Second in Advent (Dec. 6): “The Path Home from Exile”

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8  

Our lectionary for this second Sunday in Advent nicely pairs the cry to prepare the way of the Lord in Isaiah with the echo of that cry in the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark applies it to John the Baptist. However, cutting each of these passages from its context and stitching them together, as our lectionary does, also leaves a lot of loose threads. Especially in Isaiah, we have a passage that is confusing at places. (You will benefit from having that passage open as we consider it.) We hear : “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem… All people shall” see the glory of the Lord. But then we hear: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field [which is not a compliment]. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” Perhaps this means human beings in general, “all people,” are inconstant, fickle. And so, therefore, are God’s people, Israel, Isaiah seems to say: “Surely the people [even God’s people ] are grass,” as well. It sounds cynical, does it not? But not false. Look how much trouble we are all having maintaining safety protocols for covid-19, even wearing masks. A massive rise in infection testifies that the people are indeed grass, and just so, we are withering.

Now, this cry is used to call attention to John the Baptist. Mark’s account of John is briefer than the other gospels. Mark doesn’t include the harsh preaching of John we find elsewhere. The result is a gentler John, but still a wilderness man who eats locusts. And he’s still the one crying out for repentance, and the people come out from all over to “confess their sins.” So this call of repentance, as well as Isaiah’s cynicism toward the people, stand in some tension with the message at the beginning of our Isaiah passage: “Comfort my people,” as well as the promise at the end that the Lord “will feed his flock like a shepherd,” carrying them in God’s bosom. The tension present in our reading shouldn’t be too surprising. The whole Bible is replete with God’s comfort amid suffering, and God’s judgment amid comfort. Suffering, judgment, and the promise of comfort form the very stuff of Advent, until they are all finally reshaped by the appearance of God’s grace in person.

Let’s look more closely at the Isaiah passage. A commentary on this passage says that the first two verses, “Comfort my people, etc.,” represent God speaking to a group, presumably the heavenly host, which we might also think of as the unseen powers of creation. And then one voice among them, an angel or power, “cries out,” saying “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” etc. (Otherwise God is speaking in the third person.) Then another voice from the angels, or perhaps the same one, again says, “Cry out!” (And here we could think of this angel as one of those hidden sources that inspire us to new things.) And this voice is addressing the prophet Isaiah, who responds in the verse that follows: “And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” And Isaiah then registers his own cynicism about the people being grass. So, much of the tension in this passage is explained by distinguishing the various voices speaking in it.

But the content says a lot too. The passage is about preparing the way of the Israelites to go home to from their exile in Babylon. And here it can touch us closely, for we as a church might very well feel like we are figuratively in exile—at least, not the prosperous and respected church we used to be. In most of the Old Testament, this exile, which lasted for as long as 58 years, is understood as being a punishment from God for faithlessness and injustice. Now, Isaiah in this passage seems a little unsure about that. He says that the people have “received double for all their sins,” suggesting that the exile was not the fair punishment we expect from God. In agreement with other passages in the Bible, I also am wary of ever saying that suffering is a punishment from God. Catastrophes like the exile to Babylon come with enormous loss of life, especially for children and women. And all this is at the hands of the unrighteous and power-hungry Babylonians. Is this how God acts?

But our passage suggests a better way. We saw that Isaiah has God speaking to the heavenly court, the invisible powers of our world, and they shall prepare the way.  In other words, God does not intervene directly, but through the structures of creation.

So let us consider the exile as an act of God in a new light. The Israelites were a small nation surrounded by wealthy, powerful, ambitious nations. Once they became large enough to be noticed, it was only a matter of time before they were conquered by one of the empires. This is simply the tragedy inherent in trying to be a nation of God among the nations, with a king and a land and borders like other nations. It is the tragedy that comes with power: those who live by the sword will die by the sword. That inherent tragedy, which is only natural, combined with the culpable failures of the Israelites and their kings, did indeed lead to their defeat and exile. In that indirect way, we can say it was an act of God.

But the exile, while heart-breaking, was a vitalizing time for Israel. It taught them how to be God’s people without the temple, without the sovereignty of a king, and without a land of their own. If they hadn’t learned that, then we probably wouldn’t be a people of God today, existing without any of those things. The only way they survived exile as a religion was by refocusing everything on the study of Torah, on God’s word. God’s Word now becomes the power behind everything. That most beautiful depiction in Genesis 1 of creation by God’s word, by God’s speech alone, was composed in or after exile. The Israelites learned how to order their life solely by the message of God’s promises and commands, and they survived. I don’t picture God looking down from heaven, and nodding with approval and saying, “Oh, that’s better. You can go home now.” But the Israelites did discover a power rooted deeply in creation and especially in their being created in God’s image that allowed them to survive and thrive.

We as a church have also relied on the land, on the temple, and on sovereignty. We have relied on our prestige as the oldest, most established church, with our beautiful building located right in the center of town, funded originally by the King’s tax dollars. In Christian Ed this week, we talked about how the church used to be the only game in town. People could come, not for the Word of God, but because there was nothing much else to do. But no longer. We’re not that established church anymore. And I think it’s a good thing.

We have a lesson to learn from Israel. We too can expect that when we stop relying on the Word of God, and when we stop making our basic task one of ordering our life based on God’s promise and command, then we will find ourselves sooner or later exiled from the benefits we once enjoyed. The people are grass. When the winds change, they wither fast. This is a truth for us to consider for ourselves.

We are not literally exiled, but Israel’s story is already ours. We will feel our exile, feel the grass withering, whenever our children fade away from the church to chase after other sexier pursuits, whenever our singing feels forced or our rituals fall flat; whenever our fellowship feels stale or superficial; whenever a pestilence like covid is able to undo us as a church. That’s exile happening in our midst. God will depart from us whenever we depart from God, leaving us vulnerable to whatever winds are blowing; but even worse, to our own worst selves.

But if Israel’s exile is a real possibility for us, or at least a figurative one that is quite painful enough, then so is Israel’s return home. If God isn’t a hothead who angrily smites us with exile, then God is not one to hold a grudge, either. God is always ready and willing for us to return home. The angels may or may not be on our side. That’s another way to say, the structure of nature and history might be in some ways against us, in some ways for us. But we are not being held captive by the Babylonians. We do not have to cross literal deserts and mountains. We don’t even have to cross back over the Jordan river to be home. We’ve done that already. It’s called baptism. God has already made straight our way home from exile.

The journey home for us is not across thousands of miles, but a journey inward, into ourselves, and a journey outward to each other. Inward to find courage, correction, and power by God’s Word—by which I don’t mean just flipping open the Bible, but meditating deeply on where God is in your life and where your life is in God. (And keeping an eye on the coming One, our Lord Jesus, for whom God was his very life and his very life was God’s.) And then outward to challenge yourself by each other’s wisdom and gifts, to encourage one another, and to seek to be of one mind and heart together.

Now, it may be true that this journey inward and outward is even harder than the journey home faced by the Israelites. A little stroll through the desert may not sound so bad! The challenge to turn to God within and to turn to God in one another is indeed no walk in the park, and we hardly know the way. But the good news is, you’re already home! God has already given you everything you need. Once you have been baptized, you are in God’s land of promise. Of course life will feel like an exile, sometimes. Of course the angels and winds will sometimes blow at your back, sometimes right against your face. Of course life will sometimes feel like you are waiting, still, for God to come. But then you’ll remember that the messiah is already here.

November 29: The start of Advent

This is my meditation on the lectionary reading from Psalm 80, which reads:

To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
   before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
   and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
   our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
   the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
   give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.


