Fourth in Easter (4/22): “Feasting on Creation”

This was one of those sermons that I tried to do too much with. (Maybe if I hadn’t been sidetracked in previous weeks from my original intention, I wouldn’t have tried to pack so much in this week.) Here’s what I was trying to do under the theme of “feasting”:

  1. Show how grace frees us from anxiety so we can just enjoy our life (under basic constraints of justice)
  2. Have some fun mocking “par-tay” culture. This part received a lot of attention, but was probably the least important. Still, even though the party days are probably past for most in our congregation, I think it is important for the church to name the really obvious problems in our secular culture, to take some responsibility for them, and to see how our faith offers a way forward.
  3. Show how the feast gives us a way to balance the responsibilities of Earth Day with the enjoyment of creation.

Yes, that’s a lot. And I threw in a quick theory of sacrifice in the midst, and some reflections on the ethics of eating meat. I did it all, and kept it under 15 minutes.  But I don’t blame anyone for feeling a little lost. 

Call to Worship: Isaiah 25:6-9

Leviticus 17:1-7; Luke 24:36b – 53

According to tradition, Easter is a seven-week feast, the longest and greatest feast of the Christian year, well exceeding the 5 ½ weeks of fasting at Lent. But we hardly use the word “feast” anymore, although we sometimes use its cognate, “festival.” A concept more familiar to us is a “party.” So we might say Easter is a seven-week party, but later I want to contrast our Easter feast to our popular idea of partying.

Call it feasting or partying, Christians have often been bad at it. When you think of our Puritan ancestors, you probably don’t imagine people who could rock a great a party. (Thanksgiving being a kind of exception, I guess.) Too bad. Our liturgical calendar has cleared us this nice big space to feast, the space between Easter and Pentecost; and this is based on the account in Luke and Acts (and only there), in which 50 days separated Christ’s rising from the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples. What were the disciples doing during those 50 days? Luke says, “They worshipped him, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” Sounds like they were feasting—joyfully spending their time together celebrating the risen Christ, before the Spirit came and set them to the work of the Kingdom of God.

I think we get the idea of work. But sometimes Christians don’t know what to do with 50 days of feasting, 50 days of worshipping and being continually in the temple, blessing God. ‘That’s a lot of temple time.’ We sometimes make sense of worship and fellowship by seeing their purpose as inspiring us to do good works. Now, good works are essential. But the works that too many Christians devoted so much effort to, both in the past and some still in the present, involved enforcing narrow-minded moral discipline and self-control. No wonder we don’t know how to feast. Christians have often seen all manners of the enjoyment of life as occasions for sin—things like dancing, eating and drinking, playing games, and good heavens, sex. The church spent so much energy wagging its finger and warning people about gluttony and lust. I am amazed that so many evangelical colleges still outlaw dancing. Like I said two weeks ago, we white Protestants need help on dancing, not rules against it.

The austere, prudish priest or minister trying to wring all the fun out of life sounds comic to us today, but he has left a tragic wake. Because over the centuries, quite understandably, people became convinced that if you wanted to have fun, were looking for good times, or sought just to enjoy the beauty of life, you had to turn away from the church and look elsewhere. We could have all along been nourishing a sense of feasting and enjoyment that brings joy and uplift to the duties of life, but instead we seemed to preach that God doesn’t want us to enjoy life at all.

And from this tragic mistake, I think, was born the secular party culture of today. Separated from the church’s holistic way of sanctifying life, partying becomes an end in itself, a kind of escape from life’s drudgeries and commitments. Looking for that killer party, that awesome high, that mind-blowing hookup, becomes a kind of mere sport, a quest for fun that is the antithesis of work and responsibility. And so students go to college under the pretense of seeking out this great learning experience, but all some really want to do is party. Why do we even have such things as “party schools?” (Thank goodness our five colleges don’t fit that description.) What a waste of a great opportunity for growth.

The secular party culture is summed up in a single word: “par-tay.” (Doesn’t that just capture the attitude perfectly?) We’ve put an extraordinary amount of cultural effort into creating the ultimate par-tay—the trance-like music, the great variety of alcohol and drugs, the art of seduction and the showy clothes, the gyms where you get your bod, the plastic surgery where that fails—lots of effort. Of course, the best par-tay is an exclusive one, where you can feel affirmed as a real some-body by thinking of all the nobodies who weren’t invited. Such exclusivity is based on an undisguised disdain for others. By contrast, a real feast, if the church knew how to throw one, welcomes all. The world needs the alternative to the par-tay that we can offer.

I find something so depressing about par-tay culture, which I have witnessed not in Granby but on college campuses and in big cities. Sometimes there’s a desperate, vain air to the whole thing. It’s amazing how alone you can feel amidst of all that revelry, perhaps because the par-tay is not really about creating and sustaining community. Not surprisingly, lurking behind all the smiles and high-fives of the party scene is a gloomy and violent underbelly. We’ve often seen festivity so easily turns violent when the hometown team wins the Superbowl. Or how the party game of seduction so quickly ends in sexual assault. It seems that the par-tay just gives a long leash to the disturbing elements in especially male behavior; and women have to play along by trying gingerly to court male attention while avoiding its threats and dangers.

I mostly got over par-tay culture early; indeed, I started too young. My 15 year old crowd was pretty wild, and I was on the make for easy and unfettered access to alcohol (wine coolers—yuk!). When I finally scored all I could drink, I passed out alone, and vomited without waking up, lying on my back. It only dimly occurred to me at the time that I could have died. At 15. For that. Death by par-tay. / I could have been lumped together with all the hazing deaths and the ineradicable memories of sexual trauma. By the time I got to college, I was having nothing to do with fraternities. I denounced them in the school newspaper; and I still have an invitation to the “We love Bill Wright party” that Phi Kappa Sigma threw in mockery. In truth, I was a bit of a prude and kill-joy, repeating the same mistakes that the church historically made.

Later, in seminary of all places, I began to recover a healthy enjoyment for a well-done party. (Yale Divinity had a weekly party called the “Fatted Café”—a clever nod to the big feast that lies at the center of the beloved parable of the Prodigal son.) I loosened up on my moralism, to a healthy degree, and learned to love the good food and drink of creation, shared among caring and fun friends, usually including some really great conversation about theology. I think it makes a big difference, the difference between a feast and a par-tay, if there is some kind of spiritual depth underlying your friendships. Never party with people you don’t trust and who don’t care about you.

The church needs to renounce the par-tay, whose motto is “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And owning up to our responsibility for that culture, we need to really celebrate the feast, which binds us joyfully and more deeply into a community of caring, a community of justice. We need to appreciate the feast that we have in worship. We need to be willing to spend a little (I know we’re in a budget crunch) on tasty, well-raised food, supporting our local farmers if possible. We should include alcohol where appropriate, being very mindful of those still recovering from the aftermath of the par-tay.

Jesus understood the feast. He was asked why his disciples didn’t fast like John the Baptist’s, and he said: “The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” Being in the presence of Jesus was like a wedding party. He knew how to celebrate the glorious presence of the kingdom in our midst, whenever it happens by the grace of God. And that is what our seven weeks of Easter are for.

We tend to think of religion as all about fasting and duty and sacrifice and giving up things for God. But going back to ancient Israel, the feast is built-in to the sacrifice. It was a very different religion back then; much of it centered on the sacrifice of animals or grain on a fire at the altar of God, as Leviticus describes. This could have been to appease God, sometimes—and the whole animal might be burned. But our reading describes the sacrifice of well-being, in which people brought their animal to the priests, who would slaughter it. The priest dashes the blood on the altar. Sounds odd, but I see the blood as representing the tragedy of taking life to support our own life; rather than hiding from that tragedy or denying it, the Israelites confronted the blood head on and turned it over to God to deal with. The fat was placed on the fire to God, perhaps because it burned nicely, becoming a symbol of sharing the enjoyment of creation with God. And then the people would share the meat with each other and with the priests.

