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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Teach Us To Pray

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There was once a minister who was traveling in the country side, and found himself talking to an illiterate farmer. He asked the farmer if he ever prayed. “Of course I do,” said the farmer. “Every morning I wake up and I say to God, ‘Lord, if this were your land I would farm it for free because I love you. If you had cows I would look after your cows for free every day because I love you.’”

The minister just shook his head, and said, “That is not how you are supposed to pray.” And he took out his prayer book and taught the farmer the prayers that were in the book.

After he left the farmer forgot the prayers, and stopped praying because he did not want to do it wrong. The minister had a dream where God came to him and told him, “My servant the farmer prayed fervently every day. I enjoyed his prayers. And you stopped him from praying because he is afraid to do it wrong. You have stolen something precious from me.”

The minister immediately went to find the farmer, and asked him how his prayers were going. The farmer told him that he had stopped praying, because he had forgotten the prayers in the book.  The minister explained to the farmer that his previous prayers were precious to God, and he should just go back to praying what was on his heart. When he left, both the farmer and God were happy, but the minister was upset, because he was wondering if his prayers were pleasing to God.

Last week I talked about the Bible and its role in our faith journey. This week I want to talk about another important element in our journey—prayer. I quoted Jesus last week when he told the Pharisees that they were in error because they knew neither the scriptures, nor the power of God. Last week we looked at the Scriptures—this week we will look at the power of God as experienced in prayer.

Two men go to pray, says Jesus. One was full of himself. “Look at me, God,” he says. “Aren’t I wonderful! You are lucky to have me as one of your followers. Look at all I do! I am not like that guy over there.”

And they guy over there? He is a bad man. A very bad man. He is a tax collector. You think tax collectors are not popular today? They were especially hated back in Jesus’ day, because they had the authority to set whatever tax rates they wanted. They just had to give the Romans a pre-set amount. And many tax collectors got very rich off the backs of some very poor people. He was a bad man, and he knew it.

Instead of justifying himself before God, he just emptied himself. ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He was not trying to impress God. He was not trying to justify himself. He came with an empty heart, and an empty soul. But it was his prayer that God heard. Perhaps he knew the verse from Joel that we read this morning: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

I want to walk you through what prayer can look like this morning. So to get a handle on that I want to walk us through one of the most famous prayers, a prayer we say every week—the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father—we start the prayer with a relationship. The prayer is not addressed “To Whom it may Concern.” It is a conversation with a god we have a relationship with. God is our father. God is related to us. This is not about whether or not God is male. What this tells us is that God has a relationship with us—a close and intimate relationship with us.

Who art in heaven….In spite of the relationship, there is distance between us and God. That is why prayer is important. When I worked for the legislature, I had to spend four months every year in Juneau. That meant I was separated from most of the people I really cared about—family and friends. If I wanted to communicate with them, I had to call them. While we have a relationship with God, we are also separated from God. When I was in Juneau I would get caught up in work, and could go hours, and sometimes a whole day without thinking of the people I loved. We can go a whole day and not think of God. This reminds us of our distance from God.

But I can address God over the distance. So while this reminds us that we are in many ways far from God, it also reminds us that at any time we can talk to God. God reaches across eternity to take our hands. We can reach across eternity to take God’s hand.

Hallowed by thy name…Not only are we distant from God, we are very unlike God. God is holy, the very essence of holiness. And we are not. God is different from every other person or thing we know. The theologian Karl Barth said that God was “wholly other,” meaning that God is totally different from us. When we pray, we are talking with someone who has a close and intimate relationship with us, but also with someone who is very different from us.

Now sometimes talking with someone who is different requires a different way of speaking. I love it when people are talking to someone who does not speak their language, and so they just talk slower and louder, thinking somehow that will help. Prayer itself is part of learning the language of God. The more we pray, the more we learn about who God is, and how much God loves us.

Thy Kingdom come…Just like we affirm that God is different from us, so we also affirm that where and how we live is different from how God would have us to live. This world is NOT the kingdom of God. And it is not OUR job to turn it into the Kingdom of God. Instead we pray for God to do the work of the Kingdom in our midst. No earthly politician or political system is God’s representative on earth. There is no Christian economic system. There is no Christian legal system. We pray for it; we do not campaign for it.

 

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …Even though we do not have a heavenly kingdom here on earth, we can still pray for God’s will to be done here on earth. Now here is the rub….we are praying for GOD’S will, not ours, and too often we confuse what we want with what we think God wants. When we pray this we are reminded first, that God’s will is often NOT done here on earth, and second that we need to be active in praying for God’s will to be done. Of course when we pray this we must remember that WE become a part of the will of God. God’s will is done when we ourselves do the will of God.

One of the things I do when I pray is to pray through Psalms. The Psalms are a collection of prayers. By praying them I get a good glimpse into the will of God.

