How to Spell Presbyterian

 

 

 

 

 

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In 1517 a renegade monk named Martin Luther let loose his frustrations with the Church, at that time the ONLY church, and nailed a piece of paper that had 95 different statements that showed his disagreement with the Mother Church onto a church door in the town of Wittenberg Germany, where he was a professor of Old Testament.

Luther’s primary beef with the Church was over the practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.” If you had committed a sin, in Luther’s day, you confessed to a priest, and the priest would tell you to pray the Lord’s Prayer a certain number of times or to do a good deed for your neighbor, visit a sacred site, or give a certain amount of money to the church. That was your indulgence, and when you earned your indulgence, your sins were forgiven. But in 1506 Pope Julius decided to build a new basilica in Rome, and he needed some money to finance the project. A German Bishop named Albrecht came up with an ingenious fundraising scheme.  He would sell indulgences to the people.

An enterprising monk named Johann Tetzel was a wonderful salesman for the indulgences. Are you worried about a loved one who has died? Do you want to assure their place in heaven? Simply put your coins in the box, and their soul will spring toward heaven. Have you committed a sin? Simply put your money in the coffers, and you will be forgiven. Is there a sin you are contemplating committing? Again, put your money in the box, and forgiveness is waiting for you.

Well, Luther’s study of the Bible led him to a very conclusion. Forgiveness for sins does not come because we have earned it, through indulgences or any other way. There is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness. God bestows forgiveness on us through his love for us. We cannot earn it. That, Luther said, is what grace is.

And the only way to receive God’s grace is through faith. Because we believe, we can have a relationship with God.

While he was monkeying with the idea of forgiveness, Luther also looked at how doctrines were developed in the church. In the Catholic church, doctrines sprung from the traditions of the Church, one of which was the Bible. Luther believed that the doctrines of the church should only spring from the Bible.

From these convictions sprang three catchphrases of the Reformation—sola gratia, sola fides, sola scriptura. We come to God only through grace, only through faith, and only through what we have learned in the Bible.

When Luther was nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door, a precocious eight-year was starting school in Paris, France. This young man eventually became a lawyer, and then fled Paris for the city of Strasburg after he was involved in a protest march against the Catholic Church. This young man, named John Calvin, had become a follower of Luther’s teachings, except he felt Luther did not go far enough. Where Luther merely wanted to reform the Catholic church, Calvin wanted to be the theological architect for the new church which developed from Luther’s initial protest.

Calvin is considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church, and what we call The Reformed Tradition. The terminology is a little confusing because Luther started the Reformation, but Calvin started the Reformed Tradition. If we say a church is a Reformed style of church, we mean its roots go back to John Calvin.

All Presbyterian Churches are considered Reformed Churches, from the various Presbyterian churches in the United States, to the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands and South African to the Church of Scotland.

So why are we not called The Reformed Church? Why “The Presbyterian Church”? What does Presbyterian mean?

The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word Presbutos, which means elder. This is at the heart of who we are. We are a church dependent on the leadership of a group of people—the elders of the church. In the Exodus story Moses is trying to do everything, but is overwhelmed. His father-in-law suggests a new way. Gather together some people who are capable, faithful, and trustworthy, and give them power. Don’t let all the power reside in one person. Spread it out among many people.

John Calvin used that principle, but to be honest he also had another motive. He believed that power tended to corrupt people. He saw what happened in the Roman Catholic church with the Pope in charge, and he felt that many of the problems in the church were due to people in power misusing their power. So he proposed a system where power was distributed among a group of people, elders in the church. This insight by Calvin, by the way, inspired the people who designed the political structure of the United States. That is why we have the separation of powers in our government.

There is no way to summarize what either Calvin or Luther believed in one sermon. Books and books have been written about this. This is Calvin’s magnum Opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, originally intended as a catechism for children who were joining his church.

But here are the major thrust of Calvin’s understanding of God and our relationship to God.

Calvin believed in the complete sovereignty of God. The ways of the world all whirl around the will of God. For Calvin nothing was left up to chance. Now this gives rise to his doctrine of predestination, which is way too complicated for a sermon, but which has been modified over the years, especially by the theologian Karl Barth.

Calvin believed in the overall pervasiveness of sin. While we are certainly capable of doing incredibly good deeds, we are also, at the same time, unable to escape our baser instincts. Calvin would not be surprised that even the best human being also has weaknesses. And what is worse, we often do not see our own wrongdoings. How many times have you seen someone who seems to be totally unaware of their faults? That should make you wonder what you don’t see about yourself.

 

This is what Calvin called total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that we are worthless in all we are. It means that no one part of us is as good as it could or should be.

That is why Calvin felt that having one person in complete control of anything was a big mistake.

But Calvin also believed firmly in the power of grace—a power that can transform us into children of God. The power of grace overcomes every sin. Grace, for Calvin was not just an individual good. It is not just individuals humans who are saved, but whole communities. And not just church communities. The virtues of those who believe in God are to have an effect on the whole community of humanity, not in ruling over them, but in showing the love to God to all peoples.