Feasting on meat was a rarity in those days. To slaughter the fatted calf was a very special occasion. In our opulence, we’ve come to expect meat every day, pre-slaughtered and even packaged to heat-and-serve. By contrast, the Bible respects meat as a rarity, something delicious but precious; something celebrating life but involving blood. Eating meat brings us face-to-face (or face-to-snout) with the mystery that all life is not only interdependent but also often comes at the expense of other life. (Read Genesis 1 carefully and you’ll see that God’s original plan as described there was for all creatures and human beings to live off of fruit, not even killing a plant for food.) Our Leviticus reading basically says this: If you are slaughtering meat for your own belly, you are simply shedding blood. You should bring that act of slaughter into your religious life and relationship with God, which will help you deal with the moral ambiguity of taking life to support your own life. We tend to dismiss animal sacrifice as barbaric; but perhaps our own tidied-up, high-output meat industry is the more barbaric way. I try to say a special prayer when I eat meat, remembering the life that went into it, including those who grew and butchered my meat; and I try to make it rare (infrequent, that is).

This Leviticus religion based on animal sacrifice passes out of existence shortly after the time of Jesus. But the early Christians saw Jesus’ death on the cross as the end of all sacrifice—perfecting sacrifice so that no others would ever be needed. (If you are curious, and patient, read the Book of Hebrews.) In short, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross assures us that we are permanently reconciled to God. It assures us, on one hand, that God is loving and not angry with us; and also that by making ourselves sharers in Jesus’ faithful humanity, we are made beautiful and holy before God. This is why we have peace of mind before God, which is exactly what animal sacrifices were supposed to bring.

Peace of mind means you can stop fretting and worrying about something. You don’t get peace of mind by just hiding away the tragedies of life, by concealing the blood, keeping it out of sight. We still have to face our problems. We are still very flawed human beings in a flawed world, living amid great moral ambiguities. But by dashing those moral ambiguities on the altar of Christ, we have a way of lifting the worry about them from us, without pretending they don’t exist. Christ holds them for us, giving us the space to feast and enjoy, and refocusing our gratitude toward Christ. We don’t have to feast under the slogan, “For tomorrow we die.” No, in Christ we “seize the day” while holding on to tomorrow as a time for working in hope toward the good.

In the end, the feast is different from the par-tay because the feast comes in a season within a sanctified whole of life. Our liturgical year gives us seasons for feasts and seasons for fasts; it’s not just do whatever you like whenever you feel like it. We are bound to these rhythms of the liturgical year within this community, a world-wide, boundless, open community. We enjoy a common rhythm to our life, and at the center of that rhythm is our shared union with Christ, with his death and with his risen life.

On this Earth Day, we need to know how to honor the feast alongside of seasons of fasting and responsibility, indeed the potentially overwhelming responsibility of saving the planet. Left to our own devices, we might either say, “Screw it, I can’t do anything to save the planet from ecological destruction. I might as well take what I can and enjoy.” For tomorrow I die. Or we might be so anxious about the problems of our planet and so burdened with a sense of personal responsibility that we would never be able to just relax and enjoy the pleasures of the earth. Well, God has made us a path through these hopeless extremes. By Christ, God has given us a way to be released from anxiety, to trust that God’s will for the world has already been accomplished. In Christ, God has given us back our personal, human life which we can enjoy; God has given us a taste for enjoyment that respects and lifts up all the life around us. But God has also assured us that we can participate in Jesus’ restoration of all things. When the Spirit comes upon us, we also shall become agents of salvation of the world. Not because we have to, not out of anxiety; but because we’ve finally understood that loving service is all that really matters, is the very essence of God.

Finally, and briefly, the scene in Luke of Jesus appearing to his disciples is odd, and unique to Luke. Why does Jesus ask for some fish? (Meat, no less.) In light of all we’ve said, I think he’s reminding them of the feasts they had together, and that all of that has not been erased by his death. And so his disciples go boldly out into the world, filled with joy, and awaiting the promised coming of the Spirit from on high.

 

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Third in Easter (4/15): “Opinions on the Incomprehensible”

I received a few positive comments on this. One person told me afterward, “Now I’m more confused than ever!” I facetiously said, “Good!” But now I regret saying that. But we had a nice continuation of some of these themes in our first Adult (Re-)Confirmation class.

Genesis 32:24-30; 1 John 3:1-7

I’m having trouble getting this series started, this series that no one understands yet, maybe including me, because I haven’t yet explained what it means to be between Christ’s rising and the Spirit’s holiness. Last week I got sidetracked, a good sidetrack, reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. This week I was supposed to talk about how creation and our enjoyment of creation are freed by Christ’s resurrection. Looks like that will be shunted to next week—but hey, that’s Earth Day, a perfect day to talk about creation. Providence, anyone?

For today’s sermon I needed to process some of the great conversations we’ve been having as a church—one last Sunday in Church Council, another the week before in Missions—about who we are as a church, and who we want to become—and by the way, anyone can come to these meetings. At Church Council we had what might be a little breakthrough about our church: we are welcoming and open and non-dogmatic, but we can still stand for something, and believe in something; we can still have a direction as a church, still be rising higher towards a shared faith in God through Christ. So today will be another sidetrack, but believe it or not, it fits right into the space between Christ’s rising and the Spirit’s holiness, and should help you figure out how you fit into that space, and the space of this church.

Let’s begin with the first part of that breakthrough. We want to continue to be an open place, more open than the churches some of you chose to avoid or had to flee because you felt like God’s grace was being restricted by closed communion practices; or narrow, dogmatic teachings; or to put it bluntly, homophobia. We don’t want to be a church that says, you have to have just these political views, or you have to have this or that understanding of the Bible or Jesus Christ or God to belong here. Above all, we don’t want people to have to fake it! We want people to feel encouraged to express honest differences of views, and doubts, and questions. Because if you can’t be honest before God, whom can you be honest with? So we don’t want anybody pretending to believe this or that, nor do we want anybody to hide his or her true self behind a prejudiced view of what’s normal. That’s not who we are.

And the world, God’s world, needs us to be a place where people who have traditionally been told that there’s no place in God’s Kingdom for you—the doubters, the free thinkers, but also in particular people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered—that God’s kingdom is precisely for you, right alongside the rest of us who celebrate our loving relationships as a gift from God, and who are also full of doubts and questions about the mysteries of our faith. We are going to continue to own up to that righteous UCC slogan: Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. /

But then what. It’s nice to be welcomed. What next? I imagine some people asking, is that all you got? Am I just here to feel welcomed, comfortable, relaxed? But before I say, no, there’s more; let’s dwell for a minute on welcoming. It can take a long time to really feel welcomed, depending on what you’ve been through, and what you continue to hear from those who are not welcoming. You might be receiving daily reminders that you are not a part of the “normal” crowd. You might be carrying a lot of invisible burdens that will take you some time to lay down, before you can really relax and feel comfortable in this church. You might have some concrete needs that we can help you with, beyond just being welcomed. And it might take time for you to realize that we welcome you not because we happen to be friendly, live-and-let live types; we welcome you because hospitality is God’s justice. We welcome you because God welcomed us. I’m not sure we all realize that that’s why we are so welcoming. But the real reason has everything to do with God, and even more with Jesus, who did not receive a proper welcome from the world. Welcoming in the name of the Lord is deep and slow. It is nothing you want to rush through to get to the next thing.

The Good News is that we are all welcomed. But we just came through Lent. So we know there is more to church than just being welcomed. Do you remember Jesus’ basic message in Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near; [next word?] Repent, and believe in the good news.” We are here to be welcomed by God, joined together into this coming Kingdom of God, and to be transformed into the humanity that God foresaw as the new life in Christ. It’s the same in our reading from First John: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (Good News.) But it goes on: “When [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” We are welcomed as children, but with a hope that makes us purify ourselves—and that’s exactly what repentance is.

We are not called “children of God” just to say, you do your thing, and I’ll do mine. We are here to be God’s family, depending on one another, loving one another, supporting one another—like when a spouse unexpected dies—and also inspiring one another to heal, to be better, provoking one another toward growth in God, holding each other accountable. That’s why we confess our sins and repent together. We repent and turn to God together, because the closer we draw to God, the more we can be truly one with each other.

