Showing posts with label Sermon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sermon. Show all posts

Sunday, December 9, 2018

John the Bulldozer

2 Advent  Cycle C     December 9, 2018
Malachi.  3:1-4      Song of Zecariah  
Philippians 1:1-11     Luke 3:1-6
Lectionary Link After reading the writings of the prophet Isaiah that are used to characterize John the Baptist, I respectfully rename him, "John the Bulldozer."

Winding roads made straight.  Valleys filled in to be made level.  Mountains and hills leveled to get rid of the climb.  All the work of a bulldozer.  And that is how the writer of Luke's Gospel used the prophet Isaiah to describe mission and work of John.

I like to watch the young preschool children walk on the Labyrinth.  Some follow the rules of the Labyrinth by walking in the path and so it takes several minutes to get to the center.  But then there are the children who walk across all of the lines and get to the center of the Labyrinth in the way that a crow flies.  They stand in the middle of Labyrinth and exclaim:  "I got here first."

John the Bulldozer would like this.  Why?  John saw that too many of the people of his time were given a long labyrinth that they had to walk toward God.  And they were not given any hope of making progress.   They were being told to walk through the wilderness and maybe you'd make it to the Promised Land, but probably not because there were too many mountains to climb, too many deep dark valleys and too many winding roads with no way of knowing what was around the bend.

What kind of detours and obstacles was the prophet writing about?  What kind of obstacle did John the Bulldozer have to clear away?

Many of the obstacles were religious obstacles and detours.  The history of the practice of religion is also the history of institutional obstacles which build and accrue and the original purity of religion is lost or covered up.  People get blocked from having access to God.  People get blocked from knowing and practicing the direct access to God that they have simply because of their being made in the image of God.

What kind of obstacles did the people in Palestine in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist face?  The main obstacle was that "official religion" was too much of a closed and exclusive club.  The requirements for membership in this "closed club" left many people unqualified.  But large numbers of those unqualified people became the curious  audience for John the Baptist and Jesus.

How did Judaism in the time of Jesus result in the need for religious reformers like John the the Baptist and Jesus?

Too many people in Palestine fell through the religious nets.  The religious netting had gotten very exclusive.  Since Palestine was controlled by the authorities of the Roman Empire, all of the people in Palestine had to play according to Roman Rules.  If one was a Jew in Roman controlled Palestine, how could one retain one's distinctive Jewishness and not become tempted to be compromised with the people who controlled the country?

The Jews in Palestine could become adherents of one of the religious parties, like the Pharisees or the Sadducees.  There were leaders, scribes, priests and rabbis to provide guidance for the appropriate religious behaviors.

The Gospels have very tough words for the Pharisees and the Sadducees.   These were the prominent parties in the political council called the Sanhedrin.  This council had to negotiate a very limited area of religious freedom for the Jews in Palestine.  They had to avoid upsetting the Roman authorities and so they needed to "control" their communities and avoid any public disturbances or anything that looked like a threat to public order.  People who drew crowds of people would draw attention.  Governors and kings like Herod and Pontius Pilate would warn the Sanhedrin, "If you can't control your people, then we will have to step in and do it for you."  This is, in fact, what happened in the crucifixion of Jesus.

I hope that we might appreciate the complexity of the situation for the Jews in first century Palestine.  The Sanhedrin need to control their communities as well as to preserve the purity of their ritual practice meant that many people were denied religious significance.  If they did not have status with God because they were not and could live in full observance of all of the rules that pertained in Judaism in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist, it left them like sheep without shepherds.

So shepherds like John the Baptist and Jesus arose.  They saw the crowds which did not have access to an understanding regarding their own worth and esteem.  "If we can't please the religious authorities; if we can be fully observant and compliant with all of the religious requirements how can we be regarded as God's people?"

This is where John the bulldozer comes him.  What did John do?  John simplified the religious ritual.  What ritual did he require?  He required baptism in the Jordan River.  But not just a ritual; he required repentance.  What is repentance?  The Greek word is "meta-noia."  It literally means the "after-mind," the "future mind," or the "renewed mind."  John only required a belief that one could be better today than yesterday and tomorrow better than today.  John only asked that people be committed to future perfection and he asked them to make this commitment by being baptized in the Jordan River.  What was the last barrier that the ancient people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land?  It was the Jordan River.  John the Baptist, by baptizing everyone, including Jews, was requiring an individual commitment to a new future identity.  And this was quite a radical religious reform.  But it was viewed as a prologue to all of the reform which happened because of Jesus Christ and his after-life effects in the early church.

To be God's chosen people, don't you need to be circumcised and be fully observant of all of the ritual purity rules?  Too many people were forced by their situation to live compromised lives with the Roman authorities and soldiers and they couldn't fulfill the religious rules of the parties of the Sanhedrin.

So, John the Baptist was regarded by the early church to be a bulldozer, and certainly as one who provided the way for Gentile Christianity.  The repentance and baptism of John the Baptist was a belief in a God of grace who was ready to meet anyone who believed in God's gift of living a better life.

The church and any organization can accrue much in our histories.  We can begin to carry lots of baggage and slowly the task of carrying our baggage make us forget that we are really here to make the journey directly to God; we are not here to do luggage shopping.

