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. 

Pre-COVID Zoom Church, Part2

Screen Shot 2020-10-05 at 4.51.03 PMThis blog post is from September, 2017. As you can see, we had thought out the theological implications back then. So when we went into lockdown this year, we were ready.

I’m still indebted to Dr. Gregory S. Neal for his 2003 document “Online Holy Communion: Theological Reflections Regarding The Internet and The Means of Grace”.

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Making Sense of an Ugly Parable

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“What should I wear?”
I used to ask my roommate years ago. Her answer was always the same, “Wear whatever makes you feel good.” That’s not the same advice that used to be given by the fashionistas on the makeover show, “What Not to Wear,” as they picked through someone’s  closet, tossing out what they judged unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. Nothing there about feeling good.

Then there’s Jesus, not your definition of a fashionista. But, at least according to Matthew,  he had some ideas about what and what not to wear. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet takes a bizarre twist as the king invites people off the streets to his son’s wedding feast, but then gets upset when one of them arrives in clothing he deems inappropriate for the occasion. The hapless guest is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. 

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This is an ugly parable.
Granted, parables should be disturbing. They’re meant to shake us out of our complacency and compel us to ask hard questions. If we’re not surprised or challenged by them, we’ve missed the point. But this one? If this is what God is like, if this is what the kindom of heaven is like, I doubt we could convince many people that this is Good News. So what are we supposed to do with it?

This is why biblical studies are so important: when it was written, who wrote it, to whom was it written, etc. Taken at face value, this parable takes us down into some dark and violent places. So if we’re going to find any meaning for us today, we need to do a little background work. You see, this is one of three versions of this story. One is from Luke. One is from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of Jesus discovered in 1945 among a whole collection of manuscripts buried in the desert near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. 

The versions in Luke and Thomas are quite similar, but Matthew has some very distinctive differences. Many scholars consider Luke’s version closer to the original than Matthew’s. See if you can spot  the differences. 

Then Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. He sent his slave to say to them, ‘Come; everything is ready.’ But they all began to make excuses. One said, ‘I’ve bought a piece of land, and must go out to see it; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m going to try them out; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve just been married, so I can’t come.’ 
The slave returned and reported this to his master, who became angry and said, ‘Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ The slave said, ‘What you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ The master said, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” 

What’s missing? No king, no wedding. No violence – they don’t kill the messengers who brought the invitation; the king doesn’t retaliate by sending troops to kill them and burn down their town. There’s no guest without proper wedding clothes; and there’s no threat of being cast into hell. It seems that Matthew has turned a challenge parable into an allegory about Jewish rejection, Christian acceptance, and final judgment. 

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Oh, boy. You can see the problems. For centuries, this story has been interpreted by Christians, with the king representing God, the bridegroom is Jesus, the wedding feast is the Messianic banquet, the rejected slaves are Old Testament prophets, the A-list guests who refuse to attend are the Jews, and the B-listers who come in off the streets are the gentiles. The guest without the wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. He’s thrown out into the darkness where “they’ll weep and grind their teeth,” another favorite phrase of Matthew’s. 

It’s an ‘attack parable’
But here’s what we have to understand about what Matthew was doing here. John Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable, doesn’t just call this version an allegory, he calls it an ‘attack parable.’ The additions to this parable give us a glimpse of a low point in an intrafaith fight. Matthew and members of his community are Jews who are caught up in a struggle with their own Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. It’s not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous). At this point, it’s an intense family feud, and it’s crucial for us to understand that – and reject any further dissemination of anti-Semitism. 

In fact, reading this in conjunction with the Isaiah text gives lie to the oft-repeated explanation that the Old Testament is about God’s wrath and the New Testament is about God’s love. But listen to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: 

On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, food rich and succulent, and fine, aged wines. On this mountain God will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, the shroud covering all nations, destroying all death forever. God will wipe away the tears from every cheek, and will take away the shame of God’s people on earth, wherever they live. Now that’s Good News!

OK, now that we’ve got the background, what’s the “so what?” for us today? Something we were discussing in our book study group Thursday night pinged into my thoughts as I worked with this text. We were talking about the idea proposed by some that we are in the midst of a shift in human consciousness. One of the characteristics of this shift involves a redefinition of religion because many of the answers given in the past don’t address questions being asked today. 

One of the reflection questions at the end of the chapter was: “What are some questions asked by people today that aren’t being answered by traditional religion?” Reading this version of the parable in light of that question, I realized that the allegory/attack version doesn’t work for us today. We’re not in the same place or time of his community. Nor are we asking the same questions. So what questions arewe asking today?

