Baptism: Lifeline for a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what baptism is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark 1:4-11

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

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

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The Magi vs Herod: Then & Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we Dare to Say Amen?!

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

Posted January 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Signed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Kimberly Brooks, African Methodist Episcopal Church

Rev. Richard Tafel, Swedenborgian Church

Carole Collins, Director of Operation, Alliance of Baptists

Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Progressive National Baptist Convention

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

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

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

Bishop Francis Krebs, Presiding Bishop, Ecumenical Catholic Communion

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

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.”

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.

Conflict Management According to Jesus

Sermon for September 6, 2020

Working Our Way through Matthew
In this season of Pentecost, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew. We started back in June, and Matthew will take us all the way up to Advent at the end of November – with one side trip into the gospel of John for Reformation Sunday. It’s hard to tell from reading one passage each week, but Matthew has a very distinct structure, more so than any of the other three gospels. He has a prologue (the birth story) and an epilogue (the passion story). In between he has five discourses or blocks of teachings. Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels, writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian community. He likes to link Old Testament passages to the life of Jesus, portraying him as the new Moses. And he structures his gospel this way because he’s  alluding back to the first section in the Bible, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses. 

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Yes, Conflict Happens – Even in the Church
Anyway, this is all prologue to my discourse today. Because this week and next we’ll be reading the fourth discourse in Matthew 18. This block of teaching has been called the ‘discourse on the church’ because of its instructions on how to live – in community – as followers of Jesus.  

Contrary to the beliefs of many that the early church was a harmonious group of people, always loving, forgiving, and in agreement with one another, arguments and discord did arise among them. After all, they were human beings, and whenever two or more are gathered, there will be, not only Jesus among them, but opportunity for miscommunication, misunderstanding, bad behavior, conflicts, and divisions.  

In a way, it should give us some comfort to know that even those early Christians needed to be reminded how we’re supposed to be with one another. It takes a bit of the sting out of reading this teaching and applying it to ourselves. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus can come across as pretty harsh at times. For example, part of Chapter 18 we didn’t read today says: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it’s better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” Yikes! 

I, for one, want to run from passages like that to Romans 3.23: “everyone has sinned; everyone falls short of the glory of God. Yet everyone has also been undeservedly justified by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought in Christ Jesus.” 

While that good news is a great relief, it doesn’t take away the necessity of going back to these teachings to learn and relearn time and again how we grow even more into our identities as followers of Jesus. And there’s some tough stuff here in Matthew 18. 
Let’s take just verses 15-17, which is a 4-step process for conflict management: 

Jesus’ 4-step Process for Conflict Management

Step 1. If someone commits a wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen, you’ve won them back; but if not, go to . . .

Step 2: Try again, taking one or two others with you. If they still don’t listen, go to . . .

Step 3: Refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then go to . . .

Step 4: Treat that person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. Jesus is clear that the goal is reconciliation. And here’s how to make that happen: 1, 2, 3, 4. 

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But he’s also clear that it doesn’t always turn out that way. One thing I’ve learned is the distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. Some disputes can’t be resolved, but hopefully they can be managed. Think of some of the conflicts going on today. On a micro level, you might be involved in a disagreement within your own family, workplace, or neighborhood. On a macro level, it’s fair to say that our entire country is embroiled in unresolved contention – or contentions. Reconciliation is always the goal, but sometimes the best we can do is mitigate the damage. 

As we know, the church isn’t immune to conflict. Even before the pandemic, many congregations were being strained by political differences. And frankly many were also already stressed by declining membership and financial resources.  Since the pandemic, anxiety has gone up among both pastors and congregational members. And when anxiety goes up, conflict usually arises. So this 4-step plan that Jesus lays out might seem simplistic, but there’s a lot of wisdom in those 3 little verses, and we should take some time to unpack them. 

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Step 1: If someone commits a wrong against you, point out the error just between the two of you. Well, how simple is that? But how often do we do it? Our usual methodology goes something like: if someone commits a wrong against you, go and complain about them to all your friends, or make a plan to retaliate, or decide just to freeze them out and not associate with them anymore. In church disagreements, you get the parking lot meeting after the meeting, or the complaint phone tree, or the “helpful” member who informs the pastor that “people are saying . . .” 

We’ve probably all fallen into that hole once or twice. Remember: “everyone falls short of the glory of God.” But if we take this advice from Jesus seriously and make a commitment to be good communicators with one another, we will contribute to the health and stability of the community. 

Now we also have to consider when the situation is reversed – when you’re the one committing some wrong. Again, who has not ever done something to offend someone else? And again, Jesus is clear: you listen. Before you disagree, or try to justify yourself, or get defensive – you listen, not with your mind jumping ahead to plan your defense, but real, deep listening.  

