Monday, September 28

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

 Are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? Ezekiel reports God asking these questions about Israel’s notion that what is just, what is fair is that children are punished for the sins of their parents. God does not condemn the child for the parents’ sins, but even forgives the sinner if they change their ways. That is what is just and fair in God’s eyes.

In my time I’ve heard many a protestant complain that Catholics believe you can be a sinner all your life and then just say confession on your death bed and get into heaven. That’s not fair to the people who have lived a righteous life.

Our Gospel points out that tax collectors and prostitutes can show the righteous the way to the kingdom. The subject of sex work comes up relatively frequently in the Gospels. I’ve noticed in the Bible study I attend that folks are uncomfortable talking about sex workers. Not that my fellow students of the Bible claim to be righteous, exactly, but they all think of themselves as “good people.”

But here’s the irony. There is now a glut in the sex worker market. It’s hard to find a job as a stripper. There are countless people on sex cams competing for viewers. As legal jobs you can actually survive on become scarcer and scarcer, people will seek out quasi-legal jobs.

Most folks I know under 30 can’t find full time work. Minimum wage jobs are near completely part-time in order to avoid having to pay benefits. And even then scheduling is such that most of them don’t even know how many hours they’ll get from week to week. That was true long before the pandemic.

Job scarcity and the dismantling of benefits are the unfair ways of the US. Compassion or respect for sex workers, is God’s fairness. How righteous are you if you look down on people struggling to survive - People who want to live? How can you love Jesus if you think the poor deserve their fate?

And the people I know personally in these situations are white. A fair amount of people of color I know working two minimum wage jobs, support themselves and their children cleaning houses in what would have been their spare time.

And there’s nothing more unfair than cops murdering black people when white people in the same situation aren’t even roughed up. I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord.

In a bizarre twist of thinking, individualism in practice actually does make people pay for their parent’s fate – makes them pay for generations. The rugged individual comes out of the myth of the frontier: America as a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top. If you believe that then disadvantages of time, place, education and money are just excuses.

In 1960, the year before I was born, there were 30 TV westerns running in prime time. The Myth of the frontier was in your face, unavoidable. In the following few years the Civil Rights movement was only seen on the news if at all. I enjoyed watching some of those Westerns and I don’t even think there was evil intent behind most of them apart from the profit motive. Also it’s important to be critical of what we absorbed as children and how that influences us to this day.

And so I ask you, who are your tax collectors and prostitutes? Who would you be shocked to hear lead the way the Kingdom of Heaven? Truly I tell you, the looters and the destroyers of property are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For their anger is righteous. They know one’s life does not consist of possessions, something that Jesus told us. They know more than most that all lives belong to the Lord. That despite the messages we have absorbed – their lives matter.


Sunday, July 14

Why Americans Don't Get the Good Samaratin Parable

If the Samaritan was an American he would have told the half-dead man that he would get justice for the wounded person and the rest of the story would be about hunting down and killing the bandits. There was a recent People magazine cover featuring a woman and how she escaped from her would be kidnapper and murderer. And all I could think of was how you never hear the story of the ones that don’t escape – because we have no admiration for them, nor frankly, does our culture have any compassion for them.  This is why, I think, you can go into a church and not a single cross will have Jesus’ body on it.

When we say Jesus triumphed over death, we’re being inaccurate. It was God in the first person, commonly called father though mother would suit just as well, it was that person of god who raised Jesus. This marked the victim as favored of God. Jesus’ story is not one of a potential victim that escaped. It was a story of God hearing the cries of the suffering and honoring them above all others.  All kingdoms of all the world will bow to the victim king.

The story of the Good Samaritan is not a story of “everyone is your neighbor,” it’s not about being nice to everyone, it’s an instruction to be neighbor to those in need. It’s also, given the poison of the Protestant work ethic, a call to accept help. A lot of the resentment folks have for the people who use social services is that they themselves are too proud to ask for help. They’ve been brainwashed into thinking poverty is weakness of character.

How people miss that Jesus was champion of the unclean, the stranger, the least of these who he identifies with, is beyond me. In my Bible study when I told the “American” version of the story, someone responded by saying how they were not raised in a church with a “Social Justice” point of view. I let it go but I wanted to scream, “This is not social justice, this IS THE GOSPEL!”