Now, throughout its 2000 years the church has always understood that we are called to be one. Jesus said it himself: “The glory that you [God] have given me, I have given them, that they may be one, as we are one.” Becoming and being one is hard work, and it’s never perfect. First John again: “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The unity of heart and mind to which we are called in Christ is not yet revealed, we aren’t there yet. Our hope for it is going to be frustrated until something like a second coming of Christ happens.

And so what has the church historically done? Our leaders did what we desperate leaders typically do: threaten, frighten, and intimidate people into being unified. And while we were at it, we tried to make ourselves feel more unified by putting down all those non-Christians out there, all those so-called deviants, who are not part of us. In all this, we betrayed the way of the cross and of love, and became just another organization that uses power without principle.

Having witnessed the church over centuries violate its own principles, many of you have very understandably said, “I don’t want any part of that. Let’s get away from enforcing any kind of unified belief.” And so, I’ve heard some say things like, “faith is a purely individual thing.” “My beliefs are mine alone, you can believe whatever you want.” “If someone doesn’t want to be baptized, that’s his business.” “I don’t get my beliefs from church, I decide those in private.” “Church isn’t about changing your ideas.”

What’s right in these comments is that you have to make faith your own. Faith isn’t a pill that you just swallow. You have to wrestle with it, like Jacob. You have to test the faith passed on to you by the Bible, the church, and me, and let yourself be tested and maybe wounded by that faith. Only then will you understand it for yourself. But faith isn’t something you can just make up for yourself, nor can you keep it to yourself once you’ve found it. Since the church is called to be one, we have to constantly be endeavoring to move from my faith to our faith.

And I’m going to go out on a limb and say, you probably could use some help figuring out your own faith. Maybe you’ve read much or all of the Bible; can you make sense of the Bible, not just your favorite verses but how the whole Bible makes sense (or why it doesn’t)? Can you explain to your children or your friends or yourself why we baptize, and what baptism means? Why we eat bread and juice that we are told has something to do with the body and blood of Jesus? Why every Sunday we sing, like the church has done for millennia, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost? (Isn’t that the Trinity?)

I wouldn’t put on this robe and stand up here on this intimidatingly high pulpit—which yes, makes me uncomfortable—if I didn’t think that I can help you answer these questions—if I didn’t believe that my 12 years of formal study in theology (way more than your trusted doctor or lawyer did, by the way) didn’t give me some competence to answer these questions, and others too. Although it is unfashionable, I believe everyone needs lifelong education, and that requires people with expertise—both to have an effective democracy, as Thomas Jefferson said, but also to grow in Christ. When I stand up here according to my sacred duty to interpret Scripture, and “to exercise the privilege of teacher and counselor in public and in private,” as our bylaws put it, I am not just giving you my opinion, my two cents. First of all, I’m not preaching for me, I’m thinking of you (I’m trying to) and what you need to be sustained and illumined in your faith for your everyday life. It has to be useful to you. And you understand that.

But being useful to you is not the only thing that matters. We are gathered as the church, the one church universal, however badly divided it is. What I preach has to be true to God as revealed in the Bible and interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in the church. So I have to know the Bible, sure, but also understand the great insights from our 2000 year-old church—and the mistakes. But I also have to understand the world today, and evaluate the good and bad that each of us has received from our culture. Because we’ve all been thoroughly shaped by modern culture, and we shouldn’t assume that this has made us all more godly. It’s my job to test all of the contemporary secular attitudes and ideas we are receiving, test them against the Gospel. All of this makes preaching a huge and nearly impossible task. I don’t expect you to be able to do it, or to have a well-formed opinion on this complicated matter. But I hope you respect me for trying, for seeking out the true voice of God amid all the clutter in our minds and the chatter in the air. And I expect you’ll be interested in, but not necessarily agree with, what I find. We cannot be well-formed Christians, I think, without investigating how we’ve been shaped by everything in our world that is not the gospel. And that can be a painful liberation, a difficult night of wrestling.

But the part of preaching that is good and beautiful and not painful at all is sharing the Gospel that is our inheritance, the beautiful, rational, insightful, profoundly true gift we have from God. More than anything, I want you to let me bring this gift to you. You have not yet received it all. I can say with all confidence that you don’t yet understand the whole of the Gospel. Each of us understands something of it, and each of us is already living it out in part. Each of us has received a foretaste of the gospel, like the taste of bread and juice we receive in communion; but we should come to church aching in hunger for the great banquet that is a full faith in the Gospel, and living by it. And none of us has that yet, including me.

But perhaps what most qualifies me to preach is that I have attained a good deal of clarity about why the Gospel remains beyond my complete grasp. It’s because the Gospel, like everything else at the heart of who we are here in church—baptism, communion, and even our fellowship in Christ—is really about the One, true, Holy God who is infinite and beyond comprehension—you can never wrap your mind around God. If anyone says he can, he’s making God into a human-sized idol. Even when God is revealed in the Gospel and communicated to us in baptism and communion, God doesn’t stop being incomprehensible. Indeed, we only then begin to properly understand the mystery of God. This mysterious God has reached out to us and shown us enough divinity, above all in Christ, so that we can pray, and love, and do good works, and sing and worship. We do all this by faith. It’s not faith because its private opinion, and your guess is as good as mine. It’s faith because we have found a way to live and live well in the presence of the incomprehensible God, this fathomless mystery at the heart of everything. Our small, finite lives actually amount to something and take on value just because they are brought near to the vast, infinite God. This is not a given. The Bible affirms that encountering God in the wrong, unfaithful way can destroy you. (Look at what some do in the name of God!) That’s why Jacob says, after wrestling all night with God, apparently, and winning—now there’s a mystery!—“I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” That’s faith. And at the center of our faith is Christ Jesus, whose life was not preserved, whose oneness with the incomprehensible God brought him to a death even he did not understand, crying from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” We do everything in church by faith in this cross, where we meet the incomprehensible God and in baptism, we too die, along with all our opinions, and yet our life is preserved in a wholly incomprehensible way in the new life of this risen Christ.

I don’t expect you to wrestle all night with the incomprehensible God. That’s my job, I guess. And I actually enjoy it, go figure. You don’t need to do that in order to be a full part of what we are doing as a church; the Holy Spirit is at work in what we do as a church, and everyone is included in that. But when you are ready, and some of us will begin today after church, I’ll invite you to partake in the gorgeous banquet that is our bottomless faith, set out between the risen Christ and the Spirit’s holiness at work in our church. And maybe next week I’ll really get started with this series.

 

Questions for further thought:

 

Do you think of matters of faith as private opinion? Should we have a stronger “teaching office,” a stronger sense of teaching authority? Then how do we preserve freedom of conscience?

 

Do you think that having a weak sense of teaching authority has weakened us as a church? How so, or how not?

 

Would it make sense to think of learning to share a common faith and belief as part of the Holy Spirit’s work to make us unified?

Second in Easter (4/8): “Breathing Easy”

This sermon, by the same title, was originally supposed to be about the freedom to be creation that is the first dimension of the Easter message.  Instead, it turned out to be a reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in parallel with the question about how to live in the wake of the self-sacrifice of Christ.  And in the middle I got into a reflection on the constraints I realized I carry as a white person, the ‘shadow side’ of white supremacy, one might say.  Now, I wasn’t very confident that all of that held together well in under 15 minutes.  But I had a number of compliments on this sermon. 

That leaves me wondering: what made this a good sermon (for some)?  Was it beginning with a dramatic, contemporary story (a device I know works well, but I rarely use)? Was it my use of personal narrative and experience? Was it perhaps the surprising reflections on whiteness that made people see their own experience in a new light?  I didn’t think the humor got as many laughs as I had hoped. Since I think this sermon had some problems working against it, I’m curious why people think it was good despite all that. Please comment! 

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-23

As Christians, we live in the wake of a martyr, one who died in our place. How do you honor someone who died for you?

A few weeks ago, a French policeman named Arnaud Beltrame, found himself summoned to a lone terrorist hostage situation. He voluntarily took the place of the woman who was held hostage. When he tried to disarm the criminal, he was shot and killed. French President Macron put what he did this way: “To accept to die so the innocent may live.” What would you do if you were that woman whose place Arnaud Beltrame took? Think about that for a minute. Would you feel burdened by a debt you could never pay back? Or would you feel that you suddenly had a new lease on life?

