Jesus throughout the gospels. What’s going on here?

What was going on shortly before Matthew wrote his gospel was the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. It was a time of terrible turmoil and the religious leaders were understandably trying to figure out how to maintain their community, their religious identity, even their theology that had tied the very presence of God to that temple. We can relate somewhat, right? Keeping the congregation together during the turmoil of the pandemic, wondering what the future of the church will be even after we can go back into the building. 

What the leaders back then were doing was clamping down on the strands of Judaism that didn’t fit into what they deemed to be the correct expression of the faith. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out. And, among others, those Jews who were part of the Jesus movement were most definitely out.

Matthew and his community understandably didn’t take that well. In turn, Matthew tells a story about how Jesus would probably have responded to these religious leaders. The tables would be turned and they would be the ones cast out when Jesus came back to establish the kindom of God on earth. And there have been centuries of Christians ever since who have been waiting hopefully for this second coming. 

Unfortunately, this idea has created a theology that abandons the earth to the “powers and principalities” of the world, while looking heavenward for divine rescue. That kind of dualistic thinking has created a mindset – and policies – of injustice and ecological destruction. And again we’re challenged to think bigger and understand that we need to be both heavenly minded and of earthly good.

There’s much scholarly disagreement about whether Jesus himself was an apocalyptic preacher, that is concerned with end times and a judgment day, and whether he would come back to lead what John Dominic Crossan calls the “Great Cleanup” – when God would step in and clean up the earth, bringing a new creation where justice and peace would reign.

Some believe that the second coming already happened – on Pentecost. Others say that Christ is continually appearing among us and leading us, sometimes pushing us, into the kindom of God right here and right now. 

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I don’t think it ultimately matters – as long as we hold to what Jesus taught us about the kindom of God. Jesus did not promote division, but our oneness in God. Yes, there are places where we can argue about that. But again, we take those places in context and mine the message for us today. Jesus did promote loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors. The characters in the parable are useful to us in holding up a mirror to ourselves to see where we’re not as well-prepared as we could be, not as generous as we could be, not as welcoming as we might think we are. The parable can challenge us and lead us into better discipleship, knowing that Christ is always coming to us: we don’t have to wait for a great divine cleanup to experience the kindom of God.

And if that’s true, then we have our work cut out for us. Loving and welcoming our neighbors – all of our neighbors. Feeding the hungry, sharing generously from our bounty. Opening doors, taking down barriers that have been erected between those who are in and those who are out. 

In these post-election days, we’ve been hearing a lot about healing the divisions in our nation. That is now the challenge to us as followers of Jesus. How will we promote this: in ourselves, in our congregation, in our wider community?

It’s a big question, probably not one to be answered today. Thankfully, we have more apocalyptic parables to keep us at it over the next few weeks. 

For now, remember the words of Jesus from Luke’s gospel: “. . . in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And from the Gospel of Thomas: “the kingdom of God is within you.” 

So remember: Christ can come to you at any time. Be as prepared as you can be. But most of all, be open to the wonderment and surprising possibilities that Christ will bring – to you and through you.

To be continued . . .

Amen 

MATTHEW 25:1-13

“Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. Five of them were wise; five were foolish. When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them, but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep. 

“At midnight there was a cry: ‘Here comes the bridegroom! Let’s go out to meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaidsrose and trimmed their lamps. 
The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied, ‘Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’

“While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. When the foolish bridesmaids returned, they pleaded to be let in. 
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’

“So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.”

All Saints: the Power of Naming Names

Memorial Day

This weekend, I watched the new Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago Seven. The story in a nutshell is the 1969-70 trial of a group of Vietnam War protesters charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The movie ends with the closing statement made by defendant Tom Hayden. Instructed to keep it short and respectful, he chose instead to begin reading the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam. My understanding is that this didn’t actually happen. However another defendant did read  names at another point in the trial. So the movie did take some liberties. Nonetheless, the reading of the names was a powerful part of the trial, no matter when it happened and by whom. The point of doing it was to keep the focus on those who had died.