Now certainly, social justice done right is about helping the suffering, however there are also people of the oppressing class that suffer at the hands of their own. Are there degrees of suffering? Yes of course, but I hesitate to limit the term victim to only the oppressed. What’s been really bothering me lately is how victims who find the courage to talk about their sexual abuse are inundated with death threats and other further abuse, while the accused get slaps on the wrist or appointed to high office. 

Now there will be those who say this has always gone on and it’s good that it’s coming out into the light, and in fact, yes this has always gone on, but frankly to me it just seems that the perpetrators are emboldened. In the wake of 2016, there are at least six convicted sex offenders openly running for public office. While I admit we treat sex offenders who have done their time more harshly than other former prisoners, I still think running for office is a sign of emboldening the victimizer.

This is partly why I won’t use the Good Samaritan story as a story about loving your enemies. I mean it is in there given what a Samaritan was to the Israelites listening, but I believe focusing on that obscures the emphasis on the suffering. Christ on the cross is not suffering because we’ve sinned, but rather is suffering in solidarity with all who suffer.

And for those who say a crucifix with a corpus is too morbid, I say Christianity is morbid. It’s uncomfortable; it’s not easy, because it centers the suffering. Our Lord suffered. Not so that we may bring suffering on ourselves in imitation, but rather that we recognize Him in the suffering and don’t cross to the other side of the road.

Thursday, February 22

Receiving Ourselves as the Beloved in Repentance: Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