Give us this day our daily bread…In the first part of the prayer we are focusing on God; God’s holiness, God’s kingdom, God’s will. Here we ask for ourselves. Give us our daily bread. Well, actually we are to pray, “give us this day, our daily bread. This day is a very important part of this prayer. If we pray, “Lord, may I never have another problem again in my life,” we are not praying as Jesus taught us to pray. I am reminded of the Children of God when they were in the desert. They were fed with manna each day, but the peculiar thing about the manna was that you could not gather tomorrow’s manna. You could only gather manna for today. Today, God has provided for you. But remember to have faith that God will provide for you tomorrow.

When he was a child, Ben Franklin was helping his father put away a barrel of smoked meat for the winter. As he looked at the barrel of meat before him, he said to his father, “You know, we could save a lot of time if we just said a blessing over this barrel, instead of having to say it at every meal.”

But the point is to remind ourselves that THIS DAY God has provided for us. And it gives us a chance to have faith that God will provide for us tomorrow as well.

And forgive us our debts…I am reminded of the minister who prayed, “Lord, it has been a good day so far. I have been angry with anyone. I have not coveted for anything other than what you have provided for me. I have not forgotten your presence in my life. I have not quarreled with anyone. But I am going to have to get out of bed in the next five minutes, so I will need help for the rest of the day!”

Forgive us our debts…prayer should carry with it a process of self-examination. Have I been the sort of person God is calling me to be? Have I treated people well? Have I loved as well I could love?

We do this for two reasons. First, because if we have sinned against God or neighbor (and sinning against our neighbor is the same as sinning against God!) we need to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness is always offered, and we do not have to carry our sins around with us. We do not have to be weighed down by the things we have done which we regret, nor do have to exert the tremendous amount of energy it takes to hide from our own sins, to pretend they don’t exist, to justify ourselves before God and other people. We can take our sins to God, and we can be forgiven!

But also when we do this, we are becoming better disciples. We find out where we have room to grow. I have been a follower of Jesus for more than 41 years now, and I am still growing, and still learning how I can be a better follower of Jesus.

But there is a catch in this part of the prayer.

As we forgive our debtors…Our ability to receive forgiveness is linked to our ability to forgive others. In same way our ability to forgive others is linked to our ability to receive forgiveness. People who believe that they cannot be forgiven have a hard time forgiving others, and people who are unwilling to forgive others have a hard time receiving it for themselves. In other words, in this part of the prayer we are asking God to make us gracious people, people who forgive and who can be forgiven.

Lead us not into temptation…Ok, this is a strange one. I wonder sometimes what you are thinking as you pray this every week! Does God tempt us? Another way of saying this is to say, “Do not put us to the test.”

When I was in my second church, I was the associate pastor. The senior pastor ran into some problems with the people of the church. It turned out he was not the best fit for that particular church. But some people got really angry with him, and a group of people came to me and said, “We want you to help us overthrow the pastor, and we will make you the new Senior Pastor.” Now I have to admit that was a tempting offer. Wrong. Very Wrong. But tempting.

What really helped me was that in the Presbyterian system the associate pastor cannot become the senior pastor. Now I would like to think that in that situation, I would have done the right thing. I would have said, “No, that is not right. That is not the proper way to become a senior pastor.” I think I would have, but I have to admit it was a lot easier saying, “It just cannot happen.” I was not put to the test.

As we pray this, we are asking God to lead us in ways where we are not tempted. Now as we pray this, we do well to ask ourselves, “Am I leading the kind of life where I am not putting myself in harm’s way? In my relationships, in my dealings with people, am I protecting myself from being tempted to do something I know is wrong. The best way to avoid temptation is to stay away from the things that will tempt you! As we pray this we look at ourselves, and as ourselves that.

But deliver us from evil… The only way we can rid the world of evil is to rid our own hearts of evil. But we cannot do that alone. We need God’s help. We pray this so that as we search our own hearts, we look for things in our lives and in our hearts that make the world a worse place, and we replace with the things of God that make this world a better place.

For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the Glory, Forever and forever.

At the end we give it all back to God. The kingdom that really counts is yours, O God. It is your power that I rely on, the power of the world. And if I have any glory in this life, may I glory who I am before you.

Last week I talked about the Bible, and I wanted to help make it real for you. Now maybe you are fine with your prayer life, but I know that I am always tweaking mine, trying to be better and better at prayer. There is so much I could say, but I will end here.  I hope this is helpful for you as you pray.

The Pharisee in the parable told God what kind of person he was. He was full of himself. The Tax collector emptied himself before God. Because he did that, he found that he could be filled with the grace, and the love of God. In order to really pray before God we come with empty hearts, empty thoughts, empty desires. But we also come full of hope, full of grace, and full of love.

Text:

Luke 18:9-14

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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We are the Middle

 

I have been watching the events of the last two days with increasing horror. First the shootings of two men by policemen and then the assassination of five officers in Dallas. But to be perfectly honest, as one cartoon recently said, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

It’s not just the last few days—it is the last few years. It’s ISIS, it’s Black Lives Matter, it’s congressional gridlock, it’s watching the middle class disappear before my very eyes, it’s dealing daily with the hundreds of homeless and impoverished people in our community. It’s one mass shooting after another. It’s a polarization of the social and political process that has led to a demonization of anyone who disagrees with you. It’s religion being used by hateful people.