My Meditation:

Since I arrived here, we started a tradition of fasting from communion during Advent. And so I bring the empty chalice and paten or communion plate to place in our midst. These are to signify our fasting and hunger, not as punishment or penance as in Lent, but as a focus for our longing, our desire for Christ to come. It is a time to own up to our own emptiness, to confess our incompleteness, our continuing need for God to restore us. So let this empty chalice and paten signify to us the space of a womb of desire in us, that will silently and invisibly become full in these coming weeks.

But Never in living memory has our whole nation and indeed the whole world known such a fast as this year. Restaurants have been closed or sparsely attended. Grocery shelves have gone bare. The unemployed have tried to scrape by. And of course, many have died, and their loved ones have known great mourning. “You fed them bread of tears, and given them tears to drink.”

Never before in living memory have we had such a difficult time recognizing our neighbor as one of us. Our political division has grown to such an extent, bolstered by wild conspiracy theories and the mercurial internet, that it feels like our worst enemy may live next door. “You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.”

O God, look and see: Our cup is already empty. Our plate is already void.

We don’t need Advent to remind us of that, this year. But Advent is also a time of turning, of looking East for the star and light, of anticipating the new day. This year we remember that we have the courage and strength to praise God for this empty cup and plate because we already have faith in Christ. We already have seen God’s face shine. Imagine, for a moment, if that were not so. It is not so for many people today, and it was not so for many who have passed with the sands of time. Imagine if we still did not know who God was, or whether God was indeed favorable to humankind. Imagine if all we had was either poorly founded hope, or well-founded despair?  But for the grace of God, that would be us.

In Advent, we have a time of the year when we can most identify with the captive Israel, or the one who does not know God’s face. We can identify with compassion and full empathy, for in truth all of us feel God far away from time to time. Don’t run from that feeling. Embrace it, especially in a time such as this one. For we bear the absence of God from within our covenant of grace. We do so knowing God has shown God’s face and will not depart forever. There will be a vaccine. The economy will recover. The transfer of power will happen. Moreover, We bear God’s absence knowing that Christmas morning will come with its world-embracing, life-loving joy. Our plate will be full, our cup will run over. I bet you will feel it Christmas morning. Even if you don’t, you know it’s true. You know God is with us.

November 22: “Stewardship to the End”

Philippians 2:1-11 ; Matthew 25: 31-46

         I want to start by expressing my gratitude to the Trustees, who supervise my contract on behalf of all of you. After a meeting with Jeff Dwinell, representing the Deacons, and Dave Desrosiers, chair of the Trustees, we agreed very amicably to the terms of a 2 ½ month sabbatical for me, starting January 1. Sabbaticals are usually taken as a time of rest and restoration. It will be that for me, but in my own peculiar way. I plan to devote my time to writing my book on mysticism, God, and science. Honestly, this is how I rest and recover. Jessica shrugs her shoulders at the thick, arcane books I bring to the beach.

         After this sabbatical, I don’t plan to return to this pastorate. That means Christmas Eve will be my final service presiding here with you all. I did not reach this decision hastily, nor by my own lights. I carefully talked it over with my family first of all, and then the deacons, and then Church Council, and then with the Trustees. I did as much as I could to prepare all of you this summer, when I laid out, in a last hurrah, my vision for a church that we could be in a sermon on June 28. It’s a vision consistent with what I laid out five years and two weeks earlier to the Pastoral Search Committee, which was another example of Nancy Johnson’s gifted leadership. Central to this vision is the church as a place where we come together to freely lay down our opinions and preferences in order to seek a shared way to be a community together in God; the church as a place, in other words, of genuine learning, which can only mean mutual transformation. In doing so we follow the pattern of Christ as Paul so beautifully describes it in Philippians 2; we humble ourselves, regarding others as better than ourselves, so we can be in full accord and of one mind in Christ Jesus.

This coming together in mutual transformation is exactly the opposite of the dominant trend in our time, where we see people mutually driving each other apart. Both here and across the globe, people are more and more pushing each other away by rejecting the other’s way of thinking and then defining reality as it suits my clan. So I remain very much convinced of the relevance and faithfulness of this vision of the church as a place where we come together by mutual transformation. And you and I shared some modest successes together doing that. Those who participated in the adult education hour shared some wonderful explorations together, and I am so grateful for the energy that enlivened the parlor on those Sunday mornings (before covid).

And I also have been transformed by learning much from you all. My understanding of the faith has expanded in new directions since I arrived, as I came to appreciate the importance of God’s continuing work as creator alongside God’s work as redeemer and sanctifier. Let me explain it without the technical terms. Just picture the meeting where I was skeptically wondering why we need to do Dinofest, and Bob Mason, with misty eyes responded by talking about how beautiful it is to see people coming together in ordinary community. And I thought: “Hmm, there must be something of God in this. What am I not seeing?” And then I spent the next several years thinking it through from the ground up, and adjusting my whole understanding of the Christian faith (because I am a theological geek, it’s what I do).

         So we did share some modest success in this process of mutual transformation, of coming to one mind in Christ. But for the congregation as a whole, I took the silence in response to my June 28 sermon to confirm that this is not (yet) your vision of what church is about. And look, don’t be frustrated about this. It’s nobody’s fault. (And to be clear, I am not leaving because of anyone’s complaints.) In fact, this congregation has been my able partner in doing plenty of good ministry these last five years. There’s plenty of God here. And I don’t blame myself, either: I did what I said I told the search committee I would do; but even so, I am a very accommodating pastor: I love being there for you in pastoral counseling; I honor helping you bring your prayers into speech; I love helping you figure out your own thoughts; I love working with the committees and board to find your focus.

But when I mount the pulpit to take the terrible responsibility of interpreting God’s Word, I am a demanding pastor—and I think that’s where we see a problem of fit. I hear God telling me to push you beyond where you are. That’s how I hear Scripture; and I hear God speaking most clearly when God pushes me, or draws me, beyond where I already am. I also preach this way because I am not convinced the mainline church in general will not survive unless God’s Word can push us beyond where we are. And there’s plenty of good data to back me up on that.

         But you might not want a pastor who so enjoys (!) pushing you beyond where you are. (And I expect I’ll one day come to an age when I am no longer looking for God to push me beyond where I am.) I am not going to say, “that is the choice you have made.” I don’t think you chose one way or the other. I think it’s just the way it is. I worked hard—not always effectively, I realize—to invite you into a vulnerable, uncomfortable, mutual transformation into the mind of Christ. And you almost always listened respectfully, and I thank you for that. But after five years, I think it is clear that the small success we attained together has gone about as far as it was going to go. So I need to move on.

         There have been some conflicts that should not have arisen. Where I was the cause, and also where I wasn’t the cause, my efforts at reconciliation were not always successful. I shall always be sad about that. But if we had a community of real, mutual transformation, I believe we wouldn’t have the same kind of conflicts. I think what Paul is talking about is the answer.

But I want to re-emphasize, primarily the issue is one of fit. And honestly, I am the odd one here. I am the difficult spouse in this marriage. As I said on in that June 28 sermon, there are two popular models of church out there: the soul repair model—probably the main one here—and the Progressive Christian model. And I don’t think either of them is fully faithful and sustainable. So I’m looking for a third model, a bride-to-be, that may not exist yet. And I need a congregation that is open to looking for that too. That is a lot to ask of any congregation. Most people aren’t convinced that their model of church is a problem, and they haven’t thought about different models of church to begin with. So it’s on me to convince you that this is needed and important, even vital. The road I hear God pointing me toward is a lonely road. But I think our day is calling us to enter the narrow gate, because I’m not convinced that the other models of church have any real future. So I am wagering myself at very high stakes. Don’t feel bad if you are not ready, as a congregation, to take that bet. But getting mainline churches, like ours, on track to a viable future might just require us to wager everything, to put it all on the cross and give ourselves over completely to God’s power of resurrection.//

Now, how do I go from there, to an upbeat message about stewardship? Talk about needing the power of resurrection!