  • Genesis 9:8-17  • 
  • Psalm 25:1-10  • 
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22  •
  • Mark 1:9-15
  • As we begin our 40 day sojourn in the wilderness, we are once again facing violent death at the hand of a mass murder with an automatic rifle. Human violence and God’s violent response lurks behind our Scriptures in the story of the flood and Noah. But our texts don’t directly address this violence or the debates around gun control. However, the promise to Noah, given in our baptism, and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ gives us some clues how we should respond and act in this moment. The practices of Lent direct us to respond from the place self-examination recognizing the temptations that lie in self-righteous responses to such tragic and lamentable events.. As we do this we can be assured Jesus has gone ahead of us and was tempted by Satan. Elsewhere we are told that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, and he did not sin.
    As we take this stance of self-examination I bring our attention to a call for transformation: Kelley Hayes wrote in Truth Out that both Democratic and Republican scripts in response to mass shooting, both those who call for gun control and those who defend the Second Amendment, are caught in an ineffectual loop of point and counter point. Hayes’ point isn’t that what keeps us from doing anything about gun violence is the fault of both sides. Rather, Hayes is after something deeper than gun control legislation - transformation. The problem isn’t just guns, gun lovers, and gun manufacturers and the NRA , but a wider culture of violence. Gun violence in our schools and in our streets is connected to the violence our nation uses across the globe. Hayes doesn’t say this but I will add the threat of violence the United States has wielded against the world as the only Nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon is part of this culture of violence. The historical fact is that it was the U.S. not any other nation that first developed and used these weapons of mass destruction and continues to threaten the world with the mass violence of nuclear war. We are a violent nation, for reasons far beyond the gun violence of private citizens. Yet our military might that isn’t the only issue. Hayes says that given the state of our justice system, any law criminalizing gun ownership will disproportionately effect and do further violence to communities of color, especially Black communities. This point unveils the racist fear of many gun enthusiasts, but it also calls into question liberal solutions that rely upon criminalization to solve our social problems. Hayes doesn’t give policy advice in the article, nor will I. I see this call for transformation as a Lenten call. In response to violence and death we don’t need more violence we need transformation. We need different desires, we need to die to our violence and the various ways our violence expresses itself, including in our military, in our police, in our criminal justice system, and in mass incarceration. What we need is transformation. We need the transformation that is rooted in repentance. We need to turn from our violence, all manner of it, even that which we call legitimate because it is wielded by a uniform and has the sanction of the government and its citizens.
    How then do we begin such repentance, and move towards transformation?
    As we begin Lent we are reminded of the waters of baptism. Before being driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, Jesus is baptized. Peter tells us that the waters of the Great Flood prefigure the waters of baptism: things are washed away, drowned, so the new can come.
    In Baptism, and these Scriptures, Death, our death, lingers. Paradoxically, there is also life, affirmation, and promise. We must sit with our baptism in order to understand this relationship between Death and Life. Baptism provides us the means to find the divide between the appearance of life and true life.
    Baptism is a demarcation. The demarcation isn’t dependent upon the experience or memory of your baptism. This demarcation isn’t simply in time and space but can be found at any moment in your life. This moment and movement of a demarcation of death such when we pass through death to life is in every decision or choice we make. Are we living before or after baptism? Are we guilt ridden and ashamed, or standing with a clear conscience able to live as Christ the Beloved? This is the divide; the demarcation that exists at every moment. This is the meaning of baptism for we who have died in Christ and yet remain in the world of sin and death.
    Think for a moment of those things that you do or have done of which you are not proud, that you wish you wouldn’t do or hadn’t done. We can cling to these things, keep them as essential aspects of ourselves, focusing on them, returning to them again and again, either seeking to be sure we never do them or secretly treasuring them but attempting to keep them sequestered hidden from prying eyes. We may have long periods of not doing the thing, but if we don’t let them go, and die to those things, we find we never change
    (note: I’m not addressing actions resulting from mental illness or addiction. However, getting help and managing ones mental health and addiction may involve dying to a conception of oneself, so there is some application of baptism to such cases. However, above and in what follows, I’m focusing on those things that we have some control over and which aren’t rooted in a mental illness or addiction. if you have something around which you feel stuck and are uncertain if it is an issue of mental health or addiction, seek out professional psychiatric help or reach out to someone you know who has positively and successfully dealt with addiction in their lives. A well-trained pastor should also be able to direct you to a therapist or program, without judgement.).
    Through, Baptism we die to the self that does things we aren’t proud of, that we wish we didn’t do. We are given a clean conscience, a new start, we begin again and God promises us forgiveness and new life. In baptism we are joined with Christ and hear God say “You are my Beloved the one in whom I’m well pleased”. This is so because the self that fails, the self that harbors hatred, or lust, or rage that seeks to harm and destroy, the self that is apathetic towards others pain, who looks the other way, is washed away, drowned, in the flood of the Spirit, received in baptism and through faith in Christ.
    This is the good news: we baptized have a clean conscience, because we have died to all those things that weigh us down, over which we are ashamed and guilt ridden.
    But we know we still sin. We still do things of which we aren’t proud. What then do we make of our clean conscience and death to sin in baptism? The key is to remember that baptism isn’t just in the past, it isn’t just in time. Like all sacraments it takes place in time and space and within matter but it isn’t bound to time or to the rules of ordinary matter. The effect of your baptism is available to you every moment of every day. So, the question is on which side of the demarcation will you consistently stand? Which self are you going to pay attention to, and feed; the Old Self or the New Self, the Beloved who has died and was brought to life in Christ? Do we live in repentance continually seeing ourselves as dead, drowned in the waters of baptism, or do we live unrepentant on the other side of the waters, still waiting for our salvation, unsure and uncertain of who we are? If you are like me there is the temptation to identify with our failures, or shame, or guilt. We do this, rather than standing in the waters of our baptism and living as though we are the beloved of God, in whom God is well pleased. So take heart repent, be the beloved of God, with a clean conscience. Live as the one who is beloved, and in whom God is well pleased.
    You may say “Yes, I embrace this but I have some questions. What does the beloved desire, what does the beloved do, how does the beloved treat others? How do I know How to live?
    We find the answers in looking to the Gospels themselves: it is in the person of Jesus Christ. Under the guidance of the Spirit we too can be tempted and not sin. But we have to die to ourselves and let Christ live in us. We need to let the beloved of God take over our consciousness, be the foundation of our motives, and be the drive of our desires.
    Repent, turn from the focus on yourself and your shame or guilt or failings. Through repentance practice living differently. This is what the spiritual disciplines help us do. When you fast you are disciplining your desires through regulating one of the most basic human goods the desire for food to sustain us.  Through fasting, we come to a deep awareness of the desire, both its goodness how our desires can be guilt and shame producing. Through self-regulation and discipline we sluff off the Old Self that desires in guilt and shame, and we open ourselves to desire that is life giving and makes us whole. To meditate is to practice letting go, to learn who one is in silence before God, so then again we may learn to desire what God desires . Then there is the reading and study of Scripture so we can know from God what the Beloved does, and how the beloved pleases God. This is the discipline of lent, why we push against our desires and take 40 days to limit fulfilling our desires, even good desires like the desire for food.
    We must always begin and return to baptism which reminds us that this repentance begins in knowing we are loved. Remembering our baptism reminds us that God doesn’t see us in our guilt, shame, and failures, but God see’s us as God created us to be; whole, free, desiring our own and others life, wholeness, and health. This life while a gift comes with the cost of our death that we might live. 

