Tag Archives: Matthew

Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us

[A video of the service where this was preached may be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/epiphanyucc/ ]

Scripture: Psalm 27, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

The week of prayer for Christian Unity was developed and is sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican.

This year’s theme for Christian Unity Week was developed two years ago by some German Christians, in response to conditions in Europe. But boy, I can’t imagine a better time to talk about reconciliation than right here, right now.

I started putting together the worship service about a week ago and started writing this sermon two days before the inauguration. As I wrote, I had no idea how the next few days of traditional ceremonies and parties, punctuated with protests and marches were going to unfold. But I’ve known for more than a year that our nation — our world — is heading into a crisis of divisions and discord.

I have alternated between wanting to engage in angry resistance to injustice and wanting to just hunker down and pray for release. Frankly, I am tired of witnessing people who disagree with each other descend into name-calling and worse. I’m tired of the “I’ve got mine” crowd, but I’m also tired of the “I’m so right” and “You’re a moron,” crowd too.

So when I saw that I had fallen into the Sunday in the midst of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, I was encouraged by the theme. The organizers took the title from Pope Francis, who cited Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The Love of Christ Compels Us.

But lets start at the beginning. We began our scripture reading today with a psalm lament. Aside from it being one of the lectionary scriptures, what does a psalm pleading, “Do not forsake me” have to do with reconciliation?

I would say that reconciliation probably should begin with lament, with an expression of fear, because fear is behind so many of our divisions and harmful acts toward each other. Even greed could be traced back to the fear of not having enough, or the fear of someone else getting more than you or beating you in some competition for scarce resources. Before we can conquer our fear and reach out to someone else, we have to name and face our fear and realize the source of the threat.

The psalmist faces fear by recognizing God as the “stronghold of my life.” And with that kind of support, “of whom shall I be afraid?” he says. Indeed. In these scary times, we need reassurance. We ask,  are you with me, God?

We touched on the Old Testament reading from Isaiah in our second hymn, when we sang, that “God rescues us from fear.” “Through holy prophets, God has sworn to free us from alarm, to save us from the heavy hand of all who wish us harm.” The people Isaiah was addressing really had it tough. And a lot of them would have scoffed at the idea that God was saving them, as they were dragged off to Babylon to be slaves.

The lectionary Isaiah passage includes the verse, “the people in darkness have seen a great light.” We read this verse at Christmastime and see in it a description of what Jesus brought to the world. In fact, it’s quoted in today’s gospel reading.

But Isaiah was writing about a different event. A return of the exiles from Babylon. They’d been in darkness. In fact, many of the returnees were too young or weren’t born yet to remember their time in Israel. And many had died in exile.

Understand — they did not return from exile because they won a battle. In fact, they had just been transferred from one conquerer to another, from Babylon to Persia, who defeated Babylon. Cyrus, the Persian leader, didn’t release them because they rose up in rebellion. He sent them home, scripture tells us, because God softened his heart.

The people who returned from Babylon had been transformed. Judaism would never be the same — and that was a good thing. Defeat and exile brought them together and made them depend on God, in a way that ordinary worldly success and comfort could never do. In exile, they lost their possessions and their status and their power. All they had were their scripture, their traditions and each other, and God.

Isaiah and the prophets didn’t actually promise that the people would never experience hard times. Just that God would deliver them . . . eventually. And they would be stronger, with a stronger trust in God and a better understanding of what is important.

I’m reminded of the movie, “Independence Day” with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblume. The plot is familiar: the world is attacked by aliens and the heroes and heroines are challenged to defend their planet. The scenes that stick in my mind are the little vignettes of people all over the world — in India and Europe and Africa as well as America — first, suffering the attack and then . . . banding together to fight back. No bickering, no talk of letting the marketplace determine the winner, no ideological arguments over who is God (or where is God). They had a common enemy and a common goal.

Is having a common enemy the only way to begin to share a common goal? If that were the case, in our day and age, climate change would appear to be the kind of common enemy that could unite the world to work together. But that’s not happening so far — at least on a scale broad enough to include all of our leaders and fellow Americans.

In fact, the divide and conquer strategy, much older than Julius Caesar who articulated it, depends on people identifying others as their enemy. One group’s “common enemy” designed to bring people together could well be another group with whom they should be joining, rather than fighting.

The term reconciliation assumes there is a division to heal. And humanity is full of division — tribalism, distrust of strangers, patriarchy and hierarchies that elevate some over others, giving power to a few and subjugation to the rest. It happens in nations, but it happens in communities and families as well.

Even churches. Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth by referring to the factions arising in that small group.:

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

How to bring light to that darkness of division? Notice, in the gospel story Jesus reacts to John the baptist being imprisoned by starting his ministry. He doesn’t rally the folks to free John or to resist the Romans. He says, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. . . Repent for the kingdom of heaven — or the reign of God — is near.” Now, John was a charismatic leader and he was imprisoned and then executed. That’s darkness enough to dash the hopes of his followers.

So how does Jesus counter that? He says the darkness is over; the light has come. He calls followers, telling them he will send them to “fish for people,” to cast the net of love and draw people in, to gather them together, rather than divide them.

In this passage, Jesus preaches and teaches, telling “the good news of the kingdom at hand,” the gospel writer tells us, and “healing every disease and sickness among people.” Elsewhere the gospels tell us that he said love your enemies and do not return evil for evil. He urged people to seek the common good, to look out for the least — the poorest and neediest among them.