This ritual of naming is powerful. Watching that scene on the eve of All Saints Day was a reminder to me of the importance – and the power – of naming our dead. We do this every year on this Sunday, but sometimes we are particularly confronted by the reality of death, often in tragic circumstances.

The other day, Barbara and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood. It was fun to see the Halloween decorations in yards and on houses. I know decorating for Halloween has become much more elaborate since my days of trick or treating (we thought it was a big deal to make a stuffed dummy to set out in a chair on our front porch). But I wondered if this year, there were even more skeletons, ghosts, and ghouls than usual. I wondered if this might be a response to our being confronted with death in a particularly alarming way this year. 

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I read recently that Covid-19 has already, killed more people in the US than Americans killed in battle during the five most recent wars combined.  And according to the New York City medical examiner and the Department of Defense, COVID deaths in the US are equal to having the 9/11 attacks every day for 66 days. 

These statistics do not take anything away from the 9/11 deaths or any of the war dead. They do highlight our need to remember. Every year since 9/11/2001, the names of those killed in the fall of the twin towers are read. Unfortunately, even this ritual became controversial this year, with two separate events taking place blocks apart in Manhattan. At the official ceremony at Ground Zero, the names were prerecorded because of the pandemic. While at a new event, the same names were read live and in person. But again, ultimately, it’s no matter when it happened and by whom. The point was to keep the focus on those who had died.

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Just as the “Say Their Names” initiative of Black Lives Matter keeps the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others lost to systemic racism and violence alive in our hearts and minds. 

In the same way, we see lists of the COVID dead in various news sources. Many of us have the name of a relative or friend on our own personal lists. We are confronted by death in a terrible convergence of biological and societal ills. Halloween, that day when tradition says that the veil between this world and the next becomes particularly thin, is a good outlet for our anxieties and our grief. 

Let’s face it, we have a lot to be anxious and to grieve about. Even before COVID, we were mourning the fracturing of our nation. Now, with the election just 2 days away, we wonder how it will go, how it will turn out, how will people react. In so many ways, fear of the unknown and our lack of control over a lot of what concerns us is keeping us up at night. We talk about the new normal, but we don’t know what that new normal even is yet. We can relate to the writer of the I John passage: “it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future.” 

The immense upheaval we are experiencing takes its toll. It is helpful to at least recognize that your anxiety, or restlessness, or lethargy, or fatigue, or headaches, or however this upheaval is affecting you is – in this unprecedented time – normal. But then we also have to acknowledge our need for help. 

A poem in a recent blog post by Presbyterian pastor Todd Jenkins spoke to me of our spiritual state in these trying times. It’s called “Turn, Turn.” This is part of it:

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My cup, it feels  
so empty much  
of the time.  

Maybe it’s cracked,  
and that’s how some  
of what God fills  
it with leaks out;  

but I’m beginning  
to suspect that,  
too much of the time,  
I live with it  
turned upside down.  

Not because  
I’m pouring it out  
for others’ sake,  
in helpful ways;  
but because  
I’m out of tune  
with the melody  
in my soul.  

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I need to have my cup  
turned upright, so that  
the kin-dom of the divine  
can fill me and overflow  
into the holy  
here and now.  

Turn my cup, O God;  
turn it up, O Lord.  

 I love the imagery of a cup (I picture a chalice) turned upside down. There’s some small comfort there, that I’m not alone in my feeling of weariness. But there’s also an invitation: to allow my cup to be turned upright. It is the grace of this poem that even allows us to know that even this action might be too much for our weary souls. Yet we can trust that, as the I John text says, one truth remains steadfast and true: we are children of God. 

We have been claimed in love by God. We have been named by God. Each one of us has been made a saint: named and claimed. That doesn’t mean that we’re some kind of spiritual superstars. It does mean that this is what fills our cup: hope rooted in knowledge that God the creator is continually working on us, that Christ the redeemer is always in our midst, and that the Holy Spirit is always at work in and around and through us – even in the midst of chaos. With cups refilled and overflowing with gratitude, we can follow the way of God’s love from holy here and now into whatever future awaits us.