To the extent that the Gospel affects society as a whole, we would do well to remember the Gospel lesson this morning: 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

When Gospel becomes a means for social righteousness, and Calvin believed it should, it should affect people by giving them rest. The Gospel was never meant to be a burden. It is meant to take our burdens from us.

In the end, we have to ask a hard question. Was the reformation a good idea? On the one hand, it spawned the Protestant churches—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mennonite, and all the offshoots of those branches. This church would not exist without the work of Luther and Calvin. On the other hand, if Luther and Calvin could have foreseen the results–the proliferation of denominations, the multitude of church splits would result over the years, the rise of a Church where people chose their god, and not where we believe God chooses a people—if they could have seen this, would Luther have nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door? Would Calvin have written his Institutes of the Christian Religion?

I think so, but with a qualification. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth popularized an old Latin saying that was originally attributed to St. Augustine: “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” The church reformed, always reforming.

The Reformation of Luther and Calvin did not solve all the problems of Christendom. The Reformers did not create The Perfect Church or even The True Church. What Luther did, what Calvin did were not the last word in how to be a Christian.  The Reformation was a needed corrective to the abuses of the day. The church, they felt, had strayed from what it should be. God’s church had gone off course, and she needed to be brought back.

And there were many times when the new Reformed Church went off course. For example good Lutherans marched into battle during World War I and World War II wearing belt buckles that said, “Gott mit uns”—God with us. Calvinism was used to justify slavery in the American South and apartheid in South Africa. In spite of the best intentions of Luther and Calvin to reform the church we constantly find it still needs reforming.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” The church reformed, always reforming. When we celebrate Reformation Sunday, we are essentially saying that the Church of Jesus Christ is not perfect. She needed to be reformed, and still needs to be reformed. Sometimes we need to be reformed because we have strayed from God’s original intentions and design for the Church. I look today at how political the church has become, and how easily at major part of the church is identified with Right wing politics—and in some cases with left wing politics, and I see the need for a new Reformation. I look at how divided we have become, how we isolate ourselves from people who are not like us, and I remember that the Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be the means to tear down the dividing walls between peoples. Instead it seems sometimes like we have just created more of them.

And sometimes the church needs reforming because the times change. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, and books became readily available to a much wider group of people, the church, which previously had been the caretaker of Holy Scripture, was now in a place where the Bible could be in the hands of people who were not priests or bishops or popes. It took a long time for the Church to adapt to that change. With today’s technology, and today’s innovations, how do we need to change? What does today’s reformation look like?

And how can we be a part of it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ten Ways to Love

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A rabbi was asked if it bothered him that Christians had taken the Ten Commandments from the Jews. “I don’t mind that they took them,” he said, “I just hope they can keep them.”

 

We can try to understand the Ten Commandments as a list of rules we must follow, similar to the traffic laws of Medford, or the legal code of Oregon. Often I read of people who want to display the Ten Commandment in court rooms because they are a historical example of an ancient legal code.

 

But I think they are more than that. Yes, they have historical value that way, and yes there is a strong sense that they represent legal norms, but they are much more than that. To think of the Ten Commandments as merely a divine legal code is to demean the overall importance of their meaning.

 

In Hebrew they are actually called the Ten Sayings, and the first saying is not, Thou shalt have no other gods before me. The first is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

 

I can see how some people think of them as a legal code. In the history of our country there has been people, and there still are people who believe the Ten Commandments are the basis for all legal matters, and should be the law of the land. True, some of them, like thou shalt not steal, or thou shalt not kill, look a lot like a legal code. Every society that has ever had a legal code has included those two laws in it.

 

Some of the commandments are well suited for universal laws. Even though the still represent a covenant between us and God and each other, they still work in terms of a legal code. Thou shalt not kill comes to mind. Thou shalt not steal. These are more than just good ideas. In almost every society that has ever existed, these have been the law.

 

Do you remember what you felt when you first heard about Las Vegas? I felt like an essential covenant had been broken. At very least we have the expectation that we will not randomly kill our fellow citizens—or anyone for that matter. That was broken that day as a man tried to see how many people he could kill.

 

If you have ever had someone break into your house or car and steal things, what you might feel is more than just sadness at the loss of your material things. Many people feel violated. We know we are not supposed to do that. It is an promise we have with each other as fellow human beings.

 

The prohibition against bearing false witness is also important, and works in a legal sense. We have a crime called perjury, and it is an important thing to remember.

 

How many of you have heard of the Spanish Inquisition? How about the French Inquisition? The Italian Inquisition? The German Inquisition? The English Inquisition?

 

I realize that the idea of an English Inquisition boggles the mind, but these all existed. There were French and German and Italian and even English Inquisitions. But the Spanish Inquisition is the one we think about. Why?