Not many gospel writers tell of the scoffers who probably said such an approach was naive and would never work, the cynics who pointed out that the powers that be would never stand for Jesus’ call for justice and kindness, that they’d probably kill him first.

Hmm. Well, they did kill him. He just didn’t stay dead. And that’s the most revolutionary thing of all. How do you defeat a person or a group of people with death threats if they no longer fear death? I believe that’s the basis of the concept that Jesus died for all of us. He died to show us that if we don’t fear death, it has no power over us.

So we get to Paul’s second letter, which is the scripture basis for this year’s Christian Unity theme.  Paul wrote,

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

And when I read that passage and many others I am reminded that Jesus told his followers more than once in many ways, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Or as Paul says, and Pope Francis reminds us, “Christ’s love compels us.” Compels us to treat each other with love, to seek the common good of all, to forget ourselves and our petty concerns for possessions or power, especially power over others.

Reconciliation is a way to acknowledge that love, by healing the divisions and tearing down the walls.

[The sermon was followed by a Liturgy for Prayer for Christian Unity ]

Separating the Weeds from the Wheat

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, July 20,2014

Scripture: Psalm 139 Matthew 5:38-48

I can see the headlines now:  God’s kingdom is full of weeds! The Almighty blames the devil, but declines to have the weeds removed.” Sidebars include, “Congress calls for hearings on delay of weed-pulling,” and “President sends in FBI to identify and detain saboteur of wheat crop.”

Yeah. We don’t like weeds, especially in our food crops. Those weeds might be poisonous, we’d better have the wheat labelled, “Warning, this wheat was grown in a field containing weeds.”

I suppose you could say I’ve been spending too much time reading the satirist Andy Borowitz. His latest entry: “Boehner drops Obama lawsuit; says it would mean doing something.”

Reading Borowitz and watching Jon Stewart have warped my perceptions. Or maybe I’ve just been reading and hearing too many news stories about the imperfections of the world. I identify much too strongly with the servants in the parable who want to pull up the weeds. In fact, as I read the usual commentaries in preparation for preaching on this text, I focused so sharply on the weeds that at first I skimmed over the opening line.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.

This is one of several parables that Matthew has Jesus telling the crowd along the lake shore while he sits in a boat just offshore. They’re all about the kingdom of heaven. Weeds in heaven?

No. Commentators say that in the parables that Luke and Matthew have in common Luke quotes Jesus as saying the kingdom of God and Matthew substitutes kingdom of heaven to follow the Jewish tradition of not saying the name of God out loud (or writing it). So it’s the kingdom of God, or as we who want to use inclusive language say, the reign of God, or the rule of God to lose that male king part. Lately I’ve read some people (I think from New Zealand) use the Commonwealth of God.

Sorry to get so pedantic, but I wanted to remind myself and you that Jesus was talking mainly about this kingdom or commonwealth of God’s, not some hereafter world with pearly gates — not that there’s anything wrong with pearly gates. It’s just not the whole story about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

All through chapters 12 and 13, Matthew’s been writing about Jesus saying this commonwealth is near. “The kingdom is at hand,” he says. I’ve come to believe, along with others, that this kingdom is both now and still-to-come. And we see the split nature of this reign of God in this parable. Jesus says The kingdom is like… but then he also mentions the harvest time as being the end of the age. So it’s both now and to come.

In this part of Matthew, Jesus’s speeches and parables are interspersed with people questioning him, trying to back him into a corner with “gotcha” questions, trying to get him to say something that they could twist and exploit. Things haven’t changed all that much, have they? There always seem to be a lot of people wanting to tear down and heckle people who want to increase God’s love and God’s justice in the world.

So here, in one of his longer descriptions of the coming rule of God, Jesus says it has weeds in it.  Well, it does, doesn’t it? Our world is filled with imperfections. It’s filled with imperfect people, people who do unspeakable things to each other, many times hurting each other in the name of God.

Just like the servants, we can see these weeds in God’s field, whether they’re other people or our own imperfections. But they’re so closely bound together with the good wheat, that it would take a lot of work to tease apart the good plants from the bad and even then, we might damage the wheat. Besides, until harvest time the weeds look a lot like the wheat, especially when you get to the level of the root.

It’s a better plan, says the owner of the field, to wait until harvest, when the good grain of the wheat plant will stand out from the weed. Also I interpret that the owner of the field doesn’t plan to pull up the weeds by the root even then. He’ll just have the harvesters cut the weeds at the base, and the ears of wheat from higher on the stalk.

But here’s the biggest part of the lesson for me, if I identify with the farm hands who first notice the weeds. That is, I don’t get to decide what’s a weed and what’s not. Not now, while the plants are growing and not at harvest time, when the harvesters — who we’re later told represent angels — will be instructed to separate the two kinds of plants.

This parable is rich and can be interpreted in many ways. It has a lot of room for shifting and viewing from different angles. I’d say the scholars and preachers I consulted are about evenly divided that the good and bad seeds are different people, or that the good and bad seeds are found in each of us. Either way, it’s hard for the servants to tell which is which, and Jesus seems to be saying that you can’t really tell until you see what fruit the plant produces.

And even then, Jesus is not suggesting that it’s our job to separate the weeds from the wheat. Judge not, that you be not judged, that’s also in Matthew, chapter seven.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I’ve preached before on the difference between being good and being pure, and how scripture seems to sway back and forth between those who think you please God by pious acts of purity and those who think you please God by peaceful acts of justice. Jesus himself gives guidance for which is most important by citing the two most important commandments, love God and love one another.

