Spiritual Inventory #2: “Bringing Salvation Nearer to Us”

This sermon makes an important point about the way Christians understand time and how that prepares us to the work of spiritual growth.  Still, it felt clunky to me.  (That’s a word my drum teacher likes to use when I am playing correctly but not truly “swinging.”)  Next week we will look very concretely at spiritual practices. 

Ezekiel 33:10-16 ; Romans 13:8-14

“But now you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” If I just woke you up, church isn’t over yet, it’s only 10:30. Please stay in your seat. I suppose you may go back to sleep, since the sermon is just beginning. But it’s clear Paul isn’t talking about waking from literal sleep here. In fact, he’s not talking about literal time. Well, what is he talking about? I want to deal with that question at length, before we get to the Spiritual Inventory that we are beginning today. Paul acts like we (2000 years later) are already in on his secret: “You know what time it is.” “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” But do we know what time it is? “The night is far gone; the day is near.” Do we know what he’s talking about?

Well, Paul’s talk of time is what our scholars call apocalyptic or eschatological talk. Paul is saying that the world has been trapped in a kind of nighttime of evil and corruption. The world has been under the dominion of powers of wickedness, powers aligned against God. Many of Paul’s fellow Jews believed something similar. They believed a good God could not long allow the world to continue in its wicked ways, so God will eventually step in to end the current world and remake it the way it should be. This will be the “Day of the Lord,” the eschaton or end of the world; the dead will rise, God will judge the world, and a new, everlasting era will begin. Check out the Book of Daniel.

Now since we are approaching the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I want to work in some fun Reformation facts, whenever relevant. So Martin Luther famously said that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree. Now I think that sums it up my whole sermon, and yet I have nothing more to say about Luther’s puzzling words.

Jesus arrived amid the Jewish expectation of an imminent end that we were just talking about. Some thought the Messiah would destroy all the evil in the world and institute God’s kingdom. That’s not the script that Jesus followed. Instead, he allowed the corrupt powers to take his own life. In doing so, he exposed sin for what it was. He exposed the ugly underbelly of the Roman Empire and their collaborators among the Jewish leaders; he exposed the godless lust for power cloaked behind Roman regalia and temple piety. But if you caught anything from the Ezekiel reading, it’s that there is not always a clear and steady line between righteousness and wickedness. So it is that Jesus also exposed the weak faith of the disciples when they abandoned him. So it is that God did not destroy the wicked, but received all of this sin with mercy. Just like Paul said in last week’s reading, God did not overcome evil with evil, but overcame evil with good. God did this in one mighty act at the resurrection; and that resurrection unleashed a triumph over sin and evil through the power of love.

And so love becomes the guiding principle for the new community that gathers in Christ’s name. Paul tells us, a little coyly, I think, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” We are not to be operate like a typical organization, where some achieve distinction or claw their way to power and the rest owe them honor and allegiance. We are not to feel indebted to one another at all. But what we do owe each other is, paradoxically, everything, our very hearts, love. And it’s mutual love we owe; he says that we owe it to “love one another.” That’s interesting. Suppose instead Paul told us simply to love everyone; then if you didn’t show me love, maybe I’d just have to say, “Oh well, I love you anyway.” But if we owe it to each other to “love one another,” if we owe mutual love, then if you don’t show me love, I owe it to you to call you out on it. In other words, Paul is not a calling us to be doormats to one another. This is love that is also justice. I owe it to you that you love me, too, that you love me back.

Anyway, I love to talk about love, but it’s time to get back to time. Jesus both exposed the sin and evil of the world, he called it out, but he also allowed it to be. So those who believed Jesus was the Messiah had to revise their expectations that when the Messiah came, God would judge and condemn the wicked. But the early Christians continued to assume that God was still going to destroy evil; they thought Jesus is coming again soon to judge the world. It’s pretty clear from his writings that Paul thought something like this. Most of the New Testament expresses the same opinion. And what can we say? It didn’t happen. Anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously has to wrestle with this uncomfortable fact. I just don’t think those who say, 2000 years later, “Any day now, he’s coming back—I mean, look at these hurricanes,” I don’t think they are honestly wrestling with this uncomfortable fact. How many ‘signs’ have to come and go?

So it’s our turn to ask: what time is it, Paul? Is it the end time—still? Do you know what time it is? What are we to say to Paul? We have a hard time accepting this biblical time in which the world is soon going to end. So we say, “No Paul, I don’t know what time it is, this time you talk about.” And we are left consigning ourselves to time as everybody else sees it; secular time rather than biblical time.

But that’s not so great either. In our secular world of commerce and business, we treat time like a commodity, something we have and spend. Only rarely are we reminded that we don’t own time. Time inevitably owns us. I’m reminded of this sometimes when I sit watch over someone who is dying, when “our time has come,” as we say.  But mostly we are expected to manage time as if it were ours. I was just listening to a public lecture by my teacher, Kathryn Tanner. She described how, in our modern economy, we put a premium on working toward the future. The young are expected to use their time to make something of themselves, to make something valuable of their gifts and abilities. And they feel that pressure: soon it will be time to get a job. Hopefully, the job we have been preparing for and training for will still be around. We also put a premium on spending toward the future. We are encouraged to commit ourselves to long-term debts: student loans, credit cards, mortgages. And so we find ourselves on a pretty merciless timetable to pay them back. Far from owing no one nothing, as Paul says, we owe our working years to faceless, loveless banks. In exchange, we get the kind of lifestyle that we have come to see as owed to us.  This is what time is for us. We sell a good chunk of our future for what we can obtain in the present. Time can feel oppressive, with our endless schedule of payments, although somehow we’re left with no one else to blame but ourselves.

No wonder we are inclined to escape from this oppressive, indebted orientation to the future. So either we live for retirement, when at last we will own our own home and all our time will be ours, until of course our time comes. Or we declare “carpe diem,” and try to live only for the present moment. We might do this carnally, taking pleasure in the moment as if there is no tomorrow; reveling and drunkenness, as Paul puts it. Maybe we enjoy material indulgences, or perhaps we are led to addictive substances. Perhaps we lose ourselves in the moment by pointless entertainment that is fun while it lasts, but goes nowhere. Perhaps, more spiritually, we dwell in the present mindfully, freeing ourselves from the future by a Zen-like attention to the present.   I find this last option the healthiest and most attractive of the ways to dwell in the present, although I have tried them all; by the grace of God, I did not fall into addictions and did minimal harm to myself and others. But wouldn’t it be good if we, people of the church, had some alternative time to dwell in, besides the debt-spending future that oppresses us and the present that can only be an escape, a futureless present. Wouldn’t it be good if we could grasp this time that Paul is sure we indeed do know about when he says, “You know what time it is.”

Perhaps we can. Don’t we say that temporally odd phrase during communion: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?” I think we can get back to that Biblical sense of time, but I’m going to have to simplify some things. Let’s, for the time being, say we’re not going to worry about the Second Coming; let’s take the end of time off the table for ‘a time.’ Then we can say this: Jesus came to show us the future. Not a prediction of what is going to happen and when, but he showed us the only future that really has a future. The only future that is not just more of the same: the corruption which breeds selfishness, the selfishness that breeds corruption, with all of it working together to destroy the vulnerable. We are all perpetually caught up in that mess, in one way or another. Jesus exposed it for what it is, and showed us the alternative to it, showed us our real future. He showed us that love conquers selfishness. The worst that the corrupt powers can do to us is death; they can rob us only of the false future that they already own. But if we live in God then death has no ultimacy; death has lost its sting. Notice that Jesus has already showed us this, past tense. Our future has already appeared in the past. The true shape of human life has already been perfected in Jesus. The new way of life already began with Jesus and his disciples.

Whenever we believe in this new human life, this new human possibility found in Jesus, however far away it seems from us and our world; whenever we believe in it and confess it here in worship, we already have salvation. In chapter 10 Paul says: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified; and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Worship may seem like lip service—get it? a little pun—but to confess that we have a future because of what God did in the eternal past of Jesus Christ, a past that lives for all time, is a mighty act. It defies the corruption. It even glorifies God. I remind you of this because I’m not sure we always appreciate just what an amazing thing it is to worship in church. So if we just pay attention—wake up!—to what we are saying and doing here, we’ll see that confessing our faith is much more than lip service. It frees us from the false future that shackles us, in which we have to make good on our debts. We are not indebted to God. We don’t have to succeed or else. And if that’s how you feel about the future of this church—if the ‘success’ of this church feels only like a burden and source of anxiety to you, then you are shackled to the future of this church, and that’s not the same as freely embracing the promise of the future in God.