I can think of a lot, as I’m sure you can too. The president is in the hospital. COVID-19 is ravaging our country. Racial tensions continue. Climate change threatens the whole planet. How will the human race emerge from these threats? When will the wildfires stop? How will the church survive in these days and in whatever circumstances are to come?  

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There’s an article that’s been making the rounds on social media this week called “30 Signs of Soul Exhaustion.” It was actually written in 2018, so it’s not even current. But it was all over the place, which should tell us something about how many of us are doing. It begins: 
Are you in a funk and feeling like you can’t get out of it? Perhaps you’re going through a traumatic event. Your heart and mind are preoccupied with what’s going on in your life. Your body starts reacting to the situation. Your body and mind are interconnected. So, when your mind is stressed, your body will begin to show the symptoms. Stepping beyond the physical issues and treating the problem is the only way to help. Your soul is tired. A worn-out soul is impossible to heal with medication. It takes confronting the underlying issues directly and dealing with them comprehensively to allow the soul to revive and recover.

Then, there are 30 ways your soul will try to tell you it’s exhausted and needs help. I don’t think they’re in any kind of order, but I find it interesting that #1 is: You don’t laugh anymore. #30 is: You’re physically exhausted all the time. In the middle at #16 is: you’re afraid of the future. It’s a pretty good article. It’s from a website called Medical News, so I wasn’t expecting any spiritual advice. Still, I found it intriguing that they would diagnose the problem as a condition of the soul. In another place they call it ‘spiritual exhaustion,’ but they don’t offer any remedies.

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So I went back to the parable. And there was that poor soul who was thrown out for wearing the wrong garment. What can we make of him in light of the questions we have today and for the good of our souls?

It’s a brutal way to say it, but Matthew appears to say that being seated at the heavenly banquet requires something more than merely accepting an invitation to discipleship. It’s not enough to just show up. There’s further accountability beyond out initial response of discipleship, our ‘yes!’ to God’s invitation to the banquet.”1 “In other words, “it’s not enough anymore to call yourself a follower of Christ and then act as if you were sound asleep during the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to pledge allegiance to church membership without then vowing to live out that chosen-ness in the world. It’s not enough say you’re a “Christian” and then stay silent when life, liberty, and love are in jeopardy.”2   Or as Garrison Keillor once quipped, “Anyone who thinks just sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” 

We might balk at the idea that the guest with no wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. That might sound awfully works righteousness-y to our grace-accustomed ears. But again, Isaiah points the way: “My soul shall be joyful in my God, who has clothed me with a garment 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. (Is.61:10)

In the New Testament, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us: “You were taught to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in the justice and holiness of the truth.” 

And then, with more practical detail: 

“So, let’s have no more lies. Speak truthfully to each other, for we are all members of one body. When you get angry, don’t let it become a sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 

Be on your guard against foul talk. Say only what will build others up at that moment. Say only what will give grace to your listeners.”

The writer of Colossians says:
“Rid yourselves of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self. Clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another – forgive in the same way God has forgiven you. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. 

Let Christ’s peace reign in your hearts since, as members of one body, you have been called to that peace. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you. Instruct and admonish one another wisely. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and songs of the Spirit. And whatever you do, whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of Christ.”

And in today’s second reading, Paul sums it up:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, decent, admirable, virtuous or worthy of praise – think on these things. Live according to what you have learned and accepted, what you have heard me say and seen me do. Then will the God of peace be with you.”

Compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, thankfulness – these are not abstract concepts. They’re not works we have to do in order to be acceptable to God.  They are the threads that make up the fabric of our wedding garment. In the midst of our questions, our doubts, fears, and uncertainties, this is the answer to the question “What should I wear?” It’s an answer that will never be unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. And we can put it on every day. The remedy for soul exhaustion is to think on these things – so much so that our garment of deliverance is our second skin. These fruits of the Spirit aren’t so much actions or works, but just who we are. So that we can have the where-with-all to face the future – known or unknown – with thankful hearts. 

“Wear whatever makes you feel good.” This is it. 