The message of John the Bulldozer and the season of Advent is this:  Go directly to God and God's grace.  The church and religious ritual are the after effects of doing this.  The church is to be a gathering of people who are committed to help other people believe in repentance,  that is, to believe that their lives can be better in the future.  And we proclaim Jesus Christ as the one who can inspire us and help us on this road of repentance.

Let us get out our Advent bulldozers and see what we need to clear from our lives, especially the things which have distracted us from going straight to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Little boys love bulldozers.  We can love John the Baptist and John the Bulldozer too, as we look to reform our lives toward perpetual excellence.  May God help us to find the most direct path to God today.  Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

We Are Living Always with Transitions

1 Advent C      December 2, 2018
Jer. 33: 14-16     Psalm 50:1-6
1 Thes. 3:9-13   Luke 21:25-31
Jesus said, "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near."

This is a natural sign metaphor that Jesus used about reading the events of our lives.  And we are always reading the events of our lives, personally, as family, as community, parish, nation world and cosmos.

What do the signs of nature teach us?  That events repeat themselves.  A new event is a new occurrence in time but for us it always looks like something that has happened in our past experience.

It's late fall, and the leaves are brown and red and falling on the ground.  Yes, we've seen it before and we could have predicted it.  And we're prepared for it with our rakes and blowers.  On the level of our planet big events happen; earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcano eruptions.  And these events in nature can be traumatic and catastrophic for people who are located at the wrong place at the wrong time.  People of the past have interpreted such large scale catastrophes  as God's wrath and punishment.

Signs also occur that need to be read in our human cycles.  New things occur but the new things are like what has happened in the past.

The experience of time means that life is always in transition.  An event ends and a new one occurs.  But the meanings that we place upon transitions are not the same.  When I brushed my teeth today it was a new event but it has less significance than events like births, graduation, marriage, serious sickness or illness, effects of aging and the big transition, death itself.

On the social level, wars and plagues occur, invasions, crimes happen, and people take land from other people by force.  When catastrophic violence and oppression occurred for the people of the Bible, there arose in their communities people who would provide a visualization of a future beyond the circumstances of traumatic events of oppression.  Prophets, seers and wisdom teachers offered people visions of hope; they offered a future.

Jesus told people they needed to learn to  read cycles, because if they understood the very habits of time, they could always believe in a future.

We always, at all times live in transition.  The now is a transition between what was and what will be.  And transitional seasons in our lives can be experienced as significant changes of all sorts.  Change of location, change of people, change of occupations, changes of health, changes of available resources.

The words of Jesus are advice to us to be ready.  Just as we are ready for the leaves to turn red in the autumn and fall from the tree, so we have to be ready for all of the human cycle stuff too in our lives.

And in the catastrophic stuff of our lives we need words of hope; we need words to assure that we will always have a future.

As old as the writings of the Bible are and even though they contain so many details of ancient society, there is a universal message in the Bible, that we should use for our inspiration.

The writings of the Bible present many metaphors of futurism.  Futurism is needed in special ways when current times are so difficult.  Since much of the Bible was written in difficult times much of the writing was written to comfort people and to visualize an end to the suffering in this life.

You and I live toward the future as well and we too, need many strategies both for planning, readiness and sheer survival of some difficult times.

In our strategic planning based upon the habit of anticipating probable outcomes, we need the various wise words which are found in the words of biblical people who lived with faith based upon a hope of always having our future.

We ponder the immediate future; what we will do next.  We ponder an intermediate future; we may have a one year, two year, three year or five year plan.  We should be pondering the future which is determined by what our physical health will allow us to do.   We ponder the time of our deaths and what is beyond death.  The further out we ponder, the more mystery we have to deal with.  So why speculate or offer vision about our deaths and after lives?

We know that after we die, we will be preserved in the memories which we leave with people.  But the memories of most people will only last as long as people and history books.  We resort to a final source of afterlife in God as a meaningful inspiration for our living with hope now.

Advent is a season to ponder transition, waiting and readiness.  When we begin Advent, we know that Christmas will come just as certain as anything that we observe as a calendar date.

The early church proclaimed that the birth of Jesus Christ was something that the entire world had waited for to give us a directional sign of our human future.  The people in the time of Jesus suffered some great oppression.  The people of the early church went in and out of persecution and suffering depending upon their situation;but they believed that the Risen Christ within their lives guaranteed their future beyond whatever they were facing.

This Advent season may find us individuals, families and parish in times of transition.  What does Jesus say?  Do trees grows leaves in the spring and summer.   Of course they do.   Do transitions happen for us of all sorts?  Of course they happen to us.  Accepting the normalcy of transitions is the first stage.  The next stage involves visualizing hopeful outcomes, even if they may be significantly different from what we now know.  But remember the parting words of Jesus to his disciples when he left this world:  Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.

So whatever, our future will be that we have the promise that Christ will be with us.  And that is more than enough if we are willing to accept it.  During in Advent season, we await the celebration of Jesus as Emmanuel, meaning God with us.   God is with us is the reality that enables us to survive many transitions.  And each of us have already survived many transitions on many levels in our lives and we will continue to make it through transitions in our lives. Let Advent hope assure our faith, that we will keep surfing on the waves of the transitions of our lives.  Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"So, You Are a King?"

Christ the King Cycle B  Proper 29 November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7  Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19)
Revelation 1:4b-8  John 18:33-37

Today is the last Sunday of the church calendar, and the last Sunday after Pentecost, and also it is also the Feast of Christ the King.