    Living the life of the Beloved is continually entering the waters to die, that we and the world may have life. In this moment we hear God say “This is my beloved in whom I’m well pleased”. This Lent take up your discipline because you are loved, and you wish to know who that beloved of God truly is. Or to say it another way “Repent and believe the good news.” You are loved, act like it. Continue to die to the loveless self who hides from God, that you may have life. Amen

    Sunday, August 13

    Dont' doubt but believe: Sermon for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost

    *Before you read this a note of warning: If you imagine these stories as White stories, if you picture Elijah, Peter, the Disciples, the Psalmist, Saint Paul the Apostle or Jesus Christ as white folk you will not hear the word of God in this sermon nor in the Scriptures upon which this message is drawn. I wish this note of warning was unnecessary. I wish that my Christian European forbearers hadn’t worshiped at the altar of White Supremacy, but it is clear (and has been clear for a long while) that we have yet to escape this distortion and misappropriation.
     For Elijah, and the disciples and Peter, the manifestations of the divine come to them unexpectedly and in times of distress.  They are low moments of faith. We may find ourselves in a similar moment of fear and despair, as we’ve watched white supremacists march with torches shouting, “You will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil.” surrounding a black church and unleash violence against counter protestors and a car ramming into counter protestors killing one. What is happening in Charlottesville, Virginia isn’t isolated from the police killing of black folk and the electoral victory of Trump and the various policies of the Trump administration and the chaos we’ve seen. Gathered here today we may feel a bit like Elijah We may be angry like Elijah that all this is even possible and happening, and we have our own litany of complaint before God. We may be wondering with Elijah and the disciples on the boat where God is in all this and if God is out there in the storm and the overwhelming waves. Yet, our Scriptures point out that Elijah and the disciples and Peter are examples of asking the wrong question. The question isn’t where is God when evil threatens to overwhelm, because no storm, no chaos the enemy can throw at the world chases God away. Nothing a Nation state is will bring the reign of God, nor truly accomplish God’s shalom in the world, and nothing White supremacy does can negate what God did in Jesus Christ upon the cross. The people of God have seen this before and before the Shalom of God comes and is manifest we the people of God will see it again. Yet we who may be surprised and angered and fearful must confess that this form of Empire and Babylon that we call White Supremacy was embraced and nurtured both by the nation state called the United States of America and by its European Christian Citizens, calling themselves White. For centuries members of Christ have themselves chased after these other gods of patriotism, nation state and white supremacy. This is not new and the Nation State and government of the U.S.A., can’t eradicate this power because the U.S.A has worshiped at the altar of White supremacy from its founding. So yes, there is reason to feel the despair of Elijah.  Things are dire. But our scriptures aren’t only stories of despair., They begin there and end in hope. So, amid the chaos, white supremacy, and the failure of human attempts to suppress and eradicate this evil we once embraced, we seek God. Hope isn’t found out there in the world, nor in some isolated fearful retreat. Hope is found in an unexpected but obvious place.
    The faith that produces righteousness, doesn’t ask the very human question, why is this happening and where is God in this Chaos, or the evil? Paul says that true faith doesn’t ask Who can go to heaven, …or who can go to hades.” Faith that leads to justice, affirms with the psalmists that the word of God is near us in our hearts and upon our lips. This doesn’t mean that we people of faith won’t find ourselves sitting with Elijah despairing in the cave or with the disciples buffeted by waves threatening to overwhelm our boat. But, No matter, God always comes near. Whether our experience is like Elijah Or we may have moments like the disciples when we have a profound sense the divinity of Jesus Christ, we should not cling to those experiences. Whatever our experience, Paul’s word tells us these experiences of God at our low points, aren’t central to the life of faith.
    These are moments of grace but not moments of faith. Theophany’s and epiphanies aren’t what the life of faith is about. The life of faith is trusting something we perhaps don’t quite have the capacity to perceive. The word of God the second person of the trinity become human and dying and descending to the dead isn’t what brought God to us.  God was always there, in the world amid our chaos, on our lips and in our hearts. The problem has never been with God not showing up. What Jesus fixes is our faith, our ability to see and recognize God. The problem is in us as human beings not in God! God in Jesus Christ fills out our faith when it is weak, but what we need is always and has always been accessible. Through, Christ we are awakened to what is truly at the depth of our being.
    The exercise of faith is to trust this fundamental reality, even when we are overwhelmed by our fears. The exercise of faith is to trust even when we are threatened by other people’s sins, when we wonder how will we overcome white supremacy once and for all. To continue trustin in the nearness of God even in the face of evil and chaos. In trusting in Christ, we can affirm that the Word of God is in our hearts and upon our lips. We need go nowhere, nor do something to find God. God is here, wherever you are, God is in your heart and upon your lips, you can see it if you trust and have the faith of Christ.