But most of us try to do a little of both, don’t we? We try to be pious and respectful, and we try to show love by seeking justice. And sometimes we don’t try very hard, or we don’t try at all.

I almost titled this sermon, “Sometimes I feel like a weed, sometimes I don’t.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re as imperfect as the field we’re growing in.

Oh, I see I’ve switched identifications. Before, I was a farm hand. Now I’m a plant in the field. Jesus said in his explanation of the parable that the good seeds were sown by the Son of Man, which is what he often called himself. And the weed seeds were sown by the evil one.

Some people seem to be quite certain who the weeds are. Or they’re not at all worried about killing the wheat stalks to get at them. Last week I took a class in Public Ethics at a seminary in Chicago. I read a book about genocide and the author said that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia actually had a saying, “It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.” That’s kind of backwards from the way we want our justice system to work here, isn’t it?

But we don’t have to look at Cambodia in the mid 1970s to find weeds entangled with good grain.

We can look at the Middle East, with its conflicts and American involvement. Rabbi Susan Talve just came back from Israel and posted a plea for understanding on all sides. She said,

No one is more critical of Israel than Israelis. As progressive Americans I am not asking you to give your support blindly to either side. I am also not asking you to stop caring. I am asking you to recognize the many complex narratives that make up the situation that exists today that make it impossible and dangerous to take sides. I am asking you to believe with me that even though peace in a completely unstable region that is surrounded by Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan may seem impossible, because we are talking about these two peoples Israelis and Palestinians, it is possible. It will take time, it will take work, but we have to believe it is possible and by not sliding into predictable, over simplified rhetoric that takes sides we can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Maybe it should be no surprise that nations are composed of good grain and noxious weeds. Because each of us has both weeds and wheat intertwined in our field. In my introspective moments, I wonder, is my life producing nutritious wheat or noxious weeds? Or both? How will I get rid of the weeds? Should I get out my Roundup spray right now and try to free myself from weeds?

Uh uh. I may not be a very productive gardner, but I believe Jesus when he tells me that’s not my job. As the psalmist said in Psalm 139, God has searched us and knows us through and through. We can’t escape this knowledge, we can’t fool God. But that’s OK, because, as the psalmist says, God’s right hand holds us fast. The last verse of the psalm asks God to “search me and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if I follow the path of evil, and lead me in the way of eternal life.” Again, I am resisting the interpretation that this is about heaven after we die, but more of a plea to be guided into right living here and now.

One of the commentators I read on Jesus’s parable suggested that God, using angels as God’s messengers, will remove the weeds from our souls, as in verse 41: they will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin.” And then, this commentator points to verse 43, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

Ah, but that interpretation leaves out a few words. The full verse is  “They will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And only then will the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

So who’s going to be weeping and gnashing their teeth? Passages like this make me squirm. I, who believe in an inclusive Jesus and an inclusive God, what am I to make of  evil doers being thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”? What happened to “I got wings, you got wings, all God’s children got wings”?

If I think of the end times at all, I confess I feel more inclined to think of a song in the musical comedy, Finnian’s Rainbow. “On that Great Come-and-Get-it-Day. Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.” No gnashing of teeth there. But Jesus and several prophets warn that some people should fear judgment day. It’s not gonna be a fun day for some people.

The best explanation I have found, one that I can sort of trust judging from reading some of his stuff, comes from a blogger, Steve Cooke, from Sydney, Australia.  His explanation of the right-here-right-now nature of the kingdom as well as it being in the future matches my own understanding. In this particular post he examines the uses of the phrase gnashing of teeth in Matthew and Luke and he finds that often it is aimed at the self-proclaimed elite who focus on purity rather than love and who are more interested in proving Jesus false than listening to what he says. Steve said this:

“Something you’ve hopefully already noticed from reading earlier posts on this blog is that when Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom He wasn’t always speaking of some future time in the Age to Come. Most of Jesus’ kingdom-sayings were about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for the Age to Come. Of course, some of His stories were about the future, such as the one in Matthew 13 (our passage today) where He said “this is how it will be at the end of the age.” The context will determine whether Jesus is speaking about the here-and-now or the age to come.

(still quoting Steve) So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected “at the end of the age” will go away angrily “gnashing their teeth” with rage because that is how they behave now. Throughout history we have seen “religious” people directing their anger against other believers who don’t measure up to the standards imposed by the purists. The same is evident today.

Putting this together, Steve says, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. Those who do not live by Jesus’ teachings on love and grace bite and tear each other. Those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when they will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. We don’t have to wait until “the end of the age” to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches [and I would add, nations] which splinter and divide do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God’s kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.”

Isn’t that well said? I probably ought to read more Steve Cook and maybe less Andy Borowitz, at least for sermon prep.

What I learn from Steve’s vision of those gnashing their teeth is that for whatever reason, those who willingly follow the evil one or do evil, rejecting love — it’s for suckers, you know — are creating their own commonwealth right here and now as well as in the future. A commonwealth where they can tear each other apart.

The good seed, on the other hand, is producing good heads of grain. Now I’m going to quote one of my favorite biblical scholars, John Pilch, who has published 14 books on the cultural world of the bible:

“The landowner knows that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner will not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy has backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants have the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others is shamed instead!