But actually the message is already upbeat. This congregation is in good hands. You have everything you need to steward yourself as a church through the time of transition. Your deacons are an amazing and graced group of faithful disciples; anyone should jump at the chance to join them. The deacons have their shepherding groups in place to ensure continuing pastoral care. That has always been a lot to ask of the deacons, but the shepherding groups will serve us well—if you use it well. Please, if you have a need, or are troubled, or want prayer and counseling, don’t sit around at home waiting for a deacon to come ask how you are doing. You’ve got to take the initiative and make your needs known! Who gets healed in the Bible? It’s the people who chased after Jesus and said, “Hey, I need some healing here!”

Our other boards and our Church Council are solid, faithful, and effective. I’ve heard stories from the past of nasty fights. There’s none of that now among our leadership circle. You have the team in place to guide you through this time of transition. What you need to do is trust them and support them.

We have been fulfilling pledges all through covid-19, which is amazing. If you can, up your pledge for 2021. Don’t worry, I think the economy will recover quickly after the vaccine comes out. The boards could really use the security of not having to make church work with constant cuts and operating at a tight margin all the time. You can help them relax and focus on living creatively into the future.

Stewardship is not just a euphemism for pledging money. There is going to be plenty to do in the coming year. And it will be rewarding, God-filled, hard work. The deacons will have more responsibility for worship. We are starting a once-every-five-year revision of bylaws, and that will be a lot of work for Diane the chair and the people who staff that committee. And there will be a pastoral search committee. (Hey, I gave you a five-year break from that, not too bad!) If you really care about the future of this church and think you are capable of expressing the mind of this congregation—which I pray may be the mind of Christ—then volunteer for the pastoral search committee. If not, surround them with your prayers. Ask them they are doing. Share with them about your concerns. Tell them how much you appreciate it, and offer them your help.

And here’s the most important thing you can do. Our moderator, Cynthia Scully, is excited to begin a congregation-wide conversation about who we are as a church, where we are going in the future, and what we need in our next pastor. Because we are a congregational church. Do you know what an amazing blessing that is from God, for each of us to answer these most important questions for ourselves? For each of us to be stewards of God’s church? To not have a five-year plan handed down to us by some church hierarchy? But do you also realize what a soul-splitting responsibility has been laid on each of your shoulders? So when you all have this conversation about who we are as a church, and where we are going in the future, and what we need in our next pastor, I urge you: do not rely speak lightly, relying on your own preferences. Test how you answer those questions against God’s Word, which you can find in Scripture but also in the wisdom of those in this congregation who most clearly show forth faith in God (and you know who they are). And above all, do not hold your cards close to your chest, hanging back from this conversation, and six months later start to complain when the next minister isn’t what you had in mind. You search you heart, speak your mind, listen to what others are saying and especially to the wise and faithful, and then get behind the minister you find, if you want this church to succeed.

Being a congregational church means each of you is sitting right now before the King, Lord Jesus, as he mounts his throne of judgment, if we are to take seriously the parable we read from Matthew. Each of you is leaning toward either the blessed right hand of the king, or the terrible left hand of cursing. / If I had time, I would show you that this parable does not mean what good progressives have said it means, including myself. This parable does not mean that whenever we help anyone who is suffering, we are helping Jesus. I wish it did mean that, for the idea is beautiful. But Jesus says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,” or “these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The least of these Jesus is actually referring to are his disciples. So it’s how the nations of the world treat Jesus’ disciples that is at issue in vision of the final judgment. I’d say the closest thing to that for us here is how we treat our circle of leadership, those who are doing the work of the disciples among us. When they are hungry or thirsty or feeling like a stranger, you better take care of them. You better support them, or better, join them. God is watching. And I’ll be watching too, from wherever I am.

Nov. 15: “Stewards of Creativity”

“Stewards of Creativity”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

         This is Stewardship Month. And from Matthew we just heard the weirdest stewardship parable in the Bible. It begins with the master, who seems to represent God, entrusting different amounts of money to his three slaves. A talent is a piece of gold worth perhaps 5000 denarii, a denarius being about a day’s wage, so today those 5 talents are equivalent to $3 ¼ million. This parable is where our word “talent” comes from, but here the talents have nothing to do with talent-show talent, as in our beloved stewardship phrase, “time, talent, and treasure.” In this parable a talent is all about the treasure.

And from there the parable seems to teach us all about being good capitalists. God gives a few people enormous sums of money so they can make more money for God. And those who are lazy or bad investors will end up in hell. So this looks like the prooftext for the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, with the clincher at the end: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” If we assume this parable is all about stewardship of money, that’s where we end up.

So let’s not go there. It doesn’t fit with anything else in the Bible. Let’s look for a better interpretation.

I’ll rely on my friend Peter Milloy and what my Greek reading group discussed this week when we read this text. Peter is a real New Testament scholar, unlike me, and he proposed an interpretation of this parable that makes sense for Jesus’ original context. He first paid attention to that phrase used at the beginning of the parable. The man “entrusted his property to” his slaves. The Greek word is often translated as “hand over,” and used for revelation or traditions, as in Matthew 11:27: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” Paul uses the same Greek word when he passes on the institution of the Lord’s supper to the Corinthians, saying “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” So this parable is not about money, which Jesus elsewhere calls “mammon” and says you either have to serve it or God. It’s about God entrusting or handing over revelation. And revelation is the most valuable thing we can receive, aptly symbolized by a wealth of gold.

Now, at the time of Jesus, there were different factions of Jews. The most narrow in their traditionalism were the Sadducees, a name you might recognize from the gospels. They only recognized one section of the Bible: the Pentateuch or Torah, which makes up the first five books of our Bible. They did not accept newer ideas, including the resurrection of the dead. And they had one holy place, the Temple in Jerusalem, which they controlled in collaboration with the pagan Roman empire.  

Another party was the Pharisees. Now by the time the gospels were written, perhaps 40 years after Jesus’ death, the Pharisees and the first Christians had had a falling out. So the Pharisees are often portrayed as Jesus’ enemies, as in Matthew 23. But in some stories Jesus dines with the Pharisees and they show each other mutual respect. Like Jesus, the Pharisees accepted the Torah along with the prophets and the writings—all the books of our Old Testament. Like Jesus, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead. And they committed themselves to studying scripture and worshipping in synagogues in every town, not in the temple only. The Pharisees are the true ancestors of Judaism today.

The third faction of Jews were the disciples of Jesus, who recognized Torah, prophets, and writings, but also the words of Jesus, who told them in chapter five: “I have come not to abolish [the Torah and the prophets] but to fulfill.”

So you have in Jesus’ time three groups of Jews, who have received, or really accepted out of faith, greater or lesser amounts of revelation. It certainly seems likely that Jesus tells this parable in reference to these three servants of God: his followers are the servant who received five talents, the Pharisees received two, and the Sadducees one.  

The parable is not about why they received different riches of revelation, but what they do with the riches they received. And notice that only the Sadducees are condemned here, not the Pharisees. The 5- and 2-talent slaves, entrusted with much, create twice as much with what they were given. So when the master returns—and this looks like the final judgment or the return of Christ—they are each put in charge of many things. And each is told, enter in the joy of your master. Notice that they don’t end up with more money, which after all isn’t the real point here. They end up in charge of many things; and elsewhere Jesus indicates that his disciples will be the ones who will be in charge of God’s kingdom on earth.