    Our exercise of this faith, awakens this same faith and awareness in others. Faith and salvation aren’t individual affairs. The individual American protestant evangelical interpretation of this passage focusing on the individual fails to recognize the communal and interdependent nature of Paul’s message. Faith turned in upon itself either obsessed with experiences of God’s presence or with some sense of assurance that because one has confessed with one’s mouth and believed in one’s heart one can be sure of one’s own individual salvation, is a dead end, and completely misunderstand the Apostle Paul. Rather f the faith that trusts that God’s word is near, in our hearts and upon our lips, confesses this faith so that others may be awakened to that same faith that leads to justice.
    Even so sometimes we think we are responding to the chaos in faith, but really, we are seeking proof of God’s presence. Peter in an attempt to show Jesus his great faith, falters in that faith. Thankfully Jesus Christ, doesn’t let Peter be overcome, but gently points out, Peter’s lack of faith. But really the lack of faith began with Peter’s compulsion to prove his faith and step out from the boat. Jesus never asks this of Peter. Jesus doesn’t say Peter show me you aren’t afraid and how great your faith is by coming and walking on water with me. No, Peter asks for proof that it’s Jesus and tells Jesus to tell him to come out on the water. Jesus being kind and loving acquiesces (knowing he has Peter no matter what) and invites him out on the water.
    God, in both the story of Elijah in the cave and Peter walking on water, comes in gentleness, grace and in the full otherness and awe inspiring frightening presence. Jesus attempts to calm the disciples and lovingly does as Peter asks, telling Peter to come on the water.  Jesus gently encourages Peter to not doubt but believe. God meets a frightened and discouraged Elijah and asks Elijah a simple question. A question that is to call Elijah back to himself.  God announces God’s presence with the familiar manifestations of Mount Sinai, but doesn’t attach the presence with any of those. Elijah only encounters God in Holy Silence. When in Silence God’s presence is known, Elijah can truly hear the word of God in his heart and upon his lips. God meets us where we are at and will even do what we ask, but doesn’t allow us to stay in the place of little faith. God is patient with us, but also pushes us along, to that place of faith.
    What is this place of justifying faith? What is this faith that is accounted to us as righteousness? The place is our being illumined by Christ, God with us, where we remember who we are. To have faith is to no longer see ourselves as distanced from God, but trust that we are close to God and that God is close to us, no matter that our human institutions and attempts to bring about goodness and righteousness and justice continually fail. No matter that we have misplaced our hope and trust in the very things that bring about the chaos. No matter our collective or individual failures, God is always near in our heart and upon our lips, if we can step back and not doubt but believe.
    Paul says that they very Word of God is on our lips and in our hearts, when in Christ we trust and believe in the nearness of God in our hearts and trust that our words can confess this truth. We then become those blessed as bearer of good news, and we can awaken this faith and justice in those who hear our confession. It is by this faith, not through the Powers and Nations that the world is transformed and righteousness and justice flourish.
    I hope we can find that place of the Holy Silence where we can like Elijah hear God’s voice and call. But maybe your still with Peter on the boat buffeted by the waves of the chaos of our moment, and you want God to call to you.  God will acquiesce to your request, and will tell you come. But your desire to do something, if motivated from a need to prove that God is in the chaos, isn’t God asking you to step into the chaos. Even so, God will invite you into it if you ask God to do so. But if you falter, know God has you and God didn’t ask you to come, you asked God to invite you. However, Jesus’ word to Peter to come is very different form Elijah’s word from God after the Silence. I encourage us to wait before we act. I encourage us to look for the deep silence out of which God can speak. It is form that silence that we can hear God’s word for us not what we think we want to hear from God, as proof of God’s presence but a solid word for us is that God is near and unassailable.
    We like Elijah, we of little faith, shaky on our feet, depressed and uncertain in our ways, wondering how this all can be real, we, if we trust and believe in our hearts and confess with our lips the nearness of God, Jesus Christ the Word, we are restored to that relationship with God that humanity had in the Garden of Eden. Through faith, we bring others back into this restored state in Jesus Christ, the Word. It is in this moment of both knowing for ourselves and that we are for others that we can hear God’s word to us that is for others, and then know how we will be sent into the world.
    However, the grace of God accepts us where we are, even if we have more doubt than faith, even if we want God to tell us to step out into this chaos. But the way of surer footing is to wait, to be still, to wait to hear from God in your deepest being out of the holy silence. Out of that silence God’s word is near to us. From this silence, we will know how we each are called to be for others. The word of God is near in our hearts and it will be upon our lips. First, we must be silent, then in faith we will be able to proclaim and bring God’s justice and truth. From this faith that God is near in our hearts and upon our lips, the world is renewed. . Amen.