It’s watching helplessly as my country seems to be held hostage by lunatics, crass opportunists, and idiots.

But at heart I know that the craziness is not who we are. We are better than that, at least many of us. We are just silent. We are going about our own business, doing good where we can, shaking our heads in displeasure and disapproval, but not sure how to make a positive difference.

I am writing this because I am one of millions of people who see what is going on in our country, but we don’t know what to do about it. We see the extreme polarization, but we don’t fall neatly onto either side of the spectrum. We see that there are very serious problems in our country, but we also see the fantastic potential we have as a nation.

I am one of the millions of people who wonder why it is some policemen end up shooting black suspects in what should be routine, harmless encounters, but who also believe that the overwhelming majority of policemen are decent people who are willing to put their lives on the line to serve and protect the public.

I am one of the millions of Americans who believes we can have rational gun laws without either gutting the second amendment or kowtowing the political agenda of the NRA and the economic agenda of the gun industry.

I am one of the millions of Americans who believes we have a racial divide in our country, and that we cannot advance as a nation as long as that holds us back. We understand that increasing the divide will not make it go away. Nor will ignoring it. We have to deal with it.

I am one of millions of people who believe that religion is not designed to oppress people, or to lord our self-righteousness over others. Religion is designed to make individuals better people, more like the creator God we worship, and less like the demons who rebel against God.

Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

We need more stars. We need more light. We need more people to speak up, to voice that not all of us are lunatics on the left or raving radicals on the right. We need to stop letting the crazies speak for us, and speak up for ourselves.

And that is what I am doing.

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The Legion of Demons that Plague Us

 

Do demons exist? If so, what form do they take in our modern world? After the shooting Orlando, this is my meditation on the demons that plague our society. (The scripture lessons are at the end of the sermon)

After last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando, pastors all over the country will be somehow referring to it in this week’s sermon. I can imagine how the sermons will go.

Some, probably most, will be of the sort that asks you to see hope in the midst of tragedy. Many of these will refer to some of the people who were killed, and there will be touching stories of how people came together in the face of this terrible tragedy.

There will be angry sermons, from both the left and the right side of the theological and political spectrum. Some congregations will hear about the need for greater gun control while others will hear of the need to limit immigration. Some pastors will talk about how we need less guns, and some pastors will tell us we need more guns. And the worst of the bunch are those who have said the people who were killed deserved it because they were gay.  That, by the way, is not a response; it is a pathology.

There will be hand wringing sermons? What kind of people are we? How could this happen? What can we do to stop this from ever happening again? There be sermons about the breakdown of American culture, and how divided we are. There will be sermons calling for a jihad against Muslims, and sermons calling for more tolerance for Muslims.

I think today’s text calls for a different response, so I’m not going to preach any of those sermons.

I’m probably to touch on some things, but I want to say something a little different.

Monday morning, the Mail Tribune’s headline concerning the shooting in Orlando was “Unimaginable.” I beg to differ. The shooting in Orlando was not unimaginable. Is there really anyone here who thought we would never have another mass shooting in this country? Is there really anyone here who thought the one before this was going to be the last one? We knew there would be another. We just did not know when, or where, or how bad it would be. But after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, and Roseburg, it is all too easy to imagine another.

It is like these are demons haunting our country. Each new shooting reminds us how helpless we have chosen to be. And this is not the only demon we face. This election season more people than not are saying that the system is broken beyond repair. I heard one person say he was voting with his middle finger this year.

We say we value veterans. When I was flying to Alaska last week, as I was boarding I heard the gate attendant say, “All first class passengers and active military personnel may board at this time.” On the other hand, on any given night there are 50,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets. Men and women who have given time and blood to serve our country are sleeping on the streets because we cannot afford the resources to take care of them. On average, one veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan a day commits suicide. One a day. This is a demon that is plaguing our society.

When I first came to this church we gave one or two bag lunches a month. Week before last we gave out almost 100. When I first got here, if we had more than 25 people at the food bank that was a big day. Now that is small potatoes, and we can have between 35 and 55 families a week. In 2014: 48.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households. That includes15.3 million children live in a household where there is often not enough food.

That is a demon that plagues us.

In Jackson County, 21 percent of all males, and 10 percent of all females binge drink on a regular basis. Binge drinking is more than four drinks in two hour period. Law enforcement officials tell us that the major problem in Jackson County is illegal drug use. While it has dropped slightly in the last few years, it is still number one on the list.

That is a demon that plagues us.

And we might not want to admit it, but racism is alive and well in America today, in many different forms, and given recent rhetoric against Hispanics and Muslims, it is a growing problem. If you are black male in an urban area, the chances of you going to jail are greater than the chances of you ever going to college.

One more demon.

In Flint, Michigan, they had some major problems when the auto companies left. The basis for their economy disappeared. So some decisions were made to cut costs, which led to a very bad decision to get the cheapest water possible. They wanted cheap water in the worst way, and that is exactly what they got—water, in the worst way. And the water became undrinkable. The people of Flint tried to tell their government there was something wrong with the water, but the government would not listen. In Flint, between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems.