But then there’s the sad fellow with one talent—still a good $600,000 by today’s standards. He tells the returning master, with a good bit of cheek: “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. So I was afraid, and hid your talent in the ground.” And how did he know this about God? It’s not because the God of the Old Testament is harsh, while the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful. Just recall that the New Testament is about to have God throw this man into hell, and we can dispense with that unfounded prejudice.

Maybe the one-talent slave is referring to Exodus 20, where God says “I the Lord am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” That may sound harsh to us, and perhaps it did to the one-talent slave, but perhaps it’s very wise. When parents reject God or fail to follow God truly, it has very bad effects on the generations to follow. Besides, God goes on to say that he shows love to the thousandth generation of those who love me.

But what’s interesting about this passage in the Torah is that it is one place where the prophets present a different picture of God: Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18 revise this teaching, saying “It is only the person who sins that shall die.” (That may still sound harsh to us, but at least the children are spared.) The point is, the one-talent slave who did not recognize the prophets as valid might have easily ended up with a harsher view of God.

So, thinking God jealous, he buries the little revelation he does have. He doesn’t let it be added to. He doesn’t expand upon it, as both the Pharisees and Jesus did, in their own way. He doesn’t actually get out and do things with it. He is miserly with it, not sharing it with the people, like the Pharisees did in the synagogues. This slave jealously guards God’s talent, in the same way the Sadducees guarded the temple. And so God will take away their revelation and their temple, and give it to the one with 10 talents. (That’s why he’s so sad, you see?) That is to say, the followers of Jesus, not the Sadducees, will be the real inheritors of Moses’ teaching. And that message fits perfectly with Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses.

So: isn’t that better than saying the parable is about the rich getting richer and the poor losing everything? It’s about what Jesus and his contemporaries did with the true riches of God, the revelation that has been handed over to us. I am persuaded that we have here the true original meaning of Jesus’ parable.

But what does that mean for us? So this parable is not about money. Is it only about the Pharisees and Sadducees?

The first lesson for us here is that what stewardship refers to first and foremost, as both Jesus and the Jewish tradition recognize, is a custodianship over the revelation of God. The stewardship that matters is not about money or this temple (with all due respect and thanks to our trustees who do this hard work for us); it is about what we all do with the Word of God that has been handed over to us: the Gospel. If you are not doing something with the Word of God, you are going to forfeit God’s most precious gift.

And what do we do with that Word? Do we hold on tight to it? Do we bury it in the ground, to make sure it doesn’t change or grow? To make sure we don’t lose control over it? In our search for what Thessalonians calls “peace and security,” do we protect and safeguard the Word in such a way that we ensure it will do no valuable work in the world? Do we think God wants us to just parrot back what we heard long ago? So we can say, when the new era dawns, “Here you go God, I kept what I was taught just the way I received it. I didn’t change a thing.” Apparently not.

Or do we work with the revelation we’ve received, allowing it to grow and expand in creative fidelity? Do we bring it into the light, being “children of the day?” The 5- and 2-talent slaves are both faithful or trustworthy; they don’t just make up their own new revelation. But they take what God has given them and creatively expand upon it.

The church has shown such creative fidelity in critical moments of its 2000-year history. And I believe such a time is upon us again. Like Israel in the time of Jesus, we are in a time requiring of us a transition in the basic way we understand how God acts. What was handed down to many of us is that God is omnipotent over everything in the world. To have faith in God then means to believe that everything that happens to me or to anyone was sent by God for some secret purpose. I just have to trust that it is from God, that there’s a silver lining behind every cloud, and that if I trust what God is doing, it will all come out for the best. That’s the little nugget of revelation that has been handed over to many of us. Faith means all is right with the world because God is in control.

While it may be true on a mysterious level, I don’t think this teaching is true to the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think it has no answer for why so many bad things happen in the world, with often very little good coming from it. That’s why many young people and old people aren’t buying it anymore. Even many who do stick around can only pretend to believe in this God who is secretly in control.

I hope that over the last five years, I have handed on to you, good stewards, the resources to transition out of this teaching that no longer works, to a teaching that is faithful to the Gospel and gives us the answers we need. For I would hate to see even what little we now have be completely taken away.

Although we may long for peace and security, our time is a time of travail, like a woman in labor pains. It is a hard “transition” to make, calling us to our very best in creative fidelity. But the way to see God anew that I have proposed is in essence very simple: God’s real omnipotence, God’s real control, is to be found in the most valuable gift we have received: in the Word, in revelation. Don’t look for God in some secret meaning behind whatever is happening in your life, or in the mess that is our world; look to the Word we have received, and let it define what is real. Seek this Word together, as those destined for salvation; and in that Word “encourage one another and build up each other.”

November 8: “The Church’s Balm”

Ezra 9:1-4

First Corinthians 7:12-16

I’m going to try to analyze what is going on in our country right now around this election. I do this with care, and of course I am avoiding partisanship. I just want to share an insight I had that helped ease my anxiety this week. Anyone else been anxious? You see, our anxiety over politics is a spiritual problem, because it affects our whole person. It is a spiritual problem, and I believe the church has a role to play in helping to heal this anxiety.

I don’t know about you, but I get anxious when I look around me and cannot make sense of what is going on. I guess I feel like I’ve lost control when the world no longer makes sense. Well, I am a thinker. I need to be able to make sense of things. As I lay awake Tuesday night—don’t tell me I was the only one—I just felt so mystified by the whole election and thus anxious, and I started to have weird thoughts, like: Maybe it’s all my fault that it doesn’t make sense, somehow. Then I had my insight, and I thank God because I felt a lot better after.

What was not making sense to me was the way that our political divisions seem to be getting stronger, more absolute, and yet also vaguer or more amorphous. I remember when elections were about bread-and-butter issues, and people felt fine voting their pocketbook as we used to say—for what benefits you personally. Or people would pick one or two specific issues or policies and vote based on that. But that’s not the case with this election. People are saying this election is about two fundamentally different ways of thinking about who we are as a nation. I’ve heard many people on both sides say they don’t recognize the America that the other side talks about. There was a man on the radio who said, this election has taught me that half of the people I pass on the way to work think very differently than I do. And that might apply to the person you share your roof with.

“We think differently;” that appears to be the issue. It’s an oddly abstract, symbolic, almost philosophical difference—except it lacks the clarity and articulation of good philosophy. There are well-worn, fairly clear philosophical differences that continue in our political mix: states’ rights vs. federal government, a penchant for American exceptionalism vs. a more internationalist viewpoint. But somehow it has all blown up into two mutually opposed world views, becoming vaguer while also sharper.

I was puzzled and distressed by this division. It is not good that our country is divided not just over this or that issue, or even by a particular leader, but by two incompatible ways of thinking, supposedly. How, then, can we work together? Is the only hope for one side or the other to vanquish the other? That doesn’t seem to be working. We keep alternating control between Republican and Democrat, with the party in power trying to undo everything that the other party did previously.

After I brought my vexation before God, I received an insight during that largely sleepless election night. I wondered, how much of this growing chasm and the anxiety that accompanies it stem from the fact that America is heading toward a fundamental demographic shift from white majority to white minority. In 1980 whites accounted for 80% of Americans; by 2045 or thereabouts, whites will drop below 50%. I suspect that shift is the subconscious root cause of much of our anxiety, leading to heightened disagreement among white people about how to deal with our past, present, and future.