The “something other” or “something more” of this parable may well be the landowner’s refusal to retaliate, to get even with the enemy. In a society dedicated to revenge, the landowner’s victory by seeming to do nothing is a powerful lesson.

Pilch continues, “The confidence of the landowner that his wheat will survive the effect of the weeds is worth pondering. A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence. It has worked before in history, and could work again if given a chance.”

So putting these mixed metaphors together, of the weeds and the gnashing of teeth, we see that bad seed produces bad fruit, or no fruit at all, and that those who function in a kingdom of evil will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that produces weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whereas the good seed produces good fruit, and those who grow in the commonwealth of god will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that causes them to be gathered into God’s barn where the righteous — those who seek justice — will shine.

For those of us with both good and bad seed growing in us, we can find support for pulling in our fangs and not gnashing our teeth at each other if we trust God’s trust in us.

“A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness.” That’s worth holding onto. God has searched us and knows us through and through. And as we’re allowing God to guide us, we can catch glimpses — while we’re still in that weedy field — we can catch glimpses of the commonwealth of God.

“Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.”

Praise God. Amen.

Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, St. Louis, Feb. 23, 2014
(Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-5, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48)

Some of you remember Dannie Rosen’s three grandchildren, Jordania, Jason and Scarlett, who spent a year with us while their parents were in Afghanistan a couple years ago. I was privileged to get to know them in Sunday School. During one of the first classes, I asked what they knew about the Bible, and they said their father had told them what it stands for.

“What it stands for?” I asked.

“Yes,” they chimed in together. “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” B-I-B-L-E. I get it.

At the time, I suggested to them, gently, that the Bible was a lot more than just instructions. It is full of stories, I told them. And we can learn a lot about God and our relationship with God by reading or hearing the stories.

Stories mean a lot to me for several reasons, and I have embraced the narrative style of preaching, which starts with a story from scripture. So here we are today, with two scripture passages that have NO story. But they are good examples of the Basic Instruction that so many people think of as being in the Bible.

You could interpret the phrase “before leaving earth” as a suggestion that you’re supposed to follow these basic instructions so you can get into heaven, or maybe even to qualify to be taken up in the rapture of the Second Coming. But I think the phrase might be more appropriately interpreted as rules to live by right here, right now. For, as Jesus said, the kingdom is at hand — God’s kingdom is in each of us and we can, by our behavior, help create a fellowship of God’s children by following the Bible’s basic instructions.

Take the Leviticus passage. This passage surprised me, because I am accustomed to thinking that the 10 Commandments are found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. And here they are — six or seven of them at least — in Leviticus, along with several more, a total of 16 or so commandments in the passage we read today.

What’s different about these commandments compared to the list we’re more familiar with? Well, for starters, there’s more of them. Here are the additions:
‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. … Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

I think we could sum up all of those with the last line: Love your neighbor as yourself. But in case we don’t understand the specifics of that commandment, the writers of Leviticus spell it out for us. For instance, If you’re going to make a big deal of roasting meat to honor God — a fellowship offering — prepare it so it can be shared with others, and let others eat it, rather than just burning it up or putting it on display in a show of wealth. As my mother would say, “don’t waste good food,” share it.

Or the next one, about leaving some of the harvest in the fields for the poor to gather. I could preach a whole sermon on this commandment, interpreting this as an endorsement for taxing the wealthy to fund food stamps for the poor.

These all have to do with getting along with each other, sharing and treating each other fairly. I didn’t realize that Leviticus gives us a biblical basis for supporting the Americans with Disabilities Act, or scriptural support for raising the minimum wage and other legislative actions to require employers to treat their workers fairly. But here it is.

This passage alone redeems Leviticus for me. It has been among my least favorite books of the bible, not only because it has few familiar stories. But mainly because some isolated passages of Leviticus have been lifted out of context and used to beat some of us over the head with condemnation. These abuses of the text might make us so shy of Leviticus that we might not realize the underlying goodness of many of the commandments contained in this book of the Bible.

This passage tells us to be good to each other, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and it speaks to us as a community, not just as individuals. These are indeed “basic instructions” for living. I’d like to put a couple of these on a big poster — “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart,” for instance — and hold it up at an anti-gay rally. Or maybe “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life” at an NRA meeting.

In the New Testament passage we read today, Jesus expands on such commandments as we find in Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And “Do not resist an evil person.”

The Old Testament commandments were hard enough. But Jesus lays it on even harder, doesn’t he? Love your enemies?

I think it’s revealing to compare the people who were being given these commandments. Moses was talking to people who were about to go into the Promised Land and establish the land of Israel. This was, in effect, their constitution. Their guidelines for a good society. Other passages in Leviticus include punishments for breaking the rules, but in this list of basic instructions, the emphasis is on mutual cooperation, and the reason for doing so is that God is holy, so God’s people should be holy.

Now look at who Jesus was talking to in the Sermon on the Mount. In their towns and villages they probably were still trying to be good neighbors to each other. But they no longer had leaders who felt answerable to the God of Israel. They were all under the thumb of the Roman empire. Their land, their commerce, even their bodies were not their own. Jesus was speaking to the oppressed, the captives that he had said he had come to make free.

So what does he tell them? Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. That doesn’t sound like freeing the captives, does it?

Whereas Moses in Leviticus gave the Israelites good standards for living together in a society that intended to live as God’s people, Jesus gave his listeners good standards to function in a society in which the community itself works against fostering love of neighbor.