Confessing our faith, we already have our salvation, the promise of new life in Christ Jesus. But just as importantly, we also have a future. Notice what Paul says: “Salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers,” when we confessed our faith in Christ. Salvation is also a future for all humanity that we are getting nearer to. So we don’t have to live this new life perfectly, and we will of course continue to fail and fall back into the old life. Paul doesn’t say, “You must live perfectly!” He says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are invited and encouraged to live that future now, to wear it now, “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and not put our future in the flesh, as Paul puts it—and do you remember how I translate that word “the flesh?” Paul doesn’t mean sins of the body, like lust and gluttony. “The flesh” means living for your self, living for your ego. We are to make no provision for the flesh, for our egos—there’s no future in that. All of this is to say, that we the church, if we truly put on Christ, are the vanguard of the future of humanity; we are living in the only way that really overcomes anguish and corruption. We are truly living the future.

So it was a long detour, but maybe now we know what time it is; that is, we can understand what Paul means by time in a way that we can really believe in and in a way that changes our whole outlook on life. Now we are ready for the Spiritual Inventory. Because this inventory is all about looking to the future. Being a Christian is about living for the future, not anxiously, not in debt or under the gun, but with the confidence that our future lies in way already shown to us in Jesus Christ. That way means that we do live for our egos. (And don’t you want to be a part of a community where egos are not always getting in the way? That’s how things should be.) So when we do our inventory, we can take stock of where we are—honestly and without pride or defensiveness. And then we can picture what our future can be, what we want to become, and how we can start to go there. This makes for spiritual growth.

Now I will help you look to Scripture as a guide, but I cannot dictate to you what’s keeping you stuck in the present, nor how you can live for the future. Only you can discern what can do now to live for the future; only you can give yourself to God’s future. So do not hand in the first part of the Spiritual Inventory that is there each week to guide your self-reflections.  This week gives you an overview of the four dimensions of our spiritual life in our church, as I see it: spiritual practices, beliefs, fellowship, and mission. As Paul would say, “Let us” think about our whole spiritual life in these dimensions, and begin to think about where we might want to grow. Read it now, quietly; and take it home and write some thoughts on the back.

I’ll ask you to hand the second, short form in to me, either today or in the future. There is a box in the narthex. You may keep it anonymous if you like. The first question on that form asks for your thoughts about what you mean by a rich and full involvement in our church, or spiritual growth more generally. If you have thoughts, please share them with me.  The second question pertains to a process I am leading for the whole church and especially the leaders of our church.   I want us to think carefully together and discuss who we want to become as a church; and every week I want to get your feedback. I’m starting this week with a very general statement of our goal as a church: to become spiritually more vibrant. I hope that sounds fair. No one wants us to be financially healthy but spiritually less vibrant, right? So what does a “more spiritually vibrant” future for this church look like to you? What would you like to see us become? Please share your thoughts with me by answering the second question on that short form. I pray that these forms will be for us a way to put on Christ and bring our salvation nearer, together.

Spiritual Inventory Week One

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5th in Easter-Life for Others: By God’s Eternal Life

Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14

“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.

But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.

When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.

And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?

So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.

Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.

In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.

Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.

And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)

So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.

And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know.   Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.

And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.

 

3rd in Easter (4/30): “Life for Others: Life Also for Me”

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:17-23

In this Easter series, I am speaking of “Life for others” as the shape of Christian life. Now, I don’t think normally that we live too much for others; I don’t think  we are usually too selfless. It is easy in our culture to focus on yourself and to ignore others. But a total life for others sounds a little frightening. As a Christian, do I no longer have a life to myself anymore? Is life all for others? Our reading in Acts might make us wonder. It describes the heady days of the community among the first Christians. “Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple. they broke bread at home [which suggests that they were eating together in each other’s houses] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? We should all desire to have that kind of closeness as a community—and indeed, in some respects we do. But I skipped a line: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Hmm. That’s really lovely too. Imagine if we all sold our possessions and goods and shared the proceeds. Yeah. Still with me? This practice of sharing is picked up again in chapter four: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul”—that’s nice—“and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (I thought I just heard purses being clutched a little more tightly.) It goes on to say that they sold everything and then laid the money at the Apostles’ feet. Yikes. And in chapter 5 we get the infamous story of Ananias and Saphira, a believing husband and wife who sell their property but keep back “some of the proceeds for themselves.” Do you know what supposedly happened to them? They fell dead at Peter’s feet.

No, this is not a stewardship lesson. This is horrifying. According to Act’s description of the early church, they practiced a kind of communism, abolishing private property. Acts has the first church really practicing what we’ve been calling life for others. And the beauty of it is, we are told, “There was not a needy person among them.” That’s really great; we could do more to emulate them in this regard. We could expand our use of the Deacons’ fund, for instance. But I don’t think we want God slaying some of us for holding back a little private property. (Maybe I’m wrong—are you ready to give up all your property?)

But why not? What could be more “life-for-others” than what Acts describes?  If we owe everything to God, as we say, why should we expect to have private property? Why shouldn’t we give it all up?

And let’s not talk just about property. The apostles and others in the community were sent out to preach the good news. It became their life. Paul worked a little on the side to support his ministry, which he did for free; and he could do this because he had no family or anything else going on. How much ministry are we doing? Like I said last week, a few of you put in incredible amounts of work for this church and in others forms of ministry. Most of us don’t. I don’t do my ministry here for free by working a little on the side. And unlike Paul I enjoy being married—fortunately to someone making more than I do. But none of us, I imagine, are avidly pursuing ministry the way Paul and the early disciples did. Well, why not? Is our Christian life not a life for others? Did the apostles not exemplify life for others? You know, we wouldn’t be here if they had not done this ministry; the church would not have expanded so rapidly and become a worldwide body of faith, extending well beyond its local Jewish roots, without this selfless work of apostles like Paul.

There is a genuine dilemma for us here that we need to dwell on. I believe it is a dilemma that helps us make sense of the cross—the suffering and death of Jesus. Now, usually we think of the cross as God’s answer to our personal sinfulness. Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive me. You will hear in our closing hymn a line to that effect. There may still be some insight in this way of thinking about the cross, but nowadays we pretty much assume that God is loving and merciful, and our sin is not so grave. Our need for forgiveness no longer poses the kind of great dilemma to which the cross is the clear answer.

In fact, for many UCC-type Christians, sin is no longer in our vocabulary. (A mistake, I think; but we need to think about sin in fresh ways.) Without sin, the cross is no longer very important. What matters is trying to inspire people to do more good works and to support the church—which is good. But I worry about losing the cross, and about perhaps getting so wrapped up in good works and social justice that we no longer can understand why we gather to worship—shouldn’t we just be out doing good things?

I think the dilemma that our Acts reading poses for us might help us get a better perspective on the cross. Again it was this: Why aren’t we sharing all our property? Why aren’t we subordinating everything else about our lives—our career and family and friends—to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, like the first apostles did? It’s not impossible for us to do this, and I hope and pray that some of us will. But let’s face it, we don’t, and that’s our dilemma. If a Christian life is life for others, why do we get anything for ourselves? Jesus told his disciples: take up your cross and follow me. We’re not doing that, mostly. Sure, we obey the ten commandments, mostly. But why aren’t we sacrificing ourselves to others they way Jesus did? What gives us permission to disobey Jesus, and not take up our cross?