I could go on. Like the Gerasene demoniac in our Gospel story today, who had a legion of demons in him, we, as a culture, also contend with a legion of demons. And these demons bind us and keep us in chains. They keep us from becoming who we were meant to be in God’s eyes. The Geresene Demoniac was hardly a human being. He was kept in chains like an animal.

So what do we do? Is there hope? The story gives us hope. The man was healed. Jesus casts the demons out. He frees the man of the devils that plague him. How does he do it? All we are told is that he asks the man his name. “Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

Who are you? Who are we?

The man answers honestly. “My name is Legion,” he says for he had a legion of demons plaguing him.

The man had his problems, but at least he could be honest. He could name his demons. We tend to ignore ours, at least we do until the rise up and bite us. That is why the Newspaper could say that the shooting was unimaginable. We have already forgotten the last one. That is why we are suddenly surprised to find that working people often end up with a choice between rent or food. And we find it out because they end up on our doorstep.

Who are we? We are Legion, and it seems we cannot cast these demons out.

Why can’t we cast these demons out?

I think we start by asking ourselves some hard questions. Jesus asked the man who he was. That was a hard question, because the answer was, “I am a man plagued by demons.”

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions, like “What do we value in our society?” What is at the root of our problems?  Why do we have these shootings? Why do we have so many other problems?

Why do we have veterans sleeping on the streets even though we as a society say we value veterans? Why are so many veterans committing suicide, and not getting the kind of help they need to cope with the problems they have? Because somewhere along the line we have decided they are not worth the money it would take to help them. Nor are the mentally ill. Nor are urban kids in urban schools.

We say that we as a culture value human life. Jesus sells that your treasure will end up invested in what you value. Given that, do we really value human life? Is that where we invest our treasure?

Time and time again we see corporations putting profit ahead of the needs of people. We see politicians making decisions based, not on what is best for people, but on how they have been lobbied by people who have more money than you can imagine. WE make health care decisions based, not on what is best for sick people, but on how cheaply we can provide medical care. We treat our elderly as if they don’t matter, because we say we don’t have the resources as a society to care for them. We see lives affected in numerous ways by the fact that we don’t value human life. From Flint, Michigan to vets on the streets, from children in poverty to drug addicts who have no place to turn for help, from the elderly who end up with nowhere to go at the end of life to average working joe or jane who stopped voting because it doesn’t matter to him or her who gets elected, we have formed a society that does not value human life.

That is the major demon that plagues us.

The people who lived near the Geresene demoniac had one solution to help him—chain him up. Make sure that whatever problems he has is not passed onto us. But Jesus took a different tack. This was a man. He had a name. Jesus treats him with dignity. Jesus shows us what he values—he values people. He knows this man has a name, and he asks him what his name is.

I don’t know how to fully get rid of all the demons that plague us, but I do know that it starts with us putting value on people. It starts when we REALLY start to value human life. Just like Jesus did.

I know that the first part of this sermon has been kind of a downer. It is not easy talking realistically about problems, but I have yet to have a problem that just goes away because I ignored it.

We ignore the problem because we don’t know what do to about them. We ignore the demons, even treat them like guests, because we don’t know how to get rid of them. We get too used to the problems, and we assume that is just the way things are.

St. Telemachus was monk in Asia minor, who felt compelled by God to go to Rome. He made his way to the glorious city. He was from the sticks and had never seen anything like it. He sees a crowd heading into a building, and he follows them. It is a colosseum and when he gets inside he is shocked to see two men, gladiators, fighting to the death in the center of the ring. He jumps between them, and cries out, “In the name of God, stop this!” The crowd is so angry that he has interrupted their entertainment, that they rush him, and stone him to death on the spot.

They were used to death and no hick from the sticks was going to spoil their pleasure. But the Emperor Honorius, who was a Christian, heard of the death of Telemachus. And suddenly this “sport” of watching people kill other people did not seem so civilized any more. In fact, Emperor Honorius realized, with the death of Telemachus, just how brutal this was.

Do we need a Telemachus to tell us that we should treat people better? Do we need a Telemachus to tell us that those who are sick should get health care? That the mentally ill should be given humane treatment? That impoverished children should be given a chance to thrive? That making money selling weapons of mass destruction to known terrorist suspects is not a good idea?

Maybe we need more St. Telemachuses in the world. But Telemachus was only doing the work of Christ.

And we are the body of Christ. We forget that times. We are the body of Christ.

The disciples were trying to cast out a demon in another Gospel story, and they couldn’t do it. They asked Jesus why. And he said to them, “This type of demon can only be cast out by prayer.” Why prayer? Because when we prayer, we become more like Jesus. We become, in a much stronger way, the Body of Christ.

We name the demons that plague us and then we become the body of Christ, to show a different way. Jesus came, partially to show us how important we are to God. And if I am important to God, then YOU are just as important, and if YOU are important, then so is everyone who walks in this door, and who walks on the sidewalk around this building.

You see, we are the Body of Christ to the culture around us. We do not just talk about hope. We ARE hope. We embody hope. We don’t talk about peace. We wage peace. We don’t talk about human dignity. We bestow it on others.