Every author, book, program, consultant on conflict mediation says the same thing: listening is key. Paula Green from Hands Across the Hills and other peacemaking projects has said, “When we took the time to listen closely, we recognized each other as friends and neighbors.” And: “We will not avoid the difficult topics, but we expect to listen and be listened to.”

My friend Judy Gussman, former co-facilitator of a Jewish-Palestinian dialog group and my co-conspirator in Hearts Across the Divide has designed and facilitated intra-Jewish Deep Listening sessions on Israeli-Palestinian relations. 

You see it again and again: deep listening, close listening – which also involves keen self-awareness of what pushes our buttons. For instance, I know that as a white woman I need to own my defensiveness when listening to people of color talk about their experiences. The temptation to object with, “But I’m not like that” or “We’re not all racists” must be resisted. My soapbox as a long-time feminist must be set aside when hearing a transwoman speak of her experiences of discrimination. I have to listen to the Jesus voice in my ear saying, “Shut up and listen!” 

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This applies to so many areas of our lives right now. If we could learn – or relearn how to listen to one another, we’d go a long way towards reconciliation. Jesus, of course, understands that even this might not bring a resolution. There was a woman in a former congregation who finally left because, as she complained, “Yes, I know you always listen, but then you don’t do what I want.” 

In times like these or when you hit the wall in a difficult situation, you try steps 2 and 3, bring other trusted people into the conversation and, if necessary, the community. And yes, it can be a very difficult thing to do. But the alternative is to let conflict fester until the entire body is affected. And when we truly live by this process and practice it, it gets easier because it is holy work. 

Now, a warning about Step 4, actually a warning and a piece of advice. The warning is: don’t jump ahead too quickly from verse 17 to verse 21 (which we’ll get to next week). In verse 21, Peter asks Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says, ‘Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations say ‘seventy times seven,’ but it doesn’t matter; in the Bible seven is a perfect number signifying completeness, or in this case, an infinite number of times. Again ‘yikes!’ 

But here’s the warning: don’t jump prematurely from confronting and listening and working the process before taking on the often-difficult work of forgiveness. I’ll tackle that subject next week. 

For now, I’ll go on to the piece of advice, which is: be sure you know what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector. As you probably know, there are churches who practice shunning, that is cutting off all contact and relationship with one deemed to be an apostate, a threat, or a source of conflict. The Amish are most often associated with this practice, but other Christian groups and some other religions do it as well. 

But if we follow the example of Jesus, this kind of ostracization is not an option. After all, how did Jesus treat tax collectors, Gentiles, and other ‘outsiders’? He always maintained relationship with them. He was secure enough in his identity and could maintain his own boundaries, while staying connected to those who would have been seen as a threat to his – and Matthew’s – community. 

I believe that is what our synod attempted to do back in 1995 when they expelled St. Francis and First United Lutheran Churches for going against ELCA policy at that time, which prohibited the ordination of openly gay clergy. It was stated at the time that the synod would continue to maintain relationship with the two congregations, even though no longer part of the ELCA. That agreement worked better on paper than in practice, but it was the right idea. It also showed how challenging it is to faithfully work the conflict management process. 

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I’ve been reading over and over again in news reports, articles, and blog posts: people are sick and tired of the divisions that plague us these days. But we don’t seem to know how to get ourselves out of the quagmire. 

Yes, it would be wonderful if direction and modeling would come from our leaders. But we don’t have to wait for that. we already have a leader who shows us the way, who models it and even gives us a plan to implement. It really couldn’t be any simpler. Simple, but not easy. If we’ve learned anything about the way of Jesus it’s that self-sacrifice is the way to transformation; the way of the cross is the way to resurrection – of ourselves, of our church, and as a grassroots movement of Jesus people, even our nation. 

I have seen many interpretations of Matthew 18 with which I disagree. One such article is entitled Matthew 18: The Most Misapplied Passage on Church Conflict. Most of these interpretations try to codify what gets defined as sin and in what situations the process doesn’t apply. But I believe that Jesus does give us here a way forward in any situation. Attempting reconciliation by deeply listening to one another. Being willing to go further by expanding the circle of listening, and, if necessary, setting a boundary in the community, for the health of the community – yet with no one never being outside of love, compassion, and connection. 

It’s not a codified process; it’s organic and depends on the good will, faithfulness, and prayerfulness of participants. And the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not that things will always get resolved as we would like. But even then, that Spirit will be with us as we continue to move forward into healing and wholeness.