The simple answer is, God’s grace. God gives us permission to not sacrifice ourselves. Remember that before we are life for others, God is life for others, and Jesus is life for others—and that means life for me. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that it is helpful to understand that much of our life is not horribly sinful, but just, for want of a better word, “natural.” Living for myself and those close to me is not so much sinful as natural. This is the created life we share with God’s creatures: be fruitful, and multiply. It’s not completely selfish, although of course it includes tending to my bodily and psychological needs. But almost no one devotes himself solely to himself. We enter into all kinds of relationships—with friends, lovers, parents, children—by which we yoke our own interests and desires with those of others, often giving up some our desires for the sake of others. And we enter or are born into communities and institutions that, if basic justice prevails, provide mutual benefit. I pay taxes and participate in our democratic governance, and the United States protects me and makes my peaceful and productive life possible. I work for my employer (that’s you, actually), and my employer pays me and gives me benefits. Sometimes these relationships are more just than others; sometimes individuals are selfish, and sometimes institutions are oppressive. But the basic principle is mutual benefit. That’s natural, and we see relationships like that among creatures in nature as well. /

What Jesus did on the cross was not natural. To give one’s life to God on behalf not of just your friends or your own children but on behalf of everyone—including those who are crucifying you—is not natural. It is supernatural. We usually think that supernatural stuff entails magical powers or defying the laws of physics; but with Jesus supernatural means above all that he goes above and beyond the law of human nature—that I’ll do something for you with the expectation that you will pay me back. I’ll live for others if others also live for me. But Jesus goes above and beyond that rule—infinitely. He gives up his life for all others, in all times, in all places, no matter what they have done for him. / We won’t get to the bottom of how Jesus does this today. Our reading in First Peter tells us that we were ransomed from our futile ways by the blood of Christ. It tells us that “through him you have come to trust in God…so that your faith and hope are set on God.”   But it doesn’t explain how that works very clearly.

Here’s one clue: It compares Jesus to a “lamb without defect or blemish.” The supernatural work of Jesus is his perfect self-giving for others, like a sacrificial Passover lamb by whose blood the Israelites were delivered. This self-giving of Jesus destines him for sharing in God: We are told that God “raised him from the dead and gave him glory,” which for us is the origin of our Easter faith. But the real origin of Jesus’ self-giving goes back to God’s eternal plan: “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” Jesus’ perfect, supernatural self-giving has its source in God. God didn’t have to create the world. God wasn’t lonely or incomplete without creation. God is always, even now, absolute fulfillment and perfection, dwelling in eternity beyond all need and suffering. God is perfect, but sacrifices perfection to give life for others. God is infinite, but sacrifices infinity to give life to a finite world. God blesses a world that is chaotic and finite, where death and life are inseparably joined, so that life—even the imperfect variety, the kind that would inevitably sin—can be abundant. So God is the ultimate source of Jesus’ selflessness and sacrifice.

Now, we could all imitate Jesus, take up our cross, and give our lives completely away to others. We could give away all our property and devote our time completely to ministry. The perfection of God might even seem to demand this of us. But in this regard I believe the cross gives us this message: only Jesus Christ, because he was God in the flesh, was required to give himself up like this. We are not God. It is ok for us to be natural, not supernatural. It’s ok to be just creation—taking pleasure in fulfilling our needs, receiving our daily bread, enjoying friendship and family and lovers, being fruitful and multiplying. God created us for this. We human beings are still natural creatures. Jesus Christ took our human form to the limit, beyond the natural, so that we don’t have to; he took the cross so that we don’t have to.

But at the same time, Jesus shows us that it is possible for our human form to be supernatural. It is possible and beautiful and divine for us to be life for others without restriction or qualification. We do not need to do this in a self-sacrificing way; no one need ever literally give up his life to God for others again. We can participate in the supernatural life of Jesus while still living our natural lives.

Now, the natural response at this point is: how much? How much do I have to give up to God’s supernatural life for others, and how much do I get to keep to myself? I urge you not to rush to that question. It is easy for us to think that there must be some minimum requirement, something we must do to get our reward, rather than leaving everything to God’s grace. Our Christian traditional has unfortunately encouraged us to see salvation as an all-or-nothing game: if you do enough, you get it all—heaven—and if you do too little, you get worse than nothing. This way of thinking about salvation—which after all is a mystery that we do not understand—encourages us to return to what is in it for me. We end up always thinking in the back of our mind: am I doing enough to get into heaven?

Try this instead: God has by grace given you your natural life. God through Christ has not made you sacrifice this life; it is yours. God asks two things of us natural creatures: we should not sin, but treat each other justly, honoring our commitments to mutual benefit. And we should receive this natural life as a gift from God. God could demand our life of us, but does not, by grace through Christ. And of course we live our natural life on borrowed time. But as long as we have it, and if no one is oppressing us, it is ours.

All of us live this natural life. But it is, in the words of First Peter, ultimately futile. It is finite and limited. The good it achieves is limited and ending. The justice it achieves is partial and local. It is not bad, but futile. First Peter does not say Christ ransomed us from sin; it says “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.” In other words, Christ has liberated us and called us, the church, to participate in his supernatural life, a life for others without qualification. We are all living this supernatural life, all sharing in it. This is God’s life, and by sharing in it we are living eternal life. None of us is giving up our natural life completely, but all of us are living it, even just by acknowledging God’s grace in Christ and by praying for others. And we live this supernatural life in many other small ways, like giving to our denomination and supporting its worldwide ministry of peace and justice. We do not each have our own individual portion of this eternal life. That’s how we sometimes think: am I saved? Are you saved? No: our eternal life is in Christ, and we the body of Christ all share in it together. And that makes sense. Life for others can’t be mine exclusively; it means always going out of myself. It has to be shared.

So salvation or eternal life is not all or nothing. Only Christ’s life was all for others; we share in that life by the work we do together, by worship, and by uniting ourselves to Christ through baptism and communion. On the other hand, none of us has nothing; we all have our natural life as a gift from God, and we participate in this supernatural life through the church as much as we feel called.

And that’s the key. You shouldn’t have to anxiously deciding how much of your life to devote to God and to the church. This isn’t some bill you have to pay, some sacrifice you have to make until it hurts. Sometimes we do suffer when we live life for others, but that’s because of the sin of the world. But our participation in Christ’s eternal life, life for others without price, is itself a gift from God, not a tough decision you have to make. If it isn’t inspired and joyful—although joyful does not mean painless—then it isn’t life for others without qualification, it is life for yourself in disguise, masquerading as charity or duty or obligation to your community or whatever. Don’t confuse genuine, supernatural life for others with natural life consisting of exchanges and contracts. The love that we have in our Christian life for others is far above the love that we have in our exclusive, mutual agreements, even if there are some similarities. First Peter tells us that keeping this supernatural life for others pure and holy is the key to real Christian love: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Let it be so.

 

Easter: “Life for others, Victorious Over the Grave”

This distinguished our understanding of grace in contrast to that of some Christians hung up on guilt and penalties being paid–though I worried about putting other people down, perhaps by way of caricaturing, on a day of Christian unity.  But then I set the stage for the next six weeks of the Easter season, which will develop the theme of “life for others.” 

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

May the Good News of the Risen Christ be proclaimed from my lips and bring joy to all our ears. Amen.

The Christian faith is an Easter faith. Faith begins from and returns always to the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead. (Alleluia! Christ is risen!) We deepen the meaning of that good news when we retrace the steps of Jesus through the way of sorrows that led to the cross. Likewise, we deepen the meaning of the grace we receive from God when we retrace the steps of our wandering through the alienation and sin that would be all we have were it not for the grace of God. But all of this deepening into the sorrows and the alienation is valid only when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the empty tomb, the dawning realization by first the women and then the other disciples that Jesus Christ is alive in God and his word will endure forever.

It’s a simple point: Easter comes before the cross—but understandably, there is still so much confusion and misunderstanding about the odd order our faith takes. We can clarify this odd but true order by contrast with what goes wrong when Christians get the order of things backwards. Some Christians get it in their head that God was so uncontrollably angry with sin that He (I think they would only say He) had to have a sacrifice to appease his wrath. No act of mere human repentance could suffice to appease God, so the one to pay the penalty had to be very valuable indeed—equivalent to God himself. That is, only God’s own son could pay enough to God the Father to mollify God, to settle God down, so that now God could love us again. / Now there may be a grain of truth in all that, but it’s been understood in a rather childish way, as if God is at odds with God’s own being. As if the grace we came to know through Jesus Christ wasn’t who God was from the very beginning, from all eternity. As if God changes in the year AD 30 from being mad to loving, the way a cross lover does when you give him his favorite bourbon and a backrub. (“There, there.”) I don’t think we want to say that God couldn’t be a God of grace until Jesus bore the cross.   That sounds weird. But this view is not as remote as I make it out to be. In our own Red Hymnal, “I will Sing of My Redeemer” has this line: I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me, on the cruel cross he suffered from the curse to set me free.” (God’s curse?) “I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in his boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave.” Ransom? To whom? To God? Was Jesus paying God (off) on our behalf? It’s left vague in the hymn, but you can see how someone would arrive at a conclusion that might create confusion.