This feast arose in the 1920's when the Russian revolution was asserting the control of the world by governments with atheistic worldviews.  After the Enlightenment, with the ascent of Reason, there had been the tendency of removing State religion because of many "religious wars," and Christians could be cruel to each other, like burning heretics at the stake depending upon who the monarch was.  Trying to found governments upon Enlightened Reasoning grounded in the protection of law, meant that governments disestablished religions even though if you were a member of a minority religious group you could be discriminated against.  The American experiment in government was to be the establishment of Reason, in law to regulate the freedom of all to worship or not to worship.  In the success of rise of secular governments and the end of State established religion, how could the authority of Christ be asserted on earth?

Today, we are invited to consider again the irony of Christ as the King.  This irony is featured in the rather strange dialogue presented between Pontius Pilate and Jesus during the interrogation before his crucifixion.

When we ponder Christ the King, we need to understand the notions of monarchy which prevailed in the first century, in Palestine and in the Roman Empire.

The Jews in the first century lived upon the fumes of a once and future king.  The once king, David was an actual earthly King who reigned during the most successful time in the history Israel.  His success, coupled with the long history of less than perfect kings and the loss of control of their own territory, made David the inspiration for a future David who would come and restore Israel to its former greatness.  The times of Jesus were dominated by this wishful thinking for a new Great David to arise.  David was the model for the notion of the Messiah as God's anointed one to deliver the people of Israel.  The prevailing view for such a Messiah was that the Messiah would be a King like David who would intervene to deliver Israel.

But what was the political reality in Palestine in the first century?  The King of Palestine was the Caesar who ruled in Palestine with his appointed surrogates like King Herod and the local governors like Pontius Pilate.

The Passion accounts of the Gospels portray the Jewish religious authorities as those to turn Jesus over to the Roman authorities because they said he was a competing king pretender who was challenging the authority of the Caesar.  And what was the ironic cry of the crowd in the Passion Gospel?  "We have no king but Caesar."

Pilate was rather amused and seemed to be cynically teasing Jesus about being a king.  "You're a king?  Really?  How can you be a king?"

So how did the early church uphold that Jesus was indeed a king? 

What is the chief mode of interpretation of New Testament writers with themes of Hebrew Scripture?  The New Testament writers spiritualized the topics of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jerusalem was destroyed, but the writer of Revelations spoke about a New Jerusalem in the heavens.  The Temple was destroyed and the priesthood became inactive.  Jesus became the great High Priest who attended to a heavenly altar.  Israel was over-run and scattered.  The church was seen as the new Israel.  Israel had 12 tribal patriarchs.  The church as the new Israel had 12 apostles.  Israel had the David the Messiah.  The church had Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, king not by virtue of having specific earthly territory, but King because he passed through death into life again.  The resurrection and ascension was a new manifestation of what it meant to be king.  The ability of the Risen Christ to be made known into the lives of many people, again and again meant that the Messiahship of Christ was spiritualized to the realm of the inner world, the hearts of people.  The church proclaimed the Kingship of Jesus because they saw the unstoppable popularity of the Risen Christ transforming peoples' lives and forming formidable, lasting communities.

So, indeed, Jesus could say in the words of the Gospel writer, "If my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.......".just like the soldiers of David had once fought for him as their messiah.

So, how do you and I feel about Christ the King today?  We probably are hypocritical in our view about Christ as King?   Why?  Spiritual kingship is nice, but does spiritual kingship guarantee a military force that can protect us and our country?  Probably not.  We don't want a spiritual Christ the King because it can be as empty as what is called "moral victories."  We lose but get credit for losing in the right way for the right values.

Since we live in our physical and political worlds, we really want governments with leaders who support the kinds of values and beliefs that we ourselves have.  "Spiritual Messiah?  bah humbug.  I want leaders with real power to represent my interests as I understand them.  I want leaders to enforce and protect my interests, even my religious views as I understand them."

What the history of religious power indicates is that absolute power of any sort, ends up corrupting absolutely.  No earthly authority, including religious authority,  has ever been able to integrate religion and politics to the fairness of everyone.

So what can Christ the King mean for us today?  It is enough to know the transforming power of the Risen Christ evident within the lives of people who are looking for interior power to become the very best people that they can become.

If people can know the conversion of Christ and fulfill the politics of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves, then this is the highest expression of Christ the King.

Let us today be less concerned about political power for our own self interest today; let us make sure that Christ the King rules our hearts and empowers us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is the pure politics of Jesus Christ, the King.  Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

World on Hospice Care or in Birth Pangs?

26 Pentecost B 28   November 18, 2018
Daniel 12: 1-3 Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25   Mark 13:1-8
Lectionary Link
Today we've read some apocalyptic portions of the the Gospel of Mark.  This Gospel was written in dire times for Jerusalem and its inhabitants.  In the year 70, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was gone, thus changing a significant institution in Judaism and in the early Jesus Movement forever.

A destroyed Jerusalem and Temple would be shocking to all those who held these holy places to be crucial to their personal and spiritual identities.  How can we survive without Jerusalem and the Temple as a central focus?  Did not God reside in Jerusalem and in the Temple in a way so special that to lose access to these places would force major shifts in religious focus and identity?

Hence, we have apocalyptic pronouncements to imagine answers and meanings as to why it seems as though God no longer protected Jerusalem or the Temple.  What was God saying to the world, to the Jews and to the early Church in the occurrence of such a catastrophic events?