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You know, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said of Christianity: Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life. In other words, Christians are wimps. He was wrong. It takes courage to be a follower of Jesus, the kind of courage demanded of us in these trying times. This ‘discourse on the church’ hands us our mission – difficult, but not impossible, if we decide to accept it. 

Amen

MATTHEW 18:15-20
Jesus said, “If someone commits some wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won a loved one back; if not, try again, but take one or two others with you, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then treat that one as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

“The truth is, whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. 

“Again I tell you, if two of you on earth join in agreement to pray for anything whatsoever, it will be granted you by my Abba God in heaven. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”

Live Abundantly – Even When Your Tank Is on Empty

008-gnpi-053-feeding-5000Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

How do you explain the Feeding of the 5000? This story is so familiar, maybe your ears just tuned it out. But what really happened? How did Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into lunch for thousands of hungry people?

Only two choices?

We might think we have two choices here. Either we accept that this is a factual account of a miraculous multiplication of food. These are the folks with the bumper stickers that say: “The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Or we look for a rational explanation. Many have tried over the centuries to give rational explanations for miracles.

Here’s one version from the World War II era:

A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by. Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the others. He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved.  An hour passed and then another. Finally, he decided he had no choice. He needed to eat, and so did the others. He reached in his pocket and took out the handkerchief. He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched. He said a brief blessing and gave each one a part of his sandwich. Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food they had brought – and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything. The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting. Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.

And then there’s Woodstock.

I remember hearing a similar version in a sermon back in the 70s. The people out in the desert with Jesus simply shared what they had with one another.  And at the time, that made sense to me. Woodstock had just happened. Food vendors had quickly been Unknownoverwhelmed by the thousands who had descended on Max Yasgur’s farm. But a group from CA, led by Wavy Gravy  (yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named for him) stepped into the breach. On Sunday morning, Wavy Gravy stood on the stage and famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” One common thread in stories told about that time is that everyone remembers two things: the food ran out fast and everyone shared what they had.

These are both lovely stories, which could have happened. The problem, though, with this explanation is that there’s nothing in the Bible story to suggest that is what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.

Remember that in this series of teachings from Jesus, we’re always looking for how he’s continually trying to convey what it means to live in the realm of God – or the realm of heaven, as Matthew calls it. We’ve been reading parables over several weeks – stories told by Jesus to get us to think differently about everything.

Is this a parable ABOUT Jesus?

You might have noticed that there are different kinds of parables. For example, there are riddle parables. These were used to confound outsiders or opponents, so they couldn’t understand what was being said. Only insiders, like the disciples, were able to get the message, usually with some further instruction from Jesus.

Then there are example parables. These are moral or ethical stories that deliberately point beyond themselves to wider implications. Think of the Parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb, which Nathan told to King David to get him to realize that the rich man who took the one lamb (Bathsheba) from the poor man (Uriah) was David himself.

Others are challenge parables, like The Good Samaritan, are meant to make us think and discuss, and decide how they apply to present times. This was a common teaching style in Jesus’ time. Many of his stories are challenge parables.

So we’ve been reading different kinds of parables by Jesus. But there’s another type that we don’t hear about so often – that is parables about Jesus. This feeding of the multitude is a good way to illustrate this. All four gospel writers tell a version of the story. Mark has two versions with different details. John is the only one that has a boy with bread and fish. By looking at these accounts side-by-side, we realize – not that they were confused about what had really happened – but that they each had a point that they wanted to convey about what Jesus was doing.

So, debating whether this was a miracle or an example of human sharing is not the  point. The story assumes that there is a sign for us here in the feeding of the people. As a parable, then, the question is: what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God?

And because parables can shift meanings depending on times and circumstances, the question gets even more specific:
what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God – today?

We can’t forget that in Matthew, this story occurs just after Jesus learns of the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. His sign is accomplished in the midst of political turmoil, grief, and fear, not to mention the ever-present reality of poverty and illness among his people. We can’t see the crowd as a bunch of party-goers out for a good time. They were looking for a sign – that somehow, in the midst of all this bad news, there might be a word of hope.

And Jesus gives it: in the realm of God, something can come out of nothing. Even we, who enjoy a standard of living that might cause us to think this doesn’t apply to us, surely know those times when we feel we’ve got nothing: nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to give. We’re like the disciples who, when Jesus says “Feed these people,” throw up our hands and say, “Sorry Jesus, we’ve got nothing. Oh yeah, a couple loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. But really, what good can that do? The need is too great.”

shutterstock_58909408When you’re running on empty
Think about those times when you feel like your tank is on empty, there’s nothing left. But life doesn’t stop: phone calls, texts, emails keep flooding in, work, school, and family demands intersect and collide. The news of the world is draining. And, oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel depleted?