Now, you’ll say that can’t be; hardly anyone is talking about white majority status as an issue. But it’s hard otherwise to explain why our division is worsening. Well, there’s social media. But before we blame it all on technology, it is wise to remember that we originate as biological creatures and have much in common with our fellow fauna. I’ve been reading a lot of science recently, and I came across a principle in biology I had never heard of before: the principle of competitive exclusion. Do you know that you never find in nature two species sharing the same habitat and competing for the same resources? Not for long, at least. Whenever two species try to inhabit the same niche or habitat, eventually one species will die off or be forced to move to a new niche. Nature is not about “go along and get along.” The drive of us against them is deeply rooted in our biology, once we find ourselves in competition.

Now it’s also a biological fact that human beings are all one species. But time and time again, we fall into acting as if we are different species struggling for ultimate survival; scientists call this the creation of “pseudospecies.” And so we end up fighting to the death by warfare and genocide, or forcing another human community to emigrate to somewhere else. And the principle of competitive exclusion shows up in other ways. Many societies have constructed caste systems that avoid competition over resources. The castes are not allowed to intermarry and do not compete over occupations, thus making them into pseudospecies that can obey the principle of competitive exclusion. India is the classic example. But the same thing existed in medieval Europe. Wherever intermarrying is forbidden, you can find people treating each other like we are different species. In northern Ireland, everyone is white and Christian and Irish, but Protestants and Catholics don’t intermarry, and they were long locked in a life-and-death struggle. Even here, two or three generations ago, Protestants from different denominations wouldn’t marry each other! But that last example shows that it is possible to find a way to exist in peace; and of course now intermarriage is quite common.

This biological principle and the way we create pseudospecies to obey it shows up in the Bible. But it runs contrary to God’s intention. The Israelites were always destined to be a blessing to all nations, as God promised to Abraham. But they are also caught in this tragic drive to be a distinct nation competing with all others. We see the lamentable results of this when Ezra becomes distraught over how the “holy seed has mixed itself with peoples of the lands.” Tragically, he quickly persuades the Israelites to divorce and send away their foreign wives and children, who were surely condemned to poverty and vulnerability. Perhaps that was necessary at the time, in the mysterious wisdom of God, although the prophet Malachi seems to criticize Ezra’s decision. But in Christ it is not necessary. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no pseudospecies that prohibits intermarrying. That’s why Paul can expect his Corinthian church to be pure and holy and distinct from the world, as Israel was called to be too, but also say it’s fine to marry a non-believer. What may look like a little change in policy has enormous importance for human history.

We began our history in this country with three pseudo-species: white, black, and Indian. (By the way, the native tribes did not understand themselves as one people.) We removed the “Indian” from competition for resources by segregating them in reservations (either by agreement or by force). People of African descent were forced into their own niche of slavery. All this was charged with the biological force of competitive exclusion. Maybe you’ve heard about the old, weird racist laws about how one drop of negro blood defines your race, and how many black men were lynched for even appearing to cross the prohibition against intermarrying. But over time, thank God, we came to see that this biological principle does not apply: we are in fact one species. Intermarriage is legal and even celebrated. Of course, we are still divided over many issues concerning the residual racial inequality.

But I don’t think the main divide in our politics is between black and white Americans. It is between white Americans who are Red or Blue, and it seems to be getting meaner and stronger. And the underlying heat that is bringing that division to a boil comes from this anxiety over white minority status. That’s why some liberals are quick to accuse all conservatives of being “racist,” and some conservatives have been easily persuaded that liberals are communists or Satan-worshipping pedophiles (so they say) who are disloyal or unpatriotic. How we feel about racism and betrayal is really a barometer for how we deal with the anxiety caused by white minority status.

Consider this evidence. In a recent study of political attitudes toward race, respondents were asked this question: “Is it racist for a white person to want to limit immigration in order to maintain the white share of the population?” How people answered is revealing. Among white people who voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016, 73% agreed it was racist. (For those with a postgraduate degree, 91% agreed.) Among Trump voters, 5 % said it was racist. That’s about as stark as it gets. Now here’s what’s really interesting: you might think that minority voters would be quicker than whites to see racism here. Not true. Among minority Clinton voters, 58% agreed it was racist to limit immigration to maintain the white share—much less than 73% or certainly 91%. So white people seem prone to either obsess about racism (more than people of color do) or deny it; that’s because we are all anxious about our status as a majority race.

And look at the yard markers we use here in Granby and elsewhere. This year we saw just a few Biden and Trump signs. What have we seen instead? “Black Lives Matter” vs. I support the Police. And no one has both signs in their yard. With these signs, we are taking sides in response to this looming white minority status: do we embrace it and even become ultra “woke,” or are we worried about losing control or losing “our way of life?”

         It was really helpful for me to step back and see that all this political and cultural turmoil, or much of it, is intelligible. It’s not just that people are becoming crazier. And you can’t blame Donald Trump for it all. The invisible cause is that we are approaching a demographic tipping point, and that is creating anxiety and instability among white Americans.

         But here’s the good news: this tipping point will come and go, and we are going to be fine.  The things our veterans serve for—our American way of life and our constitution—will continue. The American way of life will change gradually as it always has, but it will not end and be replaced by fascism or socialism—which I think are code words for white anxiety. That transition to white minority status in 2045 or so will be like the dreaded Y2K millennial apocalypse, which of course amounted to nothing. Once we cross that actually meaningless threshold, this anxiety will go away. My hope is that even now, once we realize that the shrinking white elephant in the room is really a red herring—how’s that for a mixed metaphor? Let me try again—when we realize that much of our division is coming from a misapplied biological principle, we can go back to having more reasonable and less distorted debates about specific issues and policies. But if not sooner then later, we’re going to be fine.

         In the meantime, people will continue to be much more worked up than they should be. And until 2045 comes, we’ll probably see more fighting among white people who aren’t even sure what they are fighting about. That presents us, the church, with what the New Testament calls a Kairos, which is Greek for a God-given opportunity for the church to help bring sanity and healing to our world.

         And it’s an easy one. Just being the church, gathering in person and facing toward God together, helps cut through all these abstract and vague differences between two opposed “ways of thinking” or philosophies about who America is. When we come together, and sing together (and let’s make the most of it today), and hear each other’s prayer requests, and even share in small talk, we are no longer like that man who realized that half of the people he passes on the way to work think very differently. We are no longer just Red or Blue nobodies passing each other blankly. Instead, we remember our individual humanity, warts and all. And we remain real to one another. That can really help ease our anxiety coming from this intra-white battle which is mostly overblown anyway. I hope you’ll embrace this as a simple mission to bring healing to our divided town.

Relations who espouse Conspiracy Theories? Some great advice….

This op-ed piece has great tips for defusing someone hooked on conspiracy theories. And it rightly counsels compassion!

Conspiracy theories are a spiritual issue, if you were in doubt. It’s not about whether they are true; as the article states, there are some legitimate conspiracies (Watergate, abusive priests, Jeffrey Epstein). But the legitimate ones inevitably unravel and become public. The spiritual problem with conspiracy theories is that people don’t hold them because they are true (the vast majority are false). They hold them because they make the believer feel superior, in the know, enlightened–and allow the believer to feel superior to everyone else.

Conspiracy theories are therefore spiritually and psychologically harmful, even narcissistic. But they are also socially destructive because they create impenetrable barriers between believers and ignorant. The insignia (“Q” or whatever) become markers of who is in and who is in the dark. And those social fractures can easily penetrate into the church. Please use compassion and wisdom to reach out–in person or by phone, not on FB–to someone seduced by a conspiracy theory. But also use care and do not take on more than you can.