Amen

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1. Sharon H. Ringe, “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-14,”

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=997

2. Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4980

MATTHEW 22:1-14

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said, ”The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’ But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table, and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. “‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

In the Midst of Chaos: Become Empty

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17th Sunday after Pentecost                        
September 27, 2020
Philippians 2:1-13

Look at me! Look at me!
Sometimes a Bible passage just jumps out and demands your attention. At least that’s how it was for me with this week’s readings. My first assumption was to go right to the Matthew parable. It’s what I’ve been doing throughout this green season of discipleship. But St. Paul was having none of that. His letter to the Philippian church kept creeping back into my consciousness – like a child interrupting her parents with cries of, “Look at me! Look at me!” And, as good parents are wise enough to pay attention to what’s going on in front of them, I decided to stop – and look. 

I was especially drawn to what is known as the ‘Christ Hymn’ in verses 6-11:  
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus: 
who, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

The entire passage is quite beautiful. Unlike some of Paul’s writings, which wander around in long, convoluted sentences, this one is crystal clear. It is a call to humility and unity among members of the church. Paul’s letters usually address the struggles that his far-flung congregations were having. It appears that there was some disunity among the Philippians. We get a hint of it in chapter 4, where Paul writes, “I implore Euodia and Syntyche to come to an agreement with each other in Christ.” We don’t know what the disagreement was about, nor does it matter. We’re surely quite aware of how easily – even in the church – arguments can arise and if not handled well, can lead to a disruption in the well-being of the whole organization. 

It’s just human nature. And Paul, in his letter, is trying to help them look at their situation in a new way – through the mind of Christ. Maybe this is what was drawing me to this text this week – advice on how to cope with disunity. 

Let the same mind be in you
You know, in a way I was glad I had last Sunday off. On Friday, at the news of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was thrown into a pit of despair that lasted into Sunday. Part of my distress was knowing how this Supreme Court vacancy was going to throw our country even further into disunity. I couldn’t bear to watch tv news or read any of my many online news outlets. 

But even in the depths of this desolation, I could hear a whisper of something, not quite coherent, not fully formed, but letting me know that I had to find a way out of the pit, off of the path of despair. The words finally came into view – like your fortune in one of those Magic 8 Ball toys – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”Screen Shot 2020-09-27 at 12.15.29 PM

Let those words sink in for a moment: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I don’t know about you, but that seems like an impossible task. I mean, we’re talking about Jesus! How can we aspire to such a lofty consciousness? 

But Paul obviously believes that we can indeed aspire to such a – I can’t even find the right word. Attitude, thinking, intellect, mentality don’t convey the kind of mind that I’d imagine inhabited Jesus. This Christ Hymn is a soaring song of praise and confession of faith, probably written by the Philippian Christians:

Jesus, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

That’s the hymn; it’s all about Jesus, what Jesus thought and did. But Paul adds to it, prefaces it, and here’s where it gets really intense: “Let the same mind be in you.” He’s just kicked it up to a whole new level. In the midst of our divisions, disunity, and all the other mayhem going on around us – as well as in just ordinary daily life – we hear his words addressed to us. 

Now I don’t believe that Paul was talking about a strictly intellectual exercise here. It would be easy enough to take what’s been written in the gospels, in creeds formulated by the Church, in doctrines created over the centuries – declare agreement with them and call it a day. But that’s not having the mind of Christ. Those ideas and writings and doctrines may inform us and inspire us, but they’re not the whole picture. 

Jesus’ Action Item
I believe we can approach the deeper challenge by delving into the hymn. And what we find there is the action item: “Jesus emptied himself taking the form of a slave.” 

Now, the use of slave language is problematic. We know that the institution of slavery was supported by many Christians because it was a reality in the time of Jesus. Many translations substitute ‘servant’, ‘oppressed humankind’, or other less inflammatory words. But I kept ‘slave’ for a reason, and I’ll get to that in just a little while – but I didn’t want you to be distracted by the language.

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For now, I want us to consider what it might mean to become empty ourselves. The first thing I think of is the Buddhist concept of ‘sunyata,’ which is often translated ’emptiness.’ In fact, in The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahāyāna Meditations, author John Keenan states, 

to those like myself who are involved in the conversation between the Buddhist and Christian traditions, no other Christian text is more pregnant with the potential for interfaith contemplation and insight than Paul’s letter to the Philippians, with its theme of the emptying Christ.

This is not to say there are no differences; there are. But as Keenan says, there is opportunity for dialogue. There is also opportunity in then going more deeply into our Christian understanding of becoming empty. 

