April 8, 2018

PEACE BE WITH YOU

April 8, 2018

John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-35
 

In order to understand our gospel lesson for today, we really need to put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples who have every reason to be terrified for their lives.  Their leader has just been brutally tortured, publicly humiliated, and then executed on a cross—which was one of the most excruciating ways to be put to death ever devised by humankind.  Now that the disciples had discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb where they had laid him, the rumors were circulating throughout Jerusalem that the disciples of Jesus had taken his body.  In order to do that, they would have had to break the royal seal that Pilate had ordered to secure the tomb because the previous day the religious leaders had expressed concern that Jesus’ disciples actually might come and take his body away.  Breaking this seal would have been considered a treasonous act, punishable by death. 

Besides this dynamic, Jesus’ disciples probably were using this time to reflect upon and figure out what they could have done differently to prevent this terrible ordeal from happening.  Not only had Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter had denied him, all of them had abandoned Jesus shortly after he had been arrested.  When Peter tried to prevent Jesus from being arrested by striking the high priest’s guard with his sword, Jesus told him to put away his sword.  Obviously, resorting to the use of violence, even in Jesus’ defense, was not the solution for Jesus.  However, couldn’t the disciples have advocated for Jesus’ release when Pilate asked the crowd whom they would choose to be set free?  Couldn’t they have put themselves in harm’s way and tried to block Jesus’ walk to Golgatha?  Given their disloyalty and lack of courage, these disciples’ hearts must have been weighed down with a ton of guilt.

A third dynamic probably going on with these disciples was trying to understand the meaning of everything that had happened during the past 48 hours, in addition to figuring out the meaning of Jesus’ entire ministry in light of this gross injustice.  These disciples previously had demonstrated that they had little comprehension about the good news of God’s reign that Jesus so ardently proclaimed throughout his ministry. They had been mystified by the way that Jesus could heal people and feed thousands of people with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish.  What did Jesus truly mean when he said that he was the Bread of Life and the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  When Jesus shared some bread and a cup of wine with his disciples and told them that these were his body and his own blood, the importance of this simple meal was lost on the disciples.  Even when the disciples discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, we are told that they did not understand the scripture about Jesus being raised from the dead.     

Into this milieu of terror, guilt, and uncertainty, Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples and says to them, “Peace be with you.”  So as to demonstrate that it was really him, Jesus showed them his hands and his side where he had been pierced by a sword, and said to them again, “Peace be with you.”  Although the disciples were excited to see Jesus, we can only imagine how mystified they were once again that Jesus could appear in their midst and be so conciliatory with them after all that they had done to him.  Nevertheless, by extending his peace to them, Jesus implicitly was saying to his disciples, “In spite of all that you did to me or did not do to accompany me through this terrible ordeal, I want you to know that I hold nothing against you, because I already have forgiven you.”

Well, that was a relief!  However, Jesus did not stop there.  Before the disciples could even catch their breath, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Was this the same Spirit about which Jesus spoke at their last supper when he said to them, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you?”  If so, then the peace of the Holy Spirit would become the bedrock of their faith and courage to follow in the way of Jesus and do all that they would be called to do for the sake of Jesus and the good news that he proclaimed throughout his ministry by loving others just as Jesus had continued to love them throughout this whole ordeal.

This act of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples is John’s version of what commonly is known as the Day of Pentecost.  In the Gospel of John, the disciples don’t have to wait 50 days before they experience this outpouring of the Holy Spirit and are filled with the peace that comes with knowing that all of their sins have been forgiven and that they have been filled with a power that would enable them to speak truth to power and pursue the justice and peace that Jesus modeled throughout his entire ministry.  Once the disciples received this Holy Spirit, they no longer had to be afraid for their lives because they were filled with the peace of knowing that just as Jesus had been raised by God from the dead, they also could count on being raised by God to a new life each and every day of their lives.

In their book, “Things that Make for Peace: A Personal Search for a New Way of Life,” Mary and John Schramm explore what this peace of God might entail as we set out to follow in the way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Drawing upon the mantra, “If you want peace, work for justice,” the Schramms examine the whole world of inequity and the correlating injustice of economic disparity.  As they analyze the role that fasting can play in sensitizing a person to the plight of hunger and poverty, they draw the conclusion that fasting without peacemaking is a lie.  In this regard, they remind us that the Hebrew concept of shalom has much more to do with material well-being, security, and personal safety than it has to do with a state of psychological well-being.  Therefore, when we talk about being at peace, we are talking about everyone having a safe home in which to live and enough food to eat.

The early disciples obviously came to understand the peace that Jesus extended to them in this way because as soon as they had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and established the first communities of faithful followers of Jesus, they made sure that no one in their community was in need of proper shelter and enough food to eat.  As far as they were concerned, no one claimed private ownership of any possessions and everything that they owned was held in common.  Now some people today would love to explain away this early practice of the church as a failed experiment, but for these early followers of Jesus, they all were of one heart and mind about what it meant to be a faithful follower of the risen Jesus who invited them into a realm of peace where justice and righteousness would reign supreme.

As the Schramms so aptly point out, peace is not just a means to an end; peace is a way of life.  In this regard, when we greet one another in peace, as we will be doing in a few moments, we not only are offering another person our desire for their peaceful well-being, we also are saying to that person, “I want to make sure that you are doing well economically and socially.  If not, then let me do something to help you meet your need.”  Otherwise, we become like the prophets who cried out, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace in a person’s life due to all of the economic stress and personal strife that comes from living in a society where the rich keep getting richer and those who are impoverished are driven deeper and deeper into despair.

“Peace be with you,” is a powerful greeting that goes far beyond the casual “hello” or “goodbye” that we normally say when we encounter someone else in our lives.  Jesus spoke these words to his disciples three times in order to emphasize and assure them not only that he had forgiven them and that he held nothing against them, but also that he was praying for their well-being, their security, and their freedom to be able to pursue the things that make for peace in this world.  They would need this peace in their lives because they would be encountering all kinds of harassment and persecution from many of the religious authorities who wanted to silence them for their proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection and God’s gracious gift of forgiveness.

We also are in need of this peace in our own lives because we all have our fears about what may happen to us if we attempt to live up to Jesus’ expectations and do all that God has created and called us to be and do.  We also bear the guilt of having failed Jesus time and time again because we allow the ways of this world and our culture to dominate and control our lives rather than the compassionate, justice-oriented, and non-violent way of Jesus.  We live with the constant uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring, especially under the current administration, and we are so tempted to fall deeper and deeper into despair over the plight of homelessness, the racist agendas, the prevalence of violence in our society, our dependency on our military might, and the increasing disregard for our environment.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says, “because I am right here in your midst, especially in this bread and fruit of the vine, and I have forgiven you for all that you have done to betray me, deny me, and forsake the ways that I have taught you to live.  I share my peace with you because I have revealed to you the end of the story—a resurrected life that has defeated the power of death in all of its manifestations.  Therefore, you are free now to experience a new way of life—and that way is the way of peace and shalom.  Amen.

 

 

March 29, 2018

SIGNS OF THE BELOVED COMMUNITY


Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-7, 31b-35; I Corinthians 11:23-26

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  This expectation of Jesus is a set up for failure because more often than not, we don’t have love for everyone as we ought.  All that we have to do is look around us at all of the homeless people sleeping on the streets to know that we don’t have love for one another.  That’s not to lay a heavy guilt trip on all of us.  It’s just the reality in which we live.  We can be thankful for our night ministry that is out there every night providing socks for the feet of those who so desperately need a bath—a foot washing of sorts.  However, we always have to be careful that we don’t become too dependent upon someone else doing for us what we also are called upon to do ourselves.

Jesus made it very clear in earlier teachings that it’s always much easier for us to love those who love us, who are like us, whom we like, or who are our kindred spirits.  As we are reminded this evening, even Jesus loved his own who were in this world to the very end of his life.  However, what became clear through his suffering and passion is the fact that he also loved his enemies to the very end of his life by refusing to take their lives in defense of his own and then forgiving them for what they had done to him.  In this way, Jesus was able to love all people in the same manner in which he was loved by God—completely and forever.

