Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Field Trip with Jesus

February 15, 2015
Isaiah 42:1-9
Matthew 16:13-17:9

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus took his disciples on a field trip, north into Roman territory to the city of Caesarea Philippi, a city that had been conquered many times, was once dedicated to the Greek god Pan, but had been rebuilt by Herod Philip and renamed to honor Caesar—and Philip.  It was a center of Roman rule in the region.  In the cliff next to the city, niches had been carved over the centuries to hold idols, from the early worship of the Baals, to the Greek gods, and finally the Roman gods.  The worshipers of all these idols had at one time conquered and ruled the people of Israel.  It was there that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
So they told him what they had heard:  John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  Now for the tough question, “But who do you say that I am?”  Can you imagine the silence?  Finally Peter says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  Brian McLaren writes:
It may sound like Peter is making a theological claim with these words.  But in this setting, they’re as much a political statement as a theological one.  Christ is the Greek translation for the Hebrew term Messiah, which means “the one anointed as liberating king.”  To say “liberating king” anywhere in the Roman empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name.  By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, “You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited.  You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.”
Do you hear the dangerous expectations in Peter’s declaration?  McLaren continues:
Similarly, son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting.  Caesars call themselves “sons of the gods,” but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and living God.  The Greek and Roman gods in their little niches in the cliff face may be called on to support the dominating rule of the Caesars.  But the true and living God stands behind the liberating authority of Jesus.
Jesus blessed Peter for his insightful statement, declaring that, “On this rock I will build my church.”  It is unclear whether the rock upon which the Church would be built meant Peter himself or the Christological confession, or both.  But Jesus added that the powers of Hades, “authority structures or control centers of evil,” could not prevail against Christ’s Church.  It must have been a heady moment for Peter, especially standing in a power center of the Roman Empire.
Realizing the political implications of Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus moved quickly to disabuse his disciples of any notion of violent uprising or revolution.  Jesus’ ministry was based on healing and restoring God’s community of the beloved.  Violence and controlling power have to place in God’s Kingdom.  Jesus identified with the suffering servant that Isaiah promised.  He understood himself to be a prince of peace and not a prince of war or violence.  And so he revealed to his disciples what he expected to happen to him.  He knew that what was being said of him put him in the crosshairs of the religious leaders and the Roman authorities.  He expected to be killed, but he also expected that opposition to God’s Kingdom by “authority structures or control centers of evil” would not prevail against God’s love.  
Peter jumped immediately to Jesus’ defense.  Nothing was going to happen to Jesus on Peter’s watch.  But I think Jesus heard in Peter’s anxiety, his own fear of what was likely and his own desire to avoid death—to fight back or flee.  And as he did when he was tempted in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry to pursue a path of political and economic power, he pushed that temptation behind him: “Get behind me Satan.  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  The temptation to live into the hopes for a liberating Messiah must have been staggering.  But liberation through violence was only another form of slavery.  Jesus would not engage in violence.  He found his power only in God’s love.  If it was true for Jesus, it was true for his disciples and any who would follow him.  Their love would have to be stronger than the power of violence that would seek to destroy them.  To be fully alive, their love would have to be stronger than the fear of death.
Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James and John on another field trip.  This time they went up a mountain to pray.  They had a mountaintop experience of revelation, the whole of the law and the prophets represented in Moses and Elijah, coming together in Jesus.  They would have stayed there worshiping forever.  They even heard the voice of God claiming Jesus as God’s beloved son with an admonition to listen to Jesus!  Exclamation point!  The disciples fell to the ground in fear, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid.  They had beheld the glory of God and it should not make them afraid.  They wanted to stay and worship, but Jesus led them back down to mountain to engage once again with the world.  There is a quote on the cover of your bulletin this morning from Steve Garnaas-Holmes:
The glory of God is not splendor; it's compassion. As Jesus opens his heart to the brokenness of the world, God's compassion shines in him. The glory of God does not belong to the powerful. It showers down on us when God's heart pours out in compassion on our suffering. And it shines from us when we reach out and touch the hurting. Compassion is the glory that lights our way.
To remain in God’s glory, to dwell within the law and the prophets as Jesus did, we have to practice compassion above all other disciplines.
Jesus still takes disciples on field trips.  Pay attention to those places and events that take you out of your normal routine.  Whether you travel across the world or stand in line at the grocery store, Jesus can surprise you if you pay attention.  Who has power in this moment?  And who does not?   Who do we say that Jesus is?  Where can God be found in this situation?  Who is “king” here?  When we look at the “authority structures or control centers of evil” today, do we believe that that they cannot prevail against greater violence, or against God’s compassion?  Which has more power now?  Which has more power ultimately?  What blesses and gives life?  What tempts you to seek power through violence, verbal or physical?  Is there an alternative?  How can you enter the glory of God’s compassion?  How does worship prepare you for the ministry to which God calls you?  
Like Peter, sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong.  We are on a journey with Jesus and he is teaching us all along the way, revealing God’s heart in unexpected moments.  Listen to him!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Love Has the Last Word