Even in the Land of Milk and Honey, and among people who took seriously the commandment to be holy as God is holy, there must have been evil doers. Certainly by the time of Jesus, anyone looking back at the optimism of those people led by Moses who had been so eager to establish the land of Israel — looking back at that time, they would have realized that the hoped-for perfect kingdom didn’t last long.

Can’t you hear the cynic? “Love your neighbor, eh? How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

So Jesus suggests another way, and it works just as well for us today. He’s not really saying that we should give in to evil. He’s giving good tactics for turning evil aside.

As we discussed in the message to the young at heart, when someone gives you the back of his hand and you turn the other cheek, you’re forcing that person to treat you as an equal instead of a slave if he wants to hit you again. Jesus is saying, look the hitter in the eye.

In modern times, Martin Luther King explained the strategy when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We have an example of love driving out hate in our own state just last week. (And now, finally, I get to tell a story). You perhaps heard about or read about Michael Sam, a star player on the University of Missouri football team. He’s graduating this year and looking forward to playing for the NFL. Just before the pro teams began final decisions for drafting new players, Sam held a press conference and announced what his teammates had known all season — that he is gay.

It made big news, because Sam will probably — if he’s drafted that is — be the first NFL player to come out of the closet even before he makes a team. And here’s where the non-violent love driving out hate comes in. You probably read about this too.

Westboro Baptist Church — which is not a church but a family of litigating lawyers that goes around provoking people by picketing with hateful signs at events like funerals — Westboro planned to picket the Mizzou basketball game where Sam and the rest of the football team were going to celebrate the trophy they won in the Cotton Bowl championship game.

Word got out about Westboro’s plans and a crowd of hundreds of people gathered to surround them and their hateful signs with equally large signs of love and support — for Sam and for his coaches and team mates.

In the comments under one of the online news stories I read, someone posted guidelines for opposing the Westboro group when they picket.

Assemble a LARGE crowd of well briefed peaceful folk and Stand Between the WBCers and those who are the object of their protest. If you cannot take this position, set up as near to them as you can. 

2) DO NOT interact with them. Shun them. No talk. No eye contact.

3) YOUR CROWD SHOULD CARRY SIGNS WITH WORDS LIKE THESE:
God is Love

Judge Not Lest Ye Not Be Judged

Be Not Afraid
The Souls of the Just Rest in God

What God Asks: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God
Blessed are They who Sorrow for they shall be comforted

4. Use “Angel Wings” (large shrouds of light translucent material attached to light rods which can be waved up and down from four feet over one’s head, and four feet out from one’s arms) to provide a curtain between the WBC crowd and your sign carriers.

5. YOUR crowd should chant WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND SUPPORT FOR THOSE YOU CAME TO  WITNESS TO.

6. And/or sing
”Peace is flowing like a river” or “Let there Be Peace on Earth” or “Kumbaya” or……

Again, do not engage anyone from Westboro “Baptist.”
Don’t speak to them.
Don’t look at them.
Stand with your backs to them holding up your signs high, chanting and singing.

Making them and their venom disappear in the light of your support. Ask the press and other media to ignore them

If this goes as it has gone before, they will withdraw in frustration and disappointment.

The Supreme Court may have ruled that they have the right to be there, and it may be tough to get their tax exempt status revoked, but they do not have the right to be noticed. Treat them as the tiny nasty gnats they are.

GOD IS LOVE, this list of guidelines said, and then closed with, 

BUT I SUSPECT THAT EVEN GOD DISLIKES THESE HEATHENS A WHOLE LOT.

I didn’t know, until I read those guidelines and the comments about them, that the Westboro group’s goal is to provoke people to react violently to their hate signs, so they can sue them.

Here’s what one commenter said: “I had not considered the money-making advantage that comes from aggravating one’s foes….I looked it up and they have won a number of settlements…..many fewer in recent years, because those opposed to them have found ways to take them on without violating their access.”

Don’t hit back, turn the other cheek. You cannot drive out hate with hate, only love can do that.

We have international models for carrying out Jesus’s new rules. When I was a student pastor, I got to know some Liberian refugees. They told me how rebels led by Charles Taylor attacked their city. They were eating dinner when the soldiers invaded their neighborhood. Most of the family fled — David and his brothers and their wives and his brother’s baby boy, Oliver. David’s father and mother stayed behind. His father was killed, his mother was abducted and they didn’t know what happened to her for years.

David and his family and many other refugees fled to neighboring Ghana to a refugee camp set up by the United Nations. They thought they’d be there a couple of weeks. But they stayed for 15 years, and eventually came to the United States.

Many Liberians were unable to get out. They suffered with civil war for years. It was the most vicious kind of fighting and included the rebels’ tactic of forcing men and boys, some only 10 or 12 years old, to become soldiers by threatening to kill their families. Sometimes they killed a boy’s mother or sister before his eyes. Talk about evil doers.

Then one day, a bunch of women decided enough was enough. They gathered in a soccer field near a fish market that was on a main road in Monrovia, the capital, and they started a peace sit-in. They attracted news media, including a documentary film maker. I saw the movie this film maker released in 2008, called Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In 2011 the documentary was included in a PBS series called Women, War and Peace, and it’s available online today.