 

Well in the Spanish Inquisition, they added a little something to the mix. If you accused your neighbor of heresy, and they were eventually convicted, you got all their property. That started out as an incentive to get people to turn in heretics. But it went horribly wrong. It turned neighbor against neighbor. If your neighbor had a nicer house than yours, or a nicer horse, or had a lot of earthly goods, all you had to do to get their stuff was say to a local authority, “I think I saw my neighbor say a curse, then turn around and spit three times. They may be a heretic.” The inquisition comes and arrests your neighbor, they torture them until they confessed, which is usually what happened, and then you walk off with a nice new house.

 

There ought to be a law against telling lies about your neighbor, especially when it does him great harm. Ironically in Spain, it was the Church itself who instituted a policy that made it advantageous to tell lies about your neighbor.

 

 

Other parts of the commandments, well are a bit more questionable.  For instance, how many of you remember Blue Laws? In order to help keep the Sabbath holy, shops were forbidden from selling certain items on a Sunday. I remember once trying to buy model glue on a Sunday, only to find out they could not sell it to be because of the Blue Laws. I guess someone thought building model airplanes on a Sunday was not properly honoring the Sabbath.

 

And others are almost impossible to enforce. How does a government enforce something like, Thou shalt not covet? I mean, if you think about it, most ads are based on getting you to covet something—whether they are selling cars or breakfast cereals, most ads are aimed at getting you to want something you don’t have. So you would have to eliminate all advertising, but then are we going to have Thought Police who wander around neighbors, and arrest people for looking too longingly at their neighbors green lawn. Sir, it looks like you are coveting your neighbor’s nice green lawn. I’m afraid you are under arrest.”

 

If we cannot do that, how are we going to enforce something like having no other gods, or taking God’s name in vain? Does anyone want people thrown into jail because they thought more highly of their country, or of football than they do God?

 

 

So if the Ten Commandments are not really meant to be the basis for a society’s legal code, what are they meant to be?

 

At a conference of rabbis held just after Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, and the Jews realized that they were no longer people of the land, no longer a people of the Temple, but now were people of the book, they started a discussion on the Old Testament that actually is still going on today. Since their faith would now revolve around the book and not the land or the Temple, they had long discussions on how to interpret the various books of the Bible. They debated what should go in their Bible.

 

When they were debating the section that contained the Ten Commandments, they got hung on a phrase. It says, when Moses went up on the Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the mountain hovered over the people. The rabbis took that literally, believing that the mountain lifted up, and actually hovered over the people. Why did it do that, the rabbis asked. One person said it was to show the power of God. One person said it was so that if the people rejected the law, God would bring the mountain down on them, and kill them. Finally one rabbi said, “The mountain was a marriage canopy. The law is the vows we give to God, and which God gives to us.” And that was the interpretation that won the day.

 

The commandments are vows that we make to cement our relationship with God and with each other. It is a covenant promise we make to God and to each other. The first part of the commandments pertains to how we treat God. The second part, how we treat each other. The Ten Commandments show us ten ways we can love God and love our neighbor.

 

There is a communal aspect to them. The Ten Commandments, and the rest of the Hebrew law for that matter, was given to a community of people. The intent was for that community to show the world who God was, and what the people of God are supposed to look like. They were designed to show the world how to love God and how to love our neighbor.  If we are serious about the Ten Commandments, and as Christians I believe we should be, we should be serious about helping others keep them. But not in a legal way. The way to help others keep the commandments is NOT to turn them into some kind of secular law with penalties if you break the law. That is the not the way of love.

 

We do it differently. Many years ago I was helping my Dad move, and I opened up a closet and found a .22 rifle. “When did you get a gun?” I asked him. As far as I knew, my father never owned a gun before. “Oh, that,” he said. “I had almost forgotten about that.” He was in a convenience store one night, and this kid came in with the rifle. He pointed it at the clerk and said, “I need you to give me the money in your till. I don’t want to do this, sir, but I have to feed my family.” Dad looked at him, and saw he was more scared than the clerk, and he said to the kid, “How much do you want for the gun?” He gave the kid $75 and the kid gave him the rifle, and one of the commandments was not broken that night. My father helped him keep the commandment about not stealing.

 

If we are serious about these as a community of faith—not as a civil community, but as a community of faith—we will help each other keep them. So we won’t pass laws to make it illegal to shop or eat out on the Sabbath, but we will act in such a way that helps others keep the Sabbath. We don’t pass laws making it illegal to covet, but we look at what and how we desire things, and live that out. We don’t pass laws about taking God’s name in vain, but live a life that shows the love of God, and makes people want to honor God. Like most other societies we might pass laws against stealing and killing and bearing false witness but we also live in such a way that other people can easily keep them. When we create inequalities in society, and structures that keep people impoverished, we are not exactly making it easy for them to keep the commandment about stealing.

 

Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” and he said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” The Ten Commandments are ten ways we can show our love for God and for our neighbor. We take them seriously, not as law, but as guidelines for love. Against these there is not law.

 

Amen.

 

Texts

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13You shall not murder.

14You shall not commit adultery.

15You shall not steal.

16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “;You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

Matthew 21:33-46

33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

 

 

 

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Breaking out of our Cultural Comfort Zones

Westward Bound

While I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital, her daughter’s pastor, a prominent African-American pastor, also made a visit.