Likewise, some Christians (perhaps the same ones) get it in their head that you can’t have faith, you can’t be saved, unless you become convinced that you personally are a miserable sinner. Nothing you do is any good, it all just makes God so wrathful. So first you have to hit rock bottom and confess that you are a no-good sinner, and then God will accept your contrition and show you mercy. (I’m not making this up, so it should sound familiar to some of you.) Now, that’s just wrong on several counts. First of all, it makes God’s mercy the reward for my contrition and humility, as if—once again—God is wrathful and angry until I win God over with all my self-abasement and tears. No: God’s grace comes before my penance parade. And God’s grace works in us before we hit rock bottom. And as real as sin is, we don’t cease being God’s good creation. And those outside of the Christian faith likewise receive grace from God, at least the grace of creation; I don’t think God has nothing for them but wrath and damnation. (Consider the words of Peter that we just heard: “In every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him.”) I suspect that some Christians like to demand that we feel guilty and shameful because of our sin, before we can experience God’s mercy and love, because they want to control us by manipulating our emotions. You may be surprised to find out that the NT nowhere enjoins Christians to feel guilty. Yet that’s what it’s all about for some. That, and perhaps they want Christians to feel superior to all those non-Christians because we are going to heaven and they are going to the other place—thus they say that God only loves people who confess themselves to be total sinners and rely solely on Jesus Christ.

So away with all that; you won’t hear that stuff from me, or in our liturgy or song. Because the Christian faith is an Easter faith. We only understand the cross and venerate it because we have encountered the risen Christ and know ourselves to belong to him. We only feel sorrow for sin—both our personal sin and that of the whole world—because we first have known and trusted ourselves and the whole world to a God of infinite grace. We do hear God say “no,” but only because we first heard God’s yes to the whole world, and believe that God has never intended and never will let us go, even when we stray. If you flip all that around and reverse the order, you can very easily make the Christian faith into its exact opposite: a self-righteous, moralistic, judgmental path of works righteousness.

So let me be very clear, since, because of the backwards theology of some Christians, you might think that the Christian faith is self-righteous, moralistic, and judgmental. This day, Easter Sunday, is the basis and beginning for everything we believe and do. We believe that because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, God has embraced the whole world and everyone in it in Christ, no matter how badly the world rebels against God, even desiring to put God to death. When you put it that way, Easter should make us catch our breath [gasp] at the depth of divine love for the world. And that love of God is not just a warm feeling—the hapless sentiment of an unrequited lover. God’s love comes in full power. The power of God’s love overcomes all the world’s death-dealing power. No stone, however massive, can stand in the way of God’s power of life. This day of the Lord, this Easter Sunday which is not just a day but the eternal foundation of the cosmos, is not about you, and whether you are going to be a bad boy or a good girl. It’s not about us paltry human beings, and about keeping us in line or about getting us to give more money or to have more good deeds to show for ourselves. This day isn’t even about Jesus of Nazareth. This day, and in essence, our Christian faith, sis about God’s power of life and grace and love. Jesus of Nazareth was a righteous man who was unjustly killed. That much of it is a terrible tragedy. But Jesus didn’t resurrect himself. Did you hear Peter say: “God raised him on the third day.” God raised Jesus up; the Spirit and power of God raised Jesus up, demonstrating that truly this was the righteous Son of God who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit forever. Easter Sunday is all about God, and because of Easter we know that God is our invisible father (or mother), as well as the Son we have come to know in person, and the Holy Spirit who remains with us. Because, we now know and believe in God’s power of life, and we know that Jesus is God’s son who lives forever, we know we can never be separated from him, and that God has the Spirit power to give us life in Christ Jesus. Easter is not about us, but we can now see—and this is the very basis of our faith—what Jesus told Mary: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We can now see—not because of our own efforts and piety; until we see and believe we are at best just like Mary: confused, hapless, and pathetic. But we know by our resurrection faith that we share the same relationship to God that Jesus did and does. /

So hopefully we understand by now something of what Easter faith means and what it doesn’t mean. It means that, whatever our little accomplishments and virtues, or however lacking we are in virtues and accomplishments, God’s love has the power of life. But that doesn’t make this Easter faith any easier or more accessible for some of us, including me. The Christian faith, I have said, begins and returns always to this day that lives forever, this Easter day, and to what God did on this day by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This day is not even about the man, Jesus of Nazareth, I said. But you might very well think to yourself, “It would be easier for me if it was about Jesus of Nazareth. I can appreciate his preaching and good deeds, the love that he showed to all.” (Never mind whether Jesus was really all that loving or whether his love was of a sort very strange to us.) “But I don’t know,” you might continue, “what to make of God raising Jesus from the dead. And then he appears in strange ways—walking through doors and then eating fish with them, as we’ll read about in the coming weeks—and then this raised body ascends, just floats up to heaven, apparently. I’d rather just believe in Jesus of Nazareth.”

As the kids say nowadays, I feel you. Easter faith may indeed be the foundation of Christian faith, but it is a big pill to swallow. It doesn’t make it altogether easier if I reassure you that the stories of the appearance of the risen Christ are clearly intended to be symbolic and mysterious. You’ll still ask me: Isn’t there an easier place to begin?

That’s what I am going to spend the next six Sundays of Easter exploring. Granted that it all goes back to the resurrection of Christ Jesus and proceeds from a confession in him. But what does being a Christian mean and look like for us, apart from getting into the difficult to conceive events of that first Easter morning? I have an answer for you. It’s an easy answer. It’s an answer you can get on board with. It doesn’t require that you explain and affirm what exactly happened with Jesus’ body or any of that, but I think I can eventually bring us back to the events of that Easter morning as recounted by the gospels and show why they still matter. …Ready?

“Life for others.” That’s what being a Christian is all about. That is the shape of life that we pledge ourselves to in this community. “Life for others.” Being a Christian does not primarily mean believing in something, affirming something, especially affirming something even if it flies in the face of science and reason and evidence. Because the most important doctrines or beliefs in Christianity are mysteries—meaning you never fully understand them. Above all, you never understand God, say what you will about God. So these beliefs in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and justification by faith make for a confusing foundation for describing what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, being a Christian is not all in your head; it’s not a mind thing. So instead, let’s say that being a Christian means that life takes on a certain kind of shape for you. And that shape is being for others.

I can easily spend seven weeks teasing out what that means and what that life looks like. But for this week, let’s just put the matter very starkly: would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for me and mine? Or would you rather live in a world where everyone lives for others? Did you ever say to yourself, what if everyone were just nice to one another? That is in essence what I am talking about: being for others. That sounds so simple, and so attractive on a superficial level. There are still many hard questions to ask. If the answer was just, let’s all be nice to one another, then we wouldn’t need God to come down and die on a cross and then the whole resurrection thing. But essential it is simple. And the essence of Easter goes deeper and higher than just: wouldn’t it be good if we all were this and that way? The essence of Easter is this: God is life for others. The risen Christ is life for others, victorious over the grave. That’s why Jesus can say: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” because God is life for others. Those were not the last words of the risen Christ. But before he explains the rest to us, he invites us to partake of this life for others.

 

5th of Lent (April 2): “Loving Loved Ones”

I was gratified by the expressions of appreciation I received for this sermon.  I often find John’s gospel difficult to preach from.  So this time, I came clean and was honest about that fact.  (Almost) Always the right thing to do!  Once I did that, I found that new insights from the text came upon me (from the Holy Spirit, as we believe).  For instance, I didn’t see any insight from the commentary I was using as to why Martha and Mary both say the same thing when they find Jesus.  It sounds stiff and repetitive.  But it came to me that Jesus’ different reactions to the same greeting demonstrate how his demeanor has changed.  

Now, I will not claim that the significance I find there was part of John’s “intentions.”  In some ways, I am imposing meaning that John would perhaps have intended to avoid.  And those with more conservative biblical sensibilities will find my reading a little disturbing.  But this is the confusing but refreshing world of interpreting Scripture seriously but not literally and always deferentially.  (Consider Paul’s baffling, shocking interpretation of Scripture in Galatians!)  I hope all of that does not distract the reader from the point: to focus anew on mending and vivifying our relationships with loved ones. 


Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45

Loving loved ones sounds easy. It’s actually the most difficult and fraught kind of love. It’s usually not too difficult to love a stranger who is in need. I urge you all to practice doing so. It’s both easy and rewarding. And I know that our Board of Missions is looking for opportunities for us to do so, opportunities like Cathedral in the Night, a worship and free meal program for homeless people. It really is easy, and you leave feeling good.