Survival Plan Part 1
Another Buddhist concept that can be useful here is that of non-attachment. I used to think non-attachment meant not being overly dependent on one’s material goods. During the time I was running my Buddhist-Christian dialogue group for my doctoral project, my car was stolen. Let me tell you, I loved that car. It was a red Honda Del Sol two-seater with a t-top. It had been lovingly pinstriped by a member of a congregation near Buffalo where I’d been their interim pastor. Getting it shipped out to CA was no mean – or cheap- feat. So I was upset. The next Sunday, when our group met, I told them what had happened; everyone was kind and sympathetic. I told them I’d hesitated telling them because I expected the Buddhists to chastise me for not practicing non-attachment. Instead, one of them said to me, “But honey, it was your car!” I had some learning to do about that. 

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And I’ve come to see the truth and the benefits of letting go of control, of doing what I can in any given situation, without being attached to the outcome, of finding peace in any situation. I won’t say I’ve achieved that goal. If any of you know the Enneagram, I’m a One.  The Enneagram is a kind of personality typing system, but more than that it’s a tool for self-discovery and spiritual transformation (I’m happy to talk about this at another time!). Suffice to say that my type is often called the Reformer. We see problems and we want to fix them. And not just our own problems; we want to fix the world. So you can imagine my frustration with the state of the world today. 

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The Ones’s direction of health and wholeness is toward the number Seven. Sevens are the more optimistic, spontaneous, and playful among us. So my response to the state of the world will be the on-going challenge of finding a balance between taking on the battles of the world and letting go of my expectations of the outcomes – and having fun. 

Survival Plan Part 2
That’s Part 1 of my survival plan. But I want to get back to this emptying idea. The Greek word here means literally ‘to empty,’ as in pouring something out, until there is nothing left. We confess that Jesus willingly gave up all privileges, became completely empty for us. We stand in awe of the one who, though rich, for our sakes became poor. 

But what would it mean for us?  First of all, this practice is not coerced. “Let the same mind…” —it’s an attitude of allowing, of receiving. We don’t simply choose the mind of Christ, we receive it. It’s pure grace; so our posture of prayer must be one of openness, receptivity to learn to see everything through the eyes of God. 

That might seem contradictory, given the ‘slave’ language of the hymn. The words that describe this state are ‘humility’ and ‘obedience.’ Or we might say ‘submission.’ These are problematic words. We do not want to encourage anyone to surrender their will or autonomy to someone grudgingly, out of desperation, or fear of punishment. 

The name Islam means literally ‘submission,’ but not coercion. Just so, submission to the mind of Christ is anchored in feelings of love and longing for union with the Divine. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” It’s a paradox that our minds have trouble grasping. That’s why our practice of emptying is so important. 

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This example of Jesus and Paul’s entreaty to us is a call to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the grasping of ego and into the realm of divine abundance that can’t be perceived only through the mind. Your heart, your entire being has to be involved. Practice is important.  There are many ways to practice. For some the emptiness of silence is beneficial; for others music, spoken words provide the pathway into the heart. 

So renewed commitment to my spiritual practice is Part 2 of my coping strategy. Although I know that having the mind of Christ isn’t just about survival and coping. It seemed that way to me last week as my Reformer self felt defeated and lost. And survival and coping worked for a while. But ultimately, the mind of Christ is about thriving, of experiencing unity with the Holy One, of being able to live and work with people of differing points of view – with respect and love. 

I know that I can’t sustain that kind of life without the mind of Christ – as limited as I am in fully letting go and surrendering my ego. But it is what keeps me on the path toward that goal. 

I love that phrase Paul uses: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Rest assured, he is not talking about works righteousness here. Paul is concerned here with how people live out their salvation here and now in the world. 

The world is a frightening place these days, in many ways. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and hope it will somehow go away. We also can’t fix everything that is broken. And we cannot succumb to hopelessness or despair. Having the mind of Christ is our way, our truth, and our life as we go out and about with fear and trembling – not of the powers-that-be, but in awe-filled wonder at our God who goes with us. 

Amen 

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Philippians 2:1-13
If our life in Christ means anything to you – if love, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tenderness or sympathy can persuade you at all – then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. That is the one thing that would make me completely happy. There must be no competition among you, no conceit, but everyone is to be humble: value others over yourselves, each of you thinking of the interests of others before your own. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:

who, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

Because of this, God highly exalted Christ and gave to Jesus the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God: Jesus Christ reigns supreme! 

Therefore, beloved, you who are always obedient to my urging, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, not only when I happen to be with you, but all the more now that I am absent. It is God at work in you that creates the desire to do God’s will.