In this vein, Jesus’ simple act of washing his disciples’ feet was more than a symbolic act of servanthood.  Given that washing someone else’s feet was something only slaves were supposed to do in Jesus’ day, Jesus’ act was a radical sign of what his followers would be expected to do in order to embody the beloved community that Jesus’ proclaimed throughout his ministry—a community in which everyone has a place at the table and no one is in a position of lording themselves over others.  Within this beloved community, there still may be people in positions of authority and power in order to administer or govern what goes on within the community, but for those who have decided to follow in the way of Jesus and are in such positions, the common good of everyone in the community takes precedence over any individual or personal priorities.

Similarly, Jesus’ simple act of sharing a piece of bread and a cup of wine on this momentous evening was a radical reminder of all that Jesus would be revealing to his disciples during the next 24 hours.  They would be the ones who would betray Jesus, deny him, and then abandon him to the powers that be.  Nevertheless, they also would be included among those whom Jesus would forgive from the cross because they also did not know what they were doing.  This meal would be a constant reminder of Jesus’ gracious gift of forgiveness that is offered every time that we eat this bread and drink from this cup.

Yes, one of Jesus’ disciples did attempt to defend Jesus by cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s guards.  However, Jesus made it clear that shedding another person’s blood would not be the way of his disciples for any reason.  This cup of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood would be a constant reminder of this witness by Jesus as later he would tell Pilate that the followers of his beloved community would refuse to fight and shed the blood of another human being.  As we share in this holy meal this evening, we are reminded that Jesus’ blood was meant to be the last blood that Jesus’ followers would cause to be shed out of love for all people, including their enemies.

The Apostle Paul also reminded his beloved community at Corinth about this truth when he told them that as often as they eat this bread and drink this cup, they would be proclaiming Jesus’ death until his return.  As we learn from Paul’s letters to this beloved community, the church at Corinth was being torn apart by many different conflicts, including the abuse of this holy meal by some who thought that it was just another regular meal of privilege.  No, Paul says, when we share in this meal, we always will remember the night that Jesus was betrayed and how he chose to die by offering a prayer of forgiveness for everyone rather than taking up a sword of death.  From Paul’s perspective, this meal had the power even to unite this community of faith that was being torn apart by so many disagreements and abuses of authority and power.

On this night of his betrayal, Jesus wanted so much for his disciples to understand what he was about to do—to give his life as a testimony and witness to the new covenant of this beloved community that he proclaimed and described throughout his entire ministry—a community in which his people would love God with their entire being by loving all of their neighbors as they themselves have been loved by God.  The basin, the water, the towel, the bread, and the cup were the tangible means that Jesus used to remind his followers of his central message about how his followers were to be in relationship with one another as a witness to the whole world about how God desired to save this world.

Put aside for the moment anyone who is not a baptized member of the body of Christ, and just consider how people who have decided to follow Jesus have related with and treated one another throughout the course of history.  For every example of Jesus’ disciples demonstrating love for one another, we can cite countless examples of how some disciples of Jesus have oppressed other disciples of Jesus, persecuted them, abused them, enslaved them, violated them, tortured them, and, of course, killed other disciples of Jesus—all for the sake of gaining and demonstrating control over other members of the body of Christ. 

These examples include burning heretics at the stake, bishops fighting with one another throughout the Middle Ages, Protestants and Catholics waging war against one another, revolutionary Christians killing British Christians, Christian masters enslaving Africans who were grounded in the spirituality of Jesus, Union Christians and Confederate Christians killing each other, Allied Christians and Nazi Christians killing each other, Christian legislators passing laws that force other disciples of Jesus into poverty, and some disciples of Jesus accumulating obscene amounts of wealth while other members of the body of Christ have to sleep out in the rain with nothing but a sheet of cardboard for their protection. 

Tonight we share in a meal that is meant to remind us about how much Jesus has loved each and every one of us and already has forgiven us for all that we do every day to contribute to the impoverishment, enslavement, persecution, and death of so many others in our country and throughout the world, including our sisters and brothers in Christ.  Jesus gave his body over to be crucified and shed his blood so that we might be liberated from all of our pride, fear, greed, and lust that is at the heart of why we do not have love for one another.  This meal that we share this evening is God’s gift of freedom from all that we do to lord ourselves over others, betray those whom we label as non-white, deny our complicity in things like investing in the military industrial complex, and contribute to the death of so many innocent people with our tax dollars.

Jesus gave us a new commandment that we love one another just as he has loved all humankind and that we become the beloved community that would demonstrate to all the world that we truly are disciples of Jesus, our Christ.  If it seems to you that I have concentrated too much this evening on the negative side of our humanity, you probably are right, because being a disciple of the Jesus who called us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him goes against almost everything in our being that wants to protect our own possessions, preserve our own investments, secure our own freedoms, and save our own lives at all costs. 

That is one reason why we concentrate this evening on the basin, the water, the towel, the bread, and the cup.  These are the radical reminders about how Jesus has loved all of us and has forgiven the sins of our fallen humanity, and are the radical reminders of how we are to have love for one another.  As we concentrate on these gifts of God’s grace this evening, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Christ.  Amen.

March 4, 2018

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Rev. Ron Moe-Lobeda
March 4, 2018
Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

Our first lesson for today is our one opportunity in the 3-year lectionary cycle to take a serious look at what we know as the 10 commandments.  For the many years that I have been teaching confirmation, when we have come to the unit on the 10 commandments, I have asked the youth, “In your opinion, what is the purpose of the 10 commandments?”  Invariably, the answer that I get is that the 10 commandments are meant to tell us right from wrong.  That certainly was my understanding as I was growing up, with the additional caveat that I had better do my best to obey all of these commandments or I could end up going to hell.  Even with the promise of God’s gracious forgiveness that was offered to alleviate my guilt for breaking any one of these commandments, the threat of going to hell was a much stronger motivator for wanting to walk the straight and narrow than any notion of wanting to keep these commandments out of love for God or in response to God’s love for me.  Whatever the motivation for choosing to keep these commandments, the bottom line always had to do with me and my final destination after I died.

All of this emphasis changed for me when I attended a bishop’s convocation at which a friend of mine was one of the keynote speakers.  I had come to know Buzz Kahn when I was working at Camp Lutherland for the summer.  Buzz was the Director of the 3 Lutheran Bible camps in western Washington.  He was a Jew who had come to know and believe in Jesus as his Lord and Savior.  However, he brought to his faith a definite Jewish perspective and understanding about what was in the Bible.

In one of his presentations at this convocation, Buzz talked about the purpose of the 10 commandments from a Jewish perspective.  He explained that the 10 commandments were God’s gift to humanity as a guideline for how we are to be in right relationships—with God, with one another, and with all of creation.  When I heard this explanation, all of my previous perceptions about the purpose of the 10 commandments took a back seat to this new perspective.  No longer were these commandments only about me and my salvation, but rather were about how all of us are to be in right relationships with God, with each other, and with all of creation as a means of salvation for the whole world.  These commandments really are God’s blueprint about how we all are to be righteous together in God’s sight.

As one who supposedly came to fulfill the law and the prophets, Jesus certainly was guided by these commandments just like everyone else in his world.  Unfortunately in Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had turned these commandments into such a legalistic challenge that no one except the most devout religious pietists had any chance of earning God’s favor.  As far as Jesus was concerned, these commandments were not so much about individually earning God’s favor as they were about once again being in right relationships with the rest of humanity and thereby being righteous in God’s sight.

In this regard, Jesus taught that committing adultery also included everyone who looked at a woman with lust in his heart.  Murdering another person also involved being angry with someone and holding on to that anger in the form of a grudge or resentment in a way that was harmful to that relationship.  By healing people on the Sabbath day, Jesus repeatedly reminded folks that keeping the Sabbath day holy had much more to do with God’s justice and righteousness than it was meant to be a day for all of the ritual piety in order for an individual to earn God’s favor.  By telling the rich young man to share his wealth with those who were impoverished, Jesus certainly expanded the commandment about stealing to include the refusal of using one’s wealth to alleviate the suffering of those who were hungry, homeless, or impoverished.  Jesus may not have always done what his parents wanted him to do, but he certainly demonstrated the true intent about honoring his parents by making sure that his mother was cared for after he died.