This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Without taking anything away from the already monumental sacrifice of Arnaud Beltrame, I think King’s sacrifice brings us a step closer to Jesus. For he did not just “accept to die so that the innocent may live,” as was said about Beltrame. Now, he was pretty sure he was going to die. By 1968, he had been receiving death threats for a decade at least. But King’s speeches in the last days of his life, one of which is captured in our bulletin cover, seem to contain a haunting premonition of his death. It’s the same haunting premonition you hear in the Bible’s stories about the Last Supper.

But also like Jesus, King didn’t die only for the innocent. He certainly died so that African Americans and others—poor people, civilians in Vietnam as well as American soldiers involved in wars that were not absolutely necessary—would be liberated from injustice. But he also died for white America, for privileged America (and that’s me, I don’t know about you), so that we would be freed from our tacit complicity with an unjust system of laws, economic benefits, housing restrictions, educational inequality, and the rest—an unfair system, and God doesn’t want us tied to an unjust system. Now there were activists who were willing to see white people as the enemy, and from where they stood I can hardly blame them; but King was a Christian man, above all a minister and theologian. And he knew that God’s plan in Jesus was for justice that includes reconciliation with one’s enemies, not revenge against them. So let’s not wrongly narrow his legacy: oh, he died for black people. No, this black man was harassed and jailed and died for white people. And so we thank God for what Martin Luther King did for them, but for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying: Oh us poor white people. We suffered so badly being stuck on the lonely top of Mount Segregation. Of course not; we enjoyed plenty of benefits relative to people of color, and continue to do so. Sure, white people face all kinds of real challenges and suffering. (I haven’t frankly, but many of you have—addictions, domestic violence, and just the sadness and tragedies that inevitably accompany all human beings.) But think of it this way: if you could enter a lottery to be born in America, would you buy the ticket that has you being born as black, or as white? Who would choose to be born black instead of white in America today?

Not me. I recognize that it’s easier and safer to be born white. And of course, because we are called by God to justice, we have no choice but to desire to give up unjust privileges. Just as Jesus opened up the privilege of being God’s people to the Gentiles—and that’s us—so white Christians should desire to open up our privileges to all.

Now we can try to ignore God’s call, and try to live in ignorance of what is unfair. But because God creates us, injustice eats away at our souls. Benefiting from an unjust system does harm us. Don’t think that your humanity has not been constrained and even deformed by being white. It has nothing to do with race or biology. White flesh is created as good by God as any other. But this flesh has become deformed by being on the wrong side of justice. For instance, people from various European cultures used to enjoy a sense of belonging to a people, to one of many rich and meaningful cultures. They enjoyed belonging to a shared way of life in whatever little corner of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, whatever—where they lived. They did not think of themselves as all blandly “white;” the fact that we now do shows us how much we’ve lost. Now today we have technology, and a lot more wealth, and a good share of moral and humanistic enlightenment. But how many of us today have a people? We’ve got maybe a nuclear family, or maybe just ourselves. We’ve practically forgotten how to live in community; it can seem to us like just a burden on our busy, self-directed lives. Somewhere deep in us we still long to be a people; we diligently do genealogies to connect us to a people that has been lost in a sea of whiteness. We long to be able to loose ourselves in a festival of dancing on the streets, like you see in Brazil during carnival or Mexico on saints’ days. If we tried to do that on 202, it wouldn’t be the same. Let’s admit that St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t cut it; it’s just an excuse to booze it up.  We can try to find peoplehood in our American identity, but we’re now so divided that we end up writing off half of ‘our people’ as not true Americans. Our whiteness brought us many benefits, usually at the expense of others; but it took away our ability to have a people, leaving us to be lonely self-achievers.

Growing up I longed to have a people, though I didn’t understand this longing. So I found myself suddenly attracted to Chinese culture, because it seemed to offer such a deep and ancient tradition. (Full disclosure: this all began with watching Kung Fu movies—there’s your ancient Chinese tradition.) I grew out of that, although I studied Chinese and learned to respect Chinese culture. But early on I had also found myself so attracted to churches in the African American tradition. When I finally joined 12th Street Christian Church in Washington DC at the age of 31, it was a revelation. This was a real people of God, with a distinct way of singing, of preaching, of moving, and even of sharing humor—and at the center of this tight culture was God, the God of justice, the same God that had carried this people out of slavery. That deep gratitude to God for taking our side when the world was against us—or rather, when we were against them, but they never put it that way—that gratitude to God was so palpable and powerful and liberating. My whole body felt different after church—free, and relaxed, and swinging with the pulse of God’s Spirit. I bet you never felt that way coming out of this church.

Indeed, it wasn’t until I spent a few years at 12th Street that I realized how constrained I was as a white person. (And we had a good conversation about that at an Advent Bible study.) Hugging for me always required a real effort. Crying was something that could only be done in private. A deep belly laugh felt unnatural; I preferred a brief chuckle to express my mirth, but better yet was a sly smile. Forget about dancing, o my. And in church, as for many white people, I had learned to sit quietly; you don’t move in church. You sit before God like you would before a stern teacher. We don’t know how to cry out to God, except in private. We don’t know how to ‘get to shouting’—to exclaim, “Thank you Jesus.” Some of you tell me I sing well—God bless you! but then I know a lot of you have hearing problems, so I wonder—but before 12th street my voice was tight and thin. That church freed my voice. It’s that liberating spirit that is why African American music keeps drawing us in, from blues to jazz to mo-town to soul to funk to rap and hip hop, and always gospel music and the spirituals. You know, if I had to enter a lottery to get down and party, I’d take the black ticket over the white one. (Sorry.)

We white folk sometimes have trouble breathing easy; we are constrained. We’re constrained in our celebrating. Constrained in our ability to weep and mourn together. Constrained even in our silence, during which we are often distracted or uncomfortable. Constrained in expressing love to one another. I know my parents loved me, and still do; but it was like they were embarrassed to show love. And kids growing up with this feel these many facets of constraint, and so they start to fantasize about gangs, or the glory of fame, or crime, or violence, or becoming Chinese, or wherever they imagine they might find life that’s more real. Do you know what I’m saying? See, I could ask for an Amen if I were back at 12th street.

Maybe you’ve felt white guilt, but I bet you never thought of white people as impaired. What’s wrong with us? I’ll tell you what. We are afraid to lose control. We are afraid of losing control of our personal space, of our time, of our emotions, and of our precious inner thoughts. So we white folk constrain ourselves, because losing control is the worst thing that can happen to us. And this self-constraint harms us. When we are humble enough to admit this, we can begin to see our internalized constraint as God’s reminding us that no one is free until all are free. It is God’s whisper of justice. No one wins if someone else has to lose.

Now, people at 12th Street Christian church also were hurting; they had plenty of harm to deal with. But no one was there was burdened with that fear of losing control. You see, you aren’t worried about maintaining control if your people never had control in the first place. But we white folk learned to listen to and emulate or at least fear the mostly white men in our lives who were in control—the stern, remote fathers, the business owners, the generals, the statesmen, the people bearing arms, the ministers, the colonialists, the slave owners. We learned from them to fear losing control, and we took that lesson deep into our bodies, so that even our most intimate relationships and our inner selves have been affected.

God showed me that big scale injustice has very intimate repercussions. And God also showed me the way to healing. I learned at 12th Street that there is liberation for us white folk too, just like Dr. King believed in. I felt freed from all that internalized constraint, and in my friendships there I felt genuinely part of God’s whole humanity. God can and does deliver us from our fear of losing control, because the control we had was never a good control to begin with. And many of us have learned that its good to express emotion and to embrace our feelings and our body and our children.

Easter is all about giving up control. The authorities thought they could control Jesus and his disciples with the threat of death, and the cross was designed to lift up that threat and show it off to everybody all around. The cross worked the same way that the burning cross and the lynching tree have been used in America, or people today inscribing swastikas, or internet trolls posting their death threats, or an angry white man putting a bullet into Dr. King. But God showed in Jesus that those who lose control of their lives for God’s sake will find a power of life that even death cannot constrain. And so by God’s transforming power, even that cross now signifies not a controlling threat but the power of life beyond all constraints. That cross gave birth to a people who found joy in serving and loving one another, so that control and constraint no longer reigned in them. We get an almost absurd picture of that in Acts, where the early church is depicted as so much “of one heart and soul” that they had no private possessions.