That’s not always how our closest relationships go. Isn’t that surprising? Why would it be harder to love an old friend or family member than a complete stranger? Perhaps because there is so much at stake. Our daily happiness and sense of freedom are bound up thickly with our relationships with parents, children, or spouses. We have so much at stake, personally, in these close relationships. They are part of our past that we can never escape from, and they set the course for our future, as far as we can see. With our past and our future at stake, these relationships threaten to consume us.

A love so essential to who we are can easily feel entrapping, like it is robbing us of our freedom. Perhaps we have all felt that way toward our parents at one time or another. Or we fret about whether the one I love loves me as equally and truly as I love her: perhaps I do not feel as giving as my lover does; or worse, perhaps she doesn’t love me as much as I love her. That’s an anxiety that especially many young lovers have felt. Or what about the heartbreak that clouds the horizon of us parents who experience such an amazing bond of love with a child from the moment of birth. You receive this precious, fragile, cuddly, lovingly dependent life that inspires the noblest feelings of care and nurture in you. Sadly, those precious early years of bonding will be largely forgotten by your child. And so the relationship between parent and child can never be fully mutual. Parents are doomed to watch their children grow more distant, more independent, and subject to all kinds of threats beyond our control, from untrue lovers who will break their hearts, to bad friends who lead them astray—and who knows how our unpredictable economy might fail to bring our children sustenance and opportunity? And then, what if our children do something terribly wrong? / There’s so much at stake. It’s no wonder that parents constantly get it wrong. Out of fear, we are too protective and controlling; our of a desire for mutual love and respect, we are too permissive.

Getting love right, in any of these relationships, seems almost impossible. But perhaps that’s because we have set our minds on the flesh, not on the Spirit. These are the terms Paul uses in our reading, and they are unfriendly terms. They may sound unhelpful. So let me explain them so that they can be helpful. Biblical scholars all agree that for Paul, “Flesh” does not mean the “body,” and “Spirit” does not mean soul or mind. To keep things brief, to set your mind on the flesh is to think only about what I have coming to me; what is mine; what am I going to get out of this? In verse 15 Paul calls this a “spirit of slavery” that makes you “fall back into fear.” When you approach your loved ones with the question: what’s in it for me in this relationship, you will always think first about yourself, and you will live in fear that you will not get what is coming to you. Life and loving relationships for those set on the flesh or on “me” can only bring loss.   “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” If you are all about having and possessing, the one thing you know is that you will inevitably lose it all.

But “To set your mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit is all about giving, not having. For those in the Spirit, life is a gift and a chance to give in return. God’s grace, given freely, stands behind everything. My loving relationships are not a threat to my possessions, but show me the truth that there is no “me.” Who I am from the very beginning is bound up with others—my parents first of all. I will be entrusted with responsibilities, possessions, and decisions, but these are not ultimate. There is not me without others.

If you set your mind on the flesh, then your relationships will present your with two choices: either I am going to get what I want, or I am going to sacrifice myself, and this person I love is going to take all that I have. But if you set your mind on the Spirit, then you live in a “we.” When you give, you give to an “us” that includes you and your lover. And when you receive, you receive as a “we” that rejoices with the lover. There are no losers and winners in the Spirit; if you are thinking about who is winning and who is losing, you are in the flesh.

It’s really pretty simple. And Paul’s believes that God shows us in Jesus that the meaning and destiny of everything is in the Spirit, not in the flesh—with the “we,” not with the “me.” Paul is writing this to the church, whose very identity is founded on Jesus, the one who brought life and peace in the Spirit. Our “we” includes above all Jesus, and through Jesus, God’s own eternal being is part of our “we.” God is our loved one; and we are God’s loved ones. Our “we” is boundless.

So the first thing to do, as we practice repentance in our closest relationships, is to set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. In other words, your relationships are not your possessions to be managed, but they are life itself. They are your “we.” And they will not be all they can be unless you can enter them with the right intention, understanding, and heart.

But fixing our relationships probably isn’t as simple as just “setting you mind.” For one, we remain inevitably prone to selfishness, it seems. We remain at least a little bit in the flesh. After all, Paul had just said in chapter seven, apparently about himself, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” This is the reality we confront during Lent. And so every day, we feel or inflict the pain of life in the flesh on our relationships, because as simple as it sounds, we cannot bring ourselves to live wholly as a “we.”

But besides being inevitably at least a little selfish, we are also fragile, bodily creatures, for thus God created us. We cannot overcome our own vulnerability, and neither can our loved ones. Above all we are mortal. If you were here on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality is what launched this great Lenten journey we are on. Doing so can free us, as it did then, to face our need for repentance and to embrace real life with the time we have. But it also forces us to face the fact that even the “we” that we live, even when we love rightly, for will be taken from us.

That brings us to our reading from the Gospel of John. Now, I will tell you right off that the Gospel of John does not always sit well with me. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, no doubt. But sometimes I find the portrayal of Jesus and others to lack credibility. In today’s reading, as he is bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” That’s lovely. The author of the gospel could have left it at that. But he has Jesus add, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” That’s weird. Jesus has to explain—not to God, surely, so apparently to us the readers—that he only thanked God out loud for the sake of the crowd. I guess that John thinks that if Jesus had to thank God, that suggests that Jesus wasn’t absolutely sure from the start that God would come through. Or maybe Jesus and God are so united that they act as one, so thanks would not be appropriate. But either way, I can’t imagine Jesus actually making this announcement (‘of course, I only said that for the crowds’). And indeed, scholars believe that John’s gospel shows at least a few layers of editing; this odd comment of Jesus could come from the hand of a later editor trying to clarify something about Jesus, but in effect messing up the story a little bit. It bothers me. But this detail in the story need not detain us.

Another detail of the story is more relevant to us today, and it also shows something odd about the way Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel. As I read this story, Jesus is a little bit above the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives a message from his dear friends Mary and Martha, telling him Lazarus, who is also dear to Jesus, is ill. But did you notice this? Jeanie did in Bible Study. Jesus, for no apparent reason, stays where he is for two days, before setting out to the town where Lazarus is. / What becomes clear is that Jesus intentionally waited two days, so that by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Now, what is important about these four days? According to Jewish belief at the time, the soul remains near the body for up to three days after death. It was not unheard of for people of God to bring back to life someone who has recently died. Elijah the prophet does this in 1 Kings chapter 17. Jesus apparently waits for four days so that his raising of Lazarus, even after he had begun to decompose, will stand out as an extraordinary miracle—like the way Jesus gave sight to the man born blind last week, something that was likewise unheard of.

In other words, Jesus is out to make a point. The raising of Lazarus is to be the last and greatest of Jesus’ seven signs, which are never about the deed itself, they are testimony that leads people to find eternal life in Jesus. Jesus indicates as much at the beginning of the story: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so when Jesus meets Martha—who scolds him a little, saying that if Jesus had hurried up he could have saved Lazarus—Jesus tries to direct her beyond Lazarus’ dying and rising toward himself as the true life. She confesses, like many Jews at that time, that Lazarus will be raised from the dead at the end of time; this was thought to take place when the Messiah eventually comes and ends the world as we know it. Jesus corrects her a bit: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” His point is surely not far from what Paul was saying: to live according to the flesh is to die; to live according to the Spirit is to truly live. And then Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?” Jesus is trying to raise Martha’s sights beyond just the life of her dear brother Lazarus, a life and love that will remain fragile and mortal; Lazarus will die again. But to believe in Jesus is to transcend death, although I confess it’s not crystal clear what Jesus means when he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus talks about “eternal life” in John’s gospel, it seems he is not only talking about a life after our death, but something we enjoy here and now. We have eternal life when we live in the presence of Jesus, for God’s eternal being is in this one. He is what allows our “we,” the spirit by which we connect our lives with others, to include not only mortal loved ones, but God’s own being which is eternal. And that is the Spirit that really gives us life and keeps us from falling back into fear, making us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, as Paul says.