    Sunday, July 30

    Blessed Assurance of God's Love: Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

    In our Romans passage we have some of sayings from Paul, that are often misused and misunderstood, because they are taken out of context and thus removed from Paul’s logic and purpose: Paul wishes to assure us that God loves us and has us no matter what, and not that we will always be “victorious” or have total understanding of the meaning (if any) of a moment of suffering.
    The first saying is  “all things work together for good.” Note, not all things are good, but work together for good, but what is usually missed in the quotation of this verse is the good to which Paul is referring.  The good here is our place in Christ, our being brought back into relationship with God.. The good is the restoration of our humanity in Christ and through the Spirit.
    This is what we continually find as we look at these passages so often quoted but so often disconnected from Paul’s preaching of the Cross and Resurrection.  The point resting in the assurance of the means of the restoration of our humanity, so that we can be who we were created to be, in relationship with God and in that relationship image God.
    This is our predestination. What we are predestined into is the same as we were created to be in the Garden of Eden -, to know and to image God. It is in Jesus Christ that our humanity is restored, and through whom we can know and image God.
    Thus, when Paul rhetorically asks, “If God is for us, who Can be against us?” This is about our restored humanity, not some statement about how God will bless anything we put our hands too (Though, with the Psalmists we can and should pray that God bless the work of our hands, but that’s not Paul’s point or focus in Romans). Paul says that the Gospel shows us that through incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ God is for our full and true humanity. No matter who or what seeks to rob us of our deepest and truest selves, God is there without reserve and without qualification, saying “I’ve done and am doing everything needed to be in relationship with you and to free you to image me.” This is our victory in Christ, it is living into our created, predestined and restored humanity in Christ, that we are more than conquerors.
    This should make a difference in our daily lives as we are buffeted by our own temptations to sin and our own sins, or the cruelty, oppression and indifference of other human beings, or just the suffering that comes from death and illness. But the difference isn’t that God has planned every detail and everything that happens is caused by God.  And it also isn’t that God simply because of one’s faith in Christ, causes everything we put our minds to, to be successful. But we can be assured that whatever life circumstance come our way, success or failure, health or sickness, freedom or oppression, that this doesn’t alter our humanity nor our purpose in God, nor that we are images of God made to be in relationship with God.
    This is so much deeper and has so much more breadth and depth than, that God ensures that those with faith in Christ will succeed, and that we can be assured that God is working some temporal and fleeting good from everything in our lives good or ill. Our victory is the restoration of our humanity which God accomplished in the incarnation, which was sealed in the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
    In Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God, and thus there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from our truest selves, our full humanity: to know and be known by God and to be God’s image.
    Paul in this passage is basking in the Glory of God’s work in Jesus Christ, and seeking to assure us that once we enter into and embrace that reality, there’s nothing more, there’s no addition to this, no other work to be done.  Thus, we can have no fear, in Christ we know who we are, and we know God’s love. A love that was there from all eternity, that was hid from us by our sin, by the devil and by death. God in Christ shows us our true humanity, and overcomes sin, death, and the devil.
    There is now no one to judge us, no one to tell us we are unworthy, there is only God’s witness to God’s intentions and love, in the person of Jesus Christ. Nothing can or will change that, nor ever could. God has always loved us, God has always wanted to be known by us and for us to be known at the depths of our being. 
    Yes, we are more than conquerors! Yes, God works out this Good in and through all things, even death on a cross! Yes, we have been predestined for this relationship with God! Yes, nothing can ever separate us form God’s love! No matter what any life circumstance might bring, no matter who accuses you, no matter your own temptations or sin! God has shown us God’s love in Christ, and accomplished in Christ all that needs to be done for us to have this restored relationship.
    Now you know the way, simply walk in it! Walk in the light of God’s love. Walk in the world as an image of God. Walk as one who knows and is known by God. Do this, no matter what may come!