February 8, 2015
Jonah 4:1-11
Luke 16:19-31

Those of you who have Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, know that the title of this week’s sermon is “Jesus and Hell,” not a title I cared to put on the reader board.  I don’t want our neighbors to think we spend a lot of time thinking about, much less threatening hell.  McLaren is really inviting us to rethink the stories Jesus tells in which someone ends up in hell by pairing two of his stories with the last chapter of Jonah.  If you’re interested, I have made a few copies of Brian McLaren’s sermon for today’s topic—they are in the library.  McLaren does a great job explaining how Israel’s neighbors imagined the afterlife and how they influenced Jewish beliefs in the first century.  The Jews did not imagine a place of punishment until they were conquered and exiled in Babylonia and Persia.  The understanding of hell that was prevalent in Jesus’ day came from that time.  They believed that those who were bound for heaven were religiously observant, respectable, prosperous, and healthy. . .all signs of an upright life.  Those who were destined for hell were not religiously astute or observant, economically poor, socially suspect, and physically sick or disabled. . .signs of a sinful, undisciplined life.  Jesus also believed there was an afterlife, but he often turned the popular belief upside down: “proclaiming a transformative vision of God, teaching that God’s intent is not to destroy, but to save;” that God’s last word is always love.

I don’t know whether you believe there is a place called hell.  I don’t.  I believe in the infinite power of God’s love to redeem and transform, even after we die.  God has all of eternity to heal us and make us whole.    I believe God’s last word is always love.  I remember so clearly an older woman in a church that I attended many years ago saying that she hoped that she and her husband had done enough good things to go to heaven.  The two of them practically held up one corner of the church.  They served on several committees and worked on every mission project.  Whenever the church doors flew open, they were there.  All I could think to say was, “Of course you’re going to heaven.”  Now I think: How did the Church let that couple down?  How is it that those two people didn’t trust the love of God?  How did they not know just how beloved they were?  Furthermore, why is it that I’m still having to tell Sunday school children that God doesn’t have a “smite” button and they don’t have to fear an evil demon named Satan or the fires of hell?  How did we sell that concept so well and not the unconditional love of God?

It may be because humans like the idea of punishment for people that do us wrong.  If there is no punishment for someone who does evil things on earth, we think there ought to be some justice in the hereafter.  Believe me, I know how controversial it is to say that I don’t believe in hell.  One woman left a church that I served as pastor because she couldn’t bear to think of Hitler getting a room in heaven next to her father.  Seriously, are we worried about the neighborhood we live in in heaven?  Now bring that back to earth, and we, myself included, may find ourselves in the same boat as Jonah or the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable.  I have a hard time imagining God’s love for the members of Al Qaeda or ISIS, for gang members, drug dealers, or even someone who rudely cuts me off in traffic?  Can we believe that God loves these people as much as God loves us?  That’s a leap of faith!

If life really could be made fair, the tables would be turned as they are in Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus.  Those who have suffered in this life would find comfort in the next and those who were comfortable would endure suffering.  But wait!  The rich man can’t believe that’s really fair.  What did he do to deserve hell?  Could there be a clue in his insistence on still seeing Lazarus as a servant to do his bidding even from hell—“bring me water,” “send him to warn my brothers?”   I like the response that Father Abraham gives the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Which I take to mean that warning people about hell won’t change their behavior.  Moses and the prophets already taught us about God’s mercy and God’s expectation of just behavior.   We can ignore the prophets and continue to create hell on earth, or we can heed their wisdom and co-create the Kingdom of God—our choice.

I didn’t ask Bob to read the other gospel lesson McLaren chose for us this morning, Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats, because it is so familiar.  But one way to read that parable is that people who share their food with the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and those in prison co-create the Kingdom of God.  Their respect and consideration for the needs of their neighbors allows them and those that they serve to enter the community of the beloved that God prepared for us from the beginning.  But those who refuse to share their bread and drink, who ignore the needs of the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner create a world in which violence begets violence.  

I’m afraid that’s the world we live in.  But it does not have to be.  We have a choice.  When I was a teenager, our college youth group presented a skit from the television show “That Was the Week that Was” in churches all over west Texas.  In the skit, a person dies and finds himself or herself standing in front of a clerk at a desk between two unmarked doors.  The clerk looks up, smiles, and says, “Welcome.  Heaven on your right.  Hell on your left.”  The recently deceased doesn’t understand.  Shouldn’t that decision already have been made?  The clerk repeats, “Heaven on your right.  Hell on your left.”  The person begins to make a case for having earned heaven, but the clerk merely repeats the choice.  Then the person lists all of the mistakes and sins of omission, and the clerk once again repeats the choice, “Heaven on your right.  Hell on your left.”  Eventually the person throws open the door to hell and a new person steps up to the desk.  The clerk says, “Welcome.  Heaven on your right.  Hell on your left.”  The choice is ours, and the authors ask why we choose hell when heaven is an option.