We were making small talk, the kind pastors generally make during a hospital visit, and I asked Pastor McCormick how long he had been in in Alaska.

“My family came here in 1944,” he said. I knew that during that time a lot of African-American soldiers were sent to Alaska to work on the Alaska-Canadian highway. “So your dad was in the military,” I said.

“No, we came up to homestead,” he answered.

“That’s funny,” I thought. “I didn’t know that Black people homesteaded.” Fortunately for the situation I did not say that out loud, because I would have greatly embarrassed my parishioner.

It was not only a stupid thing to think, it was out and out racist.

I certainly did not mean any harm in what I thought—in fact, as soon as I thought it I knew it was NOT something I should say out loud. And if I had, I am also sure that Pastor McCormick would have been gracious in his response, because he had a great soul within him.

But that is not the point. It was still a racist statement, even though I meant no harm by it. Not all racism is intentional hurtful. I don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. I just have to be ignorant and prejudiced, and in this case, I was. Of course African-Americans can homestead, and many did. In fact, the Homestead Act of 1862 was updated in 1872, and it explicitly stated that there could be no distinction “on account of race or color.” (Revised Statutes of The United States, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (1873), Sec. 2302, 424.)

Racist speech is not always hate speech. Sometimes it is just ignorant speech. When I assumed, wrongly, that all the homesteaders had to be white, I was making an ignorant assumption. It would be easy to write this off by saying I didn’t mean any harm, and that would be true. But how often do we have to write off ignorance?

Why did I assume all homesteaders were white? I have only seen pictures of white homesteaders, so it is understandable that I assumed all homesteaders were white.

History has a pervasive sense of being whitewashed, showing only the dominate culture and our story. For example, around one fourth of all cowboys in the Old West were Black. It is possible that the term “cowboy” was a derogatory term for Black cowhands. Given those odds, you would think that Black people might show up in movies about the Old West. But does John Wayne ever deal with people of color in any of his movies? From Hollywood’s perspective the only people of color in the Wild West were Native Americans, and their portrayal was hardly historically accurate.

I said earlier that my belief about homesteaders stemmed from ignorance. I like to think that I am a broad-minded, fairly educated person. Yet I have this huge lack of knowledge. Prior to writing this article I had never heard of Claudette Colvin, Onesimus, Bass Reeves, Esther Jones, Bayard Rustin, or Bessie Coleman. (And to be honest, I still don’t know a lot about these people.)

But it is more than that. How many books do I own written by people of color? (And I have A LOT of books!) How many histories have I read that feature people of color in a prominent way—or that feature them at all? I am a pastor, and I own a bevy of books concerning theology and religion. And how many of them are written by people of color? Probably less than one percent. (Even the majority of books I have on Buddhism were written by White Americans.)

Whether I want to admit or not, I live in a very White bubble. And I know I am not alone in that bubble.

Now at this point I could say, “If you find yourself in that same White bubble, then go find a person of color and have them educate you.” But I am not. Let me make this clear. It is not THEIR job to educate you. You’re probably a pretty smart person. You have the wherewithal to educate yourself, at least to some extent, on these issues. A lot of it just means you keep your eyes and ears open, and you listen a lot more than you speak. So how to you hear people of other cultures?

For me that means starting at my bookshelf. To be honest, I am not sure what comes after that. Along the way I hope to meet with a variety of people who can open my world, but if I am making friends with people of color because I feel guilty about living in my white bubble, then I am only using them.

So I am going to start by making my reading more multi-cultural. I am going to start with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a small start, but it’s a start. I plan to have at least every third book I read be something that takes me out of the comfort zone of my cultural bubble.

I also want to issue a challenge and a request. What bubble are you in? You may not think you are, but I didn’t either when I made the remark about homesteading. The challenge is to figure out what bubble you are in, and then find a way out of it.  There are many different ways of doing that. I am starting with my library. I realized, while writing this, just how White it is. You may want to follow suit, or maybe join a Facebook group where people of color write about their issues. Perhaps you can find an ethnic restaurant where you are the minority, and go there enough to get to know the owner and other patrons. I have known people who changed churches so then can deepen their understanding of other people.

 

What can you do to expand your world? I am looking for suggestions that we can all share and benefit from. I can post what I am reading, and I welcome other’s suggestions, but also more than just reading. What can we DO to get us out of our bubbles?

Please, if you find something that works, share it with the rest of us!  That includes activities, reading lists, and those “aha” moments like I had with Pastor Otis.

People of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your bubble!

Readers will notice that I go back and forth between the terms Black and African-American. That is also a part of my own lack of knowledge. I have heard both terms used by people of color, and to be honest, am not sure which is preferable these days.  

 

 

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No Room for Hate

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When I was in the seventh grade I attended a lily-white high school. We had, as far as I knew, three minorities—two Roman Catholics and a Jewish girl.

The next year that same school was around 45 percent African-American. We integrated, and we did it without incident. There were no khaki-clad marchers carrying tiki torches chanting racist slogans. There were no white power rallies. Sure there were individual skirmishes around the state, but for the most part, most people recognizes that education should be equal for all people.