Now you may be thinking, what can I do? I am just one person. I am not a Telemachus. I don’t want to get political. I can’t change the world. I am just one person.

Let’s end today by looking at the Elijah story. You heard it. Elijah was scared. He hid out on the Mountain. He encountered the silence of God. But then, after the silence, God spoke. Elijah, he said, you think you are alone? You think you are the only one who is now worshiping me?  I have 7,000 people who have not left the faith, Elijah. Wake up!”

Look around you. You are not alone. You are not just one person. You are not all by yourself. You, all of you, are the body of Christ. And no demon can withstand the power of Christ.

 

 

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”-29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

 

 

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The Judgment of God

The texts for this sermon (I Kings 21:1-21 and Luke 7:36-8:3)  are found at the end of the sermon.

manufacture-of-homemade-face-masks-for-acne_1One thing I have always wanted to do, but have never done is to serve on a jury. I have been called for jury duty, but for various reasons I was never selected to actually sit on a jury. I wonder, sometimes, if I was always rejected for jury duty because I was a pastor. Did the defense attorney think that I would be too judgmental? Did the prosecuting attorney think I would not be judgmental enough?

The idea of judging whether someone is guilty or innocent of a crime is a daunting task, and honestly I wonder how I do at it.

No one wants to be thought of as judgmental. If you were to ask me about a person, and I said, “Oh, they are very judgmental” you’re not going to take that as a compliment. If someone described First Presbyterian as very judgmental church, I would not be happy to hear it.

 

On the other hand…

On the other hand, I hear the story of Ahab and Naboth and I have to admit, I feel a bit judgmental there. I want to be able to say that Ahab has done a terrible thing. He had Naboth killed so he could take over his vineyard. And when the prophet says, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood,” I kind of like hearing that. I don’t want to think that Ahab will get away with it. Imagine if the story ended like this: Elijah confronts Ahab by saying, “Ahab, you have done a horrible thing. But, who am I to judge? God be with you!” I, for one, would find that to be a very unsatisfactory ending! I want Ahab to get his just desserts.

Angelee and I recently watched a wonderful TV series produced by the same fellow who did Downton Abbey. It is based on an Anthony Trollope novel, Dr. Thorne. The plot is pretty simple. Frank loves Mary. Mary loves Frank. But Frank comes from an aristocratic family that is going broke, and they need Frank to marry money. And Mary, who Frank loves, is just a poor girl, with no resources.

So Frank’s Mother and Aunt proceed to make sure that Frank does not wed Mary. They ban Frank from seeing Mary, they do everything they can to make sure that Frank meets a rich girl, and falls in love with her. But Frank refuses, and proposes to Mary. Aunt and mother go to Mary and convince her to break off the engagement. Frank will never be happy if he loses the estate and ends up a poor man. Mary breaks off the engagement.

And right after she does, she learns she is the heiress of a great fortune. One of the most satisfying moments of the novel and the movie is when Franks’ mother brags that she has convinced Mary to break off the engagement, and then immediately learns that Mary is the heir to this great fortune. It is a satisfying moment because the mother gets her just desserts. She is a money seeking snob, and ends up hoisted on her own petard.

It is satisfying because we like to see people reap the consequences of the evil they sow.

So I have to admit that when I say that people should not be judgmental, I have more than a few exemptions. I am in fact very judgmental over Ahab, and over Frank’s mother in Dr. Thorne, and in fact if I am honest I believe there is a special place in hell for people who are racists, bigots, evil, unfeeling, greedy, snobbish, for people who take advantage over the less fortunate, for people who parade their ignorance as a badge of pride, for people who think disco is an acceptable musical form, and for people who think the designated hitter rule and lights at Wrigley Field were a good idea.

Now I say this tongue in cheek, but in fact as much as I don’t want to think of myself as judgmental, in many ways I am.

In the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner sings about a list he has. It is a list of people he thinks are worthy of execution. Every since this opera has been performed, these lyrics change to reflect the fashions and prejudices of the day.

The original lyrics go something like this:

There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race,
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!
And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;

 

That’s the original, but there are plenty of updated versions:

There’s the driver with the Happy Meal who’s talking on the phone,
The careless motorist, I’ve got him on the list!
The telephone solicitors who won’t leave you alone,
They never would be missed, they never would be missed!
There’s the waiter with the piercings, who can put you off the food,
Debaters on the radio who specialize in rude,
The patriot who waves the flag, then flies it in the rain,
American’s who never vote but know how to complain,

 

The fact is, we all have our lists. Yours is probably different from mine, but we all have lists. Some of the things on the list are pretty legitimate, and others are just based on personal prejudices.

 

But just because everyone has one does not make it right. Let’s look at the Gospel story to help us get a better handle on this topic. Jesus is at a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house. The party was probably thrown for Jesus, and the finest of people are there to meet this bright, up and coming preacher. But before the party even starts, this woman comes barging in, uninvited. She takes an expensive bottle of perfume, and pours it on Jesus’ feet, then washes his feet with the perfume and her tears, and she starts to dry his feet with her hair.