October 25: “Love Yourself as Your Neighbor”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 14-18 ; Matthew 22:34-46

         I am ready to dial it back a little this week. My recent sermons have been kind of intense. Someone told me this week, “loving yourself may be the hardest thing to do.” And before that, finding your inner mystic and giving up your ego in union with God is not breezy matter.

         I’m not going to apologize for preaching intense sermons. That’s the tone we find in Scripture, generally. We don’t find much fluff and entertainment. Not many jokes or heart-warming stories. It’s intense. Jesus is intense. Not frightening intense like our thriller movies. Bible-intense includes a lot of joy, but it’s a joy bigger and stronger than the feel-good stories on the Hallmark channel. And it’s a joy that includes mourning and regret, not a happy-go-lucky feeling. Joy and mourning are intense in the Bible because they are held so closely together, especially in Jesus himself, and most of all joy and mourning are united at the very apex of the Gospel, on the cross. The joy, the sorrow, the joy in the sorrow. Is there anything in heaven or earth more intense than the cross?

         Because when God draws nearest to us, and when God unites with us in the very person of Jesus, our flesh and blood humanity pulsates with the intensity of divinity. And when I allow myself to be drawn in to that nakedness before God, which feels like being at once drawn up and drawn down deeper, and I feel that intensity, that’s when I know I’m in the presence of God. If I just look for God’s presence in a vague kinda feel-good vibe, I’m afraid I may be missing God’s presence.

         And isn’t intensity what we crave? Ok, at least in our youth, especially in our teen years? As teens we long for something more intense than quiet nights at home with the family. Naturally. What do you youth go for? Sports are intense. Competition (for grade, or in the arts, or whatever kind) is intense. Risk-taking is intense. Passion and romance is intense. Even drugs are intense.

         We parents don’t know what to do with that: “Why can’t she just stay home and enjoy a quiet evening watching reruns with the family?” (And of course, sometimes that will be a welcome respite from teenage intensity.) But think of it this way, parents: that hankering after intensity is essentially good, because I think it is secretly a longing for God. Because nothing in heaven or earth is more intense than the presence of God, if you know how to find it. All of that other stuff can be ok, or it can be dangerous and destructive. It can have terrible consequences for you and for others. But there’s nothing wrong with longing for something beyond the simple comforts of life. There’s something divine in it.

         But for us post-teens, at least, all that intensity gets exhausting. Even if it is intensity before God. A few weeks’ worth of intense sermons, an intense but good church council meeting last Monday, and a few great but intense visits this week, and I was feeling drained. I couldn’t even start the sermon until Friday.

         But that’s why God lets us step away from the holy mountain, step away from the intense presence of God. We need that. I don’t look to the holy presence of God to relax and feel cozy, nor for a pat on the head. Instead, I know God blesses me to go wind down and relax by letting me be my own creature, letting me have my own space. By enjoying food and maybe a glass of wine. Enjoying a walk in the woods. (Some people say they walk in the woods to find God; not for me. I find God in church and in Scripture and in deep soul searching, but I take a walk in the woods to find myself as a creature among other creatures. There’s nothing intense about trees and moss and a babbling stream. And that’s ok. God doesn’t want us to be exhausted by intensity, nor does God want us to shoulder the cross until it kills us.

         So here we are, quieter than normal. No singing, no touching, just sitting still. I thought a low-intensity sermon would be just the thing. But of course there is intensity literally in the quiet air. We are masked and quiet for a very intense reason, because there may be a dangerous and deadly virus carried on the very air we breathe.

         And likewise when I turned to the lectionary this week and looked for something kind of hum-drum, I ran into love of neighbor. And my first thought was: How delightfully commonplace! How familiar! How comforting! Love your neighbor as yourself, a perfect truism. Yay! be kind. Illustrate with pleasant story. Lesson over.

         Well, yes and no. Nothing is so direct and easy to grasp about what Christian faith is all about than Jesus’ repetition of the two great commandments (he himself is quoting Scripture, he’s not inventing anything new here): “Love the Lord your God with all that you are,” if I can abbreviate, and “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Now I can’t help but briefly note that here Jesus ties in our central duties to love, in two directions, up to God and out to neighbor, to what we’ve been talking about for several weeks: to my self, my identity, my ego, and my self-love. Jesus recognizes here that we have a valid and vital center in our soul, there is a validity to our self or ego; but also that everything we are needs to be bound up with loving God and loving our neighbor. If you are trying to keep your most inward self and anything that is important to you all to yourself, holding it in here [gesture] withdrawn from God and neighbor, then you are missing the essence of the greatest commandments.

         So understanding these commandments, even though they sound basic and simple, goes deep, deep as your soul. There is much to meditate on here, but of course the point is to do them. Don’t naval gaze. Love God and neighbor!

         Not only are these two commandments deep, however, but they are also intense. Jesus gives them in response to his enemies who are trying to catch him and trap him. In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12, which is probably contains the original version of this story, Jesus uses these commandments to disarm his opponent. The challenging Scribe, in Marks’ version, is genuinely impressed by Jesus’ answer. And that’s why no one else dares to challenge Jesus further—they are afraid Jesus will make his enemies into friends.

         But when we go back and look at the origin of the commandment to love your neighbor, found in Leviticus, we really see just how intense it is. First of all, God prefaces it with this call: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. That’s already intense. I thought only God was holy. “Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee.” No, we are to be holy, to be sanctified, same word, or saints, holy ones, because God is holy. Maybe we’ll come back to that next week on All Saints’ Day.

After that impressive preface, God rehearses some of the 10 commandments, and we skipped that part. Now the 10 commandments are mostly about what not to do. Follow the rules, we like to tell our children. We feel like that is manageable, doable, easy peasy. I can avoid killing, stealing, and lying (actually it’s not so easy). But love your neighbor as yourself takes all the commandments about how we treating others and squeezes them into one very concentrated commandment; and it transforms the commands to not do this and not do that, to an open-ended, full-hearted command to do this: to love—as active and outgoing as you can get. And to punctuate the intensity of this commandment, God adds: “I am the Lord.” Got it? You listening?

This is simple but not at all simple. It is familiar but disturbingly intense. Try really doing it this week. Not just waving to the family next door that we call “neighbors,” but loving the ones who will be neglected unless someone really reaches out to them. Like the ones God mentions in Leviticus: the deaf, the blind, the poor, but even the rich and powerful when they become the target of unjust hatred. That takes more than a wave.

And here loving your neighbor doesn’t mean just be nice to them. It means, as we read, “stop profiting off of the blood of your neighbor”—which that could mean a lot of things today. And note this line: “You shall reprove,” that is, correct, admonish, “your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” Loving doesn’t mean live and let live. It means wanting those you meet and have relations with to be their best selves; only in that way will you be your best self. So you have to lovingly tell them they can do better, and solely for their own good, not so you can stick it to them. That’s not easy. But it is intense. And you will find God in it.

October 18: “How to Love Yourself”

Leviticus 26:9-13 ; Romans 8:31-39

[Sung in imitation of Justin Bieber:] “Cause if you like the way you look that much, oh baby you should go and love yourself.”        

Loving yourself should be easy, right? You’ve got to live with yourself. But because we are messy inside, it’s not always so easy. And our inability to rightly love ourselves may lie behind a lot of our problems. So I want to talk about it today. Now, loving yourself might sound like the opposite message I just spent many weeks on: leaving behind your ego in mystical oneness with God. But as you’ll see, they go together quite well.