Catastrophic events are not limited to Jerusalem and the Temple.  They happen all of the time.  Some are natural events and some are caused by war and human atrocity but the world has never been exempt the all kinds of catastrophic events.   Persons in Paradise, California find the loss their entire town and all their homes as equally catastrophic.  Lots of people are caught in a state of questioning:  Why us?  And what will we do now that this has happen?  Lord, have mercy upon us.

All of us can identify with apocalyptic thinking on the large catastrophic scale and on the personal level.  The death of each one of us is the eventual personal catastrophic event, and before we arrive there we can experience many events of loss, pain and failure. What do events of disaster or disease do to us?  Catastrophic events make us feel singled out and victimized.  And when we are in the throes of loss we can protest in words which are strikingly different than when everything is more comfortable.  One of things that we can do is to generalize from personal and local events to the entire world: "If this is happening to me, then the entire world and everyone else should be suffering in a like manner as a way to recognize our suffering."  If this is happening to us "God's people" in Jerusalem who have worshiped at the Temple, then the entire world should pay for this terrible injustice.  Because our world is being brought to an end, then this should signal the end to the entire world too.  If we have to suffer such loss then the entire world should suffer a complete loss too.  Suffering can make us selfishly think that the whole world should suffer in the same way.

For many apocalyptic people, they see the trouble of the world as reason to place the entire world on hospice care as we wait for the end of the world as we know it.  If my preaching hasn't convince the world to follow and join our community, then let me imagine a future Jesus as King to return to this earth and establish our views as the right views for the entire world.  The most literal apocalyptic preachers actually use the future coming of Jesus as a way to proclaim that Jesus will rubber stamp the views of their own community as God's preferred view.  Many religious people essentially say, "I am he, or I am the one who best understands the end of the world and when Jesus will return." They all believe that the future Jesus will come to prove that their view of the world was the best.  I know something of the apocalyptic worldview because I grew up with apocalyptic believers who had the future world figured out and of course they all believed that they were part of the special elect who would be spared the Great Tribulation in their temporary rapture from the earth.

One way to understand the apocalyptic discourse is to proclaim the world to be on Hospice Care, and we attend to the world waiting for the termination of life as we know.

I like another vision and interpretation found in the oracle words of Jesus within the church which produced the Gospel of Mark.  The words include a metaphor of an event that neither Jesus nor I will ever be able to experience; we only can be told about them.  What about understanding the apocalypse as birth pangs rather than being on hospice care?  That is quite a different but a more inclusive metaphor of meaning.  Labor pains are inclusive of suffering but suffering with a wonderful outcome.

Neither Jesus nor I ever have known birth pangs or labor pains, but we've heard about them.  I have walked for 40 plus hours with a woman who experienced them before the birth of our children.   Can we hold a birthing mother to everything that she has said during those poignant hours of child birth?  A delivering mother can say some interesting things during the duress of delivery.

And how quickly the words can change after birth occurs.  The birth pang state is not forgotten but it is surpassed by a better state of being.  So the dooming and stormy words of delivery can suddenly become the beaming words of gratitude for the gift of a new child in one's life.

Let us today receive the apocalyptic words in the Bible as "birth pangs" discourse;  they are the prologue to new life.

What happened after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple?  Both Jews and members of early Jesus Movement were forced out their Palestine center to become holy temples of people in synagogues and house churches in the cities of the Roman Empire.  The mission of Jews and Christians changed after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  The Jews needed to re-group in their synagogues and filter the Gentile influences out of their tradition while the followers of Jesus dispensed with purity codes of Judaism to invite the large Gentile populace of the Roman Empire into the Christian experience.

The birth pangs of destruction gave birth to new missions for Jews and Christians.  So rather than viewing the apocalypse as the final ending of the world as they knew it; the apocalyptic was the language of the birth pangs which came before the proliferation of the message of the Risen Christ throughout the Roman World.  And what a birth that was!

Every community goes through birth pangs and we can interpret the pains as a reason to place our community on hospice care or we can look for the birth of what is to come beyond the liminal phase of the painful birthing process.

Personally and as a community, I believe that the Gospel words of Jesus invite us to interpret the distresses of our lives as birth pangs of something new, and not a reason to place our lives upon hospice care.

The birth pang metaphor is honest to the real pain and losses of life, but it is also honest to hope and anticipation for what will yet be born.

Let us always be ready to be hopeful and be ready for that which will be born out of our distress.  The apocalyptic words of Jesus in the early church remind us that birth pangs are painful, but hopeful.  Let ever remain hopeful with faith to believe that birth pangs will eventually bring something new.  Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Zoom in, Zoom out

25 Pentecost 27 B     November 11,2018
1 Kings 17:8-16  Psalm 146  
Hebrews 9:24-28    Mark 12:38-44

 Lectionary Link

How many of you like the zoom feature on Google maps or Google earth?  You can zoom in and see cars and people on the street or you can zoom out and see the entire world map.  Zooming in and out gives different context and perspective for seeing.