We have the same choice to make many times during the day.  Care on our right.  Indifference on our left.  Kindness on our right.  Neglect on our left.  Love on our right.  Contempt on our left.  We make the road to the community of the beloved by walking in God’s love.  The love that Jesus believed would transform us and our world.  Because Jesus was convinced that God has the last word for you and for me and for our enemies—and that last word is love.

Compassion is Everything

February 1, 2015
Ezekiel 34:11-16
Luke 18:15-19:9

I am fully aware this morning that I am preaching to the choir.  Everything that Jesus does in the passage from Luke, you have done, or would do, given the chance.  I am so grateful to be able to serve as your pastor.  At our charge conference last October, our District Superintendent, the Rev. Pat Simpson, praised us because of our hands on ministry in our community.  She told us that many churches engage in mission financially, but we are one of the few churches in which a large number of members are personally involved in ministry and outreach to the community.  I don’t think there is any entity that serves the welfare of this island in which someone from this church is not involved—on the board or as a volunteer.  This church—and by that I mean the people, not the building—makes a significant difference in our community.
I wonder if, instead of preaching today, I might start a serious conversation, deeply committed Christian to deeply committed Christian?   The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are (Rom. 12:14-16).”  I have been caught by my heart this week by someone weeping over racial injustice.  I have heard not one, but three people, three beautiful children of God, describe how they have experienced discrimination because of the color of their skin or their national origin.  I have a pretty good social justice ethic, but I don’t know what to do with this.  I want to do something, but I don’t know how to begin.  I don’t know where to begin.  I’m not sure that we’re supposed to figure out what to do before we figure out how to be.  How to be fully present to someone whose life experience is so different from mine?  How to enter into a loving conversation that might be helpful?  Then what to do that would effect change?
It occurs to me that because of the accident of my birth, I find myself living comfortably within the dominant culture without having to think about it.  My privilege stretches out in front of me and blocks my vision without my even knowing it.  I have never been denied a place to live.  My children have never been stopped for driving while being black.  I have never been refused service anywhere.  I think that means that I need to seek out opportunities to listen—and learn.  I was lucky enough in my early twenties to live in Japan for almost two years.  Some of you have had similar experiences of being the minority and not speaking the language or knowing the customs; of driving on the opposite side of the road.  It was an eye-opening experience for me to see that there are other ways to live that are different—not better or worse—just different.  I love it that you read about other cultures with such openness.  I am so appreciative of your good hearts and desire to learn.  That’s why I want to be in conversation with you.  I know that learning to understand and appreciate other cultures is part of the solution.  Does education alone dispel fear and bigotry?  
I’ve taken this book, With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen, the beloved spiritual writer, off my shelf as I’ve taken this pain to prayer.  Nouwen believes that our compassion starts with prayer.  He wrote:

As your life becomes more and more a prayer, you not only come to a deeper insight into yourself and your neighbor, but you also develop a better feeling for the pulse of the world you live in.  If you are really praying, you can’t help but have critical questions about the great problems with which the world is grappling. . . .
Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you.  This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept your separate.  Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws and destined for the same end.  With this compassion you can say, “in the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.

That’s a challenge to me.  Is my prayer deep enough to come to a deeper insight into myself and my neighbor and to raise critical questions?  
Jesus was great at asking critical questions.  He was moved by the struggles of the people who sought him out and challenged the systems that overlooked their suffering.  In the gospel reading that we heard today, Jesus moved from children to adults with great interest in spending time with them and knowing their struggles.  He ate with people that would have been considered “others” or outsiders and really seemed to enjoy being with them.  Then Jesus acted with love and compassion, often counter to the beliefs of those around him. I wonder if sometimes his loving actions were not also intended to provoke the heartless reactions of the keepers of the law and the status quo.  Brian McLaren gives us a good example from Luke’s gospel:

Once [the Pharisees] criticized Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath. . . . Jesus asked them a question:  If your son—or even your ox—falls in a hole on the Sabbath, will you wait until the next day to rescue it?  By appealing to their basic humanity—kindness to their own children, if not their own beasts of burden—he implied that God must possess at least that level of “humanity.”  In so doing, Jesus proposed that basic human kindness and compassion are more absolute than religious rules and laws.

Basic human kindness and compassion.  Aren’t those all we need to listen deeply and to be fully present to one another?  Isn’t that how we enter into the world of another person and share their joy and their pain?  Could basic human kindness and compassion be the source of healing and impetus for our actions?
I agree with Henri Nouwen that compassion starts with prayer, with knowing ourselves; with being met by God in the deepest part of our being, in our joy and in our sorrow, so that we can recognize our common humanity with our neighbor, so that we may rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  I would love to have this conversation as a community of faith and would hope that the conversation might deepen our prayer life individually and as a community.

May you hear this blessing for yourself and for your neighbor.