Now if just anyone did that, it would be slightly embarrassing, but to make matters worse, this woman appears to be a prostitute.  By everyone’s judgment, this woman has no right to be at this party, and certainly should not be monopolizing the time of the guest of honor. This is positively a scandal to everyone there—everyone but Jesus.

He’s not embarrassed at all. He does not judge her; in fact, he judges Simon, his host. To Simon Jesus is an interesting dinner guest, maybe even someone he can show off to his friends—“Guess who I have over to dinner at my house this week?” Simon feels no debt to Jesus; he has no real connection to Jesus and he treats him accordingly. But this woman…Jesus has saved her soul, perhaps saved her life. He has rescued her from a life as a pariah and unlike all the other men in her life, he does not seek to use and abuse her, but to show her the value of her own life. Is it any wonder then that she reacts with such passion?

Simon sees her and judges her as a prostitute. His main concern is for Jesus’ dignity. “If he knew what kind of woman this was, he would not let her even come close to him.” In fact she is exactly the type of person Jesus wants close to him. She, and other lost souls, she and other damaged people, she and other sinners are the type of people Jesus came to save.

Now the irony here is that Simon does not see himself as a sinner. He thinks he is justified in judging this woman. He thinks he is above her, and this is exactly what puts him in the need of forgiveness.

It is easy, it is too easy to judge other people. When I moved into a house in Durham, North Carolina, I had two next door neighbors. On the south side was an African-American family and on the north side there was an older, single woman. I met the family first, and they were very nice and ended up being very good neighbors. About a week after than I met my other neighbor. We talked for a bit, and then she said, “You know what lives next to you, don’t you.” Not who, mind you, but what. I said I had met them, and they seemed very nice. But I was very put off by the racist remark she made. To me she was just an old, racist, southern white bigot.

And I wrote her off. I basically ignored her. That went on for a few years. Until one day I came home, and heard a strange noise at the back of her house. I almost ignored it, like I ignored everything else that went on over there, but this time I overcame my feelings and went over to check on what was going on.

She had fallen walking up the step of on her back stoop, and had hurt herself pretty badly. Nothing was broken, but she needed some medical attention so I spend the next few hours helping her. I got her inside, offered to call her son. “He won’t come,” she said. “He only comes when he needs money.” I got to know her, and her life a little more. I got to see her as a human being—hurt, bitter, rejected by her children, angry, and yes, racist. But a human being. Was I any better than she was, all those years I ignored her? She was a person, and I lost sight of that.

This is not to say I should just blindly accept her racism. But it means I see that she was more than just a racist. She was a lonely woman, ignored by her children, and left to fend for herself in a world that was not always very kind to her. She was every bit as complex a human being as I am.

The judgment of God…that is the topic of this sermon. What is the judgment of God? The judgment of God is love.

Jesus said, in Matthew 7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

 

The judgment you make will be the judgment with which you will be judged. If I am going to be judged, I want to be judged by someone who loves me. Which means when it comes to me judging, I need to judge with love.

Every week, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In other words we ask to be forgiven to the extent we are able to forgive.

I want Ahab to get his just desserts, but is that my responsibility? I like to see it when the right people get their comeuppance, but the fact is there are times when I probably deserve a comeuppance. If I want to be judged by love, then I must act with love.

1 Kings 21:1-21a

1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” 3But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

5His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” 6He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” 7His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

8So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

15As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

17Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

20Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

Luke 7:36-8:3

36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

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The Everflowing Stream of God: The Trinity as a Useful Theological Tool

2000px-Trinity-Parish-Jersey-Coat-of-Arms.svg

First let me say that this sermon will be a bit more overtly theological than most sermons I give here. We are talking about heady matters, and they are important to the church. I hope to show why they are important this morning.

That leads to my second point. Everything I say this morning will come from another source. I want you to know that I am not making any of this up. I will be trying to reflect what people who are a lot smarter than me are saying about the Trinity. These books here are just the ones in my library that focus specifically on the Trinity.

Third, I cannot explain what the Trinity is. I cannot explain how God is three-in-one. What I want to do is tell three stories. One is the story of how we came up with this incredibly confusing, but also incredibly sublime doctrine. The other is a parable about what this doctrine means for us.

Everything I say, and everything the theologians say, is at best an analogy. We do not have the words to actually describe God. We can only say, God is like…a father. God is like, a good shepherd. God is like a mother hen who cares for her young. God is clearly not male, even though we use the word Father. By the way we use that word because Jesus did.

Our first story starts in the Old Testament. People worshiped many different gods, almost all of whom were idols. By idols I mean that they had a physical representation on earth. They were a statue, or figurine, or natural structure. In other words, these were God who could be seen and touched. Then Abraham comes along saying that he worships a God who is invisible. His god is not an idol. You cannot put his god on the mantel in your home. And then Moses comes along and says he had an encounter with the same God, except that he learned that you cannot even use the name of this God. When asked for a name, the god merely says, “I am who I am.”

And so things roll along this way for many, many years. Eventually the people come to believe that this god is not just one among many gods, but is in fact the One True God. All the other gods are fakes—just pieces of rock or wood. But this god is still a relatively simple god in spite of the being invisible thing going on.