And then you come to church and hear the pastor asking for even more! Sheesh! The potential for burn-out is a real concern. But here’s the good news of our life in the kingdom of God: the success of your discipleship, as a follower of Jesus doesn’t depend on how much you have or what you can give, but rather on how much God gives by multiplying what you have – no matter how small or tired or frayed it might be.

Jesus said, “Feed them.” They respond, “We have nothing—only five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus says, “Bring your nothing to me.” He blesses the fish and bread and proceeds to distribute the food and the bellies of each one of them was filled.

And there were leftovers!

This story reminds us that in times when we feel depleted, all Jesus is asking us to do is to give our nothing – and then to stand back and watch Jesus teach us how God’s economic system is not like our own. In the realm of God, an economy is grown by God’s abundance.

Tikkun Olam
As I write this, I am aware of how naïve this sounds, especially to anyone experiencing unemployment, the very real possibility of eviction from their home, and any number of troubles so many are facing today. But this message from Jesus begins with the command to feed the people. This isn’t a promise of a free ride because God’s going to come and fix everything.

No, we don’t get a free pass. We, as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, are to be practitioners of ‘tikkun olam,’ Hebrew for ‘world repair,’ signifying social action and the pursuit of social justice. We have to be concerned about unemployment, home evictions, and all the social ills of our day.

But when we look around and see the immensity of what needs repairing, it’s tempting to back away and say, “there’s nothing I can do” or for a church to think, “there’s nothing we can do.”

Especially now. A global pandemic ratchets up our garden-variety fears and anxieties so high that we don’t know what to address first. Our health and safety, the health and safety of others, our shaky economy, the sustainability of our education system, the future of our democracy, our family and friend connections frayed by either physical distancing or by too much togetherness in quarantine – to name just a few. It is a scary time.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And then there’s the church. Every time I come to the church and see the sign that says the building is closed, I kind of feel like I’m going into a building that’s been condemned. That is not what it says, but it’s a scary time for the church, too.

Rev. Erin Wathen writes in If We Weren’t Afraid: What Is The Post-Pandemic Church Going To Be?: 

“Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying. Money was tight; fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. Their mortgage kept them from being a generous mission church. They knew things had to change. But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about what to change.

“The reason I tell this story is because it has such a miraculous twist – because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.

“And here’s why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral YouTube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment. Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a discernment process with other congregations in our area facing the same challenges. At the first gathering of the group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

“We looked at each other– and all the lights came on. This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had ever asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid? For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it changed everything.”

I share her story because I think it’s a fine example of a congregation going into the discernment process with nothing. And God took their nothing and multiplied it – just like God does, according to Jesus. Whatever growth they experienced wasn’t because they were smarter or worked harder or had more faith – it was because they trusted that in in their vulnerability, in their hunger, in their need – God would feed them. And they, in turn, could then even better than before, participate in ‘tikkun olam.’

Scarcity ORAbundance

Really, it all comes down to deciding whether to live in a state of abundance or of scarcity. If we believe that an economy in the realm of God is grown by God’s abundance, then an attitude of scarcity doesn’t track. Although it’s understandable. There’s a myriad of messages telling us that we don’t have enough, that we’re not enough. But that’s not the message of the gospel, so we have to choose which one to believe.

There’s plenty to be afraid about as well. But there’s no harm in asking: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? (caveat: not about not wearing a mask or believing And then standing back to see where God’s Spirit might lead us. If Jesus is right, we’ll have enough to fulfill our needs – and we’ll have leftovers!

That’s the miracle.

Amen

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Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus heard about the beheading (of John the Baptist), he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone. The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. As Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick.

As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.”

They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves and a couple of fish.”

Jesus said, “Bring them here.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus: Rest for the Weary

Matthew-11-28Matthew: the teacher’s gospel
We’re continuing on our way through the Gospel of Matthew in this season of growth in discipleship. Matthew is often called the “teacher’s gospel” because – as you might guess – his emphasis is on the teachings of Jesus. We started out the season a few weeks ago hearing about the calling of the original Twelve disciples and some of the instructions Jesus gave them as they went out, then, to teach. And then we began diving into the teachings.

When we started, I said that the purpose of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But it seems that we’ve been stuck in “afflict the comfortable” mode since we began. Frankly, some of the instructions sound rather discouraging:

  • I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves
  • When your message is rejected, shake off the dust from your shoes and move on.
  • Don’t think I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

Quarantine Fatigue
But today, at last, we come to a “comfort the afflicted” passage, one of the most familiar and loved passages in the Bible: “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Sounds  a bit like the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I don’t know about you, but after hearing three Sundays in a row about the challenges and costs of discipleship, I’m ready for some rest. This verse is like the cup of cold water that Jesus talked about last week. It’s like those other familiar and well-loved passages that tell us: “Don’t be afraid.” “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is both refreshing and reassuring.