When we read the Gospel, we can either read it in the zoom in mode or the zoom out mode.
What would the zoom in reading of our Gospel be for today?  One can imagine that the Gospel was not written in the year 70 and assume that it is an eyewitness record of Jesus teaching a message to his disciples on wealth, giving and generosity.  And what is the message?  Great giving is not very great if it is only a small proportion of one's overall assets.  If one gives 100 percent; that is great giving.  And Jesus presented the contrast between the wealthy who appear to give much and the poor widow who gives but a couple of coins.  Proportion is everything.  So as you give to your local parish this year, ask yourself, how much do I have left over and is the parish really thriving on what I give?  And if Jesus said, Too whom much is given much is required, am I giving what is required of me by Jesus?

But now let us zoom out for some further insights on this Gospel.  Why does the poor widow in her piety believe that she has to give her last two coins to the Temple?  The religion of the Temple proclaims in their Scriptures, the Lord cares for the widow and the orphans.  The Lord takes care of the widows and the orphans.  So why isn't the society of the Temple taking care of this widow?  Why have the authorities of the Temple taught their religious rules so well that they have turned this widow against her own best welfare?  Why does she feel the obligation to support the Temple with her last coins?

In this reading, one can find quite a condemnation upon exploitative leadership.  What does exploitative leadership do?  Exploitative leaders have the power and the charisma and the cleverness to make poor people  and less educated people do things against their own best interests.  This exploitation by the leadership is the judgment that Jesus lodges against the scribal leaders in this Gospel story.

But now let us zoom out again.  We can only read a short passage from a Gospel on Sunday, and today we don't see what comes after our appointed reading.  And what comes after our appointed reading?  A prediction about the downfall of the Temple in Jerusalem.  And while this prediction seems to be quite amazing in that  it is offered through the speech of Jesus in his own time, we need to zoom out further.

We zoom out to realize from the work of biblical scholars that the Gospel of Mark was written by people who lived around the year 70, about four decades after Jesus was gone.  The Gospel writer knew about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  The Gospel writer knew about the acceptance of Gentile people into the church and the resulting break down of the relationship with the majority of the members of synagogues.  The Gospel writer knew about the growing antipathy between those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and those who did not.  The end of the Temple brought the end of the priesthood; the priests no longer had a place to practice their priestly craft.  One can see that the writer of the book of Hebrews idealized Jesus as a High Priest who attends to a heavenly altar.  There are no Christian priests in the New Testament because the specific Greek word for priest referred to the Temple priests.  When the Temple priesthood became extinct, slowly the priestly features once attributed to the Temple priests gradually were assimilated onto the presbyters who presided at the Holy Eucharist and so a priesthood evolved within the Christian movement.

The early Christians and members of the synagogue were trying understand the events of their time.  One of big issues was this: Why did God permit the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple again?  If God does not protect the holy city or the Temple, who does God protect?

The prophets of old, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others blamed the destruction of Israel and the Temple and the exile on the kings and religious leaders of Israel and Judah for their unfaithfulness to God.

So, too the oracle of Christ in the early church found in the Gospel of Mark is an oracle which assigns blame for the fate of Jerusalem and the Temple to exploitative behaviors of the religious leaders of Israel.

From our more secular understanding of history, we today might say that it was the Roman authorities who crucified Jesus; it was the Roman armies under orders who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple because of native uprisings.  The difference between secular history and religious history is the notion of Providence.  In Providence, one looks for divine meanings or insights about the events which have happened.  For the writer of Mark's Gospel, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple were very current.  They were trying to proclaim a purpose of God's providence in the middle of something horrendous.  The main meaning of Providence is the belief that God still loves and cares for us, no matter what happens to us.

Let us now zoom out in a way which includes you and me today as we interact with this Gospel.  First, are we proportional givers?  Are we giving what is required?  Are we giving sacrificially?  Second, can we read the circumstantial judgments which confront our lives now?  Our behaviors and the events that confront us are the crucible for determining future outcomes for us.  Are we reading the circumstantial judgments in our lives in wise and insightful ways?  Are we ready for the impending outcomes?  Third, can we come to know the events of our lives as Providential?  Can we still believe that God is lovingly involved in our lives when things apparently don't seem to go in how we intend or want?

Today on Veterans Day, we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the end of the War that was supposed to be the War to end all wars.  We honor today sacrifice and those who are willing to embrace sacrifice as a discipline of their lives on behalf of their country.

The widow who gave her last two coins personified sacrifice even when she gave to a Temple which would not survive and a priesthood that was soon to end.

The Gospel of Christ is a Gospel to recommend sacrifice as a way to live.  The death of Jesus on the Cross followed by his resurrection is an invitation to present ourselves, our souls and bodies as living sacrifices, wholly acceptable to God, which is our spiritual sacrifice.  Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Near or Far to the Kingdom of God?

24 Pentecost 26B     November 04, 2018
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14 Mark 12:28-34
Lectionary Link

After a legal discussion with a scribe, Jesus told him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

What was the legal discussion about?  They discussed the fact that not all laws are equal, and we know that too. All all laws might have circumstantial relevance for social order.  The laws forbidding killing, stealing and lying, are more important than the laws about cleaning up after your dog, but if you don't clean up after your dog, your neighbor may want some intervention enforcement.

Why did the scribe ask a question to Jesus about the greatest laws?  There are 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures and lots of those laws are about religious practice and ritual practice.

Of all of the laws, which did Jesus cite as most important?  Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.

The scribe agreed with Jesus and added that these laws are more important than burnt offering and sacrifices.  Loving behaviors toward God and toward each other are more important than religious practice.  Now if I say that too often, I will put myself out of business and maybe I have since many don't see a connection between what happens in church and what happens outside of church.  If you can love God and your neighbors without religious practice, then the church and the clergy and all the rules are not needed.