As saints, with cups filled and overflowing with gratitude, we come to this day of remembering the dead – not as one more sorrow to absorb in these sorrowful times, but as our way of celebrating them and the gift of themselves that they brought to our lives. On All Saints Sunday we remember deceased loved ones and we honor the One who loved them into life and received them in death. We celebrate their entrance into what is called in church-y language “the church triumphant” – as opposed to “the church militant,” an unfortunate term for those of us still doing battle in this life. Together we make up the communion of saints. Although physically separated by death, we are still united with one another in, as the old hymn says “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”

Although we don’t know what that will be like either. Still we wonder. Call it what you will – heaven, the church triumphant, the afterlife – what is it like? The answer is simple: we don’t know. Although people throughout the ages have put forth their ideas about it. A professor I once had – a member of the seminary choir – expressed his vision of heaven as singing in an eternal choir. Although I like to sing, I confess I’m not too thrilled about doing it for all eternity. I mean, eternity is a long time! What kind of music will it be? Who gets to pick? Will we get to sing Beatles songs or show tunes? Will we all have good voices in heaven? Will there be auditions? I think his vision has some flaws. But then it’s just one vision.

The reading from the book of Revelation is another and it’s pretty strange as well. Though the promise of never again experiencing any deprivation or suffering is certainly appealing, the image of the throne, the Lamb, palm branches and robes is rather off-putting (at least to me). 

What happens when we die? I remember the homily given by the pastor when my grandmother died, in which he said, “She is now everything that God intended her to be.” Those words struck a chord with me, although I don’t know exactly what it means. When I try to think about it too much, it makes about as much sense as my professor’s vision and the revelation of John of Patmos.

I do know that my grandmother, at the age of 26, had become a widow with 4 children under the age of 6 on the eve of the Great Depression. She went to work as a janitor at the junior high school and did that until she retired in 1968 – almost 40 years. She never remarried. Of course she had her family, her wonderful grandchildren – especially the oldest one (me) – but I’ve often wondered what her life might have been in another era, under different circumstances. What did God intend for her? And is she living in that reality now?

I was reminded of that funeral homily when I read this paragraph this week:

What some call the beatific (or heavenly) vision is, I believe, an evolutionary process. Beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God. This applies to saints as well as mere mortals. A life of saintliness is a life of adventure and growth, dissatisfied by any static heavenly vision. We continue the journey, freely and creatively responding to the grace that leads us toward wholeness.

While this doesn’t give us any details either about how this process happens, the concept is more appealing to me than an unchanging, eternal heavenly choir – or any vision, no matter how wonderful. The idea that God’s care for us doesn’t end at death, but continues in a new way, another dimension, a different reality – ever luring us onward from brokenness to healing, from sorrow to consolation, from sin to grace is not inconsistent with the biblical witness.

Again, as the author of the first letter of John wrote: “we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed,” gives us insight into the idea that we are in the process of becoming what God intends us to be, and that our ultimate way of being is something that we just can’t imagine. But the letter proclaims with certainty that “we will be like” the One who calls us to become who we are and who we will continue to be as we evolve in God. So if the One who seeks our wholeness in this lifetime continues the process beyond the grave, then indeed my grandmother – along with all the blessed dead – has become (or is in the process of becoming) all she was ever meant to be.

This way of considering the evolutionary process of afterlife also provides us with the opportunity, not only to give thanks for the blessed dead, but also to forgive them. All of the people who have shaped our lives are the saints – even with all their imperfections. This is good news especially for those who have had difficult relationships with the influential people in their lives – parents or grandparents, siblings or friends.

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Our forgiveness can go even deeper when we accept our place among the communion of saints, where we see that the universal experience of suffering is what binds us all together. In John’s revelation, the great throng of diverse people is united in a common experience of coming through a great ordeal. Our common humanity and our universal experience of suffering call us to become partners with God in embodying compassion. We join as one body and praise the One who lures us into living our lives in such a way that we are aware of the suffering of others, even those who have caused us suffering.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-00042A-OL, copyright © Radiant Light 2006, www.radiantlight.org.uk
used with permission

That’s the work of the church militant – or shall we say of ordinary saints like you and me – to actively embrace our relationship with the Divine, with ourselves, our families, neighbors, strangers and all of creation, and work to nurture those relationships in order to continue to grow and become what God is calling each of us to become – in this world and the next.