Here’s the online summary of the documentary:
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the astonishing story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war, and won a once unimaginable peace for their shattered country in 2003. As the rebel noose tightened around the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women – ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim – formed a thin but unshakeable line between the opposing forces. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, they literally faced down the killers who had turned Liberia into hell on earth. In one memorable scene, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana and refused to move until a deal was done.”
What this summary leaves out is how these women forced the men in the peace talks to listen to them. When the Ghanian authorities told the women they would be arrested if they didn’t move, the leader, a tall matronly woman, stood and began removing her clothes. “If you arrest me,” she said, “I will strip naked.” With news cameras running, other women followed her lead. They stood and started stripping.

The leader explained in the documentary that for an African man to see his mother naked was the ultimate shame, especially if she did this voluntarily. None of the men involved in those peace talks could face that shame, especially with the eyes of the world on them. These warlords, who had not flinched at ordering mothers to be killed in front of their children, backed down when a mother threatened to make them see her naked in front of the world. The peace talks resumed with more seriousness and in two weeks an agreement was reached.

In the same way, when TV cameras in 1965 showed police in Alabama turning fire hoses on people, including children, peacefully marching in Selma for the right to vote, the public outcry led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

And in a twist on this practice of non-violent resistance, in the Ukraine last week, a day after government forces killed protestors in a public square, dozens of Ukrainian police officers took off their riot gear — helmets and bullet-proof vests — and gave them to the protestors.

Another New Testament writer in First Peter expresses it this way: Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

Basic instructions before leaving earth: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Behaving in this way not only helps us to be holy and helps us to behave as God’s children. Loving our enemies and praying for them is also good strategy for uncovering the reign of God and nurturing the fellowship of God’s children right here, right now . . . before leaving earth.
Praise God. Amen.

Keep Your Hand Upon the Throttle and Your Eye Upon the Rail

Scripture:   Ezekial 1:28-3:1, Mark 6:1-132 Corinthians 12:2-10

Hymn reference: “Life’s Railway to Heaven”

Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on July 8, 2012

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when the date was picked for installing our newly elected Council members, I don’t think anyone looked at the scripture chosen for the lectionary today. Or maybe they did. The scripture this week is full of warnings for those who are called to serve God. Scorpians, scorn, skepticism… At least we installed you before we read the scripture. So you can’t back out now.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that I could not find a hymn connected to the lectionary passages this week — especially the call of Ezekiel.

First, Ezekiel sees a fantastic vision that causes him to fall on his knees. Then the spirit causes him to rise and he hears a voice — God’s voice! — calling him to bring God’s word to his — Ezekiel’s — people. Oh, by the way God says, they are a rebellious people. And stubborn. And they don’t listen.   And they’re rebellious. They’re like scorpions, and rebellious. Walking among them is like walking through thorns and briars. Did I mention they’re rebellious?

In fact, in that relatively short passage, we find the word rebel or rebellious seven times. Hmmm. No wonder God pulled out the winged seraphs and rolling wheels and fire and all kinds of fantastic visions — before God warned Ezekiel this was going to be a very difficult task.

Then God made sure Ezekiel didn’t get rebellious himself, by literally feeding him the text of what he was to say. Then God says, “OK, go. Tell them. If they don’t listen, that’s their problem.”

So what hymn writer wants to touch that?

The same with the passage in the gospel of Mark. Even though the passage is in the lectionary as we read it today, preachers often break it up, focusing on either the difficulty Jesus has in his home town or sending out the twelve. But not usually both.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no hymn featuring Jesus’s instructions to shake the dust off their feet of any town that doesn’t welcome the bearers of good news. (snappy tune “Shake the dust off your feet…) Or Jesus’s lament that a prophet is without honor in his home town. (sappy tune “A prophet is without honor…)

These are not easy scriptures to read and embrace. I’m afraid if I had been Ezekiel, I might have at least wanted to raise the question to God:  If you can summon winged seraphs with four-part heads, and make the wind and fire do your bidding, why could’t you make the Israelites listen to you?

But God makes it clear that Ezekiel’s job is not to question, but to proclaim unpopular, uncomfortable, hard-to-hear truths — to a people who don’t particularly seem to get it even when God is being good to them.

This is not just a characteristic of the Israelites, of course. Even Jesus encounters people who won’t hear his message. And these are the people who, you would think, know him best. They hear the wisdom in his teachings, they see — or have heard about — the miracles he has been performing in the neighborhood. Instead of taking pride in a native son, or accepting the wisdom and miracles as coming from God, they ask  “Who does he think he is?”

“Mary’s son,” is a slam. In essence they’re calling into question who his father is, in a culture that assigned a person’s honor, status and place in society according to the status of the person’s father.

The writer of Mark puts these two stories together on purpose. They appear in the other gospels in a different order. But Mark has the twelve carefully chosen followers of Jesus witness his humiliation in his home town — he was amazed at their lack of faith —  They see this right before they are sent out on their own to spread the wisdom and miracles that Nazareth rejected from Jesus.

Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes. You already have a “call story” of your own — some instance of Jesus calling you away from your work as a fisherman or tax collector,  or of someone you trust bringing you to hear Jesus. You’ve left everything to follow Jesus around Galillee, and, until you get to Nazareth it’s been one exciting development after another — Jesus casting out unclean spirits; healing Peter’s mother-in-law, lepers and many others; getting the best of Pharisees in debates about scripture and sabbath rules; preaching through parables; calming stormy waters; even going across the sea of Galillee to gentile territory and casting demons into a herd of pigs.