But then an itinerant preacher from Galilee comes on the scene. He talks about this god. He talks about him a lot. And much of what he says is radical, but understandable. There is one thing he says about this god however that people had a real hard time with—he calls this god his father. No one had ever done that before. That was different. He also talked about having a very special relationship with this god. He says things like what we heard in the Gospel passage this morning. Jesus is talking about how the Spirit of God will come down and will give to the disciples all that Jesus has. Oh, and by the way, Jesus says, what I have is everything that God has. In other words, he kind of makes himself equal to God. Oh, not kind of, he does it. He says that he and his Heavenly Father are one. Oh and by the way, there is this other part of God, not the Father, but the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will come down and will dwell in you.

Jesus gets killed for saying this.

But then he goes rises from the dead. That got him a little attention. And then, after he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven. And after that, all of sudden Jesus’ disciples are running around saying this Holy Spirit has come upon them, and it turns out that the Holy Spirit is pretty contagious, because other people start reporting the same thing is happening to them! These people all worship that Jewish God of the Old Testament, but it seems they have enlarged the cast of characters in the story.

And things are a mess for a while. There are people running around saying that Jesus was just a man, there are people running around saying he was a god, there are people running around saying he is both god and man and there are people running around saying he was created by god to be a bridge between god and man. People split into factions, they got into fights about this, they developed all sorts of elaborate theories to try to explain the relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Now here is where it gets interesting. In 325, at the Council of Nicaea, a group of bishops meet to proclaim that Jesus is both God and Man, and that God is both three, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, but…there is only one God. They didn’t try to explain that—they just said that’s the way it is.

Of course people being people, a lot of people jumped in and did try to explain things. Some of the explanations made sense; some of them didn’t. But for the last 1700 years or so, this has been a core belief of the Christian Church.

So why keep it? I mean, if it is something that people don’t understand, why not get rid of it. Why talk about the Trinity if it only confuses people?

Two reasons. First, the people who developed this idea did it because they thought it was true—at least truer than any other idea floating around at the time. Second, it helps them understand some other things about God. The Trinity does make God more complex, and while we may not understand that particular piece of theology, it does help us understand other things about God.

And that is what I want to talk about now.

I want to introduce you to man named Augustine. He was born 354 in Northern Africa. He was a bishop in a town called Hippo, which is in modern day Algeria. And he wrote a lot of books. One in particular was about the Trinity.

Now when I say the word “God,” when I talk about God in sermons, when I pray to God, what is in your mind? What do you think of when you think of God? My guess is that we tend to have an Old Testament view of the word. I would guess that for most of us, our conception of God is probably pretty similar to, say, King David’s idea of God. We think of a divine power, and celestial being, a cosmic force of some kind. Maybe we have a picture of God in our heads.

Now when Augustine said the “God” he meant something like this. There is the Father. And the Father is full of love. And there is the Son. And the Son is also full of love. They have a relationship with each other. This is a much more intense relationship than you or I could ever imagine. They are full of love for one another. But they are different. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. Now put on your seatbelts because it gets a little weird here. The Father has always existed. And the Son has always existed. We tend to think that Jesus came into being when he was born in Nazareth. But according the Bible, Jesus the Son of God existed before the foundations of the world.

 

So when you say God you are talking about this intense love between the Father and the Son. Now this love generates an energy. That is not is exactly right. This love IS an energy. And according to Augustine, this energy of love is the Holy Spirit. Now remember, “Father” is a metaphor, but an important one. You see, you cannot have a father if there are no children. I can call myself a father, but if I have not had any children, if I am not taking care of any children, I don’t have a relationship with any children, then I am hardly a father. A father only exists if there are children. Now we are about to go into even stranger territory. We can only talk about God the Father, because Jesus told us he was the Son of God. God is not like our fathers. God is the Father of Jesus. And God the Son only exists because he springs from God the Father. He flows from God the Father. And the Holy Spirit only exists because of the great love between God the Father and God the Son.

In other words, God is really a series of interconnected relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without those relationships, the God we worship would not exist.

Now the way the theologians describe it, and I have to admit it gets more than a little weird here, the Father begets, produces, is the source for the Son. The Father did not begat Jesus when Mary got pregnant. The Son of God existed long before man Jesus was born. I know that’s a mindbender, and I cannot explain it. I also cannot explain how Jesus has always existed, yet was begotten by the Father. But the important thing is this: the Father begets something else. The Father begets the creation of the world. The world exists because the love of the Father for Son whereby the Son is begotten, kind of overflows into the creation of the world. In other words, This world was created by an excess of love.

Ok, set that aside for a moment. Or you might just want to forget about all together!

 

Imagine a spring up in a mountain valley. It is big spring, and eventually it fills the valley with water and creates a lake. The lake overflows the mountain valley, and creates a river.  The river only exists because it flows out of the lake. And in a sense the lake exists so it can to create the river. The way the lake is set up, it will eventually create a river. It really has not choice, given what it is.

 

That is like the Father and the Son in the Trinity. The Father is the lake and the spring—let’s call that the Source. The Son is the River. Both are made of water, but the Source, the Spring is not the river and the river is not the spring. In the same way we say that the Father is God and the Son is God, but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father.