And so we will name our saints today, our beloved dead. In memory and in gratitude. There is power in this naming. Their witness fills our cup, so we can pour ourselves out for others, for Jesus’ sake. Blessed are you.

Amen

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Revelation 7:9-17
After that, I saw before me an immense crowd without number, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They stood in front of the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches. And they cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is of our God, who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb!”

All the angels who were encircling the throne, as well as the elders and the four living creatures, prostrated themselves before the throne. They worshiped God with these words: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These people in white robes—who are they, and where do they come from?”

I answered, “You are the one who knows.”

Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who survived the great period of testing; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That is why they stand before God’s throne and the One they serve day and night in the Temple; the One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever. 

Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun and its scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb, who is at the center of the throne, will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.”

I John 3:1-3
See what love God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure.

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside, and after he sat down and the disciples had gathered around, Jesus began to teach them:

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs. 
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs. 
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.

Blessed are those who are gentle: they will inherit the land.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill.

Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God.

Blessed are those who work for peace: they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice:
the kindom of heaven is theirs.

You are fortunate when others insult you and persecute you, and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great; they persecuted the prophets before you in the very same way.

Reformation Sunday: Don’t Let Truth Piss You Off

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The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable
is a quote attributed to, among others, President James Garfield, who seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true. Sometimes the truth hurts or is a huge challenge to our usual way of being. Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” is another common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?

But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience.” The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth. 

For Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not tick him off or make him miserable. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation: 

I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.

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His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many people do and stop there. Many who abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased abandon any idea of God at all. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God. 

But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans1:17 was freedom. 

All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.

Reformation: a spiritual awakening
On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s 95 Theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”  

But things are different today. In 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church‘s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformation. And in 2016, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church held an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.

So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But our commemoration of the Reformation shouldn’t stop there. We should savor that moment of spiritual awakening that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And we should celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine. 

It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, he would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered:

the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

This was no mere intellectual exercise. Why else would he write:

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.

A liberating spiritual awakening indeed. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.

A New Re-formation
Today, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are several new lists of theses (items for discussion), including John Shelby Spong’s The Twelve Theses. A Call to a New Reformation and Matthew Fox’s 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium.

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In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, the late Phyllis Tickle talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling. 

Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is something new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.  

“Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context

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Before World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their  prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism. They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do. 

We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem. 

Or we can enter into the spirit of “semper reformanda” with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world 

So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand.

Amen 

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An excerpt from Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience”
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . .  .  I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. 

Romans 1:16-17
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

John 8:31-36
In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther developed the concept that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God’s law to obtain salvation; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. Luther also further develops the concept of justification by faith. As Luther stated, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  

Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered, “We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”
Jesus answered them, “The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

In the Vineyard with St. Francis

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Yikes! Another tough parable told by Jesus to confront the  religious leaders of his day. This time, the setting for the story is a vineyard. Now those listening would surely have gotten his meaning. They would have known very well the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Let me sing of my beloved; it is a love song about a vineyard.” The vineyard for both Isaiah and Jesus is God’s people. And Jesus tells this story to indict the chief priests and elders for mistreating and the people and abusing God’s messengers and even God’s son. 

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But today, as we celebrate St. Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, I am envisioning the vineyard as bigger than one group of people – or even of just people. I see the vineyard as all of God’s good creation. I can easily imagine God, resting on the seventh day of creation and crooning, “Let me sing of my beloved; it is a love song about a vineyard.”

Has anyone seen the TV series The Good Place? It’s a comedy about what happens after you dieI’m going to try not to give the whole story away, except for two things. First is the premise that when we die, we go either to the Good Place or the Bad Place. Getting to the Good Place all depends on how many good deeds you’ve done in your lifetime. Every good deed gets you points. If you rack up enough points, when you die, you’ll be greeted by the “Welcome! Everything Is Fine” sign and then by Ted Danson, who will introduce you to the delights of the Good Place. 