    Saturday, July 29

    Sermon on the Parable of the Tares (or Weeds or Thistles)

    This is a difficult sermon for me to write. My initial instinct was to talk about either how parables aren’t meant to have a pat explanation despite the pat explanation the Gospel gives us, or to use the sparing of the weeds to talk about God’s mercy. But honestly either of those approaches began to seem to me like ignoring the elephant in the living room which is the final judgement and what I believe to be the common but false interpretation of the furnace of fire.

    The furnace of fire is not Hell, or certainly not the Hell that’s commonly understood. I don’t believe Christ ever actually talked about a place where souls would be tortured for all time. He did, however, talk about a fire that would destroy the soul permanently.

    Part of the struggle for me in writing this sermon is that my denomination is Universalist in its theology. We proclaim that everyone is saved. And there are passages in Paul’s letters that can be interpreted that way. And while, if I just follow my heart, Universalism rings true. Yet I have had to come to the conclusion that if true, it must be a later revelation. The more I read the Gospels I’m left with the certainty that Jesus definitely said that not everyone is spared the fire.

    And so in my sermon tonight, I’m not going to make the argument for my denomination’s theology, but rather speak the Gospel message of Jesus as I best understand it. I’m a bit conflicted about this, because in a one on one pastoral situation, I’d go with my heart’s sense of truth. In a sermon though, I feel the call to speak to what I believe Jesus’ actually said.

    In order to understand what Jesus meant by the furnace of fire in his explanation of this parable, we need to read this in the context of what he said elsewhere. For example, Matthew 10:28 [F]ear the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Gehenna being the word that is commonly translated into Hell. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. It was thought to be cursed. Jewish Rabbinic literature as well as Islamic scripture name Gehenna as a destination of the wicked. Jesus, in Mark 9:48 describes Gehenna as a place where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

    Now I want to point out the significance of Matthew 10:28, which, when I studied it, was the first passage to start me thinking along the lines of Annihilationism. Annihilationism a the name for those who interpret scripture as saying that after the final judgment some will be totally destroyed or that their consciousness will cease to exist, rather than being punished for ever. Both body and soul will be consumed by the fire, Jesus tells us.

    And it only makes sense that Jesus would not contrast the promise of eternal life with hell, if hell was eternal life as well. In most cases where Jesus promises eternal life, he does not qualify it as eternal life in a good place as opposed to a bad place, but offers it in and of itself. For example in Matthew 19:29 Jesus promises that his followers shall inherit eternal life. 

    Now in speaking of Annihilationism I’ve gotten two immediate objections from others. The first being the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. But unless you believe that Heaven is literally resting in the bosom of Abraham, I won’t entertain any argument that this is meant to be an accurate depiction of the afterlife. 

    The other objection is the last judgement in Matthew 25. This is the only instance in the entire New Testament where Jesus uses the word eternal to describe punishment. The Annihilationist camp has an argument for this that I find convincing. It has to do with grammar. Without getting to deep into it, essentially in the case of eternal punishment, eternal is an adverb. In the case of eternal life, eternal is an adjective. So the argument is that in the case of punishment, the word eternal means permanent rather than everlasting.

    To back up this argument, Annihilationists illustrate the use of eternal as meaning permanent in the letter to the Hebrews, which speaks of “Eternal Redemption” “Eternal Salvation” and “Eternal Inheritance.” None of these refer to something happening over and over again for all time. We aren’t redeemed over and over again, we don’t inherit over and over again, it was all done once and for all on the cross.

    It is my sincere belief that Jesus offers eternal life in contrast with permanent death. Our options after the final judgment are to be with God or to face oblivion. Oblivion is certainly a better option than everlasting torment. And so while I believe Hell does not exist, and that has its comforts, it’s not quite universalism. And while universalism rings true for me, I don’t believe we get there from the words of Jesus alone.

    So let’s now get to the words of Jesus from tonight’s Gospel. In the explanation of the parable, Jesus doesn’t explain the line: “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”  The Greek word for weeds here is zizania a word which is thought to mean darnel, a ryegrass which looks a lot like wheat when it’s young growth. In other words, it’s difficult early on to tell which is wheat and which is weed. It seems to me that this aspect of the parable is in line with Jesus telling us that we aren’t to judge, rather that judgement is reserved for God (or God’s messengers in this story.) So ultimately, whether you agree with my argument tonight about the final fate of the wicked, it’s not up to us to decide who is deserving of which fate.