Having grown up in that environment, perhaps it is understandable that I thought racism was mostly dead in America. Sure, there are a few fringe groups who advocate hate against African-American, Jews, Roman Catholics, and anyone else who is not pure White and Protestant. But those people are far out on the fringes.

This weekend was a wakeup call. The sight of white supremacist marching through the streets of Charlottesville, openly and proudly, was distressing. The fact that the President of the United States made no moral distinction between racists and those who opposed the racists was even more distressing.

As a pastor, I find it even worse that many of these people claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

I should not have to say this, but I will. Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, but who feels that someone is inferior because of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, or even their religion, has rejected the Gospel, and has embraced a false version of Christianity. One cannot be a neo-Nazi, white supremacist, or ultra-nationalist and still follow the way of Jesus Christ. Again, I should not have to say this, but it seems the world has gone crazy, and the obvious needs restating.

There are times when we need to be tolerant of the beliefs of others. But this is not one of those times. The New Testament is so clear on this issue that there should be no question. From the beginnings of the Church at Pentecost, where the Gospel was preached in many tongues, to the inclusion of outcasts, such as eunuchs, Samaritans and Gentiles, the love of Jesus has known no boundaries. Those who preach a gospel of hate are betraying the very God they pretend to serve.

Christianity does not stand alone as the only religion that rejects racism as a core value. Malcolm X learned that Islam was not a racist religion while in Mecca. The civil rights movement in the South had many Jewish supporters, some of whom died defending the rights of all Americans to have equal rights. Gandhi was a Hindu who worked tirelessly to see the rights of all upheld. Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, and many other religions teach and practice that all are worthy and that no one should be discriminated against because of race or national origin.

Like Christianity, many of these religions also have narrow-minded adherents who cannot see beyond their own prejudices. But it is time to set the record straight. I do not speak for other religions, but I can say this: There is no room for hate in Christianity. There is no room for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or anyone who feels they are superior simply because of where they were born or what color their skin is. No room at all.

 

This was first published in the Medford Mail Tribune on August 20, 2017.

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The Many Faces of Jesus

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For the last few weeks the Gospel lessons have all come from the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters embody more than almost any other passages of Scripture the teachings of Jesus Christ. And for many people these teachings tell us what we need to do to be really good people. What is important about the sermon on the mount, for many people, is not that they came from Jesus, but what they say—love your enemies, don’t judge other people, don’t retaliate out of anger. A Buddhist monk who had never heard of Jesus was shown the sermon on the mount, and he said, “The man who said these things is truly enlightened.” Gandhi based much of political philosophy on the Sermon on the Mount, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Jailbird, a very minor Watergate Conspirator has a turn of conscious, and is testifying against he co-conspirators. When asked why, at a Senate hearing, he replies, “The Sermon on the Mount, sir. The Sermon on the Mount.”

Today’s text is much different. It is not about what Jesus said, but more about who Jesus was. The previous few weeks we have looked at social ethics according to Jesus. This week we are shown in theological terms who Jesus was. The last few weeks it did not matter what you believe about Jesus; it was about how you feel you should treat your fellow human beings. This week we are shown something extraordinary about Jesus. It is as if his humanity were stripped away and we are seeing him as he is, as the Son of God.

Now if this congregation is in any way an average congregation, there are some of you who really enjoyed the last few weeks. You love hearing about what Jesus teaches, and you really take that heart. But there are some of you here that might have been wondering, “What’s with all the social ethics stuff? I want to hear about Jesus, the Son of God.” And you will feel more drawn to today’s text.

The fact is, when I say the word, Jesus, each of you has a little different conception of what that means. For some of you Jesus was the teacher of social reform. For some he was a wild-eyed prophet who took on the powers that be, and was killed for it. For some he was God Incarnate, God’s only begotten Son.

Ten years ago, when the movie The Passion of the Christ came out, I gave it a mediocre review in the Fairbanks Newspaper. I thought it overplayed the violence of Jesus’ last hours. After all the Gospels only say that Pilate handed Jesus over to be flogged, and then he was crucified. None of the Gospel writers emphasize the physical agony of Jesus the way Mel Gibson did in that movie.

Much to my surprise, many people were hurt, or angry at what I said. One person even went as far to say that I had taken Jesus from her.

What I didn’t realize when I wrote that review is that there are a lot of people who identify Jesus’ love for them with the sufferings he went through before and during the crucifixion. For them, the greater that agony of Jesus, the more he proved he loves us.

In that review I was insensitive to the fact that some people see Jesus, and experience Jesus differently from the way I do. Jesus was a very complicated person, and the fact that different people see him differently is more a testament to his universal appeal than anything.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote a book called Jesus through the Centuries, where he recounts 18 different ways people have conceptualized Jesus over the 2000 years since his birth.