I remember a friend long ago confiding in me: I’ve been told all my life that God loves me. And I know I’m supposed to love and accept myself. But there are things I’ve done in the past, things I got away with and wasn’t punished for. And there are things I did that I’m not proud of. I may not understand why I did them, but I did them and I can’t forget. And even now—I’m no criminal. I’m not an obviously bad person. But I know what a truly good person looks like. I see some of them here at church. I know I’m not one of them. And I have these thoughts that dart through my head—mean thoughts, petty thoughts, selfish, maybe even violent thoughts. I have fantasies that I don’t want to have, but they’re in my head. And I’ve got this habit I cannot master, I cannot break. I tell myself again and again I won’t do it next time, but then I do. And I kind of hate myself for it. But I don’t let on. I don’t disclose my feelings to anyone. I cover up the discomfort I have in my own skin by masquerading in friendly smiles and busy hands. Or I retreat into indifference. But underneath all that, I don’t know how to love myself, because I know myself too well. Telling me I’m forgiven doesn’t work on me. It doesn’t make me a better person. It doesn’t make me love myself. And it’s hard to love others when I don’t love myself. Love has to come from a fullness within, doesn’t it?

Ok, that wasn’t just one friend speaking a long time ago. IT was a little bit of all of us. The Bible tells us that we are good creatures who do God’s will; but in its capacious wisdom and insight, the Bible also sees us deep down for the sad and broken children of God we are, who don’t know how to love ourselves.

Now we’ve been hearing all our lives that God loves us. God accepts us just as we are. It’s actually hard to find a Scripture that says this. The Prodigal Son does, maybe. Our reading from Romans assures us that “nothing can separate us from God’s love,” but it seems to be talking about threats outside of us—“hardship, distress, persecution, famine…”—not our own inward guilt and shame.

But we’ve made this our message: God loves us no matter what. And that inspires some folk to be able to love themselves. But not everyone. Maybe we need to tweak our message for those folks who hear again and again the God loves you, and still they don’t find the deep-down peace of loving themselves. What about you? Hearing about the love of God that, to quote another bad song, is “soft as an easy chair” may make you feel good temporarily, but has it healed you? Or do you go home after church to the same dismal thoughts? I put that as a question because only you can answer it for yourself. I hope I’m wrong.

If you are not fundamentally at peace with yourself, it can come out in all kinds of bad ways. Maybe you feel the need to boost yourself and show yourself better than other people and even put them down. Maybe you let others put you down and can’t shake it off when they do. Maybe you hold on to hurts and grudges, you nurse them because you need an opponent. Maybe you resent others who think they are more successful or better than you. Or maybe you feel inadequate when you compare yourself to others. If you’re not at peace with yourself, maybe you become more inflexible and insist on your own way. Or maybe you let others push you around and don’t know how to stand up for yourself. Maybe you don’t value yourself enough to do what is good for you, and chaos reigns in your life. Or maybe you clamp tight to maintain control, doing everything you can to hold chaos at bay.

We are complicated and messy. The same lack of self-love, of peace with yourself, can manifest itself in so many contrary ways, depending on everything else that went into us. Sermons aren’t great for addressing this problem, because our challenges and hang-ups are so individual and personal. Counseling is better, and some of you have shared freely with me and I really appreciate it.

But what I can do in a sermon is look at the ideas and assumptions that may be causing us problems. So what is it about our ideas and assumptions that makes the words “God loves you” sometimes ineffective? Powerless? Why do those words often just bounce off of us like a beach ball full of air? They should be sweeping us off our feet; healing us; changing us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Because life is complicated, there are a lot of reasons. For instance, if we hear “God loves us,” but we aren’t loving one another, then those words will sound empty. But at one church I attended, the minister at the passing of the peace told us to greet one another, saying God loves you and so do I. Dare we try that? I won’t, But why do we resist?

So much of our self-love has to do with our parents. Were you raised with a rock-solid love and stability and affection from your parents? If not, there’s so much going on in the world that will make you feel judged and inadequate and not loved. It’s hard to replace the security we should get from early parental love. Again, counseling and therapy can be really helpful.

But is there a general insight I can share with all of you that might help? Here goes. God loves us. What do we mean by love? Do we mean admiration? Liking someone a whole lot? If someone loves me, is it because deep down I am worth it? (I bet Justin Bieber thinks so.) Does it mean I am unmarred by flaws? If so, then if I fail, if I show myself to have flaws, then the one that loves me might not love me anymore.

We expect our parents to love us no matter what. But is that because they look past our flaws, or remain happily ignorant of them? Don’t parents sometimes say, “No matter what happens, you will always be my beautiful baby.” That can be a limit to parental love. As we grow and become more aware of our flaws, it can be hard to share that side of ourselves with our parents. One of those flaws, of course, is a very normal resentment that we carry toward our parents. (We were all teenagers once, right?) Usually it is easiest for both parents and children to pretend that simply isn’t there.

But that leaves a gap between parent and child, an inevitable gap. Sure mom or dad love me, but they don’t know the real me. If love for us means holding on to an image of innocence and purity from my childhood, then it only penetrates so far. Because we carry conflict and trouble deep within our very being. We can never remain innocent and pure. Rooted in our biology are drives to self-assertion and survival and competition; this is part of the fabric of nature. And then there are all these forces of conflict inherent in human society, every human society. (Freud is really insightful about all of this.) There’s a lot built into us that wants to react with anger and violence; we want to assert ourselves at the expense of others; we are going to have uncontrollable thoughts that are disturbing or malicious. We didn’t have these thoughts as babies, although babies are very self-assertive: it’s called crying. We didn’t choose to have aggressive and conflictual impulses. But this is how we are, and it goes all the way down into our deepest selves. And as we mature we become more aware of all of these murky feelings residing in us. Not everything in us is beautiful and good.

But if we think of love as admiration for what is beautiful and good, then we either look deep within and feel we cannot be rightly loved, or we imagine that love must ignore the murky stuff within. And then that love looks superficial. Our parents and friends are good at loving our best selves. But that can leave us feeling deeply alone. Nobody knows the real me.

Maybe it will help if we think differently about love. Love doesn’t mean a blanket approval, or a looking past everything in me that is not beautiful and perfect. It certainly can include celebrating what is beautiful in us. But fundamentally loving each other means something different: simply that we belong to one another. God doesn’t say to us, you are so wonderful, so perfect; don’t ever think there’s anything wrong with you, or that you should change. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” There’s no love like that to be found in the Bible, because that’s not God’s love. Of course we should change. Of course we should be truer to the good in us and leave behind what is false and petty. God’s love is a fire that calls us higher and higher, and that heals us because it changes us.

But fundamentally, God’s love is an unchanging belonging. God declares it to Israel: “I will be your God, you will be my people.” I’m yours, you’re mine. That’s both the fundamental origin of love, as between parent and child, and it is the maturity of love between spouses. That God loves us doesn’t mean we’re so hot or awesome or got straight As. God doesn’t admire us. God simply chose us to belong to God. In our Romans reading, Paul sees election as inherent to God’s love: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” To understand God’s love, we need to get comfortable with being chosen. God instituted this bond, this mutual ownership by which God is ours and we are God’s, and all of this mutual belonging of God and humanity comes to a head in Christ Jesus.

So if you look deep within and don’t like everything you see, or if you can’t keep those murky thoughts at bay when you lie awake at night, and you say, surely I’m unlovable—then how can you be sure of God’s love? You’ll not going to believe me. By your baptism. And if you aren’t yet baptized, you can be sure of God’s love, sure that you belong to God, just because you are here, listening to God’s claim on you as his very own. It’s a done deal and there’s no going back: you belong to God. And no misdeed, no disordered or nasty thought, no bad habit, no pettiness or small mindedness, no shame or resentment weighing you down from the past, no misplaced pride, no hatred you bear for others, is going to break that mutual belonging between you and God. And that, by the way, is the love that frees you from your ego and allows you not just to belong to God but to be God’s own presence and power.