What are some of the insights for us from the great laws of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves?

The first insight is the assumption that we as human beings can love God and can love our neighbors as ourselves.  That is quite an optimistic belief about humanity.  It actually means that our basic identity in life is to be "lovers,"  lovers of God and each other.

Another insight might be that if God is all sufficient, why does God need our love?  We, as people, need love, but why does God want our love?

God wants our love because to activate the best love within us means we can only direct our love toward what is perfect.  This is why loving God and loving our neighbor go together.  We are not perfect enough to be worthy of love; we prove this often with our behaviors.  Our love has to be activated toward Someone greater than us so that we can love our neighbors and love ourselves.  How else could we tolerate ourselves unless we can see a perfectible future?

If God is love and we are made in the image of God then God has planted this great big love engine within each of us.  It sometimes goes by other names; desire, preservation instinct, will to power, or hope.  This engine of love within us can be wrongly interpreted and it can be thwarted when we love wrongly.  That is the tenth commandment: Thou shalt not covet.  Thou shall not love in ways harmful to your well-being and the well-being of your community.  The wrongful use of our love engine occurs when we create idols.  We focus our desires on things, people and activities when we demand them to satisfy us, we end up addicted, disillusioned, disappointed or bad habits which we tolerate they don't "hurt" anyone except ourselves.  Why do we love wrongly?  Because NO THING and NO ONE can be omni-competent to our needs.  So we need to direct our love toward God the great One who then gives us regulatory power to channel our desires toward enjoyment and good stewardship for the things in our lives and blessed fellowship with the people of our lives.  We need to love God beyond humanity to help us gain regulatory control over our behaviors toward others and toward ourselves.

If we can discover God as love and ourselves as lovers of God and others, then we realize that laws are strategies in society for the practice of loving behaviors.  We don't perform lawful behaviors in order to gain favor with God and get into the kingdom of God; we perform lawful behaviors because we are already in the kingdom of God and we are learning to tame our big engines of love by directing it first to God, whom only is worthy. And in so doing we learn regulatory control of our selves which enables us to perform the good behaviors of law and love toward each other.

Friends remember that God has made us lovers.  Love is so powerful that it needs regulatory control as expressed in behaviors of empathy for our neighbors based upon knowing the love of self-esteem.

Being near or far from the kingdom of God is a switch that we have within ourselves.  All we have to do is to say, yes I have been made for love.  And with God's help we make the vocation of our lives to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  Amen

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Meaning of Suffering

23 Pentecost Cycle B Proper 25     October 28, 2018
Job 42:1-6, 10-17  Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
Hebrews 7:23-28  Mark 10:46-52

The book of Job is a wisdom teaching in the Bible to give us insights into suffering.  And on this day after the terrible slaying of our fellow Americans, Jews who assumed freedom and safety their house of worship, we cannot pretend that we don't know the cause of such suffering.  It is hatred that was not prevented by our Constitutional laws.  It is the hatred that totally takes advantage of our love and respect for freedom and would make us fear freedom and make us believe in the demons of hatred in people more than the angels of goodness.  We want to believe in the probable angels of goodness; but an event such as this draws from us a rage that makes us know ourselves in a way that we don't want.  The suffering caused by open violence and murder is a completely different class of suffering because we see and know the immediate cause.  We are so used to the normalcy of the respect for life that such an attack makes us question the perfectability of our society founded upon some very lofty ideals about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by all.

 Suffering is a fact of life; why it happens, when it happens and to whom it happens is shrouded in the mystery of the freedom of life.  Within certain specific contexts we think that we know why things happen.  When cars run into each other, we observe what we think is direct cause and effect, but even such an event includes the mystery of why the people were in their cars at that particular time.  The mystery of everything that happened before an accident also contributed to the accident happening.  "If I hadn't returned home to retrieve my cell phone, then I would have been on the road twenty minutes earlier and the accident wouldn't have happened."  You see, even when we think we know the direct cause of something, we still are left with the great mystery of how it has been affected by everything else that has previously happened.

The book of Job reveals the human tendency to presume to know why bad things happen, especially when it happens to someone else.  They must have done something wrong.  They must have some character flaw.  The book of Job reveals the human tendency to victimize people who suffering.  Job's so-called friends came a calling when he lost everything, and they wanted to lecture him about why he was having bad luck.  

Job didn't think that he was perfect but he also did not think that any one to one correspondence between what he had done wrong could be matched with the severe punishments of all of his losses.  Job was angry that his friends presumed to know why bad things had happened to him, even while he did not know why he deserved such bad luck.

The book of Job does not solve the problem of suffering  especially innocent suffering but it does provide us with some important insights.  When God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, God essentially said to Job, "Job you can't understand everything because, I'm God and you're not."  What this means to me is that total realm of Freedom includes an unknowable number of past events all in relationship with each other and no one can understand all of the possible causal connections.  We can take comfort in knowing that great Freedom does not pick on us specifically but neither are we exempt from the outcomes of the whole range of probable human experiences.