Our gospel lesson for today is a perfect example about how Jesus chose to fulfill God’s commandments for the sake of right relationships rather than comply with the unjust practices that were sanctioned by the religious leaders of his day.  The sacrificial system that was required by the religious authorities as a way of earning God’s favor was a pretense for filling their own coffers to support their luxurious lifestyles.  According to this system, poor people who wanted to fulfill their religious duty first had to exchange their Roman coinage for Jewish coinage in order that the animals that they purchased to sacrifice would be bought with pure money.  Those who exchanged this money often would charge a high exchange rate so that they could make their profit.  Then the people would be charged an inflated price for the animals that they had purchased—again being ripped off of the little money which they needed in order to live.

Jesus took matters into his own hands as a public protest against this corrupt and oppressive system that deceptively was presented to the people as a way of remaining in God’s good favor.  Did Jesus break any of God’s commandments in the manner in which he went about this public protest?  That this public protest is recorded in all four gospels tells us that this event was a significantly defining moment in Jesus’ life.  By chasing the money changers and the animal sellers out of the temple courtyard, Jesus not only was advocating for those who were being ripped off, he also was trying to get these oppressors to see the error of their ways, to have a change of heart, and to change a system that would be more conducive to the right relationships that God desires among all people.

Some people love to use this event in Jesus’ life as an example of and proof that Jesus was prone to using violence in order to justify a righteous deed. With a homemade whip, he drove the sheep and the cattle out of the temple courtyard and he overturned the tables of the money changers—not exactly actions that would be considered harmful to human life, but certainly actions that were disruptive enough to cause the religious leaders to convene an emergency session in order to figure out how to get rid of this threat to their authority.  When they had asked Jesus by what sign or authority he was doing these things, Jesus’ answer was totally unsatisfactory to them and actually gave them more just cause to conspire how to put Jesus to death.

In the grand scheme of things, death was a small price for Jesus to pay if it meant demonstrating to all the world how the world could be saved from all of the oppression, corruption, and violence that infect our human hearts.  That’s why Jesus taught his disciples that their priority in this life was to seek the reign of God and God’s righteousness—meaning all of the right relationships that are outlined in God’s commandments.  Jesus also taught that the way for a person to demonstrate love of God was by keeping all of God’s commandments, which could be boiled down to two primary commandments—loving God with our entire being and loving all of our neighbors as we have been so graciously loved by God.

When Jesus disrupted the business in the temple courtyard, he was acting out of love for God and love for neighbor—even those neighbors who were the oppressors taking advantage of the people who were coming to the temple to offer their sacrifices.  The relationship between the money changers, the animal sellers, and the people wasn’t right.  The relationship between the religious leaders and the people wasn’t right.  A grave injustice and crime was being committed under the guise of religious piety.  However, out of love for everyone involved, Jesus had to do something about this injustice at the expense of his own life.

In this day and age, we are faced with more than our fair share of issues that would qualify as being oppressive, corrupt, and violent.  What once was an occasional rally, demonstration, or protest has become an almost daily occurrence.  Whether protesting the cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency, the domination by the NRA, sexual harassment against women, tax reforms favoring the most wealthy, the attack on the Affordable Care Act, the push for white supremacy, the escalation of the military budget, or the plight of homelessness, we all could hit the streets every day and barely scratch the surface in achieving the right relationships that Jesus came to establish and pursue.

However, we cannot give up hope for trying.  Jesus certainly didn’t!  When he was challenged by the religious authorities for his disruption in the temple courtyard, Jesus’ response was, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Of course, Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body and placed his hope in the promise of the resurrection.  We have this same hope of the resurrection available to us each and every day of our lives—the promise that whatever we may encounter in this life will never separate us from the love of God in life or in death.  Such hope may come across as being foolishness to most people, but as far as we are concerned, if our trust in the grace of God to raise us up to a new life means anything at all, then this promise is enough to give us the faith and courage to take up our cross publicly and follow in the way of Jesus.  As we do so, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Christ.  Amen.            

February 25, 2018

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

Pastor Elizabeth Ekdale

Several days ago, I stepped out of the Intensive Care Unit (Kaiser Hospital, San Jose) into the hospital hallway.  I was stopped in my tracks by beautiful music piped through the speaker system:  the melody to Happy Birthday was being played on a harp.  Later that day I read a sign explaining the significance of the music – the birth of a baby in the hospital. In the late hours of evening, back in ICU at the bedside of my father, I pondered how, if at all, the hospital recognizes the death of a patient.  Imagine, if all staff, visitors and even the hospitalized were asked to pause to honor the death of a patient from this life to eternal life.  I wonder what song would be played over the speaker system?  

I know – it will never happen – it is simply too unsettling.  Too disturbing to have death acknowledged in the open - in plain view.  Today’s gospel story is similarly unsettling because of Jesus openness about his suffering and death.  “He said all this quite openly.”  Mark writes.  Jesus began to teach the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again.   There was no mincing of words from Jesus.  He said it straight.  No wonder Peter responded as he did.  Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for such honest and direct talk about death.  Rebukes Jesus.   Peter could not deal with such open speech. 

This is the truth of this text.  And a very hard truth to hear.  Jesus response of condemnation to Peter is an important necessary reminder to us in this season of Lent.  As soon as we set our sights and hearts on something other than the cross, we have, as Karoline Lewis describes, traded the “death and resurrection of Jesus with a more convenient and acceptable means of imaging what it means to follow Jesus.  What it means to be a disciple.  What it means to live and be in a world that desperately needs to know that being a Christian is not an easy ticket to heaven.  Is not your guarantee of prosperity.  Is not your bypass around the hardships of life.”  (workingpreacher.org)

We need to sit with Jesus open truthful words:  If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  The season of Lent is far more than our own practices of self-sacrifice and focus on repentance.  Otherwise, being a Christian is nothing more than thoughts and prayers that never actually anticipate action. 

Parkland; another school shooting in the United States, the 8th school shooting to have resulted in death or injury during the first seven weeks of the year.  Thoughts and prayers?  As Karoline Lewis says openly, “That’s not what Jesus suggests as an answer.”  They have their place and time.  I have no doubt when it comes to thoughts and prayers, and the power of thoughts and prayers, they work and bring comfort to those who receive them.  At the same time?  “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve,” says theologian Miroslav Volf. 

And so, Jesus called the crowd to him along with the disciples and says to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Because that’s what happens when you are willing to take on the evil powers of this world.  That’s what happens when you are determined to show the world that God’s love and goodness is greater than any human show of might.  That’s what happens when you say, “While we live, we live for Christ Jesus, and when we die, we die for Christ Jesus. Both in life and in death we belong to Christ.”  And then live as if you believe it.  (Karoline Lewis)

Jesus makes it clear – he is willing to die because of God’s great love for the world – which runs smack against Peter’s expectations of what a successful Messiah should be doing and saying.   The High School youth of our nation have captured the hearts and minds of so many because of their plain and open speech with politicians who can only respond to one more tragedy with their “thoughts and prayers”; against the gun lobby who pour millions and millions of dollars into the coffers of our politicians to keep them towing the party line. 

Jesus and these students model for us gospel speaking – addressing the sins of our society and the sins of our communal, national and global world and about how God wants it to be different.  Imagine students who can attend school without any fear of danger of gun violence?  We dare to do more than just imagine – we are called to act by taking up our cross and embodying God’s presence in the world known by the incarnate Jesus.

Most of the time, our minds are set on human things – those impulses and illusions that waste our time and energy and our very lives.  That is why the sacred reminder of Jesus plain and open speech about cross bearing and losing one’s life is so important.  Our thoughts and hearts and bodies are lifted to that which is life giving, justice producing and peace making. 

Today we consider in our own lives how to live out Jesus plainspoken invitation to follow.  In this Lenten season of renewal – we begin first and foremost out of a place of grace – trusting that God so loves us and has redeemed us through Christ’s death and resurrection that picking up our cross, losing our life for the sake of the gospel will bring to each one of us the new life that we yearn to receive.  Amen.