So there you have it: God loves you. But just be aware of something else. God’s love is a belonging love, not a “everything you do is just perfect, don’t ever change” kind of love. Because we belong to God, God will also judge us. When we are ready, God will show us that we are not yet what we need to become, for the same reason: because we belong to God. If you don’t believe me, keep reading in Leviticus 26.

Mysticism final (10/11): “Jesus, the Mantra”

 (Ezra 3:8-13; Romans 10:5-13)

         I have a confession: I never liked this verse in Romans. Everything in Romans before this passage is so profound, and I think backs up what I’ve been saying all along in this series on mysticism: that the essential meaning of placing faith in God is to let go of your ego, and to lodge everything that you are in Christ, and through him, in God. Freed from your ego, your usual entrapment in me and mine, you are able to love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. And this is the mysticism of faith.

But then we get this verse: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s the line that always stuck in my craw. So is the name Jesus now just a password? When we get to heaven, as if arriving at a speakeasy, Peter will slide open the little window and ask, “password?” And if you say Jesus, you’re in. But those in other religions I guess will be excluded. Nothing else about you matters, only whether you know the right name.

My friend Peter told me a story of an evangelical-oriented man who crossed the ocean and rode a bike around the country roads and rice fields of China. And his mission was this: as he rode, he would shout “Jesus,” so people could hear the name. (And therefore have no excuse, I suppose.) If that’s what Paul is talking about, then no thank you.

And how would you reconcile this password-Jesus with the message in so much of the Bible that tells us salvation is all about what you do for others. One of the best passages is what we heard last week from Matthew 25. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” Even if you didn’t know you were doing it for Jesus! I will repeat what I said last week: especially for those of us who live in comfort, who are busy striving for success, who enjoy the respect of many because of our savoir-faire and good manners and white skin, one of the best ways to escape from your ego is to step away from our privilege and stand with the poor and marginalized. It is good for your soul. And we should all be grieving the temporary stop to Lance Humphrey’s ministry, Cathedral in the Light, because of covid concerns. That was our main chance to eat and pray with the kind of people Jesus likes to be with. Let’s pray that the Cathedral ministries can soon come back safely. (And wouldn’t it be nice to share some chicken pie with them?)

So if your daughter or son should decide to go into a career that involves solidarity with those in need and forgoing success to help them, I urge you to give thanks and bless their choice. What does it profit someone if they should gain the whole world but lose their soul? But not all of us can take up such a career, or we haven’t, anyway. And then, all of us grow old and can no longer do as much to help those in need.

And, anyway, if the best spiritual medicine is helping others, why are we wasting time in worship? And prayer? Why do we bother with maintaining this temple? Surely the heart of our life together as a church has something to do with freeing us from our ego so that we can be one with Christ and one with God. So assuming we really want to be free from our ego, how can we make that happen?  

I should be honest. Prayer and meditation techniques are not something I’ve studied in depth. Some of you have found methods of prayer and meditation that work for you; please share them with me.

But I’ve learned a few things. Less is more. Repeating something simple is a good technique, one used in many religions. Take a favorite verse from the Bible, and just repeat it slowly out loud, with pauses in between, over and over again. Or try what is called the “Jesus prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is an ancient prayer from the Eastern church. But let’s just try repeating that a few times. …

Our minds need something focused and powerful to throw us out of our normal self-centered patterns of thought. You don’t have to grovel in shame. The tag, “a sinner,” was added later; you can omit that if you like. You could swap it for, “your beloved.” Whatever takes you out of this [being turned in] and gets you flowing out. Whatever takes you out of your usual self-doubts, anxieties, resentments—you know it’s working when you stop feeling all that.

Here’s another tip: use your senses. I think psychedelic drugs bring about mystical states in part because they intensify our sense perception. Ordinary things suddenly seem extraordinary. So, don’t do the drugs. But use something sensual as a focus. Hold a cross in your hand, recall the crucifixion for what it was. And then repeat something like Galatians 2:19: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Spend five minutes each day repeating that and see what happens.

Do it every day, same time, same place. Ritual is good. We congregationalists have a bias against ritual and sensual objects—that’s Catholic, we think. No, it’s every religion that ever existed until Protestants decided you are supposed to find God simply by sitting still and not falling asleep. Nonsense. Use the water of baptism. Use food, and make every time you eat bread and take the cup into communion. But by all means use the cross, which we rightly hold as the primary symbol of God’s self-giving and our own losing ourselves in God.

Because the cross brings us before the reality of death. If our society were able, we would deny death altogether, because it’s such a downer; it’s so bad for business. We can hardly face up to covid. We would very much like to believe that I and my projects and choices are of permanent importance. And so the centrality of the ego becomes unshakable. All that matters in life is what I make of myself, what I can accomplish.

The way we invest everything in our achievements is being writ large right now in politics, of course. Everything, supposedly, is hanging on this election. The future of the whole world depends on my party winning. The glory of having so much at stake seems to thrill us, but then it’s really disempowering too, because there’s not much I as an individual can do about it. I get my one vote. Well, is your one vote and all your projects and achievements really enough to find meaning in life?

It is tough medicine, but at some point we must face the reality that everything we know and do, everything we control and that controls us, is mortal. It perishes. We will be forgotten. I have only a vague sense of who my great-grandparents were. I don’t expect to fare any better. This ego that I’ve put so much time and energy into building up and winning attention for, it will cease. So will the organizations and institutions I care about. This building will not stand forever. What would you experience, I wonder, if you were to meditate on the “falling steeples” that we sung about earlier? Our highly-functioning American democracy is a blessing of creation for which so many labored and died, but it will not last forever. It’s impermanence feels more real than ever before.

The point isn’t to give up on who you are and your work, nor on this country, and certainly not on the church that we currently are. But there is an undeniable truth to this meditation. And if that truth can help us let go of a false attachment to me and mine, as if these are what will save me, these are forever—then this kind of meditation can be very powerful.

The goal is not to realize that nothing matters, nothing endures. Now, I can’t speak for what will happen a billion years from today. But let’s return for a moment to the name Jesus. It’s not a magical name, a password to heaven. Jesus is an ordinary name. But Jesus the Christ stands for one person who showed for all time what it looks like to be united to the eternal God, here and now in the flesh. And that shape of being united with God became the basis for a people, an organization, a community, a tradition, that is the largest religious body in the world, larger than any other nation. That’s the church. (It’s very flawed, don’t get me wrong. And I’m not saying that the size of the church is proof of its greatness.) Who else can you name that has so attained, especially by giving up himself to rejection and death, such a union with the eternal? And this name, and the individual it stands for, and everything he showed us and stands for, is ours to confess. This name that has endured even death is right here, on your lips. To confess that Jesus is Lord just means my ego, my identity, is lodged in this other name. Not in my own. And believe it or not, that’s really liberating. I can honestly say I have no desire to be Bill Wright for all eternity. I’m pretty tired of me already. I’m still very attached to my loved ones and to all of you. But I’m about ready to give up me. Which doesn’t mean nothing matters, nothing is left. It means my whole little being can do nothing better than speak of the glory of the name Jesus.

I’ve even started wondering recently how important my mystical experience is. I still think it’s something for you to strive after, something that can press you further in your spiritual journey. But what is better for getting over yourself than confessing with your lips and believing with your heart that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead? Amen.