We probably won’t take things that far, but who knows? For now, we’re still trying to figure out how to live in the wake of a martyr, how to honor someone who died for us. Like Dr. King, Jesus didn’t die so we would be wracked with guilt—although guilt is something white people are good at! Jesus died so we could live, live in the fullness God intended for us; to live free—not as lonely individuals, but as a people. For true freedom is found in being in love with God and with one another. We’re aiming to get there, but we know that they way there lies through the cross, which for us will surely involve taking a good hard look at just how much the legacy of racist control is still haunting our world and our own bodies.

We’ll spend the next seven weeks of Easter marveling at and learning to live by this new life of Easter brought to us by the risen Christ. The disciples were constrained in a way that was the mirror image of white people afraid of losing control. The disciples feared those in power, those who had control. But we can all relate to the feeling of locking yourself in a room. And suddenly Jesus appeared among them and said, “Peace.” He reminded them of his martyrdom, showing his pierced hands and side. And they then realized that this was a martyrdom not constraining them by guilt and debt but liberating them for life, for Jesus would always be with them. “They rejoiced.” And then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He freed them from their constraints and their hiding behind locked doors, for they realized that this fear being used to control them had nothing over God. And Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and they once again breathed easy, even as they faced a hostile world.

In John’s telling, only three sentences separate the appearance of the risen Christ and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Luke and Acts, there are 50 days between these two events (Pentecost comes from Greek for 50th [day]). And we will need all of the remaining 50 days to explore this new life we have between Christ’s rising and the Spirit’s holiness.

 

 

Easter Sunday (April 1): “Resurrected Where?”

Someone told me that this sermon was interesting and well-done, but not the typical feel-good Easter sermon one expects. That seems very fair to me.  I think what I wanted to do was to provide for those occasional church visitors who would consider being more involved, but who find the central message of the resurrection hard to believe, a way to think about Easter that both makes more sense and points to the importance of the current community gathered in Jesus’ name.  That probably wasn’t many folks!  So if that isn’t you, I’d love to know what you got out of it or would have likes.  Click on “comment” on the bottom. 

Scripture: Ephesians 1:17-23 ;Mark 16:1-8

Like any book, the Bible can sometimes be inadvertently funny. Some will think it sacrilegious of me to say so, on Easter morning of all times. But one of my favorites amusing passages is at the famous end of Matthew (on your sermon guide): “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (And this seems to be continuing the story from the end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard.) “When they saw him, they worshipped him. But some doubted.” And I want to say: O come on! What’s the matter with you disciples! The women found the empty tomb, then in Matthew, as we heard the choir read earlier, Jesus appeared to them and says, “Greetings. Go tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where you will see me.” Now, you disciples did that, lo! There he was. And some of you are still doubting!” If only we had it so easy. Did you ever hear the Car Talk guys talk about a dope slap? I know it is not pious to think so, but I want to slap these disciples upside the head—what’s the matter with you?

Here’s the lesson: there is no perfect faith. Even the disciples were doubting with the risen Jesus right in front of them! Why should we expect perfect faith from ourselves? Now, you all have Easter faith. You are here because you love Easter—the joyous triumph of it, expressed in the liturgy and music and the good feeling that rightly animates us all today. But of course, some still doubt. Indeed, who can say, “Oh, I understand the resurrection perfectly!” Jesus was dead, see, but then by God’s power, his body came back to life. Then he walked around and ran into some of his old buddies. And after he got to see everyone he wanted to, he floated up on a cloud to the sky, as Acts tells it, and now he sits at the right hand of God, just like Paul said. / What’s to doubt about that?

What becomes clear from a close reading of all the resurrection accounts is that Scripture is trying to describe something that doesn’t fit any of our normal categories. Sometimes the risen Jesus appears, and his disciples recognize his face and body as their once dead master. He even eats something in front of them, in some stories. But he also walks through walls and doors, in other stories. And he walks with two on the road to Emmaus and they don’t recognize him, and then he disappears just as he’s breaking the bread. What’s up? Now, there is a hard-edged realism to the story of Jesus arrest, crucifixion, and death. It’s equally a terrible and wondrous story, but there’s nothing inconceivable about the events leading up to his death. But the resurrection is not an ordinary event, and no written account of it is going to capture it perfectly. The gospels only gesture at doing so; they don’t even try very hard to present his resurrection in the exact same way.

So indeed, the gospels seem unconcerned with trying to explain exactly what happened. What they want to make clear is the point of it, and don’t miss this: the resurrection assured the disciples, to the point of death-defying courage, that who Jesus was and what he did is forevermore validated by God, so that Jesus by the power of God continues to be who he was, and continues to do what he did while he was with them: in that sense, he is alive forevermore. The disciples experienced this and they knew it to be true; and we too can and do experience this and know it. But when the disciples try to explain how it happened, in story form, things get a little fuzzy.

For most of the past 2000 years, this fuzziness has not been much of a problem. But we modern people like to explain things. It’s an admirable quality in us. We like science, and it has given us a confidence that anything really valuable to know can be explained and understood. Sometimes we are too confident about science. But our refusal to just accept teachings without questioning is a very noble quality.

I wish I had a complete explanation of the resurrection. I wish I were never among those “some still doubted” disciples. But if I’m good for anything at all as your teacher, I should be able to get you maybe half way to understanding what happened at the resurrection.

The gospels give us various stories of the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples. None of the accounts, except the version in Luke and the book of Acts, tries to describe where the body of Jesus went. What happened to the body? Isn’t that what we want to know, if we are curious types? The tomb was empty, they say. Ok; no body there. Don’t you wish we had had a time-lapse camera there in the tomb to record what happened? We can imagine Jesus just waking up at some point, and then getting up an encountering Mary later in the garden, as John’s account tells us. But in many of the stories, his body is no ordinary body, as if a dead body began walking around again. Acts tells us that Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Christ that clearly is like a vision; he sees and hears the risen Jesus speaking to him, while those around him see and hear nothing. In fact, in all the stories, no one who does not believe in him sees the risen Christ. Now, they don’t all believe immediately; but seeing and believing go together. The soldiers don’t see Jesus walking out of the tomb. So I don’t think his body was there for all to be seen, like a normal body. / I have no idea where the physical body went. And in my opinion, neither do the Scriptures, frankly.

But we end up with the phrase, which Paul also uses, “God raised him from the dead and seated him at this right hand in the heavenly places.” It sounds as if God has a literal throne, and Jesus is sitting there to the right of God (never mind the weird fact that Jesus is also God). So then we imagine that Jesus and his body are ‘up there,’ somewhere, in heaven, as if heaven were a place in space. Now we know better than that. And so did Paul, whose language on the whole is never childish but wonderfully mysterious. But the first Christians had to describe this mystery they experienced, and they reached for familiar language. And the Psalms are filled with this phrase, “The right hand of God,” and Psalm 110 has God saying to his chosen one, “Sit at my right hand.” So they used that.

Now this question, what happened to the body, is not just a speculative question. It concerns us personally; it’s about the destiny of our bodies. In the Vigil service this morning, we read from Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” So if we are left with this image of Jesus’ body seated at the right hand of God, hanging out with God as if God had a body, then we are likely to picture ourselves up there, in this place called heaven, hanging out with God and Jesus. And imagining our bodies up there in heaven makes us think that our resurrection will be much like our life now, hanging out with our family and friends. We won’t be on the earth anymore, so we might wonder what we’ll be doing up there, forever. I’ve heard people use the phrase, “dancing down those streets paved with gold,” which is colorful enough.

But lots of earnest people, who rightly don’t settle for explanations that seem implausible, find it hard to believe that there could be bodies hanging out with a bodily God and Jesus somewhere in a space called heaven that does not seem to exist in the space we can observe. They will say to themselves, “Well, if that’s what supposedly happened to Jesus’ body and happens also to our bodies, I just can’t believe it. Our bodies die and decay, I know that. So our spirits must just float away, perhaps existing with God in some spiritual realm, perhaps “going to the light” as some with near death experiences have said. Or perhaps our spirits just dissipate.”