And don’t we just need this right about now? 4+ months of quarantine; discouraging news about the rise in number of those infected; people not following protocols, roll-back of plans for reopening; disturbing videos of police violence; protests from both sides of the political divide; millions of people out of work, and a contentious presidential election looming ahead. Given all this, it’s no surprise that a recent survey by the National Science Foundation at the University of Chicago for the COVID Response Tracking Study concluded that Americans are more unhappy now than at any time in the last 50 years. Personally, I don’t think I would have responded to the survey that I’m unhappy. But weary – that I can relate to. And from what I hear from most people I talk to, that’s not an uncommon condition.

A recent article is entitled Are You Experiencing Coronavirus Quarantine Fatigue? It asks if you’ve felt irritable, stressed, anxious, eating more, eating less, unable to sleep, unmotivated or less productive, having racing thoughts, or just on edge in general. If you’ve experienced any of these, you’re most likely feeling the effects of quarantine fatigue. Part of the fatigue is feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknowns in all of this. So, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is a welcome word from Jesus.

Take my yoke, please?yoke
Then he goes on. The very next thing he says is, “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me.” Now isn’t that a curious thing to say? I mean, who wants to have a bar laid across their shoulders like a beast of burden? Of all the imagery we have for Jesus, this one of a farmer yoking draught animals together in order to pull a heavy load is not very appealing. Plus, the yoke was a symbol of servitude in the Bible, and of the burden of slavery or taxes, while freedom from oppression was described by the prophets as breaking of the yoke.

Jesus isn’t making sense here, especially on this holiday weekend, when we celebrate freedom. But, he’s still not finished. He comes right back with a further description of both himself and this yoke: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

How odd that we would find rest for our souls by taking on a burden. But it begins to make sense when we know that in the rabbinic literature of Judaism, the yoke is actually a symbol of great importance, referring to the study of and obedience to the Torah. It’s a symbol of devotion to the kingdom of heaven, which is also the primary message of Jesus’ teaching.

As a Jew, Jesus would have known this imagery very well. He wanted those who were burdened by the cares of the world to learn from his gentle instruction, and in doing so, to find rest for their souls. This kind of rest isn’t the kind we get when we take a break to lie down on the sofa for a while (although that kind of rest is good, too!). This rest that Jesus offers is a deep and abiding peace, in which we find wholeness and fulfillment.

j-teach3Jesus: Wisdom Teacher
What we see in these verses is a portrait of Jesus the Wisdom teacher. Our pursuit as followers of Jesus is learning the lessons, but at the same time it’s a pursuit of wisdom, internalization of the lesson which enables our self-reflection and increased self-awareness, increased God-awareness, and consequently obedience to the word of God – not as a harsh requirement or dreaded burden, but as a life-giving gift.

Now, we need to understand the difference between conventional wisdom and Jesus-wisdom. Conventional wisdom is an idea so accepted it goes unquestioned, even if it’s wrong (like ‘if you work hard, you’ll succeed’). With Jesus-wisdom, which he communicated through parables, sayings, and sermons, we are invited to see things differently. For example, in his day, conventional wisdom said that sinners and outcasts were to be avoided and rejected, while the wisdom of Jesus said everyone is welcome at the table in the kingdom of God. Conventional wisdom said you should always strive to be #1, while the wisdom of Jesus says the first will end up being last.

Undoubtedly there were plenty of people around Jesus who considered themselves learned and wise. And Jesus is not anti-intellectual. His problem was with closed hearts and minds. He’s clearly frustrated in this passage and he calls out those who condemn both him and John the Baptist. People criticized John for being all gloom and doom and no fun. He wore weird clothes and preached messages that some of them didn’t want to hear. Now it appears that they’re criticizing Jesus for just the opposite: he eats and drinks with sinners. He’s having entirely too much fun. There’s no pleasing them. But he says, ” Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”

I’m sure we could come up with examples of conventional wisdom in our day. One would be that your worth is determined by the work you do and by how well you measure up to social standards. But in Jesus-wisdom, your primary identity comes from being centered in the sacred, in your relationship with God. That’s the primary identity that Jesus himself modeled. “Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.” This reminds us of John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.”

This wisdom teaching – which can bring about a profound change in perspective – comes from a profoundly different experience of reality than what our culture/ conventional wisdom teaches us. That experience is our direct connection with the spirit of God. So this way of Jesus that he calls us to is a way that is deeply centered in God and not in culture.