In today’s story, the transfiguration, I think that what happens is that a veil is lifted from the earthly Jesus, and Peter, James and John see Jesus in all his glory, all his humanity, all his divinity.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John, his inner circle, up on a mountain, traditionally Mt. Carmel, and there they see the full Jesus. All earthly veils are stripped away, and as much as they can, they see the entirety of Jesus. They see his humanity, they see his divinity. They see the reigning King, and they see the suffering servant. They see the powerful prophet, who spoke out against the religious authorities of his day, and they see the wonder worker, the maker of miracles. They see the teacher, who gave the sermon on the mount, and they see the One who said, I am the Light of the World.

They saw it all.

They saw Jesus in all the possible ways you can see Jesus, and it is so much that in the end, they can only describe it as a white light.

There is an analogy to this in science of course—light. The light that we see is composed of all the colors in the light spectrum. If I had a prism, I could shine light through it and it would separate all the colors, but without a prism, all the colors are essentially clear to us. I look at you through the light of the sanctuary and I don’t see the reds, the blues, the violets, the yellows. I see through all that.

I think that at the transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw all the different conceptions of Jesus in One, and in seeing that, they had no way to parse them all out. So they just saw a bright, white light.

We cannot all the aspects of Jesus at one time, and even if we could be taken, like Peter, James and John to the Mount of Transfiguration, and even if the totally of who Jesus was could be revealed to us, we still would have a hard time seeing who Jesus really was.  We just are not hardwired in such a way as to be able to do that.

And so we see Jesus in parts. And we gravitate to the parts of Jesus that speak to us that touch us where we need to be touched, that reveal the portion of God that we can best see, or that we want to see.

But not matter how large your conception of Jesus is, it is important to remember that his larger than that.

Jesus is the King of Kings, the one of whom Mary said,

the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;

He is the one who taught about the Kingdom of God, and tried to tell us what it would be like to be his subjects in a Kingdom of love.

For people who see the political turmoil all around, and who want the assurance that God has not lost control of the world, Jesus is the King of Kings, who provides the stability needed for life, as well as the one who does and who will mete out eternal justice.

He is the true image of God, the one of whom the Nicene Creed says,

the only-begotten Son of God,

Begotten of his Father before all worlds,

God of God, Light of Light,

Very God of very God,

Begotten, not made,

Being of one substance with the Father,

By whom all things were made;

 

For those who feel that God is an abstract concept, a force that we cannot really identify with, Jesus brings God down to our level. He embodies the Almighty, the creator of Heaven and earth, and he shows us, in life character, his ministry, and his life, who and what God is and is all about.

He is the Christ crucified, the one who came to suffer, the man who sweated blood in the garden, who cried over Jerusalem, who was beaten, mocked, tortured, and finally executed in one of the cruelest forms of execution known to human beings. He is one who, in the words of Philippians 2:

    did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

And as the crucified Christ, he meets us in our pain, he meets us in our suffering. He suffers with us.

He is the beloved Bridegroom of the soul, who loves his church and his people as much as any two lovers desire each other. He desires complete union with his followers, and dwells in them in a mystical way, merging his life and love with our lives and our love for him.

He is the liberator who frees us from our oppressions—from the oppression of sin, but also from the oppression that comes with life—from the oppression of poverty, from hunger, from injustice. For those whose lives are marked by oppression, whether is addiction to drugs, or political violence, Jesus is the one who gives us a freedom that cannot be measured as the world measures freedom.

He is the great teacher, who gave humanity a blueprint for living our lives together in harmony, who taught us to love our enemies, and to not return violence with violence, hatred with hatred, but who taught us to overcome our enemies with love.

He is the resurrected Christ, who overcame sin and death, and who leads us to eternal life after death as well as abundant life on this side of the grave.

He is all this and more.

He is Jesus Christ, our lord and our savior.

Amen.

 

Text:

Matthew 17:1-9

1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

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All You Need to Do

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What does it mean to be a good Christian?

If you asked me what it takes to be a good baseball player, a good writer, or  a good musician, I could come up with an answer that most people would agree with. For example, I do not like the New York Yankees, but I would agree that Don Mattingly and Mickey Mantle were great baseball players. I do not like the novels of Henry James, but I have to admit that he is a great writer. I am not into rap music, but I will admit that musicians like Eminem and Kanye West are very good at what they do.  But when it comes to what makes a good Christian, it seems our agreements fall apart.

What does it mean to be a good Christian? Does it mean you are pro-choice or pro-life? Does it mean that you oppose same-sex marriage or support it? Does a good Christian go out and share the Gospel with other people, or do they go out and feed people? Does a good Christian believe every word of the Bible is true, or do they try to follow Jesus’ teachings as best they can? Does a good Christian attend Church every week, or do they worship God in their own way in their own time. Does a good Christian believe we ought to build a wall or open our borders to more refugees?

We could have some stimulating, or disturbing debate on these questions, but I think that is exactly the wrong way to approach the question. There are religions that require their adherents to perform certain actions on a regular basis, or to believe specific things, or to follow certain social and moral norms. If you are Muslim you pray five times a day. If you are Jewish, you don’t eat pork. If you are Buddhist, you meditate. But what does one do if you is a Christian?

But that is not the primary way of Christianity. It’s not about what we do.