Well, like I said, I don’t have any complete explanation. But before we jump to one of these conclusions—bodies in a place called heaven, or spirits absorbed into the light—we should ask, carefully, Is the Bible saying that Jesus’ body went up to heaven, or even just his spirit, leaving the earth behind to live in some other realm with God? I don’t think so.

Let’s go back to Ephesians. Paul first prays for the Ephesians, and I’m sure he’d pray the same for us, that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…so that you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.” He knows this risen Christ business is not easy to grasp; God willing, it will come as we get to know the God of Christ our Lord better. And this wisdom is going to take time, because Paul is talking about “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s or Christ’s] power for us who believe.” Now this immeasurably great power is not the sinful power that we talked about last week, the power to make others cower before you and do whatever you tell them. God’s power is never the power of sin, or of a weapon. It is good power, the power to give. And a giving power often looks weak by the standards of a power that takes and forces—and crucifies. Paul prays that we can understand this immeasurably good power, which is often ignored in the world.

Then Paul continues: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” This isn’t about the body literally being at God’s right; the right hand of God is God’s good power, God’s power to save. It just means that the power of the Christ is God’s good power, and is above all earthly powers of domination, more real than those false and bad powers, even though they often look very fearsome and impressive. Christ’s power of giving, the power of love, really is above all these false claimants to the throne of the world.

And here’s the kicker: “And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” I told you Paul was not childish, but wonderfully mysterious. You see that here. But he does give us the answer to our question. Where’s the body of the Risen Christ? Did it float up to heaven? No, it’s right here. We are the body. After the tomb was emptied, Jesus only appeared where the disciples were gathered, as the church. We are his resurrected life. Go ahead, take a look around. I admit it, we might not look like “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power,” but we are the community, the social body, that lives by the power of giving, and never by the power of domination. (And of course, this congregation fails to live perfectly and purely by the power of giving all the time, and when we fail, we are not being the church. God is our judge.)   We know very well that we fail and so we need a reminder that who we really are is simply the embodiment of Jesus’ giving. That’s exactly why we need to celebrate communion, so that we remember that what we are as the church is simply is the collective embodiment of that power of giving revealed in Jesus. And in partaking of this giving that is our very food and drink, we, this congregation, are of course not alone but we are part of the boundless and endless communion of the church as the embodiment of God’s power at work.

And that power is also at work everywhere; you can find it in other religions and in ordinary human goodness and in nature and in secular movements and organizations. Jesus Christ is the “head over all things,” right? The only power that really counts throughout all creation. But this power is especially “for the church,” as Paul said. In baptism we die to our own bodies to be risen into Christ’s body, which by the power of God can be here, in our gathered flesh, even while it is everywhere and in all things. The church simply is the embodiment of the power of love—love is our only Lord—or else we face God’s judgment for failing to be what we are. So no, Jesus Christ in his amazing resurrected power is not here alone; yet the church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We are, in the truth of our social body, nothing but this power, and so its fullness.

Now, I’m done with explanations (unless you are joining the adult re-confirmation class, if you like this kind of thing). I’ve probably already killed the spirit of Easter with explanations, but only so that some of you—maybe all of us—might be less distracted by our questions—like, “So what happened to the body?” I’ll leave it to you to reflect on what the resurrection of Christ’s body as the church means for your own resurrection. But now it’s time to go back to the point of Easter: The resurrection assured the disciples, to the point of death-defying courage, that who Jesus was and what he did is forevermore validated by God, so that Jesus by the power of God continues to be who he was, and continues to do what he did among us his body: in that sense, he is alive forevermore. I don’t have anything to add to that. What we should do is sing about it together, and then gather around the table and be the feast of Christ’s body.

 

A Cool Government Office I Never Heard of…

Our Church Council is currently in discernment about whether we want to host a workshop run by Better Angels, a non-partisan non-profit group that works to bring people from across our growing political divisions into constructive dialogue.

Better Angels was cited by Grande Lum in an interview.  He’s the former director of the Community Relations Office under the US Dept. of Justice.  While I’d like to hear other perspectives on this office, it’s an encouraging interview.  Grande Lum on Here & Now

 

Palm & Passion Sunday (Sixth in Lent, 3/25): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Nothing at All?”

Helpful, constructive criticism is often difficult to come by for a preacher.  Thank God I have a wife who is more than capable.  Her view accorded with my own feelings about this sermon, that it was not tight and to the point.  I think the asides (all those parentheses below–like this one!) were just distracting.  And when I thought about them, it seemed I was trying to tie some off-the-cuff comments on contemporary “relevant” events into a rich, complex theological point that I should have just left speak for itself.  And that point is this: at the end of Lent, we must be ready to recognize that Jesus does something for the world that we can never do, regardless of how hard we try to repent–Jesus inaugurates through his faithfulness, and in a way that only someone living at his time could do, a new way of being human before God. 

John 12:12-16;       Philippians 2:5-11

We’ve been asking ourselves this Lent, what must we give up? Some people give up things like chocolate or alcohol for the 40 days, and then enjoy gorging themselves on them come Easter. I’ve done that. It may do some good. It is like a test of will, I suppose. Or it confirms the old adage: absence makes the heart grow fonder. But this kind of giving up has nothing to do with the repentance we are called to during Lent. Recall that Jesus’ message was very simple: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” This repentance, in response to Jesus’ bringing the Kingdom near, is about shedding your sin and adapting the good spirit revealed in Jesus. Now once you shed your sin, you’re not supposed to take it back up again after Easter. So every Lent we should be looking inward for ways we can become a better Christian outward, to God and to others, and these changes we make are supposed to be permanent.

So we talked about giving up our fear of death, and social media, and too much attachment to our religious ideas and spiritual experiences personal, and our sins; none of these are absolutely necessary. But we also remembered the higher life to which we are called, a life like Christ’s, for the whole world. These are all good, permanent changes to make, and there are many more besides.

Now, Lent is almost over. But why stop? Why shouldn’t we repent all year long? (I know that’s what you were secretly hoping for.) Well, it’s exhausting if you do it well; we are creatures with limits of attention.

But more importantly, too much turning inward, like we do at Lent, is not a good thing. It can make you a naval gazer, turned in on yourself. It shouldn’t, but it can fill you with guilt and regret and discouragement. But we are not called to be introspective individuals dolefully dealing with our own issues. No: Because first of all, we are a church, and our most important work as the Body of Christ is that which we do together. But secondly and more importantly, we are more than our work, whether we are working on ourselves or working as a community. Two weeks ago we read in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Remember that? In Lent we have been doing hard work, and really it is God’s work in us, but it’s still work. Now maybe you think that the church is here to promote good works and good values. Yes, absolutely. But today we especially recall that works and values are not at the heart of who we are.

Neither would you want to sum up who your family is by listing all the jobs and chores that you all do. Jessica teaches classes; I run a church; Silas sets the table… Yuk. Even your family’s ethos doesn’t get to the heart. The heart of your family is the celebratory love that unites you all, whether that happens around the dinner table, or during a family vacation, or just play time. And in the midst of that celebration the parents might tell the story about how they fell in love and committed to one another, for that is the very origin of the family’s love. Usually there’s a first move by one spouse—was that so?

So also with this family. Who we are is not just what we do, our work. In fact I’ve been wondering recently whether we should even have a “mission statement.” Mission statements are fine for corporations; they are what they do. There is no celebration of love for its own sake at the heart of a corporation. But at our heart is a celebration of the love that we are. And at Easter, we tell the story of how all that love first began: how Jesus made the first move, and took us as his bride.

So who we are as a church is not what we do, as might be stated in a mission statement; it goes back to who Jesus was and what he did, and even further to who God is and what God did. At our heart is telling this story, and worshipping the God who brought that story to us. Now, when we worship we are doing something, yes, but fundamentally what we are doing is passively acknowledging and thanking and offering praise for what God did in Jesus, and so what Jesus our savior did for us, did in our place, what he did as a substitute for us.