Your primary identity is a child of God71ZTwFrO04L._AC_SL1500_
So what can we make of all this in relation to our world-weariness today? It sounds overly simple to say tend to your primary identity as a child of God. But that is the message. It sounds simple, but we know that when conventional wisdom tries to tell us a different message or something in our social or cultural setting exerts a pull on us or we’re still in lockdown and have no idea when it will end –  it’s a challenge to hear a word of wisdom from Jesus.

That’s why the teachings are so important. When we are bound to God’s word by the yoke of Jesus, we become so steeped in Holy Wisdom that it becomes second nature to us. At the very least, we are aware that there might be an alternative way of seeing than the one we’ve always known. And we can enter into a time of questioning and discernment with an open heart and mind. That applies to how we make decisions in our own lives and families, but also in our church, our communities, our nation, and our world.

There’s another way of thinking about the purpose of a yoke, and that is as a device that both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility.

I admit I am powerless over . . .
I think this is what St. Paul was talking about in our second reading. Paul is obviously in agony over something within himself. This heartfelt passage reminds me of Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous and every group that offers help for addictions of all kinds:  “We admitted we were powerless over (fill in the blank).”

He sums up Step 2 and 3 in his closing sentences: “Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God – it is Jesus Christ our Savior!” He might have said, “I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God.” Step 3 says “as we understand God.” But Paul is sure of where his freedom lies: “It is Jesus Christ our Savior!” As he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God has given you life in Christ Jesus and has made Jesus our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification and our redemption . . . so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

What are you free for?
By following Paul’s understanding of freedom, we don’t negate our Fourth of July celebrations. But his understanding of Jesus-Wisdom should cause us to reflect, not only on what we are free from, but what are we free for. How does conventional wisdom want us to think and act; are those ways in alignment with the wisdom that comes from Christ.

I may be free, as some people claim, from wearing a facemask when I’m around other people. But who and what am I free for? I may be free, as my neighbors were, to set off fireworks into the wee hours of the morning. But if I take into consideration what I am free for, would that have changed my behavior? I believe so.

So even though our holiday celebration is colored by our divisions, our anxiety, and our weariness, we follow Paul’s advice in another place, “We do not lose heart.”

Prisoners of hope
And while Zechariah was not proclaiming the Wisdom of Jesus, we can take his words as our way of discipleship: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope!” Our stronghold is the word of God; our yoke is the teachings of Jesus, who whispers now to you and to me, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Amen

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Zechariah 9:9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look!
Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished.
This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, due to the blood covenant with me, I am returning your prisoners from their waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope! Today I declare that I will give you back double!

Romans 7:15-25a

Does anyone not feel the depth of moral conflict Paul describes in this passage? In everyday life, we struggle to stay on the right track and often fail miserably to be the disciples we hope to be. We want to be patient with our loved ones in this time of pandemic and have equanimity in responding to what is beyond our control, and yet we are impatient, angry, and sometimes behave less than admirably. No one fully knows our worries and cares and sense of struggle, but they matter to us, and often leave us feeling spiritually weak. Like Paul, we seek assistance and assurance. It is written . . .

I don’t understand what I do – for I don’t do the things I want to do, but rather the things I hate. And if I do the very thing I don’t want to do, I am agreeing that the Law is good. Consequently, what is happening in me is not really me, but sin living in me. I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my human nature; the desire to do right is there, but not the power.  What happens is that I don’t do the good I intend to do, but the evil I do not intend I do. But if I do what is against my will, it is not I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. This means that even though I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always at hand. My inner self joyfully agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body’s members another law, in opposition to the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. How wretched I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God-it is Jesus Christ our Savior!

 

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 

“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.

Then Jesus prayed, “Abba, Creator of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the youngest children. Yes, everything is as you want it to be. Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son – and those given that revelation.”

“Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

 

 

 

 

 

Who Would Want to Be a Disciple, Really?

 

DWP_Sword_not_Peace_06252017_o_1bj0enq7a6q0su8481g931b3m7-medium
St. German’s glass,” image by Gill Poole via Flickr

What’s the job description?

One of the things we were going to do shortly after I came to Good Shepherd was work on my job description. Since I’m here on a half-time basis, we knew we needed to talk about what parts of our ministry here are the biggest priorities for the pastor’s attention. But then we went into lock-down. Although, it’s probably good we didn’t have time to get to that job description because we’d have to change it anyway. Who knew that Zoom technology and creating worship – and everything else – on line was going to be a thing?!

But there are some parts of a pastor’s job description that are just a given. Like preaching – which has often been described as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And there’s no doubt that this gospel reading today is definitely afflictive. Yes, there’s comfort in there, too. But seriously, who keeps listening after “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword”?