In the Gospel of John, when Jesus is talking with the woman at the well, he says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” He says this in response to her question about whether it was better to worship on the mountain of her ancestors or at the temple in Jerusalem.

It’s not about where you do it, says Jesus. It’s not about how you do it, whether you stand, sit or kneel for confession, whether you raise your arms when you sing, whether you come forward for communion or have an usher bring it to you. It’s not about whether you dunk an adult for baptism or sprinkle a baby. It’s not about whether the sermon is before or after the offering, or whether you sing hymns or praise choruses. A person of God is not defined by any specific outward actions or behavior but they are defined by specific inward attitudes.

Today’s lessons do not tell us exactly what we need to do to be good Christians. But they do tell us who we need to be to be good Christians.

We start with Micah. The context of this passage is that God has a beef with his people. They are missing something, something very important.

1   Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
…     for the LORD has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

When it says that God will contend with his people, Micah is saying that God is bringing charges against his people; He is essentially taking them to court.

3   “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4   For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;

 

“What’s the matter, people?” God asks. “Are you getting bored with me? Are you looking to trade me in for a newer, younger, more sexy model?” And then God recounts all he has done for his people. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. He protected them from the kings of hostile nations. He nurtured them, and gave them a law and most important, he made promised to his people.

Then Micah asks, “What can we do to please God? What does God want from us? More sacrifices? Should be bow 100 times during worship rather than 80 times? Should we switch our sacrifices from lambs to calves? Does God want our firstborns?

The text builds up to verse 8. It comes like a crescendo, like the Hallelujah chorus in the Messiah.

8   He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

What does God want from us? To do justice. To love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

So what does that look like?

Let’s go to the beatitudes to see that.

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now this list is interesting in many ways.

For example, the first four items on the list imply that lacking something makes you blessed. It is not what you have, it is what you don’t have, or what you have lost.

The poor in spirit, those who lack spiritual wealth are blessed. People are not sure they are worthy before God, ironically have more status before God than those who are sure of their spiritual worth.

Those who mourn—well that is easy. You mourn for something, or someone you have lost. Mourning is perhaps one of the most basic human emotions, and here we are told that this is one of the places where God meets us. And God meets us with comfort.

The meek lack the kind of strength and power it takes to get what you want. They lack the ability to overpower people with their influence and authority.

People who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they are people who know the blunt end of oppression, the pangs of hunger, the indignity of an unfair law. These are people who know helplessness, who have no one to come to their aid when the chips are down. And for them, the chips are almost always down.

These are the people Jesus called blessed. It is a strange list, and few of us would want to trade places with anyone on this list. But this is who God folds close to his heart.

The strange thing about God is who he choses to hang out with. I mean, he reaches down and choses a people. Who does he choose? The Egyptians, who at that time, had the greatest economy, the most sophisticated culture, the highest level of technology, and the most powerful armies? No, God chooses their slaves! He does not choose the Egyptians, he chose those who felt the sting of the Egyptian whips.

Now if you ever in your life felt unworthy of God, if you ever felt like maybe you did not have what it takes to be the kind of Christian God would love, if you ever felt outside of God’s love, if you have ever felt that life was stacked against you, then I have some good news for you—you are exactly the kind of person who God cherishes! Perhaps more than any other person you know what it is like to walk humbly with God.

But there is more to the list. Not everyone experience a lack in their lives. Not everyone has to hunger and thirst for things they do not have. Some of us, myself included, lack very little in our lives. There is a blessing for you as well.

7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

You can only show mercy when you are in a position of power. That power can come in many ways—through the resources you have, the education you have, the opportunities you have had, the good luck you have had. When we have power, and we use to help others, we are showing mercy. When we use what God has given us to help others, we are merciful.

8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

We don’t work on impressing God or others with our faith. We work on our own hearts. Alexander Solzhenitsyn says the line of good and evil runs through every human heart. We work on making the good side of that line bigger than the bad side. We work on our motives, we work our intentions, and we work on putting into place the virtues of the Christian life, the characteristics and qualities of godliness into the core of our being. Paul wrote, in his letter to the Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” We work on having loving hearts, joyful hearts, peaceful hearts, patient hearts, kind hearts, generous hearts, faithful hearts, gentle hearts and disciplined hearts. The more we have these qualities in our hearts the more we will see of God.

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It is easy to cause strife. Anyone can start an argument. All you have to do is spend ten minutes on Facebook and you can see that in practice. But it takes work to make peace. It takes commitment, and the virtues I just mentioned to create peace between feuding peoples.

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Here is a hard one. It is easy to do what is right when it is easy to do what is right. That is obvious, but its truth sometimes eludes us. You would think that being a truly good person would make you respected by most people. People like Abraham Lincoln, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King would naturally garner the respect of all people. People like Bishop Oscar Romero who stood with the oppressed people of El Salvador during a bloody civil war. Or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood against the Nazis in Germany. People like Jesus, or St. Paul. Those people I mentioned have one thing in common—they were all assassinated. Well, all but Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus and Paul. They were all executed.