If the book of Job does not provide us with a cogent cause of suffering, what does it provide us?  I think one of the chief insights of the book of Job is found in today's reading: "the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends.."  Praying for others is called "intercession."  When Job accepted his suffering as solidarity with others and offered his experience of suffering as living prayers for others who suffer, he found the meaning of his suffering.  He did not find the cause of his suffering; he found after-the-fact meaning for it.  After suffering, he knew how to be with other people in a way that he could not have been had he not suffered.  And Job could say, "I don't know why I suffered, but my suffering has come to have a blessed meaning because I now have an empathy that I did not have before."  Bingo...when we can be beneficial ministers to other from our actual experience, we discover the redemption of our suffering.  Because we find redemption for our suffering, this still does not mean it was not the impairment of the good which is what we believe is normal.

What is one of the chief definition of a priest?  A priest is one who intercedes for others.  A priest is one who accepts the events of one's life as being lived sacrificially for and with others.

Jesus who was not Levitical priest, was called our great High Priest.  How can God know how we as human beings live and feel?  If God assumes human experience in such an intimate way so as to become one us, then God attains complete empathy, especially if God even goes to and through human death.  And this is what we understand to have happened in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus suffered and he received us as friends for whom he prayed.

And we like the blind man Bartimaeus, have the continual permission to ask Jesus our great High Priest, "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me....have mercy on my friends...have mercy upon my enemies....have mercy on us all, again and again."  Today, we seek to be like both Job and Jesus, in that we seek to be priestly.  I am a priest, not because I exhaust all priestly work in our parish;  I am a priest, because I exist to tell you and the entire church that we are to be priestly people.  We are to integrate our suffering and our experience in solidarity with the suffering of all and we do this by living lives of intercession.  We are always already, here for each other and for the life of the world, even as we as priestly people approach Jesus our High Priest, and for ourselves, our country and our world, we pray again: "Jesus son of David, have mercy upon us, again.  Let us see again the value of our lives and the value of the life of each person."  Amen

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Service Is Key to the Messianic Secret

22  Pentecost b P.24  October 21,2018
Job 38:1-7, (34-41) Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10 Mark 10:35-45 
 Lectionary Link
I would like to tell you something about what biblical scholars call the "messianic secret."  Why is Jesus often presented as saying to everyone, "Shhh, don't tell anyone about who I am and this fabulous things that just happened to you?"   And why is it that the disciples are presented as people who can confess that Jesus is the Messiah but do not know what kind of Messiah he is?  The meaning of the Messiah is even kept from Peter and the disciples.  This is seen in the notions held by the disciples as presented in today's Gospel.  Apparently, James and John once regarded the Messiah to be triumphant political and military figure who would take over the world and this Messiah would need vice presidents and cabinet members to sit next to him in his earthly administration.  After all, the Caesar needed generals and administrators, surely any worthy Messiah would need right hand men.  "And Jesus, can me and my brother be your top leaders in your administration?"  The nature of the Christian Messiah was a secret even to the disciples who walked with him.

Now why was the Messiah a secret in the time of Jesus but not a secret to St. Paul?

The members of the early church understood the difference of the Risen Christ Messiah and how no one understood how Jesus was Messiah before his death and resurrection.  Jesus of Nazareth was confessed to the "the Messiah" but his contemporary did not yet know what his Messiahship meant.

How could Jesus be a Risen Christ Messiah whose community was spreading steadily and stealthily under the radar of Roman detection to become formidable household communities in widespread cities and yet he was not recognized as truly great in his own time?

The Gospel writers used this "messianic secret" explanation to try to show why Jesus became more popular after he lived than he was in his own time.

The disciples who are presented as clueless about the messianic secret were just like all of the Jews who remained in the synagogue and could not accept Jesus as a Messiah who fit their conceptions of a Messiah, one who would be a King like David and evict the Romans and give Israel back their land.

The disciples later experienced the Risen Christ; so the essence of the Messiah for them was the resurrection.  How could Jesus on the cross be understood as a Messiah?  He was the suffering servant messiah written about in the prophet Isaiah.

The suffering servant Messiah was also the one who said to be great is to be the servant of all.   Politicians are often called, "public servants," but only a very few actually live up to that billing.

The early churches as they grew in the cities of the Roman Empire were churches of people who knew the messianic secret.  They were a "suffering servant" church.  The house churches became micro-communities to integrate people arriving in the cities who were without the families and extended families of their former rural environs.  The house churches were Johnny-on-the-spot for the urban immigrants.  The churches gave them an identity and they received an initiation into the experience of the Risen Christ, whom they came to know as their Messiah, even though as Gentiles, they did not really have a "Messiah" tradition.

The early Christians, starting with Peter and Paul became a servant church; they saw the evidence of the Risen Christ  and the Holy Spirit in the lives of Gentiles who did not even know what a Messiah was.  Peter and Paul and other Jews who followed Jesus,  understood Jesus as a suffering servant Messiah. They served the presence of the Risen Christ as he came to be known in the life experience of many new Christians, Gentile Christians.  The early church was not a visible and powerful political organization.  It did not have imposing power on society, but what it had was a faithful, silent, steady servant mentality and this was known chiefly in hospitality to new people.

The servant churches of the first century in the Roman Empire consisted of people who had discovered the messianic secret.  They had learned that service made them great because it is the spirit of service which is most expressive of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Service may not be flashy but it is always winsome to the people who need to served.