 

February 18, 2018

A GOOD CONSCIENCE

February 18, 2018
I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15; Genesis 9:8-17

During the height of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup in the early 1980’s, Cynthia and I were invited by the American Lutheran Church to participate in a conference here at the Mercy Center in Burlingame.  The purpose of the conference was to gather a small assembly of people from the ALC who had differing opinions about the nuclear arms race, and to engage us in a dialogue so that we might grow in our understanding about other people’s perspectives on this matter.  Among those present were an army general, a politician who favored the arms race, a just war advocate, a few people who were undecided about this nuclear threat, and those of us who were advocates for peace without the use of such weaponry.

Martha Stortz, then a professor of ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, was one of the guest theologians who was invited to give us a foundation and context for this dialogue.  In the course of her presentation, she explained that the word, “conscience,” literally meant “to know together with.”  In other words, the word, conscience, is a corporate word that implies that people have come to a meeting of the minds about some significant matter that might threaten a human life, all of humanity, or our entire planet.  For those of us who attended this conference, I don’t know that any of our minds were changed about the nuclear arms buildup, but we certainly came away with a better understanding about each other’s perspectives on this nuclear threat.

In our second lesson for today, the author of this letter describes baptism as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We don’t often think about baptism in this way because for too many centuries, baptism was understood to be something that an individual must do in order to be assured of a place in heaven.  The corporate benefit of baptism here on earth simply was an afterthought in this context.  Thankfully, our understanding of baptism has shifted in the recent past to include an emphasis on the entrance into the body of Christ as one of the primary benefits of this holy sacrament. Through holy baptism, we are brought into this global community of faith so that we might know together with our sisters, brothers, and all who do not identify with either gender, what is good, right, holy, true, and acceptable in God’s sight. 

In the early church, one of the primary motivations for being baptized in the name of Jesus was for the purpose of joining in the resistance movement against the militarism of the Roman Empire based upon the principle of refusing to shed the blood of another human being.  That is why for almost 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection those who were baptized in the name of Jesus refused to serve in Caesar’s army until the 4th century when Constantine convinced the bishops of the church that it would be to their advantage if they would tell their people that it was alright to serve in Caesar’s army and that it was justifiable to shed another person’s blood so long as it meant that people throughout the Empire would be free to worship Christ as they so choose.

Based upon this shift in understanding about what was righteous in God’s sight, these bishops crafted what we know today as the criteria for fighting a just war, never conceiving of the day when fighting with swords would escalate into the possibility of complete nuclear annihilation.  Even today, proponents of this just war theory who are baptized in the name of Jesus would acknowledge that these criteria are still relevant in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils, at which point I would have to ask the question, “If we are choosing the lesser of two evils, then how can we be living and operating with a good conscience?”

Lutherans seem to pride themselves on being a part of the body of Christ that acknowledges and accepts paradox—the paradox of being both saint and sinner, of accepting into the church both baptized people of good conscience and people of bad conscience, and of welcoming militarists and pacifists into the same community of faith without wanting to offend anyone in the process.  This paradox is most evident in the halls of Congress these days as we witness avowed members of the body of Christ calling on the name of God to justify all kinds of military buildup, access to automatic weapons, war on those who are impoverished, and an assault on the environment that could result in the decimation of this planet, the likes of which we have never seen since the time of the great flood.

If the story of the flood was supposed to pre-figure baptism, then it might be good to acknowledge that this metaphorical story actually was told as a commentary on and critique of all of the violence and corruption that existed throughout the monarchy when most of the kings of Israel and Judah did what was evil in the sight of God.  As the end of this story goes, God had a change of heart and vowed never again to kill off humanity and destroy the earth by the waters of a flood.  Today, we don’t have to be too concerned about whether or not God is going to keep this promise, because we human beings seem to be the ones who are intent on killing off humanity and destroying many parts of the world by waters of a flood as the result of global warming.

Nothing has really changed in 3000 years since this story was told.  Our appetite for gun violence and political corruption that is rooted in our pride, our greed, our fear, especially of the NRA, and our lust for power continues to exterminate human life and leads to the extinction of so many species on this planet Earth.  Is there anything that will save us from this pending disaster?  The author of our second lesson for today seems to think that baptism could serve this purpose by giving us a good conscience whereby we might know together with one another what we can do that would appeal to God’s good pleasure.

When Jesus was baptized, he certainly appealed to God’s good pleasure, as we are told, because he had a good conscience—meaning that he was so in tune with God’s will that everything that he said and did by the power of the Holy Spirit would be considered righteous in God’s sight.  After his baptism, Jesus spent the rest of his life giving testimony and witness to this good conscience by proclaiming the good news of God’s realm and calling all people to repentance which would involve turning back to God and being so in concert with the will of God that we might not only know together the things that make for peace in this world, but actually pursue them.

When I was growing up, I was taught that my conscience was God’s way of letting me know right from wrong, and that whenever I felt guilty about something that I had done, that probably was God’s way of letting me know that I had done something wrong.  Then, one day in my early 20’s, I realized that my conscience had much more to do with pleasing my parents and having my neighbors think well of me than actually pleasing God.  That perception became even more clear to me during my clinical pastoral education experience when I discovered that my conscience primarily was informed by my older sister whom I idolized.

Jesus had to deal with similar dynamics in his life.  He was pressured by his family to quit his ministry because he was too threatening to the religious leaders of his day.  His disciples tried to talk him out of going to Jerusalem because they knew that Jesus’ life as well as their own lives were in jeopardy.  The religious leaders and the civil authorities always were present at Jesus’ gatherings and constantly were challenging the good news that he was proclaiming in order to make sure that he would not threaten their authority and power.  When Jesus repeatedly committed religious disobedience by healing people on the Sabbath day, and then chased the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple courtyard because, in good conscience, he knew that those who already were poor were being ripped off, the chief priests and the elders knew that they had to get rid of this itinerant preacher.

The challenge today for those of us who have been baptized in Jesus’ name is to have a good conscience so that we might know together with one another what is pleasing to God and then act according to what we understand God’s will to be.  In any given assembly of the body of Christ, we are going to have differing opinions about matters of life and death.  Therefore, in order to come to an understanding together about what might be righteous according to God’s will, we need to be in dialogue with one another in a safe environment where everyone can have an opportunity to speak and no one has to be afraid for their lives.

At a Synod assembly several years ago, our bishop attempted to create such an environment for the voting members around the issue of homosexuality.  I remember sitting at a table with one of the most notorious pastors in our synod for his public denunciation of homosexual behavior, and being told by him that you progressives keep inviting us into a conversation about moral deliberation which really is a smoke screen for wanting to convince us that you are right.  As an afterthought, my answer to this accusation was “No” and “Yes.”  No, I do want to hear how you in good conscience can be so judgmental and condemning of others, and yes, I do want to convince you not so much that I am right, but that I and many of us in this room have a different understanding about what is pleasing to God according to the revelation of Jesus, our common Christ.

Our challenge today is to be in dialogue with those baptized members of the body of Christ who attempt to justify all kinds of violence, corruption, discrimination, oppression, and decimation of this planet as the will of God and appeal to their good conscience.  Jesus spent his entire ministry proclaiming the good news so that he might appeal to the good conscience of the religious leaders of his day, and for that his life was taken from him.  What are we willing to lose for the sake of this good news—the good news that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the full awareness of what is true, right, and just in God’s sight?  As we wrestle with this question together, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus Christ, the bearer of good news and the revelation of a good conscience.  Amen.

January 21, 2018

FISHING FOR PEOPLE

Mark 1:14-20

Only 2 weeks ago, we heard the amazing story about how Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  Now, all of a sudden, a few verses later, we read that John has been arrested.  We have to wait for five more chapters before we can learn about the reason for John’s arrest.  However, it seems that Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler in the region, had married his brother’s wife, Herodias.  It doesn’t matter whether John saw something immoral about this marriage, or whether he was critical of this marriage because of its political implications, the fact that John would even challenge this Roman ruler in this way was enough to get him arrested and put in prison.