This text is why pastors, if they’re smart, go on vacation this week and avoid having to preach on it. I mean, here we have a version of Jesus that is glaringly inconsistent with what we’re used to. Is this the same Jesus we sing about at Christmas as the ‘Prince of Peace’? The same Rabbi Jesus who taught about the unconditional love of God and the inclusivity of God’s realm? Who prayed in his farewell prayer: “that they may all be one”? Who is this Jesus who says, “Do you think I’m here to bring peace? No, just the opposite; I’ve come to bring division”? This just doesn’t track.

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It Never Was About That Kind of Peace

Although, if we know our gospel stories, we know the ministry of Jesus really has never been peaceful, as in keeping the peace at any price. Remember the story of Jesus’ first act of public proclamation, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That was all well and good, very inspiring. But after declaring what was, in effect, his mission statement, Jesus follows up with a biting criticism of the religious community. At which point, the crowd turns on him and tries to throw him off a cliff.

Even so, this text today is unsettling. And frankly, with the divisions we see in our country right now, it doesn’t seem very helpful. Although we should have had an inkling of this. In last week’s gospel we read that Jesus sent out the original disciples to proclaim that the realm of heaven had come near. And I said we’re probably in for a bumpy summer, in this season of growth in discipleship, since some of these teachings of Jesus will be very challenging to us – as they were meant to be. They are meant to be ingested and allowed to seep totally into our bodies, minds, and spirits as we ponder what it means to live in and proclaim that the realm of God is here.

I also said that the transformation that such a process brings is one that is internal – our own spiritual awareness as beloved – and external. our actions in the world to proclaim the Beloved Community. Now today we find out that there could be a cost for doing any of that. “Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.  I’ve come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.”

37240407634_674c65e34f_bWho wants to be a . . . disciple?

Do you know the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I guess it’s still on, but it’s not the wildly popular version that was on primetime TV as many as four nights a week. I don’t need to go into the details of the game; the title makes it obvious. The hoped-for outcome is to literally become a millionaire. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

For some reason this show popped into my head when I was reading over the gospel last week. When Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew and then James and John and calls out to them, I imagine him saying –in his best Regis Philbin impression – “Who wants to be a disciple?”. Those first twelve obviously said that they did. But I started to wonder if Jesus had also approached others, who after hearing what the job and some of the consequences of discipleship would be, replied, “Who would want to do that?”

But here we are. We’ve obviously said yes to the call to follow Jesus. Why else are we here? But I’m sure we have questions about our job description, especially when it’s something as difficult to understand as the “not peace but a sword” business.

The first thing we need to do is understand the Jewishness of Jesus.

If we dig just a little into Jesus’ Jewish roots, we get a much better understanding of what he’s talking about. His listeners and Matthew’s readers would have gotten it right away, but we modern readers have been clueless. Episcopal bishop and prolific author John Shelby Spong wrote a book about just this. It’s got a mouthful of a title, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel, but what he’s done is explain how events in the life of Jesus would have been understood by the people of his day, how Jewish culture, symbols, and storytelling tradition permeate the Christian tradition, too.

He doesn’t use today’s Matthew text as an example, but I consulted The Annotated Jewish New Testament. And lo and behold, there it was: a reference to a section of the Talmud, which is a compilation of the writings of historic rabbis expounding on the meaning of the Hebrew Bible – and within it, a reference to one of the Old Testament prophets. Here’s part of what Rabbi Eliezer the Great had to say:

In the period preceding the coming of the messiah,
insolence will increase and the cost of living will go up greatly;
vines will yield fruit, but wine will be expensive; the government will turn to heresy,
and there will be no one to rebuke. The wisdom of the learned will rot,
fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking.

Then he quotes the prophet Micah:

For son spurns father, daughter rises up against mother,
daughter-in-law against
mother-in-law;
a man’s own household are his enemies.

Sound familiar? Rabbi Eliezer then concludes:

Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.

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Believe it or not, these writings were meant to bring hope to a beleaguered people. Micah lived at the same time as the prophet Isaiah, when the Assyrian empire threatened and consequently invaded the nation of Judah. 150 years later, in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Micah was reworked to address the Babylonian invasion and exile. And now Jesus brings them to bear in his time, with Judah under the heel of the Roman empire.

All of these prophets, including Jesus in one of his roles, lived in a time of upheaval. Their descriptions of doom and gloom were often more descriptive of what was already happening than prophesies of things to come. Remember that ‘prophet’, as it’s used in the Bible, doesn’t mean a predictor of the future (other than reading the signs of the times), but someone who calls the people back into right relationship with God. And if ‘disciple’ is a tough job description, think about the poor prophet. We read Jeremiah’s lament, as he tried to convey his message only to be mocked and ignored. Yet he ends by saying, “Sing to God, praise to God, who has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the corrupt!”