It is usually in hindsight that a saint becomes a saint. During their lives they are usually known as a pain the neck—or worse. People who stand up against injustices are rarely rewarded for it. People who stand for what is right, especially when the world has decided that being in the right a bit inconvenient at the time, usually are not rewarded until after they have died. Or spent time in jail. Do not think that being a godly person will aways make you a popular person.

I started this by asking, what makes a person a good Christian. I am not sure I answered that, to be honest. I guess I didn’t answer because I am not sure that being a good Christian is what we should aim for. That sounds too much like trying to curry favor, or trying to prove to God or other people that we are up to snuff. I guess I want to end by saying that we are not up to snuff. None of will attain this. And that it doesn’t matter. What matters is this.

We are loved by God. And in return we love God. And God has told us the best way we can show our love for God is to love others. Especially those who need love the most—the hurt, the forlorn, the lost, the hungry, the widow, the orphan, the alien in our land.

In the end it is about love. Doing justice, being kind, and walking humbly with God.

ADDENDUM

The Greek word for righteousness, diakasyne, δικαιοσύνη carries a double meaning—it means righteousness and it means justice. Now I have said before that the biblical notion of justice is different from the way we use in the American political system. We speak of blind justice. The symbol for American Justice is the statue of a blindfolded woman. Lady Justice is blind, and does not see the differences between peoples. There is a sense where Biblical justice is like that, but it goes further.

Justice, in the Old Testaments sense is not seen as an impartial meting out of rewards and punishments. It is not a legal term, making sure we are all equal before God. It is not like the American sense of Justice, where people are expected to reap what they sow. Instead, in the Old Testament, it is more a vindication of those who have been hurt by that very process. It is when the tables are turned, and those who have gone without all their lives are given plenty, and those who have lived in plenty learn what it means to go without. It means that those born to a low estate are raised up,  and those who are born with all the perks in this life are taken down a notch. It is when those who have suffered are satisfied, and those who have been satisfied all their life

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November 9 and the World Changed Before Our Eyes

I have spent the better part of this day wondering how to respond to the Election. (This was not just any election. This was The Election.) Here are a few take aways I have.

  • Republicans finally put a nail in the coffin that contained the corpse of public virtue. It has been assumed that the person who occupies the highest office in the land would at least pretend to be a person of virtue (even though we know that many of them were not). That is no longer the case. A thrice divorced man who is caught on tape admitting to attempted adultery and sexual assault, who drops the F-bomb in public, who has baldly lied, who has no less than 10 allegations of sexual predatory behavior against him is now the leader of our nation. It was not the Democrats who killed public virtue; it was Republicans.

 

Stan Hauerwas, one of my seminary professors wrote, “Christians have failed to challenge the moral presuppositions of our polity and society…We simply accepted the assumption that politics is about the distribution of desires, any consideration of the development of virtuous people as a political issue seems an inexcusable intrusion into our personal liberty.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that a society should be judged by the kinds of people it produces. The Republican party produced, and supported Donald Trump.

 

  • The Big Surprise of November 9 is that it is Democrats who have to do the soul searching. We nominated a faulty candidate and the Democratic establishment produced this. This defeat cannot be laid at the feet of Bernie supporters and thankfully have not heard that yet, and I better not. Trump got more Hispanic vote than did Romney. We nominated the one person who could not beat Donald Trump. The Republicans did this with Dole in 1996 because “it was his turn.” This election turned about as badly for Democrats as that did for Republicans, except that we lost all houses.

 

  • The Evangelical wing of the Christianity is officially dead. They have long asserted that they live in an immoral Babylon, and they want to bring back morality, but they just elected Nebuchadnezzar. Any moral high ground they have once claimed is not lost. Dobson, Falwell, Perkins and others have just proven to us that they are stooges of the Republican party, and not citizens of the Kingdom of God.

 

  • The only thing worse than being a Democrat today is being part of the Republican Establishment. Your new boss is Donald Trump. Free trade? Gone. Russia? Our new best friend. Abortion? He is a friend of Planned Parenthood.  Same sex wedding? He said he would do a same sex marriage if asked. Entitlements? He said he would not touch them. National Health Care? He praised it. All the things that traditional Republicans have run on, he is against. And he is more powerful than they are now.

 

  • We still have a major problem with race in this country. A major problem. Let’s stop pretending racism is a thing of the past. It is just a lot more subtle than it was fifty years ago. (Although that is changing.

 

I am sure there are more things to say, but I’ll end with this—my son asked me this morning how he should face his pro-Trump friends. I told, “Just don’t be a jerk.” (I actually used stronger language.) There are angry people at there. Focus your anger. There are many very sad people out there. Remember when we talked about Hope? Hope ain’t dead yet. It just took a break.

What scared us about Trump? His hair trigger reactions, his racism, his bullying, his lying, and many of his followers. If we adopt their tactics, we are no better. I am not sure what progressives should do now, but it is not to become a Blue Trump.

Make America great again? Let’s make America kind again, just again, smart again, and tolerant—this last one for the first time.

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