Living out of God’s eternal being, in other words, might prevent us from getting too attached to our Lazaruses, our loved ones. It is possible that the problem in our closest relationships is not just ego, or selfishness—the “flesh.” It’s not always that we haven’t loved enough. The problem can also be that we love too much. There is too much at stake; this one person means too much to me. It is a troubling possibility. You know I never would have predicted this, but there is no question in my mind that if I was ever faced with the choice of giving my life for Silas’—it’s unrealistic, but perhaps for a medical reason, I wouldn’t hesitate one second—the easiest hard decision I would ever have to make. Surely there’s something divine in that, the willingness to give up one’s life. There’s probably also a lot of evolutionary biology in it—our innate drive to reproduce. (And ask me again when he’s a teenager. We’ll see what the score is then.) We are not helplessly egocentric, as the cynics like to claim; we are capable of intense, selfless love, at least for our own. That same intensity of love can utterly break our hearts—that’s what is frightening. But while our human love bears an analogy to the love of God, it is not the same. The New Testament understands Jesus to have given his life for all, not just for his own. So I think Jesus in this story is showing a certain detachment from his love for Lazarus and his sisters, for the eternal life and love of God cannot be completely spent just on one’s family and friends. It expands beyond this, even to our enemies, to the ones we consider sinners, which I suppose is what we all were to God. And so in this spirit of detachment, Jesus is trying to lift up Martha’s vision beyond her grief for Lazarus. This is wise, for we must love our dearest ones without thinking that all of life depends on them, lest our grief break us. Only on God can we say that all of life depends.

Yet what is so touching about this story is to see Jesus also share in the fragility of grief. His character’s confident detachment holds sway, until Martha’s sister Mary comes out to see him. I think Jesus was closest with Mary; it is Mary who anoints his feet with her hair. And when he sees this dear friend weeping over the death of her brother, and hears her disappointment that he did not arrive in time, and when he sees the crowd who came to pay their respects moved to tears by Mary’s weeping, Jesus’ confident detachment, with its sights set high on God’s eternal glory, fails him. We are told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” It is as if Mary and even the crowd of strangers who were so powerfully affected by her, remind him—or remind us the readers—of his humanity, for Jesus is fully human. He breaks down and weeps. He does this in front of the crowd of “Jews”—a problematic term we talked about last week—this crowd who are generally depicted by John as not to be trusted. “The Jews” are often Jesus’ skeptics and enemies in this gospel. But here is a rare moment when he is vulnerable in front of them, and they are moved by his love. Jesus is changed by all of this particular human attachment, that of both Mary and the Jews. The change is marked by the fact that, even though Mary greets Jesus in exactly the same way as Martha did, Jesus does not insist on correcting her and raising her sights beyond Lazarus. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” and gets on with it. /

We are called to love everyone, as God has loved all. We are not to restrict our love just for those who love us: our children, parents, lovers, spouses, friends. There is a time and place to detach from our loved ones and to say, as Jesus elsewhere says, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’”  But even Jesus could not help but be moved by his love for his dearest friends. Let us not imagine that we must forsake our dearest ones, but let us love them truly in the Spirit. Your Lenten discipline card offers some guidance to doing that this week.

3rd in Lent (3/19): “Lenten Disciplines: Encountering Strangers”

Romans 5:1-11 ; John 4:5-42

Today I’ll talk about how we encounter strangers, and the Lenten Disciplines card in your bulletin gives you some guidelines (you are free to depart from them) to practice intentional care in how you interact with strangers. I’m not interested today in talking about governmental policies toward strangers, although immigrants and refugees currently dominate our news and are a central and political issue worldwide. I certainly could talk about that. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Bible provides virtually no grounds for a tough and unyielding policy toward strangers (let me know if I’m missing something); the Bible consistently advocates for hospitality and justice for the stranger (variously translated as the sojourner, the alien, the foreigner). There may be good reasons for getting tough on immigrants and refugees, but the Bible provides none. (And indeed, no Christian advocacy groups I know of, including right-wing evangelical ones, advocate unwelcoming policies towards immigrants and refugees.)

I could say much more about all that, but I am not going to today. We’re focusing on personal, daily practices of repentance. So I want to talk about the quality of our encounters with strangers every day. It’s an amazing thing that we brush by so many total strangers every day—some of us at least. There is so much humanity swirling all around us. And yet we mostly tune it out; we mostly ignore their humanity.

In college I was greatly taken with the thought of Martin Buber, a famous Jewish writer about 100 years ago, who wrote about the importance of authentic encounters with others, which he put in terms of genuinely speaking as an I to a you. We have a terrible tendency to turn each other into an It, Buber feared. We protect ourselves from the uncanniness of encounter by trying to treat everything, even people, as objects that don’t touch my I. Really addressing and encountering someone is difficult; it requires speaking with one’s “whole being,” says Buber. He thought the realm of honest, unguarded encounter with others to be sacred, and it is where Buber felt God’s presence. Do you encounter strangers with your whole being? What percent of your whole being do you put at stake in your encounters? I think this question is important for practicing a Christian love toward the stranger, and for making sense of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.

Buber’s call for authentic encounter stands in a modest contrast with our dominant, inoffensive secular model of treating strangers: we believe in generally being respectful, polite, “nice,” and kind. One can do much worse than the secular model, but it is not yet the fullness of Christian love. (And it doesn’t fit how Jesus treats the Samarian woman, but more on that later.) Our secular model starts from recognizing that everyone has rights, everyone is equal under the law, and moreover that no one can judge right and wrong for anyone but himself. Each of us is the author of her own life, each of us is sovereign over how we see the world. “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion,” so “to each his own,” we say, quoting neither the Bible nor anything-in-particular. No one has any authority over anyone else. So what we have to do is respect each other’s privacy, and never judge. (Even Planet Fitness gets that!) “I’m ok, you’re ok,” we say, and so “Live and let live,” again quoting neither the Bible nor anything-in-particular. This is the secular contract we make with each other, so that we can get along and show a minimum of respect as we interact with strangers.

Now, built into this secular contract is a relativism, that is, a recognition that we cannot establish a single, shared sense of right and wrong. Those of us who are socially liberal (“live and let live” types) ought to be able to hear the concerns of our socially more conservative sisters and brothers on this. The relativism of “live and let live” is not what we find in Scripture nor what Jesus shows toward the Samaritan woman. True enough; but neither do we see grounds in the New Testament for an extreme socially conservative program of re-instituting moral absolutes and enforcing them with moralistic judgments and legal sanctions. Jesus did make judgments when he met others, although his judgments showed a god-like wisdom beyond what you and I are capable of. But contrary to the social conservative, who almost inevitably stigmatizes and deems inferior that which is unconventional, strange or foreign—that in short which is not white and not straight—Jesus usually reserves his strongest judgments for those who are the most powerful and respected—the “pillars of society” like the Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes of his day. On the other hand, Jesus reserved his greatest compassion and judgment-free welcome for those who were least respected: the tax collectors, women of dubious reputation, the morally or religiously compromised, and the country bumpkins and hicks of his day. (Remember how the Kingdom of God comes as a reversal of our present order?) Following Jesus may make us revise the way we treat strangers with a one-size-fits-all live-and-let-live attitude.

But again, that attitude is not bad. It can quote Scripture. Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” which, strangely enough, has been carried over into our conventional wisdom in its King James English. There is definitely something Christian about receiving people where they are, free of judgment. Paul recognizes the basis for this when he says, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” But Jesus’ “judge not” is not a lazy and easy out from entering into a morally complex space when you meet a stranger. It is not “live and let live.” (Instead, Jesus’ word to “judge not” comes with an absolute judgment which is beyond our authority—“…lest you be judged.” It presupposes God, that is, and so cannot be marshaled to support our secular “live and let live” contract. But given the choice, I’ll take “live and let live” over the often violent and cruel imposition of standards on people who have trouble conforming, whether because of their personalities or race or tastes or their standing outside a male/female gender scheme.

“Live and let live” can become an excuse to ignore the stranger or just not take him seriously. It can be an excuse for us to not have to wrestle with being transformed by our encounters, or perhaps transforming others. But “live and let live” also can be carried out in a way that is really very loving and respectful. It can mean you just want to receive people as they are and come to understand them deeply. It can mean that you understand the complexities and difficulties surrounding any attempt to arrive at judgments about someone you don’t know well, and how often those judgments arise thoughtlessly from biases and small-mindedness. “Live and let live” can be ‘lived out’ in a genuinely Christian way. It almost depends on how you say it. [Blasé]: “Live and let live;” [with passion] “Live and let live.” It is with passion and love that God lets us live, even as that is bound up–mysteriously–with letting God’s son die.