Now I might lose some of you with that language—those who have a hard time conceiving how Jesus could do something for us. You might believe he was a good guy but basically a person just like us. That’s fine. My point can be made more simply: everything good about us goes back to a divine destiny that lies deep in the heart of all that exists. You and I did not set that destiny. God set it, and God is that destiny. That’s a useful way to put it without even mentioning Jesus. But if you join me in the adult re-confirmation class, I’ll make the case why I think it’s better to explain that destiny with the story of Jesus. (Shameless promotion)

Paul in our passage from Philippians does just that; he tells us about how our destiny and calling was set by God before we were born—maybe before creation—and he does so with a short story about Jesus. Well, it’s kind of a story about Jesus. And it’s famous, because Paul is apparently quoting a hymn or poem that the Philippians already knew, making this passage perhaps the earliest piece of Christian poetry. And strikingly, it doesn’t tell a story about Jesus like we find in the gospels.

The story seems to begin before Jesus was born (and my Greek reading buddy, Peter, helped me understand that scholars disagree wildly on the interpretation of this passage): “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or grasped at], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness [or having become like a human being].” It sounds like Jesus was equal with God or had a chance to be equal with God, but instead emptied himself, taking a human form, the form of one who serves. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” As Peter pointed out to me, this is the reverse of Adam and Eve, who were created in the image of God but grasped at taking God’s place; and we all do that, for the story of Adam, a Hebrew word which means “human being,” is just a story about humanity, about us. Remember that Adam, we, after disobeying and gobbling our way to knowledge of good and evil, had to be prevented from eating of the tree of life and living forever, which would have made us like gods. (And our technology might get us there yet!)

Jesus does the opposite. Whether before or after he was born, he realizes that he is God’s very image, but instead of trying to rule, he decides to serve, and instead of grasping at ruling forever (perhaps like a certain Russian leader we know), he serves, even though it will lead to his own death.

In this way, Jesus redefines what it means to be human before God. Human beings have always thought about God or the gods. Even when we don’t pray or believe in literal divine beings, we’ve always found the idea of infinite power, infinite control, to be tantalizing; that power seems to lie within our very impressive human potential. We’ve so often said to ourselves, if I could just acquire power, I’d be able to do some real good. (Because of course we think we know what is good and what is evil.) The infinite idea of divinity, of unlimited potential, is deeply implanted in us, and it is one of our greatest temptations.

Now you might not get all this from reading your favorite passage in the gospels, but I think still the passage in Philippians is getting to the real heart of the gospel story. Jesus rejects that temptation of power once for all, even though he himself knew how deeply God is implanted in us. And so he begins a new way of being human, a new way of living as the image of God—the way of service, obedience, humility before God, even when that costs you your own life. Because when you live in obedience to God, conflict is inevitable. What the gospels show us so well is how obedience and humility before God makes Jesus anything but obedient and humble before the forces of idolatrous power that he confronted, whether it was the divinized Romans or those Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome to gain power over of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was these Romans and their collaborators who physically and historically killed him, but it was Jesus’ defiant obedience to God that forced their hand. Jesus made clear his challenge to them by his paradoxical act of riding in like a King, but humbly on a donkey.

This humble, defiant obedience is what God had in mind all along for us human beings. But that’s not how it generally has worked out. Our human awareness of infinite potential has been used horribly wrongly. Not all the time. Each of us has acted the way Adam originally lived; his story is our story. We sometimes act in the innocence of natural obedience, like when we are naturally loving to our children or our parents or loved ones. But we all also grasp at power and equality with God, and the great powers that swirl around our globe especially do this, and claim to do it on our behalf.

So you do a little good here and there. We all do. We’re not pure, unadulterated sinners; that’s an absurd piece of bogus pessimism that some conservative Christians still hawk. But can you, with your small and occasional good acts, set a new course for all of humanity? Even if you thought you could, your next step would be to become famous and powerful so that everyone can see how good you are and strive to become like you. Maybe you’d post a youtube video of yourself and try to amass lots of hits. And then you could start the world’s largest megachurch, attended by 10s of thousands. Thank God Jesus didn’t have to do it that way. He lived in a time and a place when Jews and others were ready for a new humanity to dawn; they (unlike people today) were looking for a messiah. But Jesus did not advertise himself as the Messiah, boasting, “I am the one!” He just showed obedience to God and served as a vessel for God’s healing and prophetic power, and people couldn’t help but see him as the Messiah. And they thought he would take power and rule over them, and destroy their enemies, and force everyone to do good. (Now, that does sound a little familiar to the authoritarian and even fascist tendencies at loose in our world today.) They were dying to proclaim him king in that false image, that image of kingship taken from our old, power-mad humanity.

Instead he showed obedience unto death, even death by the cross, death by the execution that Romans devised to flaunt their ghastly, demonic power. Jesus, by his own obedience, but also just as much by how the great powers reacted to him, redefined what it means to be human before God. / Now, you can repent all you want to. We can strive to be good people. We can try to fix the gargantuan problems of our world (and come up short) and we can try to master the most petty flaws in our secret souls (and still fail to do so perfectly). But we can’t redefine, for the benefit of all humanity, what it means to be human before God. And we have absolutely no need to. Because Jesus did that, as well as it could be done. To follow Jesus, in the end we need to do nothing at all. We simply say Amen to this new humanity shown in him. (And even if we fail to do that, what he did still stands as valid for all time.) So our work is done; let us, like the disciples, just step back, quiet down, and watch Jesus do what only he can do; and watch the world expose itself in its godlessness as only its most blasphemous representatives can so do. That is our ‘agenda’ for Holy Week.

Were that all, of course, we wouldn’t be here. We never would have heard of this obscure Jesus, squashed like a bug by the Romans, to whom only a small crowd of Jewish bumpkins called “Messiah,” according to their mistaken notion of the word. But “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” God made it known that the humanity Jesus reshaped and redefined into the way God intended, was the right one. Hopefully we can live out that new humanity in our small, flawed way. But right now all that remains for us to do is to join all the other knees of all the powers and weird, unseen, even demonic forces out there, as the Philippians poem puts it, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and simply believe in the good news, and confess in our worship that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Questions for further thought:

I’ve read studies recently that claim that often 50% or more of people in congregations like ours believe that the point of church is be promote good values and service. Have I made a convincing case that this is not what is most important about being a church?

Is it part of your spiritual practice to simply recognize what God has done, not only for yourself, but for all of humanity and all of creation? Where and how do you do that?

Why do we need to recognize that our destiny (or purpose, or goal) has been set by God, not by ourselves? Why do you think it might be better to explain that by telling the story of Jesus?

What else could we use to state who we are besides a “mission statement?”

 

Fifth in Lent (3/18): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Sins? Our Lives?”

Call to worship: Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Psalm 51:1-12

John 12:20-33

Some people in churches like ours are just done with the word sin. It sounds so backward and old-fashioned, and it’s too often been used to shame women or LGBT folks who don’t conform to “Leave It to Beaver” domesticity. I, on the other hand, am just getting started with the word sin. Despite the risks, I think we need to greatly expand our appreciation for that powerful word, and reclaim it from its petty and narrow use. Because if you remove the word “sin” from your vocabulary, you are going to have a hard time reading the Bible. But the Bible has a wonderfully rich and surprising grasp of sin. And I’ve been trying to convey that surprise by considering the sin, or fallenness or, if I must, the imperfection that shows up in surprising places, like in our religion and our clinging to spiritual experiences.

But I recently realized that my desire to make sin hip and interesting could wrongly neglect the truth of even the old-fashioned, backward sense of sin. I have been reading studies and stories of people who drop out of churches like ours. One story was a man named Wayne Sanders. Wayne had been struggling for some time with his sins and failings. He burned through one marriage and was on his second, and his wandering eye as well as substance abuse made him think that his life was not on the right track. As he looked ahead to possibly failing again as a husband, or worse, as a father, Wayne talked to friends at work, and he watched Billy Graham, God rest his tireless soul, on tv, and all this led him to give his life to Christ. He then joined a fundamentalist megachurch, for he had quickly concluded that the mainline Presbyterian church he had occasionally attended was not calling people to Christ. He would probably say the same of us. Now, I’m not sure I trust his judgment about that. I think fundamentalists who seek absolute authority directly from the Bible don’t realize that the Bible, too, can become an idol. Scholars even coined a nifty word for that: bibliolatry. But it is true: churches like ours often do not speak to the kind of problems Wayne was dealing with. What really seemed to bother him was sexual sin. Wayne believes that sex is a “huge issue, probably the bottom line in most people hearts and minds when” it comes to religion.