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Of course, as Lutherans we’re super big on salvation by grace alone. No amount of good deed-doing is going to get you into heaven. But The Good Place isn’t a religious show. There’s no Supreme Being. The Good Place is never called Heaven; the Bad Place isn’t called Hell. It’s more about ethics: what does it take to be a moral person, to do the right thing in every circumstance? So in the name of comedy, I think it’s OK to suspend our theological criticism.

The second thing I’ll share with you, which is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s going to help me make my point. After a time, some of the characters begin to question the ethics of the point system.  They discover that very few people actually make it into the Good Place. As they tell the Judge, who’s in charge of running the place:

“These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means you’re unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming. Humans think they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making. Life has become so complicated that it has essentially rendered the point system meaningless, and we simply don’t have the time to do the research and buy another tomato even if we wanted to.”

Sounds hopeless, doesn’t it? Although it has a familiar ring to it. It sounds like the words from an older Order of Confession: “we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” 

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And that’s my point. The reason that most of us find it so difficult to know what to do about climate change or any aspect of our environmental crisis is just this: we can’t free ourselves. Buying an environmentally-correct tomato is virtually impossible. The choices we make – and sometimes forced to make – are complicated. When it comes to environmental issues, most people just throw up their hands. The big issues, like climate change, are too big. What can I do to make a difference? Even our attempts at little things, like trying to cut down on plastic bags, are thwarted by circumstances beyond our control, as when our canvas grocery bags were banned in the first months of the pandemic . As Kermit the Frog knew, it’s not easy being green. No wonder so many don’t even try.

But difficulty is no reason to give up. In the Confession, being in bondage to sin isn’t the end of the story. It’s just Part One: recognition of our situation. Part Two is turning to God for help. 

When it comes to caring for our vineyard we have not done a good job. Although scripture is very clear on the goodness of all creation, unfortunately we have allowed other voices to inform our beliefs, policies, and actions. One branch of Christianity is so focused on the Second Coming of Christ that its adherents feel no responsibility for creation care. This view is embodied perhaps most famously in Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who said, “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.” That kind of thinking lives on today. Whenever we hear predictions of the Rapture (remember the “Left Behind” books?), Armageddon and the Antichrist, you know you won’t hear anything about creation care. 

And there are other forces at play. We are inheritors of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which is still largely in operation today. There were many good aspects of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, which sought to illuminate human intellect and culture after the “dark” Middle Ages. Concepts such as reason, liberty and the scientific method were elevated. Enlightenment philosophy was influential in ushering in the French and American revolutions and constitutions (shout out to Alexander Hamilton!).

However, one aspect of Enlightenment philosophy has not been helpful. That is its dualism and hierarchy, which sees a separation between us and our environment and claims that as human beings are in charge of the environment, we have the right to shape, control and use nature for our own purposes. As Francis Bacon wrote, “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” That dualism included the relationship between men and women. Bacon likened nature to a wild and untamed woman who must be tamed by man and become obedient.

That philosophy, which seeped into our theology, might sound antiquated, but it also survives to this day. Conservative Christian Ann Coulter said in her book, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Appalling, yes. But the seeds were sown in the Enlightenment. Thankfully, many evangelical Christians have been joining the ranks of those who care for creation, but this theology has been hard to weed out.

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Last month Bill McKibben, co-founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, was the speaker led a Zoom webinar at PLTS (you can listen to it here). McKibben isnt a theologian or biblical scholar; he’s an environmentalist and activist. But he was a Sunday school teacher in the Methodist church (which is no small thing!).

Listening to him, at least in the beginning, I felt the despair I always feel when confronted with the vast scope of destruction and further threats to our environment. He called it “an enormous challenge to our Old Testament sense of sacredness of God’s creation, the Genesis charge to safeguard that; and a fundamental challenge to our gospel sense that we are called to love our neighbors.” Care for the vineyard! 