So where does that leave us, so far? I’m saying that we can play it safe and do no harm by according strangers we meet with a friendly respectfulness. We certainly should not be judgmental to people just because they are not like us. That’s not Jesus way, generally. Rather, we should be prepared to stand up for those who are not like us, those who are socially vulnerable because they are different or strange. That is Jesus’ way, generally. But with everyone else—those roughly like us or those who are powerful and respected—we should be prepared to enter into a morally complex and uncomfortable space when we encounter a stranger. The best way I can put it is that we should take the stranger seriously. If saying “live and let live” means I am not taking this person seriously, then we easily fall into making the stranger into someone irrelevant to me and my plans, or into a tool and function of my plans. (And you’ll see on our Lenten Disciplines card that I will ask you to take seriously the humanity of people you meet in places of commerce—the check out person, the waiter, the bank teller, whomever.) Taking the stranger seriously means you expect the possibility of real transformation to happen. You might find yourself learning at the feet of someone who is wiser than you, often when you least expect it, as has happened to me several times when I have taken homeless people seriously. Or you may see in the stranger someone who needs you to break down the wall of politeness—someone who needs real love, real direction, guidance and wisdom—even someone who needs you to call him out, call him to repentance. It’s all possible, every time you really encounter a stranger. And more than likely, you’ll recognize both wisdom and the need for correction in both yourself and the stranger. That’s what I mean by a “morally complex space.” (But I won’t expect all of you to do that each time you meet a stranger this week!)

Jesus’ encounter with a stranger at a well, the Samaritan woman made famous in John’s gospel, takes place in precisely a morally complex space. The space around a well is, moreover, symbolically complex; John associates water with the grace brought by Jesus, but scholars differ on what exactly water means to John. And this is Jacob’s well, involving the complex matter of the true legacy of Israel. The person Jesus encounters is an outside and marginal person—a woman, first of all, and one with an ugly or shameful history of relationships, as we learn from Jesus. She is a Samaritan, an offshoot of the people Israel that they considered apostate and impure—the way we regard Mormons provides a very good analogy to how Israelites regarded the Samaritans. For all these reasons, it is shocking to the disciples when they find Jesus speaking with her. And we might even want to cheer as Jesus breaks down yet another unjust cultural barrier. We might want to say: “There he goes again, just like in the parable of the good Samaritan!”

But Jesus hardly treats her with compassionate grace. When she asserts the ancient Samaritan claim to legitimate worship on the mountain associated with Jacob’s well, Jesus responds by affirming right back at her the classic Jewish response: “You worship what you do not know; we [that is, we Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Sounds like a cultural barrier left very much intact. And she does not come off as a heroic underdog. She shows no contrition of embarrassment about her adulterous relationship, not that Jesus seems to care. Throughout the complex interchange, she does show a progression in understanding, so that by the end she is considering whether Jesus could be the messiah. Still, throughout she, like many of Jesus’ interlocutors in John, keeps taking Jesus in a literal and material way, getting all hung up on literal thirst and ignoring Jesus’ amazing prediction of a worship in spirit and truth that is to come. It’s not clear that she ever comes to believe, although she is credited with instigating the faith in Jesus of some fellow Samaritans. (But then John has the new Samaritan converts deny her any real credit for their faith: “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.’” So there! No thanks to you, Samaritan woman.

Morally complex. That means we’re not sure what to make of this exchange—at least I am not. I admire the way Jesus reaches out to her, since he wouldn’t be expected to speak to her at all; but he doesn’t strike me as brimming over with kindness here: “Give me a drink,” he says without introductions. And then he proceeds to perplex and confuse her with opaque symbols.

We don’t like moral complexity; why would we—it makes everyone uncomfortable. That’s why we like the comfort of convention. Following manners and expected scripts alleviates us of the discomfort we feel around strangers. If Jesus had taken this easy way out, he never would have spoken with her in the first place. Likewise, we so often exchange only superficial or merely functional words with strangers we encounter. I know I do this.  I probably would have just watched the Samarian woman come and go.

On the other hand, if I had had the courage to break through all those barriers—religious, ethnic, gender—and speak with her, I think I would have been more sympathetic to her. But all this is a good reminder that following Jesus does not save us from moral complexity. We like to distill the gospel portrayal of Jesus down to some simple moral program: always show people welcome and compassion. Always show mercy and love. But Jesus defies our simplistic moral programs. He’s a complex character, especially when you consider the different portrayals of him in our four gospels. We want to resolve our moral complexity by asking (or just wearing as an emblem) “What would Jesus do?” Sometimes that question is helpful, but Jesus isn’t always there to be our role model; we’re not always supposed to imitate him. I wouldn’t be inclined or able to air that woman’s dirty relationship laundry in front of her, like Jesus did. In John’s Gospel especially, Jesus comes across as a godlike, otherworldly figure, a heavily symbolic character interacting with other characters more symbolic than real. It’s a strange book. (And I’m sorry, I just find it annoying when he says to the disciples, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” I picture him saying that with a Bill Clinton smirk.) But that’s fine, if Jesus is not always my role model. It’s not for me to die on a cross to reconcile all humanity to God—whatever that means. That’s where all this is going. Sometimes you just have to let Jesus do his thing.

And so I do not recommend that you imitate Jesus’ edgy conversation with the Samaritan woman when you encounter strangers this week. But at least we can say that he takes her seriously, speaks truth to her, and does not let convention and manners get in his way. I’ve given you some suggestions on the Lenten Disciplines card for trying to encounter strangers authentically both while we drive and while we shop and do commerce. Begin with what we learn from Paul: we are all reconciled to God by the gift of Christ; everyone deserves love, despite the fact that everyone has gone astray. But from there you must enter into your own morally complex space—you and the stranger.

 

 

First in Advent (3/5): “Unplug for the Free Gift”

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ; Romans 5:12-19

We had a good crowd on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent–literally! And thanks to our children for marking the bulletins with ashes from our Ash Wednesday service. In that service, everyone present received a dried palm leaf from last year’s Palm Sunday. We all meditated on that palm leaf, and mentally inscribed something we want to lay down during Lent—whether it is a practice or habit or wound that we want to be healed. We collected the leaves, burned them, and crushed them together. So we are all sharing in each other’s repentance. That last part—the sharing of all our repentance in one mass of ashes—was for me crucial to the whole thing.

Lent involves a turning inward, as I said last week. From Christmas to Easter, our attention is focused on the story of Jesus and how his story defines our story. But halfway between Christmas and Easter, we turn inward to examine ourselves. That is critical: at some point, we need to deal with our own concrete story and reality and seek to draw closer to God. But how do we do this? Do we just start talking about ourselves? That won’t necessarily prompt us to repent. We might think that our story is not all so bad, that we’ve done some good things and maybe some not so good, but all in all we don’t have much to repent for. Without the richness of the biblical stories, without all those stories about human beings trying to obey the infinitely righteous God, I’d probably think that I’m a mostly decent guy. I’m not a criminal. I’m not sponging off anybody.

And that’s fair enough. Evangelical Christians sometimes talk as if everyone who is not a born again Christian must be really sinful, even if that murky, sinful self is well concealed in one’s secret heart. That, however, is not my experience of myself, nor of my friends who live very good lives without religious faith, thank you very much.

Something else is going on in the biblical story, that I fear our evangelical cousins don’t get. I don’t think the Bible is actually teaching that all non-believers are vile sinners. Notice a sentence from the Romans reading. Paul first says, “Death spread to all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned, [sin doesn’t count], where there is no Law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.”

Now, there is a lot going on in this passage—so much that I would love to try to explain, and some things I’m not sure I would want to agree with. But briefly, when Paul says that “sin is not reckoned where there is no Law,” I think he means this: people generally do a mix of good and bad things. But God through Moses presented the Law to the people of Israel, and the Law means that now we measure ourselves against a standard of absolute purity and perfection, namely, God, which before we never had to worry about. If you and I were to compare our actions, we’d probably look roughly equal (except when we see the speck in our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own). But seen next to God’s holy and all-seeing perfection, before whom every shadow of our secret intentions and every deed left undone become apparent, our goodness seems to melt away. Indeed, we might seem to really deserve death, which is what I think Paul means. That’s often the reaction of Old Testament figures who came face to face with God, like Isaiah or Jacob—they wanted to die.