Why would the author of this gospel mention this little detail about John’s arrest at the outset of Jesus’ ministry?  Herod easily could have ignored John as some crazy man who was standing on a street corner and ranting and raving about some baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, except for the fact, as we were told 2 weeks ago, that people from the whole Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem were going out to see John, were confessing their sins, and were being baptized by him in preparation for the one whom they thought would be their messiah.  Clearly, John had attracted a significant following, and Herod had to find some excuse to take him out of circulation.

Even so, Jesus dared to begin his public ministry in spite of this bad news about John’s arrest by proclaiming the good news of God’s love and announcing that the reign of God had come near—a message that certainly would cause King Herod to take notice because there was another prominent use of this term “good news” throughout the Roman Empire—one that often was associated with Caesar’s victories in battle, and was used by Caesar as a means of propaganda that led to the deification of the emperor.  Therefore, Jesus’ proclamation about the good news of God’s reign was a direct affront to the political culture of the Empire.

Then Jesus went out and started to call people to accompany him with the invitation that they would be fishing for people.  Ched Myers, in his book, “Binding the Strong Man,” points out that this metaphor of fishing for people has nothing to do with saving souls for Jesus, but rather is a reference to the prophets who used this euphemism of hooking a fish as a statement of judgment upon the rich and powerful people in this world.  Myers concludes that Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.

According to our gospel lesson for today, when they heard Jesus’ invitation to follow him, these fishermen immediately dropped everything, including all of their familial responsibilities, and chose to join Jesus’ company.  We have no idea about all of the reasons for this impulsive decision on the part of these fishermen.  Was it Jesus’ charisma?  Their curiosity?  Their macho desire for a good fight?  Their hope for a better world?  Had they already heard enough about Jesus’ message of God’s good news to think that this Jesus just might be the promised messiah who would liberate them from the occupation by the Romans?

In all of the research that he has done for the past 40 years on the historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan points out that Herod Antipas was a man who wanted to become known as the “King of the Jews,” as his father, Herod, had been.  He put a lot of effort into building up his domain in Galilee in order to impress Caesar.  One of his accomplishments was building the city of Tiberius, named after the emperor, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, from which Herod was able to control all of the fishing industry on this lake by taxing anyone who launched a boat, cast a net, or brought in a catch of fish.

As a result of their commercial fishing business, Peter, Andrew, James, and John probably were better off financially than most of the people in their region. However, this new form of taxation on their fishing business would eventually force them into poverty.  So, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to follow this itinerant preacher whose message was music to their ears, especially when he told them that they would be fishing for people and overturning the existing order of power and privilege that had become such a threat to their economic sustenance and existence?  We could call the response of these fishermen a matter of blind faith, because they really didn’t know who Jesus was and certainly had no idea about the reign of God that Jesus had in mind when he announced that the reign of God had come near to them.

Sometimes in our desire to be so well grounded in our faith or spirituality before we venture into the realm of following Jesus in this life, we may put off responding to Jesus’ call to action until we are ready.  George MacDonald, a Scottish preacher and author at the end of the 19th century, argued that if we wait until we have our faith all figured out before we act, we may never get around to following Jesus and doing what Jesus has called us to do.  It seems that these fishermen are good examples of what MacDonald was advocating, and that their complete trust in Jesus would come later in their lives after they had borne witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection and received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Unlike these fishermen, we have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight because we have had 2000 years of trying to figure out who this Jesus is and what his message about the good news of God’s reign meant for the people of his day as well as for us today.  Nevertheless, I am amazed and appalled that so many followers of Jesus today still think that fishing for people has only to do with saving souls for Jesus, and as a result, they will justify all of the ways that we have conquered lands, slaughtered indigenous people, enslaved people, placed people on reservations, and fought in wars, all for the sake of bringing people to Christ—most of which has been masterminded and orchestrated by people of power and privilege.

In his booklet, “Baptized We Live,” Dan Erlander states that one of the positive ways that we can follow in Jesus’ way is by putting our absolute trust in God.  He asserts that we are to live by trust and not by certitude, and that if we go out on a limb and act boldly in following Jesus, then we also can boldly trust that God will forgive us if we happen to act contrary to God’s will.  Personally, I am not so sure, given our human frailty, that any of us can ever put our complete trust in God.  If we who are baptized and professed followers of Jesus were able to do so, this world would be a much better, saner, holier, and more peaceful place in which to live.

Given our current political climate, now more than ever, we are being called upon to take a leap of faith and decide how we will follow Jesus by embodying the reign of God that he proclaimed.  I guess that our son, Leif, came to a similar conclusion this past Monday, about the same time that I was inspired to sit down and write this sermon on the day that we commemorated Martin Luther King, Jr.  Leif wrote these reflections in a post on Facebook that morning:

“While rocking our 11-month old Lila back to sleep this morning, I took the time to read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It's not the first time that I have read this letter, but it has kept me up this morning as I reflect on his words on this day when we pause and shut down many of our institutions in honor of a man who so visibly embodied the message of love that Jesus personified. . . .

His letter is a call to action to those who have not been directly affected by injustice, and have remained silent. . . . I haven't often posted items about current events, because I have always wondered about the purpose of my individual words being seen by friends who predominantly would agree with me. Or maybe I have just been afraid to put myself out there. However, today has me rethinking that. When the utterances from the most visible official leader in our country are those of hate and bigotry, it is imperative that those words be countered by a message of love that is made equally visible through sheer numbers. . . . So I will be more active on social media around the important issues of today.

We still live in a country where injustice abounds, where racism, supposedly officially intolerable but socially and systematically prevalent, is now gaining official support by our current leaders, and where the pursuit of happiness of the few tramples the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the many. What can we do? We can vote, yet political change is incremental and politicians still seem to be more beholden to the powerful and the normative. . . . There are protests and demonstrations, but many of them seem to be for the sole purpose of making a statement, rather than be mechanisms to bring about real change.

What would it take to make real change happen? What would it take to finally realize MLK’s dream? Would it take sustained, large scale, direct non-violent action? If so, what institution has the capacity to organize this on a large enough scale for a sustained period of time that it will actually force a conversation with the power brokers of today?  As a human being and as a person of faith, I have a responsibility to take action. As someone who benefits from the normative culture, it is imperative that I do not let my personal comfort lead to my silence.”

So, I leave you with these questions based upon our gospel lesson for today:  What will it take to finally realize Jesus’ vision of the reign of God where God’s love rules each and every day, where God’s justice would be equitably administered throughout the land, and where God’s peace would abound so that no one would have to learn war anymore?  Does the church empowered by the Holy Spirit have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn’t this one of the main reasons why we are baptized, chosen, and called by Jesus into this community of faith when he said, ‘Come follow me, and I will make you fish for people?’”  As we bear witness to the baptism of Ward Carlson today, reaffirm our own baptismal covenants, and ponder these questions, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Christ, and the good news that he dared to proclaim. Amen.day that we commemorate Martin Lple."h have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn's' on the day that we commemorate Martin Lday that we commemorate Martin Lple."h have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn's' on the day that we commemorate Martin Lday that we commemorate Martin Lple."h have the capacity to realize this vision?  Isn's' on the day that we commemorate Martin L

January 7, 2018

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD


BAPTIZED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT
January 7, 2018
Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7; Genesis 1:1-5

Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark has no stories about Jesus’ birth or his early childhood.  After a few introductory verses, the Gospel of Mark jumps right into the description about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry, presumably when he was about 30 years old.  If that is true, then Jesus had a lot of life experience under his belt before he ever stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John—a baptism that would change his life forever and actually would result in his life being cut short because of his devotion to living by the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled him to live according to God’s good pleasure rather than be influenced by all of the pressures of this world.

I would guess that all of us could look back on our lives and identify those moments when we had a certain revelation or experience that would change our lives forever.  Related to our lessons for today, I would recall two such moments in my life—both of which occurred when I was 20-years old and both of which would inform my theology for the rest of my life.  The first such moment occurred one day when I was sitting at the lunch table in the dining hall at Concordia Senior College and suddenly realized that the importance of this first story in Genesis had little, if anything, to do with a literal 7-day creation as I had been taught since my childhood.  Instead, it struck me in that moment that this story about God creating the heavens and the earth had everything to do with who God is, who we are in relationship to God, and what our responsibility is in relationship to the world in which God has placed us as human beings.  I blame this shift in understanding and perspective on the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the one, who, according to Jesus, guides us into the way of truth.