Thankfully he didn’t just give a litany of our sins. He didn’t make any rosy promises about our chances of success, but he did offer examples of people and groups on the front lines, doing the good work. He described how much the movement has grown in 10 years since 350.org was formed. He lifted up Greta Thunberg, but said there are 10,000 Greta Thunberg’s and a million followers. “That’s what the Holy Spirit looks like in our age – a collection of 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds.”

It was the Q&A time that brought out the questions of what individual congregations and denominations can do. One thing we can really be excited about is that PLTS has just instituted a Climate Justice & Faith Concentration into its curriculum. Its mission statement: “to empower leaders to cultivate moral, spiritual, and practical power for the work of climate justice in communities of faith.”

One questioner asked about resources for individuals and congregations just getting  started on learning about this issue. He recommended videos done by Dr. Katherine Hayhoedirector of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also an evangelical Christian. I haven’t watched any of these yet, but I’m encouraged to know there’s been movement within that religious world

More advice from McKibben was for congregations to become part of movements, not to try to go it alone. He noted that collaboration with faith communities of all kinds has grown in the past ten years; they have been and can be a potent, powerful force. People  coming together in solidarity is crucial, he said, and churches are specialists at this.

Don’t try to repeat the work of scientists; it’s already out there. We need people who follow Jesus talking in those terms, acting in those terms. He encouraged pastors to be constantly, constantly talking about this.  

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Another great resource is our Lutheran Office of Public Policy, an interdependent advocacy ministry of the ELCA, and the three California synods. Regina Banks is the director. I met her at a synod gathering and I am sure that she’d be glad to speak with us any time about the work she is doing on our behalf. 

Another speaker at PLTS several years ago was George (Tink) Tinker, Professor Emeritus of American Indian Cultures at Iliff School of Theology. He is the son of a Lutheran mother and an Osage father and is an inspiring resource for thinking about creation in a way that’s much more aligned with the wisdom of indigenous people – and working at making that the philosophy that informs our political decisions, governmental polices, as well as our individual practices. 

Way back in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen coined the word “veriditas” and used it as a guiding theme in her writings, poetry, and music. And it’s an excellent word for us on our evolution from domination of the land to respect for it. Veriditas has been variously translated as freshness, vitality, fruitfulness, creative power of life, growth. But my favorite word for it is “greening” from its joining of two Latin words: green and truth. This “greening” runs through our being, As a metaphor for our spiritual and physical health, it’s what enlivens us and enables us to make wise choices as tenders of the vineyard.  

Yes, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Bill McKibben called this a scary time. I don’t think that’s news to any of us. But he also called it a moment of great privilege. What we do matters. we should do all we can; the rest of the world may meet us half way. So we confess our sin, we ask for God’s help, and go on in the power of God’s Spirit. As St. Francis taught us: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” And St. Hildegard:

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“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.”

This is the greening spirit that will enable us to care for God’s – and our – beloved vineyard.

Amen 

MATTHEW 21: 33-46 
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, installed a winepress and erected a tower. Then this owner leased it out to tenant farmers and went on a journey. When vintage time arrived, the owner sent servants to the tenants to divide the shares of the grapes. The tenants responded by seizing the servants. They beat one, killed another and stoned a third. A second time the owner sent even more servants than before, but they treated them the same way. Finally, the owner sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ T

“When the vine growers saw the son, they said to one another, ‘Here’s the one who stands in the way of our having everything. With a single act of murder we could seize the inheritance.’ With that, they grabbed and killed the son outside the vineyard. What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenants?” They replied, “The owner will bring that wicked crowd to a horrible death and lease the vineyard out to others, who will see to it that there are grapes for the proprietor at vintage time.” 

Jesus said to them, “Did you ever read in the scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; it was our God’s doing and we find it marvelous to behold?’ That’s why I tell you that the realm of God will be taken from you and given to those who will bear its fruit. Those who fall on this stone will be dashed to pieces, and those on whom it falls will be smashed.” 

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, they realized that Jesus was speaking about them. Although they sought to arrest him, they feared the crowds, who regarded Jesus as a prophet.