Jesus’s homecoming should have been a triumph. But it wasn’t. Maybe we disciples should have had a clue from the way his own family treated him. While we were all out on the road with Jesus, his mother and brothers came looking to take him home, suggesting that he was mentally unstable and needed to rest.

So right after Jesus is laughed out of the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus calls us together — his closest followers to whom he has been explaining his tricky parables, we’re his hand-picked entourage, his advance men.  And he says you’re going out, two-by-two to do what he’s been doing.

“Take nothing with you but a staff and a pair sandals,” Jesus tells you. The gospel writers do not preserve what, if anything, Jesus told his disciples to say. They get no scroll fed to them with all the words conveniently digested into their very being.

And his advice is not all that encouraging: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

Some peptalk, huh. How do you think you would react?

I think I know why no hymn writers have tackled this. It’s hard to set to music the phrase that keeps coming up in my mind: “Wait. What?” ( a rap maybe.)

I’d want a handbook, something to consult when the going got tough — something simpler than scripture, which seems to prompt argument rather than encouragement. I’d want an unmistakable sign, maybe a vision like Ezekiel got. Or at least some words of encouragement to murmur when I walked into a new town and set up shop as a proclaimer of the good news. This is it? “Take nothing with you, rely on the hospitality of strangers and leave if they don’t listen”?

Sigh. OK. So that’s how I found this wonderful hymn, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” There’s no sugar-coating the difficulties here. No prosperity gospel. No assurance that the way has been smoothed for followers of the one true God. Little encouragement for you new council members.

“You will roll up grades of trial; you will cross the bridge of strife,” the hymn writer says. “Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; Never falter, never quail. … You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and hail.”

And this speaks to me in a way that sunshine-and-happy tunes never could. We know life isn’t easy. We know a prophet’s life is difficult. So is the life of a Christian, maybe especially council members. We know people don’t want to hear hard truths. We really don’t need demonstrations, but we get them all the time. It’s sort of comforting to know that ordinary people like Ezekiel and Peter and Bartholomew and Nathaniel knew what they were getting into when they went out two-by-two.

The readings were long already, but I almost included the Psalm for today, Psalm 123, which has these verses: 3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.4 Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. The psalmist gives the answer before the plea for mercy: To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

And I wanted to read the epistle scripture for this Sunday as well. It’s in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he writes about the thorn in his side — right after mentioning he had a mystical vision, a “call story” — Maybe it was similar to Ezekiel’s, but Paul doesn’t go into detail. Instead, he says he has an affliction, a thorn in his side.

Paul said he asked God three times to remove this thorn, this undescribed suffering, but God’s answer was: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s learned to boast of his weakness. He says, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Dear council members, please don’t flee for the exits. I don’t think you’re in for a particular measure of insults, hardships or persecutions. That is, not any more than the rest of us.

The message I get for all of us from these four very different scripture passages is this:  God’s job for you is not easy. In fact, it can be beastly difficult. You’re going to feel like you’re walking through fields of scorpians. You’re going to get your fill of contempt and scorn. You’re going to ask God to make it better. You’re going to feel like no one is listening. You’re going to feel like you failed.  God says, Do it anyway.

  • To Ezekiel:  God says, Don’t worry about what to say, I’ll feed you the words.
  • To the Twelve:  Don’t worry about the people who don’t listen. Leave them and move on.
  • To Paul: Don’t worry about your weakness or your suffering. My grace is sufficient for you.
  • To the hymn writer:  Don’t worry about the hazards of the journey. The road is there for you to follow. Keep your hand upon the throttle; keep your eyes upon the rail.
  • To all of the above and to us: Trust God.

God knows who is paying attention and who is being rebellious. Don’t you worry about who listens; YOU listen to God and follow. The route for your journey is already established. The rails are already laid. Your job is to keep your hand upon the throttle and your eyes upon the rails.

Praise God. Amen.

Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Scripture:  Exodus 17:1-7Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on Sept. 25, 2011

Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

One of the things I love about reading the Bible is the realization that people haven’t changed all that much. From the time of Moses, through the days Jesus walked among us, to today, human nature has been pretty consistent.

Take the Israelites, for instance. The passage we read today occurs after the plagues that forced the Egyptians to release the Israelites; after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian soldiers drowned; after God showed Moses how to sweeten bitter water; after God fed the people with manna and quail. The people have had ample demonstration that God is guiding Moses to provide for God’s chosen people.

But the very next time they have a need and do not see an immediate remedy, they forget what God has done through Moses and they accuse Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die of thirst.

Can you blame Moses for asking God, “What shall I do with this people? They’re ready to stone me!”

We can do a 180 and look at the story from an ordinary Israelite’s point of view, and Moses and Aaron come off as not always dependable, especially after that euphoric moment when they crossed the sea and their enemies were stopped. Once they were in the wilderness, the people didn’t get these miracles until they complained long and loud about Moses’ leadership. You notice Moses didn’t ask for God’s help until the people were ready to stone him. Who’s the stubborn one?

Figuring out the best way to lead and the best way to follow has been a problem for humanity since the dawn of time. I used to think of history as a continuum of progress, human beings learning from their ancestors and predecessors, aided by the spread of wisdom through written, as well as oral, communication.

But in the 21st century, we’re still dealing with the same struggles. A traditionalist would call it sin. A psychologist would call it the human condition. Today, in our American society, we’d call it, “just politics.”