The failure of the church today is that we've become too important; we often live without knowing the messianic secret: Jesus was a suffering servant messiah.  We too will know the messianic secret as we discover the secret of service.  Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Finding Innocence and Living Beyond the Knowledge of Good and Evil

20  Pentecost Cycle b proper 22 October 7, 2018
Job 1:1; 2:1-10    Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12  Mark 10:2-16
Lectionary Link
The Hebrew Scriptures reveal the great gift of the law to the people of Israel.  And what is law?  I would call law the revelations of the best insights for how to live given the conditions of freedom which exist in our world.

The great Bible story begins with a totally innocent world and through the work of the serpent and human agency the knowledge of good and evil became the human experience.

Once human beings discover good and evil within the freedom of the world, what does God do to help people live together with safety and without sustaining too much harm?

God gave the law.  The law arises as recommended actuarial living.  When people live in the conditions of freedom, what probably will happen?  How can human being live so that more probable good can happen than more probable evil? How can people in community live to create the best probable outcomes?  This is where the law comes in.

Israel through Moses received the law with great and wonderful actuarial wisdom on how to live so that there is more probability of good things happening than bad things.

So, Israel, you need an identity that will keep you together as a people so that you don't fall apart as a community.  How do you do that?  You love one God.  You don't imitate the neighboring tribes who have many gods.  You keep from hypocrisy of saying you believe in one God when in practice you don't.  (Don't take God's name in vain). You give God some time to build your One God identity. (Keep the sabbath).  You want to add good probability to your life?  Honor family relations, like parents and spouses.  You honor property rights; don't steal.  You honor truth; don't lie.  You honor life; don't kill.  And you learn impulse control; don't covet.  And so there are many of laws and rules for times and places in one's life for social order.  Big laws and little laws, all based on some notion of actuarial wisdom.

But if one observes the law to one's best ability, does that keep bad things from happening to anyone?  There was a tradition of religious thinking that arose which said that if bad things happened to you, then you must have offended God and transgressed some law and so the resulting evil was a reciprocal punishment.  Conversely, if you were blessed with luck and success that must mean you were properly observing God's law and attaining the resulting blessing.

And so we have the witness of Job; he was an religious observant man.  He was faithful, helped the needy and was law abiding.  He should have been the one obviously blessed to have good fortune.  He was proving good probability theory.  But Job was the figure in a wisdom story to challenge very narrow minded thinking about the law.  The story about God who is perfect freedom, included the Satanic agency of bad things happening.  No matter how religious one is or how one lives, good and bad things can happen to anyone in seeming inconsistent ways.

Why do so many of the world's tyrant get so much power and wealth while being the most dishonest and cruel people of their times?  This kind of disproves the theory of only good things happening to good people.

Job is the story of bad things happening to a good man and his struggle to maintain his faith and belief in God, even while his friends victimized him and told him to admit his secret faults which had caused his bad luck.

Keeping the law is good actuarial practice; but it still does not guarantee exemption from bad things happening to anyone.

The presence of the law in the lives of people also requires an expansion of the number of laws.  Why?  Because people fail to keep the law and when people fail to keep the law, new laws of sentencing and punishment have to be written to deal with human failure.

Charity often fails in human relationship, in marriage and divorce happens.  The reasons for permitting divorce was a big theological question among the rabbis in the time of Jesus.  Jesus was upset with the emphasis that religious leader expressed.  Just because people fail at charity, the failure at charity and divorce cannot overturn the standard of marriage as being the norm.

Jesus was saying just because people fail at charity, such failure cannot be stated as the norm.  Marriage is the still the law, even if people fail a marriage.  Jesus was not denying the fact that divorce occurred in the lives of people, he was upset that the religious leaders began to treat divorce as being a legal principle which challenged the primacy of marriage.  The law of marriage remains the same no matter how much people fail and petition for divorce.

Jesus confronted people who were burdened with legalistic lives.  Some people thought they were blessed because they were members of the correct religious party.  Others were so concerned with failure to keep the law, that they began to treat failure as the norm.

Jesus was fed up with adult religious life of religious leaders which had become legal arguments between religious parties about who believed in the right way.

What did he do?  He brought a child and rebuked the adult religious cynics.  "See this child...this child is innocent...this child lives beyond good and evil of adult religious legalism.  You want to understand God's kingdom, access your child aspect of personality, the part of you that still retains original blessing and original innocence.   With the energy of your inner child you can be restored in the new birth that you need to understand God in the adult world so bogged down within the knowledge of good and evil and their effects upon us."

What have we learned from Holy Scriptures today?

No matter how religious we are, we are not exempt from the free conditions that can happen to anyone.  So let us not get bogged down in claiming such an exemption.  Don't presume to know why bad things happen to us or anyone else.  We may victimize them instead of simply offering our assistance and care.

Next, just because it is common to people to fail to keep the law, the norm and ideal still remain the same.  Human failure at marriage does not change the normalcy of marriage and enduring love in personal commitment to each other.

Finally, is the world of the knowledge of good and evil making you cynical and angry and unable to love.  Is the knowledge of good and evil making us misanthropic, leaning toward disillusionment with humanity?  Look to project upon the infant and the child and recover the power of innocence within oneself to know the power of a new birth.  The power of innocence can help us survive living with the free conditions of knowing good and evil.  With the power of innocence, we can overcome the anxiety of the adult world of living with the knowledge of good and evil.

Let each of us find the new birth of the child within us to counter the effects of living with the knowledge of good and evil.  Amen.