    Monday, June 19

    The Lord's Prayer and the Great Commission: Parallels of Spirituality and Action

    It struck me as I was preparing for this sermon that Jesus’ commission to the twelve parallels the Lord’s prayer. Christ tells us to pray for a thing in the Lord’s prayer and then commissions us to act on it in tonight’s Gospel.

    Pray for God’s kingdom come, Jesus says, and I commission you to proclaim that it has become near.

    Recent translations have used the reign of God rather than kingdom since the word kingdom has lost that meaning since the Bible was written. Kingdom in the Bible often refers to the time in which a particular ruler was in power, rather than the land or people who are ruled over.

    The Israelites rejected God as their King, asking for a human one. Through Samuel, God warned them how a human king would be: He will send your children to war, make them build his weapons, make them work for him, take your best possessions and give it to his servants, he will take portions of your harvest, and you will become his slaves.

    Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that they are not to be rulers. You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.

    Jesus, who is now our king, the person of God who has taken on our humanity, who still bears our wounds, tells us over and over that wealth, power and status do not belong in the kingdom of God.

    Jesus tells us again and again is that God cares about our suffering. Jesus in fact identifies with the suffering. What you have done for the least you have done for Jesus. Which leads us to…

    Pray for God’s will to be done, I commission you to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

    God’s will is for us to ease suffering. Theodicy is a whole branch of theology that deals with why an all-powerful all-good God would allow evil and suffering. But I’m not going to get into that, because suffering is here, like it or not, whether it makes theological sense or not. There is suffering and we are called upon to ease it.

    And if we are to live like Christ, then we shouldn’t consider if someone deserves suffering or if they brought it on themselves. As Paul reminds us in Romans, “For a good person someone might actually dare to die. God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” 

    Pray for God to forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven. You received without payment; give without payment, I commission you to respond to rejection of peace you’ve given, by letting your peace return to you. Shake it off.

    Actually to shake the dust from your feet is a rejection back, but I believe letting your peace return to you isn’t. Even as you shake the dust off your sandals, do it with a peaceful heart. Does that sound contradictory? Perhaps but not any more than “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

    That reminds me of a story about a traveling sage who comes across a village terrorized by a great serpent. The sage convinces the serpent of the value of peace, and to stop harming the villagers. The sage on his return journey comes across the serpent who has been attacked and wounded by the villagers seeking revenge. The sage tells her, “I said not to harm them; I didn’t say not to hiss at them.” The way of peace is not a way without conflict. It is a way that includes acknowledging you’re capable of doing harm. We are not commissioned to be doormats.

    And not all the places you visit will reject you, laborers deserve their food. Pray for God to give us our daily bread, yet like mana from heaven, only what we need today. I commission you to take nothing with you, depend on the hospitality of others. 

    I’ve often run into what seems to me a very odd (and I think very American) definition of self-sufficient. Somehow it’s thought that receiving money from employers or clients is somehow self-sufficient, while receiving money from family, the government, or charitable organizations is not. To my mind, all of the above reflects dependence on others. The labor we deem legitimate still puts us in a position of dependence on employers or clients. 

    And of course, we’re all dependent on God for our very lives. The air that we breathe, in fact all that sustains us comes from God. I even believe our very strength to endure the trials of this world is strength we receive from God.

    Pray for God to not bring us to the time of trial, yet I commission you to be sheep among wolves. This all starts with Jesus having compassion for the harassed and helpless, who are like sheep without a shepherd. The commission is to remind the sheep that the Lord is their shepherd.  But there are wolves. The wolves want sheep to remain helpless and harassed. Suffering benefits the wolves. The wolves will in fact do everything in their power to stop you from tending to them, easing their suffering and reminding them of their Lord.

    In tending to the suffering, you will have to endure suffering yourself. Jesus certainly didn’t avoid it. And God can and will give you the strength to endure. And like Jesus, you will be vindicated. And it will be Jesus whose suffering you ease. Whatever you do for the least of these… The mourning will be comforted, the hungry will be filled, and the pure in heart will see God. And there are emotional rewards. Think of those whose suffering you relieve. Many will bubble over with Joy like Sarah did. "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me."