How do people act as “a people” to meet their needs and how do leaders lead them? How do we all follow God’s will to accomplish that?

That’s why I cherish the UCC slogan, “God is still speaking.” God is still speaking through these scriptures, because we’re still having the same kind of problems. And God is still speaking through people like Moses and the writer of Matthew and Paul and the people to whom he sent his letters. And people like us.

Lets take the Matthew passage. The chief priests who question Jesus’s authority have based their own authority on an assertion very similar to statements made by Moses and Aaron:  That is, when you complain to us about our leadership, you are really complaining about God.

That’s why I was so intrigued by the decision of the lectionary folks to pair the Exodus and Matthew scriptures in the same week’s reading. In Exodus, Moses and Aaron ARE God’s instruments. In Matthew, the priests only THINK they are God’s instruments, or maybe they know they’re not, which is why they’re so touchy about Jesus.

In both passages, the question is “by what authority do you do these things?”   In the words of the Israelites in Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Or other ways of asking it, “Are your words and actions from God or not?” “Should we listen to you or follow your leadership as having God’s authority or not?”

We readers of the Matthew story have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story. When the priests challenged Jesus, we know they were challenging God as directly as any person ever could. But they didn’t know that. They seemed quite certain of their own authority. They probably felt confident they could trace their lineage straight back to Aaron himself, even though plenty of people then and now would say they were lackeys hand-picked by the Romans.

In fact, Jesus (and Matthew, in the telling of it) turns their question of authority right back on them. He asks them about the source of the authority of John the Baptist.
The description of the chief priests’ and elders’ dilemma brings another element into the question:  The crowd. The people have already determined for themselves that John’s baptism and his authority are from God. If the priests dismiss his actions as not from God, they’re afraid of what the crowd will do.

The crowd. Jesus describes the followers of John — and by implication the followers of Jesus himself — as tax collectors and prostitutes. Isn’t it amazing that these powerful chief priests, appointed by the Roman emperor or his agents, would be afraid of tax collectors and prostitutes?  Kinda reminds you of the people who were about to stone Moses if he didn’t ask God to find some water, doesn’t it?

OK, so how does anyone determine that a leader who professes to speak for God really is speaking for God? Jesus gives us a pretty good benchmark with his parable of the two sons. One says he won’t do his father’s will, but then changes his mind and goes and does it. The other is very respectful of his father and says the right thing. But he doesn’t do it.

If the question had been, “which son has shown the proper respect for his father?” some people would take the words at face value, especially if they were spoken in public, or, say, on TV. They would say the second son showed the proper respect.

But Jesus didn’t ask about how things appeared, or what the motivation was of the two sons. He asked which son did what the father wanted done.

We’re locked into just such a contrast at the moment. We hear a lot of politicians and other opinion leaders saying they honor God and are speaking for God, but their actions do not match their words. Jesus tells us, in this Matthew passage, that the actions are what counts. And even those without honor — prostitutes and tax collectors — can tell the difference between the empty rhetoric of the chief priests and elders and the message of John and Jesus.

I’ll read that part again where Jesus says to the chief priests:  “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Notice the translation is not “believe IN him.” But just “believe him.” John’s message was to repent, because another one greater than he was coming. The priests didn’t believe it. The people did, especially the people who had little or no power and no honor or respect in society. They saw and they believed and they changed. And they “are going into the kingdom of God” before the chief priests.

Are going. I used to interpret such passages as indicating they’ll go to heaven after they die. But Jesus is talking in the present tense, not after they die. Right here, right now. They’re going right now into the kingdom, which Jesus said was “at hand.”

That has been an evolving understanding for me, that the kingdom of God is here right now. Not completely — for if it were all accomplished, we would not be praying to God every week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

But in those instances where God’s will is being done, God’s kingdom is there — that day in the temple with the chief priests disputing with Jesus as the crowd looks on, as well as here today, when, despite sin and the human condition and “just politics,” when people manage to do God’s will.

In those instances, the answer to the Israelites’ question of, “Is God here among us or not?” The answer is, “Yes. God is among us.” we are going into the kingdom.

Paul, in his letter to the people at Philippi, gives us some more clues on how to judge who has God’s authority and how God is acting among us.

If the peope have  “any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,” they will show it by “having the same love [as Jesus].” They will be “in full accord and of one mind.” They will  “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than themselves.”

In the kingdom of God, each person “looks not to his or her own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Here is the perfect description of doing God’s will, of demonstrating “God among us”:

Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
You want to know the one whose authority comes from God? Look for the person who does not exploit the name of God, but accepts the servanthood of others, who looks to the welfare of others before his or her own power and honor and glory.

I find one glaring irony resulting from this passage about Paul’s understanding of Jesus and God’s kingdom:  that in such close proximity to an expression of awe at Jesus’s humility — that he emptied himself — some demagogues take the next description of honoring Jesus as a demand that all people bow their knees to one single (and not necessarily accurate) understanding of the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Sometimes I fear that such people who are so certain of their own authority — and their own interpretation of Christianity —  are more like the chief
priests and the elders in Matthew than they are Moses or Jesus or Paul.

When we see someone who does nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than themselves, someone who looks not to his or her own interests, but to the interests of others, then we see, in the words of Paul, “God who is at work in that person enabling that someone both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

Then we can say, “yes, the Lord is among us,” right here, right now, in the kingdom of God.

Praise God. Amen.