Wayne’s story, as well as reading Psalm 51 in our lectionary for today, made me realize that I should not go through Lent without addressing our personal sins, those actions and habits and inclinations that we don’t like about ourselves. Probably many of us feel personally out of control in one respect or another, much like Paul puts it in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Now, some of us don’t feel that way, and some of us really aren’t that way. Keep listening.) This is a real problem; but it doesn’t have to be about sex. Wayne made a common mistake; he assumed that everyone must have the same problem with sex that he does. We don’t. It might be all kinds of things. It might be substance abuse or alcohol, it might be that you have a bad temper you cannot control; you might be unable to stop picking on your spouse or your children and pushing their buttons; you might be even violently abusive to your spouse or partner or loved one. You might find yourself breaking rules, shoplifting, acting out—and for no good reason. My mild-mannered high school guidance counselor was arrested late in life for shoplifting—go figure. These are real sins. And they are hurting others around you.

Let me be clear. God wants you to stop sinning. God wants us to stop sinning against others, that’s for sure. But God wants this for us, also. God wants us to be liberated from that feeling of being out of control. You cannot find real peace within the Kingdom of God if your own actions are not really yours, if your sins are controlling you. God wants you to stop, I want you to stop, and this church wants you to stop sinning and be free. We are a community under God that is here for sinners.

The human spirit is often murky and irrational. We like to pretend that all of us are fully in control of ourselves, and the fact is that none of us is in complete control. Most of us hold it together well enough to stay out of trouble and to appear like responsible people. Some slide off the deep end and commit the kind of heinous acts that we read about every day. We like to draw a clean line through all this murkiness and say, “As long as you aren’t hurting anybody else, you’re ok, you got it all together.” But nothing in the Bible supports that easy compromise. Anything short of a pure heart fully directed to love is a failure to attain the perfection to which God has called us. And I know of none who have attained this perfection. The Biblical view of sin does not allow us to condemn some group of sinners out there. Instead, it calls us all to charity and compassion toward one another, and in humility to take a good hard look at ourselves—remove the log that is in your own eye, as Jesus put it.

And so, beyond the sins that harm others, we should also attend to the kind of private hang-ups we have that don’t seem to hurt yourself or anyone else, but which cause us private shame. It might be a habit for porn or some other embarrassing habit. You might have weird fantasies that you can’t seem to shake. You might often be consumed with pettiness or envy, even if you keep it to yourself. Now Wayne and others can focus too much on private sins. But even though they are affecting you only in secret, the fact that they trouble you means they are somehow affecting your relationship with yourself and with God, and perhaps with others more than you realize. They do not testify to the reign of God’s peace and righteousness in your heart, to what the Psalmist calls “truth in the inward being.” And God wants you to be free of these sins also.

Lent is the right time to confess all of these sins. This is the time to pray, with our Psalm, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. … Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” Our sin might be secret; it may not seem to harm anyone else. But you can’t hide from God. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” When we have to hide something from God and others, we are cutting ourselves off from our source of life and truth and love. “You desire truth in the inward being; Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence”—I would add, when we are out of control, we cast ourselves from God’s presence, we lose our union with God. “Do not take your holy spirit from me.” / You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to be unified and collected to stand in God’s presence and receive God’s power. And finally, the Psalmist’s prayer is not only about being free from guilt, free from a bad habit, or even free from harming others. The point is to put yourself on the path to true joy: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” We want a spirit that joyfully and with holy pride does good, and has nothing to hide. That is where God wants you to be, and don’t settle for anything less. Confess yourself before God. If it helps, you can confess before me or before a trusted friend or counselor who understands divine mercy. And especially if you are trapped in substance abuse, or abuse against others, you need God working through others to restore you.

All of that needs to be said here more than I’ve been saying it. Now, I think I’ve neglected addressing that kind of sin because some churches both today and in the past have overemphasized them. Like I said at the start, sin is much bigger than those bad habits and inclinations that we cannot seem to control. Feminist theologians helped me learn that lesson, by pointing out that the church’s tradition of teaching (and harping on about) sin spoke mostly to those in power: mostly to males like Wayne whose main problem was maintaining personal control. Still today so much serious wrongdoing is by men who are out of control: name me a female mass shooter. Roughly 90% of both sexual abuse and homicide is committed by men. And so on. So yes, let’s not forget to address all the sins that men, and women also, commit by their wrongful habits and inclinations. But what about the victims? Those without power, typically women and minorities, have often experienced sin primarily as something done to them: as violation, as bodily injustice. Now I’m sure all women, who have been gaining power in many ways, can also identify with something in my earlier words about the personal sins we can’t control. But is a woman who is abused or harassed supposed to deal with that before God and the church by confessing that she is a sinner? No. Jesus healed and restored the victims of sin. He could be hard on sinners, but that was almost always the powerful men who were in charge in his day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Roman rulers. So let us all confess our sins before God, and let us ask God to heal us when we’ve been sinned against, and to bring us justice where appropriate (#metoo), and to help us forgive where appropriate. This will take a lot of discernment, and we are here to help each other do that.

Finally, we are sinners, and we are sinned against, but we are more than that. We are called to be Jesus’ disciples. And Jesus taught his disciples to set their sights higher than just overcoming their personal sins, or the sins committed against them. Jesus was more than a therapist. He was ushering in the Kingdom of God, a community of people set aside to live a unique life together dedicated to God and to loving all others. And when some Greek-speaking Jews come looking for Jesus in our reading from John, Jesus reveals the full extent of this life for God for which he came to earth. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” What does that mean?

If you have come here with your sins, and maybe your wounds from others, and are looking to be made well, Jesus desires to heal you, for God created you and wants you to be well. But if you then say, “Thanks!” and go home and get on with your life, get back to your career, you will remain “just a single grain.” Your work place will appreciate you, and at your retirement or after you are gone you will be remembered briefly for your accomplishments, your single grain of fruit. But that’s about it. Or, freed from sin, you may go back home and be a good parent. I marvel at the joy and responsibility of raising Silas, and how much impact I will have on him. But I also realize how limited my impact may be in some ways, how much is out of my control. And I wonder about how much from my ancestors was preserved in me and will be passed on to Silas. My father and mother—yes, he will remember them and I will pass on to him stories and some of the values I learned. My grandparents? My great grandparents? I’m not even sure of their names. Can I expect the generations after Silas to bear my imprint? I just don’t see a whole lot of fruit which I will be able to call mine. That’s what I have to show for being a single grain of wheat.

“Those who love their life,” Jesus said, love their single grain, which is not nothing, and is a good gift from God, “Those who love their life lose it.” Let’s be honest about that. And so we come full circle to where we began Lent on Ash Wednesday. “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”

But Jesus also said this: “And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, that doesn’t sound very inviting. I am not going to hate my life, my work, my role as husband and father, the little things that I get a kick out of doing. But we can love our little life too much. We have to admit that what I do doesn’t add up to a whole lot. And more painful still, we have to admit that “life in this world” is not fair. There are many, like the Bermudez children, who never have the chance to love their little grain of life, and this was true for some of Jesus’ followers also. But if you give of your life to follow Jesus in God’s way, you will participate in something infinitely greater than yourself. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” he said, “and where I am there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Now I don’t claim to know what exactly that means for life beyond this one. But if you truly give yourself to the Christian way of being servants together, following the way Jesus came to serve all, and you plant your grain of wheat in this soil, you will bear much fruit, because you are now united in worldwide and history-spanning communion with God, a people committed to loving one another and loving across all barriers and divisions.

We are lucky. We probably won’t have to give up and hate our single-grain lives to take part in this eternal life, the life God honors and makes God’s own in the church. But maybe this Lent, which is almost over, we should listen to see if God is calling us to follow Jesus in this way, and so to be ready to give up our little grain, to let it fall to the earth and die, so that we together can bear much fruit, the fruit of eternal life.