The second such moment came that same year after I had learned over the summer that two of my dearest friends had received the baptism with the Holy Spirit and could speak in tongues as a result of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  They both were such vibrant and positive persons, and I wanted what they had.  So, when I went to the Senior College that fall, I regularly would go down into the tiny chapel in the basement of our dorm and pray for this gift of the Holy Spirit.  After about 5 months of this endeavor, I still hadn’t had the bright light experience that my 2 friends had described to me, and I had no experience of speaking in tongues.  Perhaps I should have asked somebody to lay hands on me at the time, but I was unaware of this possibility back then. 

Instead, I came to the conclusion that speaking in tongues probably was not going to be my gift, and that the Holy Spirit would have to endow me with some other gifts that would be as beneficial to me and to others in my life, and give me the satisfaction of knowing that I still was a beloved child of God who could please God in other ways in my life.  Little did I know that one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit eventually would be the gift of prophecy as mentioned in our lesson from Acts for today—a gift that has inspired me to recognize that the seventh day as described in this Genesis story is the main reason why this story was written, and to understand that the baptism of Jesus with the power of the Holy Spirit gave him the faith and courage to go public with his prophetic message about the good news of God’s realm in which God’s justice and peace would rule the day.

The timing of this baptism in Jesus’ life raises the question about whether or not Jesus was filled with this Holy Spirit earlier in his life.  If we take to heart this description in Genesis about the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the earth at the beginning of time and about God breathing into every human being the Spirit of life from the very beginning, then we might conclude that from the beginning of his life, Jesus already was filled with the Spirit of God as the angel Gabriel had announced to his mother, Mary.  I would suggest that the same holds true for each and every one of us.  When all of us were born, we already had the Spirit of God breathed into us to give us life.

If such is the case, then what is the importance, or better yet, what is the necessity of being baptized in the name of Jesus if this Spirit of God already resides in each and every one of us at birth?  I would answer this question by considering a seed that is planted in the ground.  That seed already is alive and is ready to be nourished.  However, if that seed is not watered, it may never sprout and grow into what it was meant to be.  Baptism with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus serves this same purpose in our lives, without which we may not reach the full potential of being what God has created us to be.

As far as we know, Jesus never baptized anyone with water during his ministry.  However, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus did breathe on his disciples after his resurrection, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and indicated to them that they now had the authority to forgive sins.  That is exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost when Jesus’ disciples experienced another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Being moved by this Holy Spirit, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that their sins might be forgiven and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As the Apostle Paul developed his own theology about this gift of the Holy Spirit, he talked about the baptism with the Holy Spirit also being the means by which people are set free from their bondage to sin.  That is why in our Lutheran tradition, we claim that a person only needs to be baptized once in their life, and then we encourage everyone to renew their baptismal covenant on a daily basis.  In doing so, we exercise the power of this Spirit every day to say an emphatic “no” to sin every time that we are tempted to displease God throughout the day, just as Jesus chose to say “no” to the temptations in the wilderness immediately following his baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Here is where the words of the voice from heaven are so important for us to hear today and every day, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”  No matter whether we are baptized as an infant, as an adolescent, or as an adult, this same declaration that Jesus heard at his baptism is pronounced at our baptism as an affirmation of who we are in the eyes of God.  God has created all of us and declared that we all are very good.  That is who and what we are in the core of our being as creatures of God’s design and children of God’s inception.  Consequently, God has an infinite love for us that knows no bounds.  Such is the beginning of our relationship with God that is affirmed in our baptism and is reaffirmed every day that we remember the blessing of our baptism and renew our commitment to be the presence of God’s love in this world in the same way that Jesus reflected God’s love throughout his lifetime.

Contrary to some traditional theologies that emphasize how we basically are poor, miserable sinners from the beginning of our lives and how we have to spend our lives trying to please God or proving to God how good we are until we are forgiven, I would emphasize that we who are baptized in the name of Jesus are reminded about how much we already are loved by God and how we already are pleasing to God in every aspect of our lives. As a result of this confirmation at our baptism, we can wake up every morning with the confidence of knowing in the core of our being that we are eternally embraced in God’s love and that we who are God’s beloved children are totally pleasing to God and are set free from our bondage to sin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grounded in this love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given the faith, courage, and power to resist all manner of temptations in our lives as Jesus did throughout his life.  This Spirit also helps us to see all of the pressures that we encounter in this life that tempt us to be something other than what God has created us to be and then to be able to say “no” to these pressures that sometimes are very subtle and at other times are so very overwhelming.  If you are uncertain about how you can detect these pressures and resist them, you always have this Spirit to remind you about Jesus’ testimony and witness and to give you the courage to follow in Jesus’ way of love, justice, peace, and freedom.  That is why in our baptismal rite, we make the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead and say to them, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

To carry this cross of Jesus Christ is not an easy thing to do because it means that we will live as simply as Jesus did, love all people as boldly as Jesus did, forgive others as graciously as Jesus did, pursue God’s justice as Jesus did, liberate people from their poverty and oppression as Jesus did, treat everyone equitably as Jesus did, resist all forms of violence as Jesus did, and strive to make peace as Jesus did, knowing full well that when we fail to carry this cross of Christ in any way—and we will—we can trust that we already are forgiven completely and forever by God just as Jesus extended this forgiveness to everyone from the cross on which he died.

You may or may not have the gift of speaking in tongues or of prophecy, but mark my word, all of us have been given the authority and power to follow in this way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As you determine how you will exercise this authority and power in your life, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful—faithful unto the One who has breathed on us the Holy Spirit and has put the fire in our souls to want to please God in all that we think, say, and do.  Amen.      

 

 

 

  

December 24, 2017

THE THREE FACES OF JESUS
Christmas Eve

What Christmas story would you like to hear this evening—the one about the sweet baby Jesus all cuddled up in a comfortable blanket and lying in a cozy manger, or the one about the homeless baby Jesus wrapped in rags and placed in a food trough filled with smelly straw?  Of course, there also is the Christmas story about the baby Jesus who was a threat to the Roman authorities of his day because he was thought to be the King of the Jews who would liberate Galilee and Judea from Roman occupation and control.  These variations on the Christmas story raise the obvious question about who is Jesus and what was his primary mission in this world.  Suffice it to say, perhaps there is a truth to be told in each of these emphases of the Christmas story that helps us to understand the importance of this child of God who was thought to bring peace and good will among all people.

In this regard, the story about the sweet baby Jesus presents Jesus as the one who has come to comfort us in our sorrow, heal us when we get sick, forgive our sins, and bring peace to our weary souls.  All of these things Jesus did by the power of the Holy Spirit with whom Jesus had a strong relationship that enabled him to care for people like no other.  Jesus is the one who said, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  Jesus reportedly healed hundreds of people who were sick or mentally ill during his 3 years of ministry.  It didn't matter whether it was a man, woman, or child, Jesus was unafraid to reach out and touch anyone who had an ailment and cure them of their disease.

Then there was the face of Jesus that revealed his preference for those who were impoverished and oppressed by feeding those who were hungry, calling on those who were rich to share with any who had need, and telling parables that always seemed to favor the underdog.  As in any generation, women and children always seem to take a back seat to the men in a society—at least in a patriarchal society.  However, Jesus made sure to treat women with equal respect and dignity, and he invited children to become visible and viable members of his beloved community.  He truly embodied the concept of having no child left behind, no matter whether that child was the slave of a Roman soldier, the daughter of a foreign woman, or the son of a poor widow.

Jesus also was known as a radical subversive.  As his mother once sang, Jesus came to bring down powerful people from their thrones.  Jesus himself declared at the outset of his ministry that he would liberate those who were oppressed by advocating for the cancellation of debts, the freedom of slaves, and the equitable distribution of the resources throughout the land.  He regularly violated the legalism of the Sabbath day in order to heal the sick and feed the hungry.  As a final effort to transform his country into a more compassionate society, Jesus went to the temple, chased out the corrupt moneychangers and animal sellers, and denounced the religious leaders for their economic oppression and their violent treatment of outspoken prophets like himself.  Jesus even defied the militarism of the Roman government by refusing to take up arms and defend himself.  As a result of this advocacy and resistance, Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and nailed to a cross as a common criminal.