And think of Isaiah, who begins right off in Chapter 1 with doom and gloom:

Oh, what are a sinful nation you are! A people weighed down with injustice! You’re a gang of thugs, corrupt children who abandoned and despised me and turned your backs on me! Why do you invite more punishment? Why do you persist in more rebellion? You have a massive head wound, your heart is completely diseased; there is nothing healthy in you, from the top of your head to the sole of your foot.

But then later comes forth with:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” 

and:
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare God’s way, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground will become level, and the rough places a plain. Then God’s glory will be revealed, and all people will see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.’

Finally . . . comforting the afflicted

All of this has been the long way around to get to the ‘comfort the afflicted’ part of these teachings of Jesus. It’s clear from all of this that there is comfort and reassurance to be found in the midst of affliction. Jesus rightly gives full disclosure on what following him would mean.

Sometimes proclaiming the realm of heaven – that is, life right here and now – won’t be popular. For example, a couple of years ago, the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington DC, put on their sign for Trinity Sunday, which was also Pride Sunday: “Thank the Holy Trinity for God’s Whole Diverse Creation – Happy and Blessed Pride!!!  That got them onto the “Exposing the ELCA” website which says the congregation and the sign are shameful, tragic, and an apostasy (a renunciation of our Christian belief).

No peace, but a sword. Get used to it.

Then there’s Pastor Lenny Duncan’s book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, which includes the chapter: “Jesus Was Divisive.” In an interview, he criticizes congregations pushing to open churches before it’s safe: “The most compassionate action right now is intentional social distancing. That’s what Jesus would be telling us to do if we were gathering.”

I learned of a church that planned to reopen today (not in this area) in spite of the fact that their pastor has a medical condition that puts her at risk. It made me wonder about the decision-making process of that congregation, if anyone had stood up for the safety of the pastor – and other vulnerable members of the church. We’re called to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel but I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind.

I can’t repeat all the language, but Lenny Duncan calls (let’s say) baloney on the idea of Christian unity, where people will set aside the agenda of God in the name of Christian niceness. And he says,

If we are dividing what is life-giving from what is empire,
if we are dividing what is of God from what isn’t,
if we are dividing what is love from what is hate,
then we are walking the path of our Savior.

In order to find your life, you must lose it.

It really comes down to how we define peace. If it’s going along to get along, that’s not true peace. Jesus ends this portion of his teaching with the enigmatic saying:

You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.

That might seem to make no sense, but the truth is when you give yourself over to the ways of God, it might feel like you are losing your life – your autonomy, your independence. But in reality, you’re gaining your life – a real, true, fulfilled life of being in unity with all of creation, of heaven and earth. And the work you do in the world will flow from this divine, unified presence.

So yes, the way of discipleship may often be challenging. If you’re looking for a nice, comfortable religion, where you can sit back and relax – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a church that will provide you with spiritual nurture but won’t ask for your help in creating a better world – this isn’t it. If you think that being a Christian means you’ll always be happy and peaceful and contented and never have any more problems – nope. No more difficulties – nope. Maybe even disagreement – yep. Maybe even real peacemaking – yep.

The old saying of the purpose of preaching the gospel is clichéd but true: that it is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ And sometimes we’re both at the same time. We will sometimes feel afflicted.  But we can always find the comfort that God offers us. Jesus told us about it when he taught that the realm of heaven has come near and it’s among us. It’s within you and me and all of us together.

Don’t be afraid!

Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. Thankfully, God takes us seriously and is with us in all our endeavors. We can be comforted in many ways by this. And we need to rely on that comfort as we go about the work of discipleship. Jesus said:

Don’t let anyone intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed;
nothing is hidden that won’t be made known.  Don’t be afraid of anything –
you are more valuable than an entire flock of sparrows.

You are God’s beloved. You are part of the Beloved Community. You have lost your life in the water of baptism and risen to new a life of discipleship. Don’t be afraid.

Amen

 

Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus taught:

“A student is not superior to the teacher, nor a servant above the master. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the servant like the master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the household!

“Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not fear those who can deprive the body of life but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not the sparrows sold for pennies? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Abba’s knowledge. As for you, every hair of your head has been counted. So don’t be afraid of anything – you are worth more value than an entire flock of sparrows.

“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Abba in heaven. Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before God in heaven.

“Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law.

“One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household. Those who love father or mother, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not take up the cross – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me. You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.”