So, one lesson to draw from all this is that people who do not believe in God don’t have to worry about measuring themselves against this absolute standard of God’s righteous purity. I don’t blame them for seeing themselves as a mix of good and bad, but certainly not sinners. Because, as Paul says, “Sin is not reckoned [present tense, so still today] when there is no law.” Those who do not measure themselves against God’s holiness should not properly be counted sinners.

Yet if anyone were to compare himself to God’s holy standard, that person would see himself or herself as a sinner. So “all have sinned,” as Paul says, but only those who know God’s law would recognize it as sin. Paul says that sin and death exercised dominion over all, “even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” Meaning, not everyone deliberately disobeys God as Adam supposedly did. Yet all are sinners. When you compare even sins that aren’t deliberate against God’s absolute standard of perfection, they measure up as sin nonetheless. Take any amount and compare it to infinity, and all those amounts will look equally far infinity. So, as long as we imagine God as the Law Giver who demands absolute perfection, we see ourselves as deserving death—or at least, deserving no reward and nothing of lasting and eternal worth. And Paul thinks that the Law takes us only this far—to a God demanding perfection. Now, I don’t think Paul means that everyone in the Old Testament cowered before God’s righteous perfection. Obviously, Abraham did not. So I think he’s talking about a way that any believer of God can misinterpret the Law to demand perfect fulfillment. And even more confusingly, Paul doesn’t mean that this misinterpretation of the Law is completely wrong. God is perfect and holy, and we cannot simply ignore this fact.

But Paul adds, “Adam…is a type of the one who was to come.” Adam—the word means “a human being” in Hebrew—is for Paul a symbol of all humanity found wanting when measured by God’s perfection. That symbol of Adam is a type of Jesus Christ. That is, Adam, or fallen humanity, only makes sense as the anti-type, the opposite of Christ, who represents for Paul the “free gift” of God’s grace. And the symbolic Adam and Christ are not balanced and equal: Christ outweighs Adam, overwhelms Adam, so that God’s righteous judgment can only be seen as secondary and inferior to God’s grace. So while Adam symbolizes all humanity judged and found sinners, Jesus Christ (whatever he was historically) symbolizes all humanity embraced by God with love and accepted as righteous and just. Jesus Christ was faithful and obedient even to death on behalf of us all; thus it is that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” This in essence is what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus God embraces all humanity, even the whole cosmos, in love. Christ overwhelms Adam, supersedes Adam: “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”

So, let’s sum up thus far. We who believe in God through Jesus Christ understand ourselves primarily as members of the whole humanity which has been received as just and loveable to God by virtue of the graced life of Jesus Christ. But it is still true, even if not as true, that if we consider our own life and goodness, we are also members of the humanity of Adam, the humanity that in every way and universally lives and dies in imperfection or sin, which sometimes looks very mild, and sometimes looks Satanic in its degree of evil. But considered as a type of Christ, considered as the opposite of Jesus, we are all in the same boat of fallen humanity. Now we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to see themselves or us in terms of this graced but fallen humanity. And we may not always have to see ourselves and others that way; a courtroom judge, while sitting on the bench, has little choice but to find some guilty and some innocent. But the story of Jesus and Adam is the primary story of our humanity.

It is this story that enables us to love ourselves and one another, and even or especially our enemy—to live fundamentally directed by love, even while we take very seriously how all humanity is in solidarity in falling short of God’s perfection. We and the world are seriously screwed up. Some just go along, others deliberately and knowingly reject the good out of a grandiose desire to be God, as Paul says, “like the transgression of Adam.” Wherever we are on this spectrum, this is our humanity. We are all Adam, something you and I accept because we are all, even more truly, Jesus Christ.

But that is not the story that we hear every day. Every day we are bombarded with a whole bunch of non-Christian or anti-Christian stories. They never come out and say: “The following program will present you with an anti-Christian story. Christians may want to consider reading the Bible instead.” And these stories aren’t all bad. Some non-Christian stories are incredibly illuminating, fun, and true. Life is so rich; let’s not expect the Gospel story to exhaust the richness of human experience. And we shouldn’t blame non-Christians for sharing with us their sometimes wonderful and sometimes pathetically empty stories. We and not they have been called to make this gospel story into not our only source of truth, but the very heart of what is true for us.

But all these other stories do get in the way of our gospel story. Most of them do not try to supplant the gospel. But they in effect crowd out the gospel story, especially because they come with the backing of very powerful institutions: our whole capitalist free market, our whole media apparatus, and our whole institution of government—and more besides. There is much diversity and nuance among the stories of these and other institutions, but I think we can posit a common factor among them all: they all tell us that we are free, we are in charge; and all the stuff being offered to us by the salespeople, the talking heads, and our governing representatives is just here for us to use for our benefit. They like to assure us: “It’s all about you.” / You’ll never hear me say from this pulpit, “It’s all about you.” Never: “I’m just here to give you want you want.” Never: “I’m just doing what the people want me to do.” Only in this church will you hear: “It’s all about God.” And because God has embraced humanity in Jesus Christ, it’s all about you too, but it’s also about everyone else—all of us in a solidarity of grace amid sin: “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

And anything, however innocently, that crowds out this story for us is diabolical. It is the Tempter. And their stories amount to a lie, whatever their truth is. We are not free as they assure us that we are. We are not really in charge. Isn’t that what the serpent said to Eve? He asks her, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” He empowers Eve to think of herself as in charge, as free. So she starts speaking for God, and you’ll notice that she changes what God said a bit. Soon the serpent has the human beings (that’s us) really taking charge, willfully making themselves judges of the good and evil of all things. And that’s how we get the whole matter of the Law that we talked about above: we take upon ourselves to see things as absolutely good or evil, something only God can do, something God has always only been able to do by the union of grace and justice in Jesus Christ, eternally begotten from the bosom of God.

The serpent is a dealer. He makes us a deal we cannot resist. If you’ll just take charge enough to do something that will really put you in charge, you will be like a little god. And then the world will revolve around you. The free market serpent tells us, You can shop until you drop, searching for ultimate fulfillment in that elusive perfect purchase. The media serpent tells us, You can choose whatever you want to be true, and we’ll bend and accommodate what is true to suit your fancy. And the government serpent says, Don’t worry about what is good for all, or good for the least of these; you just tell us what is good for you and we’ll make it happen. These systems do some good; they work up to a point. They will never bring us the Kingdom of God. More likely, when you make a deal with the devil, and maybe “if you fall down and worship” Satan, you will be promised “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” but in the end you, a little god at the center of the world, will die in your sins.   This is not real freedom. Indeed, the story of temptation—Adam’s or ours or Jesus’—is not about how we are going to use our freedom. It is all based on a false image of what freedom is—me being in charge in God’s place, which is exactly what Jesus refuses in Satan’s temptations.

Take a look at the card in your bulletin entitled, “Lenten Disciplines: Unplug for the Free Gift.” Please put it in your purse or pocket to take it home. I won’t know who throws theirs in the recycling bin on the way out the door, but I’ll be a little annoyed when I find a bunch of them in their. These cards, one each week, are for you to take on some disciplines or practices of repentance for Lent. This first one has the broadest scope of all: I want you to experience unplugging from your dependency—your so-called freedom—in relation to the whole conglomerate of consumerism, media, and government—which after all, have gradually come to resemble each other more and more. We are never going to be free from this dependency; we can go off-grid, but that’s probably a luxury for the few. But we can take half an hour, or maybe a 10 minutes a day, temporarily finding a space free from the commercial-media-government conglomerate. And not just to claim our own personal off-grid freedom, which is not the freedom of the gospel anyway, a freedom denying our solidarity with Adam and Christ. But to take measure of how dependent we are, how mired in the serpent’s deals.

I first suggest ways to break away from our bound condition, so you can get some perspective on how bound we are over the course of a typical day. Then I invite you to contemplate nature, which gives without making a deal with us to put us at the center of the universe.

Before our unfortunate trespass into taking upon ourselves the judgment of all things according to good and evil—which, despite some of its dreadful effects, is what makes us human, makes us Adam—God put us in the garden to “till and keep it.” God didn’t even ask us, to begin with, to worship him. It’s a humble but beautiful vocation, as anyone who has ever tended a garden or taken care of animals can attest. And so, finally, I ask you on the card to think of three ways you can till and keep the world around you. Think about and plan to do those things during these 40 days, and beyond. Pray for God’s help in this. God alone, illuminating you by the gospel story, will make you no empty promises of god-like freedom, but will lead you into the way of life of the free gift, the only gift great enough for the whole human race to share in.