Most people have a propensity to favor the face of Jesus that portrays him as the nice, meek, and mild person who always is ready to heal our wounds, mend our broken hearts, care for our weary souls, and pave the way for us to get into heaven after we die.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has done a tremendous job in presenting this Jesus as the good shepherd, the compassionate servant, the great physician, the gentle lamb of God, and the redeemer of the whole world.  In this regard, we all can be pretty selective about how we are attracted to a Jesus who serves our interests and needs rather than the Jesus who invites us to put aside our pride, accept the radical cross that he endured, and follow him in his way of love, justice, peace, and freedom.

In this day and age, when the common response to so many inquiries about attending church often is, "I tend to be spiritual, but not religious," I can understand the apprehension about getting involved with an institution that has put too much emphasis on the dogma about Jesus and has committed some pretty awful atrocities throughout history in the name of Jesus.  Those of us who belong to this institution can only own up to this history, and repent of the ways that we continue to be led astray by a culture where might makes right, the almighty dollar is our god, lording ourselves over others is an acceptable norm, and the inclusive diversity and equity that Jesus espoused throughout his ministry has been replaced by a divisiveness favoring the most wealthy people throughout our land.

As always, we are called by Jesus to be something more than simply being religious or spiritual.  We are called by Jesus to be faithful—faithful to the entirety of who Jesus is and what he represents.  That is why on this Christmas Eve, I am offering to you at least 3 faces or images of this Jesus, because unless we have the complete picture of who Jesus was, then we always are going to favor the easy way out and find the best way of avoiding what Jesus' complete love for us expects of us in return.

No matter whether we favor the image of Jesus as being this sweet little baby, the impoverished little baby, or the subversive little baby, the essence of who Jesus is can all be boiled down to one word, and that word is love—the love that God had for Jesus and for all humanity, the love that Jesus demonstrated to everyone in his life, and the love that he instructed us to have for one another.  Jesus understood his relationship in this regard when he told his disciples that the love with which God had loved him was the same love with which he loved them.  Therefore, they were to abide in this love by having love for one another.  At another point in time, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was.  His response was profoundly simple.  He said, “You are to love God with your entire being, and you are to love all of your neighbors as you yourselves have been loved by God.”

We don't have to make Jesus out to be any more complicated than this.  Therefore, no matter whether you put your trust in this Jesus or not, we all have something to learn from this baby Jesus about the way that we are to relate with and treat one another in our society and throughout the world.  Unfortunately, the way that many of our supposedly Christian governing authorities have tended to abandon this Jesus and have replaced Jesus' mission of peace and good will among all people in order to placate the most wealthy people among us, the call of this baby Jesus to counter all of this animosity, enmity, and hostility with an ethic of inclusive love, liberty and justice for all people, and resistance to any form of violence is needed now more than ever.

Therefore, I encourage you tonight to take a few moments to consider how you can be a more loving person of peace and good will in your own life.  We all have these opportunities each and every day, no matter who we are or in whom or what we put our trust.  Personally, I lean towards putting my trust in the face of God that Jesus chose to reflect—a God who loves all people, forgives us when we do God wrong, seeks justice and freedom for all people, desires that everyone have enough food to eat, and longs for the peace that will unite us in the beloved community to which Jesus gave testimony and witness throughout his entire ministry.  Jesus was willing to give his life for this vision of a beloved community for all people.  Whatever face of this baby Jesus that you might choose to emulate this night, they all point us in this same direction of embodying a beloved community of justice, peace, and freedom for all peoples and all nations.  May we all become ever more faithful to this vision of Jesus in the days ahead.  Amen.        

Advent Vespers

St. Mary’s Vesper Service

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today, and to reflect upon what I would consider one of the most significant songs of this Advent and Christmas season—the Magnificat that Mary sings when she visits Elizabeth and is blessed by Elizabeth for the baby that is in her womb.  In addition to all of the lessons that you have heard this afternoon, I invite you to listen to the words of Mary once again, and allow these words to sink into your soul as you envision with Mary her hopes and dreams for the reign of God that would bring about the upheaval of the way things are in this world and introduce a whole new world order where God's justice and peace would rule the day.

"My soul magnifies my God and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God's name.  God's mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.  God has shown strength with a mighty arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.  God has helped the servant Israel in the remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise that God made with Abraham and Sarah and to their descendents forever."

At first glance, this song appears to be a description about a God who has turned everything upside down.  Those who are humble and lowly, like Mary, will replace those who are proud and powerful.  Those who are hungry and impoverished will replace those who are wealthy and have all the food they will ever want to eat.  Instead of this complete role reversal that always opens up the door for those who are the oppressed to become the oppressors, I like to think of this song more as a description about what it will take to level the playing field so that everyone has an equitable place at the table to decide what our common good will be and everyone will experience the equitable distribution of all of the wealth and food resources that are available in any community.

Such was not the environment in which Mary found herself as she prepared to deliver this baby.  Her country was occupied and controlled by the Romans.  Most of the land throughout her country was owned and operated by a wealthy elite that comprised no more than 10% of the population.  Her religious leaders were known for their hypocrisy, corruption, and oppression of their own people.  Mary's parents lived under the burden of a double taxation—by the Roman government and by the religious establishment—that kept the majority of the population living in abject poverty.

As far as we can surmise, Mary was a teenager when she became pregnant.  Whereas we often portray Mary as this sweet young radiant woman all dressed in bright blue clothing and usually Caucasian, in reality, Mary was a peasant woman who was subject to all of the norms of her day like not being able to own any property, being dominated by the men in her life, and having to work hard to support her family.  Now that she was pregnant, she faced the possibility of being publicly humiliated and ostracized by her community.  According to the letter of the law, she could have been stoned to death.  It's no wonder that Joseph wanted to break off the engagement.

In some respects, the decree from Rome requiring Joseph to go to the hometown of his ancestry in order to be counted and taxed was a good thing because it allowed Mary to escape the humiliation that she certainly would have had to endure had she stayed in her own community.  As far as we know from archeological reports, Bethlehem was a very small town of about 200 - 300 residents at that time.  Even though Bethlehem was the place of Joseph's ancestry, he had been gone long enough that apparently he didn’t know anyone who currently lived there.  Otherwise, he and Mary might have had a place to stay.  Instead, as the story goes, after failing to find room in an inn, they were allowed to sleep in a stable where Mary gave birth to her son.  At this moment in her life, she and Joseph would qualify for what we call today “being homeless.”

Most of my ministry has been with homeless people, especially with homeless women.  I can tell you that given the plight of women in our country, even in this 21st century, the story of Mary gets played out over and over a hundred thousand times every single day as homeless and at-risk women seek shelter, safety, warmth, food, clothing, hygiene amenities, support services, housing, and most of all, community.  As the "me-too" movement gains momentum in our country, we cannot forget all of the homeless and at-risk women whose voice may never make the news, but who have as much right as anyone in terms of their freedom from the way that they are harassed, abused, prostituted, trafficked, and cast to the wind as if they can be used up and discarded like someone's object. 

Mary's song comes out of her own plight in life as she sees this gift of a child as a sign of what is to come, not only for herself, but also for all of the other women in her life who have been treated as mere chattel.  According to the Gospel of Luke, in which this Magnificat is recorded, Jesus is portrayed as having a strong preference for women in his day.  They are mentioned as being part of his company of followers.  Women often are the recipients of Jesus' healing touch.  Widows get Jesus' special attention because they are the ones most liable to end up begging on the streets.  Jesus welcomes women into the audience of his teaching—a place that only men belonged.  The women who cry out to God for justice are told by Jesus that God will hear and respond to their plea.  Even as Jesus is marched off to his crucifixion, he notices the women who are beating their breasts and wailing for him because they recognize the injustice that is being done in putting this innocent advocate on their behalf to death.  Jesus urges them to weep not for him, but for themselves because of the devastation that will come if the vision of his mother Mary doesn't see the light of day.

Every Wednesday as we gather for our midweek Advent service, we begin the service with the chant, "Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, a light that no darkness can overcome."  I have seen this light of Christ in so many homeless women who have shared with me their faith journey and held on to the hope of a better day when the song of Mary will become their reality—a reality where they will have a permanent roof over their heads, enough food on the table each and every day, a steady source of income to make ends meet, and an opportunity to be reunited with their children and their families without living with the fear of what the men in their lives will do to them. 

Therefore, as we listen once again to Mary's description about a God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty, keep in mind all of the women who, like Mary, are on the margins of society, living in make-shift stables, dressed only in the ragged clothes on their backs, and longing for the day when they not only will be free from all of the suffering and pain that they have had to endure, but also will find themselves with a place at the table where they will be able to speak out as Mary has and offer a vision of justice and righteousness that we all can celebrate as we await the coming of the One who promises to make all things new and who will guide all of our feet into the way of peace.  May this peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Savior Immanuel.  Amen.

 

December 17, 2017

GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessolonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Perhaps you have noticed that the theme that we have chosen for this Advent-Christmas season is "Good News of Great Joy," which are the words that the angel spoke to the shepherds when they were told to go to Bethlehem and look for the child who would be their Messiah and the Savior of the whole world.  Who would have ever thought that 2000 years later, we still would be proclaiming this good news of great joy because the world still needs a savior today as much as the world needed a savior way back then.  In fact, we can go back even further to the time of Isaiah and hear the same announcement about bringing good news to those who are oppressed and being reminded that the good news of God's realm where God's justice and righteousness would spring up before all nations would be the cause for great joy among God's people at any time in human history.

If we take a closer look at this announcement by Isaiah, we also are told that this one on whom the Spirit of God has rested will proclaim the year of God's favor.  Most scholars today would suggest that this reference to the year of God's favor is a reference to the sabbatical year and the year of the Jubilee that is described in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  According to this description, every seventh year the people were to give their land a rest from being farmed so that the dirt would have a chance to replenish itself.  Also, during this seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled and every slave would be allowed to go free. 

After seven cycles of this seventh-year practice, the people would come to the fiftieth year, known as the Jubilee year, when, in addition to the cancellation of debts and the liberation of slaves, the land that originally had been owned by someone else fifty years previously was to be given back to that owner, or to that owner's descendants if the owner had died during the past fifty years.  This practice would ensure that no one could acquire and accumulate more land than they needed on which to grow their own crops and feed their own families, and would prevent the amalgamation of too much land by one person.

The people who had lived under the monarchy had learned the hard way about this abuse of authority and power as God had warned the people when they came to Samuel to demand to have a king like all the other nations.  The kings, most of whom did what was evil in the sight of God Yahweh, had devised ways that allowed their supporters to take over the ownership of the land that originally had been owned and farmed by regular people who had become indebted because of the taxation that had been levied on them.  As a result of this economic system, the wealthy landowners amassed huge amounts of land while the majority of the people became tenant farmers, or worse, slaves to the wealthy elite.  Sound familiar?

After the Babylonians had conquered Judah and deported the people to Babylon, the nagging question on everyone's mind was, "Where did we go wrong?"  According to scholars, the priests were the ones who concluded that this economic disparity was one of the worst things that had happened to their people under the monarchy, and they devised this new plan of expanding the concept of resting on the Sabbath day to include this sabbatical practice of justice and righteousness as a way of keeping the Sabbath day holy.  Prophets, like Isaiah, were quick to pick up on this new plan, and became champions for the year of God's favor.

Jesus also was a champion of this sabbatical year and the year of the Jubilee.  He made this point very clear from the very outset of his ministry when he went to the synagogue of his hometown and read this passage from the Book of Isaiah to indicate to the people that he also had come to proclaim the year of God's favor by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The conditions that had existed under the monarchy 600 years previously were the same conditions that now existed under Roman occupation and the control of their own religious leaders.  The people were being taxed by both of these authorities, and as a result, many of the people were going into debt and were being forced to sell their land in order to pay off their debts and ended up being tenant farmers or indentured slaves.     

When the people heard this proclamation from Jesus about the year of God's favor, the people knew right away that this Jesus could be their messiah and savior just as John the Baptist had described to the people how the one who would come after him would do great things, including baptizing the people with the Holy Spirit.  Having been baptized with this same Spirit himself, Jesus set out to challenge the way that the Sabbath had been so corrupted by the religious leaders of his day.  They had turned the Sabbath into such a legalistic system of 613 laws that no one could lift a finger to help a friend in need on this day without being in violation of the Sabbath.

Time and time again, Jesus attempted to recapture the original intent of the Sabbath by healing people on the Sabbath, feeding people on the Sabbath, and allowing his own disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath simply because they were hungry.  Every Sabbath, Jesus would find himself in the synagogue or out in the countryside where he would be teaching and proclaiming the good news about people being liberated from their poverty, from their oppression, from their enslavement to other people, from their captivity to an unjust economic system, and from the anguish that they were experiencing as a result of this bondage.  Jesus' message of salvation was music to their ears, and gave the people a whole new understanding about what it meant to keep the Sabbath day holy.

The Sabbath day would always remain a day of rest in terms of taking time to focus on one's life and on one's relationship with God without all of the pressures about what we must do to put food on our own table.  However, Jesus demonstrated that the Sabbath day also was meant to be a holy day when we might concentrate on the justice, as Isaiah says today, that God loves by doing something to right the wrongs of our society, by seeking reconciliation with someone who has wronged us, or by laying down our guns and bullets down by the riverside and studying war no more.  The reason why this day has been set aside as being holy is because if we can pursue the justice and peace that God so dearly loves on this day, then perhaps the joy of this holiness will carry over to all of the rest of the days of our week.     

Now I can hear some of you saying to yourselves, "But I already am pursuing this justice and peace that God so dearly loves in my daily life, especially in the work that I do throughout the week.  I need the Sabbath day in order to rest and get geared up for the demands of my work that is devoted to the good news of liberation for which Jesus was such an advocate and was willing to die."  If that is the case, then I would suggest that you devote your entire Sabbath day to the rest and rejuvenation that you need for the days ahead, because the demands of people who are in need in our society and throughout the world never go away and will always be there whenever we open our eyes to see, open our hands to serve, and open our mouths to advocate on their behalf.

I assume that most of you know about the Christmas truce that happened between the British, French, Belgian, and German soldiers during World War 1 when soldiers on both sides of no-man’s land began singing Christmas carols to each other on Christmas Eve.  After a while, the soldiers were inspired to call for a momentary truce, put down their weapons, and exchange conversation with each other for the rest of Christmas morning.  Reportedly, over 100,000 soldiers participated in this impromptu cease fire, which later was viewed as an act of subversion by the leaders of these armies.  To this very day, people are still wondering how and why these men could go back to killing each other as if this holy day of Christmas had never happened.

The Sabbath day is meant to be such a subversive holy day every week when we call a truce and focus on all that we can do to right the wrongs in our personal relationships, enact the justice that God desires of us throughout our nation, and pursue the things that make for peace in a world that is fraught with oppression, corruption, and violence.  If everyone in the world who goes to church on this holy day would do just one thing toward this end on this day, what a different world this would be!  Is this too much to ask for?  I hope not, because the One who came after John revealed to us this way of peace every day, and has called us to follow him, not only by proclaiming the good news about the year of God’s favor, but also by living into this vision where the land is regularly given a rest, debts are cancelled, slaves are set free, and there is an equitable distribution of land, food, and all resources such that no one needs to be hungry or have a reason to study war anymore.

Such is the good news of great joy about which we are reminded in our lessons for today—good news that we may not be able to accomplish on our own.  That is why we are told today that the Spirit of God is the one who will cause justice and righteousness to spring up before all nations and that the God of peace is the one who is faithful and who will make us completely holy so that we might be sound and blameless at the coming of Jesus, our Savior.  As we continue our journey through this Advent season in joyous anticipation of Jesus, our Christ, may the God of all grace keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto the One who proclaimed the year of God’s favor in word and deed for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.