Now, what does a river do? It flows. The flow is the Holy Spirit. The Flow only exists because the Spring and the river are connected. The flow is also made of water, but the flow is not the River, nor is it the spring. The flow exists in both the spring and the river, and it exists because of the Spring and the River.

Now also imagine that we live down below the Mountain, where the lake and the spring are located, and that we have no possible way of getting up to the lake where the spring is. There is no path, the walls around it are too steep, whatever, but we cannot make our own way there. We have heard there is a great body of water up there, but we have no way of getting to it. It is too high up, too inaccessible. It is beyond our reach. We have heard stories about it, but we are not even sure it exists.

And then, one day, a stream of water comes flowing past our village. The stream eventually turns into a river, and now we have an endless supply of water. It is in the midst of us. The river has made its home in our village. We can go to the river and get water whenever we want. We realize the river is a bit dangerous. If we fall in, we could drown. But it provides us with an endless stream of fresh water. There are some who do not believe in the river. They refuse to come out and see it. They think the story of the mountain lake is a myth, and since it is a myth the river is also a myth. There are others who believe in the river, but not in the lake that feeds it.

Then one day a very strange thing happens. A group of men, people who have spent a lot of time at the river, show up one way with a wooden shell. They call it a boat. And they tell us, “There is a flow in this river. It is powerful. It can do things we can hardly imagine.” We are not quite sure what they are talking about—we don’t know what a “flow” is, but we can see the water moving. And these men put the wooden shell into the river, and they climb into it.  And before our very eyes the they move down the river. “How are you moving?” we call out. “What is pushing you?”

“The flow,” they answer. “We are moving down the river by the power of the flow!”  And they disappear for a while. Some of them come back. They have learned much about this thing called a flow. They tell us the others have moved on down to other communities to explain to them about the river and how it is connected to the Great Lake on the Mountain. Some of them, they tell us, have been swept by the flow to a place they call the Sea, but we really do not know what they are talking about. The Sea, they tell us, is a place that is ALL water, but we have a hard time imagining what kind of place that could be.

Of course in this story the boat is the church, and the flow is the Holy Spirit. When the boat enters the river, it is connected to and controlled by the flow of the river and the source of the river. The sea is heaven, something we cannot imagine.

I want to tell one more story. One week, many years ago, my friend Dan Solie and I took a canoe trip down the middle fork of the Gulkana River. On the third day we got to a tricky part of the river, and Dan pulled the canoe over to the side, we took everything out of it, and did a portage past some really tricky rapids. It took several trips to get everything out of the canoe and down the river by land. Dan said the rapids here were too strong, and we would never make it through them in the canoe.

We went back for the canoe, and Dan stood there and looked down the river, and turned to me and said, “You walk, I’m going to see if I can run those rapids.” Dan is an excellent canoeist, so I took a place on a rock above the river, and watched to see if he could make it. A ranger joined me, and together we watched Dan run the rapids.

It was a thing of beauty to watch him. He deftly nosed the canoe into the worst of the rapids, and skillfully guided it around a series of rocks and eddies, until he was past the swirling water. The ranger said he was the only person to run the rapids all summer.

Going back to my past analogy, this church has a put its boat in the River of the God, and we are being carried by its flow. Without the flow, without the Holy Spirit, we would be dead in the water. Last week was Pentecost and we celebrated how the flow of the Holy Spirit empowered the church of Jesus Christ to do great things for God. Our church is like a little boat making its way down the river of Jesus Christ, propelled by the flow of the Holy Spirit, to the sea. The water we are in flows from the very source of God.

If you have ever been on a canoe trip, you know that there are times when the water is broad and calm. Of course those are the times when you have to the hardest. And there are times when the flow just takes on down the river and you just have to dip a paddle in every once in a while to keep your bearings. And there are times when the river is dangerous.

But we work our way down river, through the doldrums and the rapids. There are times when we are tempted to pull over the side, and just carry everything ourselves, without the power of the flow, and there are times when the flow is so strong, we are afraid we might capsize.

Today, I feel a bit like we are my friend Dan Solie, nosing our canoe through some dangerous rapids. This is not a peaceful part of the river, these times in which we are living. I am sure we all might feel like abandoning ship at times. We feel our boat is small, and the river is wild. It does not feel like there are enough people to paddle. We are all having to work hard to make sure our little boat does crash in to the rocks ahead. Most of us remember the times when the river was broad and peaceful, and it took a minimum of effort to keep our boat in the flow. The flow was strong, but slow and predictable.

That is not the case today. But we are in the River of God. And we are flowing to a divine destination. People have been floating this river for the last 5000 years, this river of God. It looked very different up stream, but we are not upstream. We are here, in the waters of God; fed by the Father, supported by the son and propelled the Holy Spirit.

This Trinity Sunday I pray that your view of God has gotten a bit bigger. I did hope that you would come to understand the Trinity, but that you would come to see your place within it. Created by God the Father, sustained and guided by the Son and propelled by the Holy Spirit, we make our way through this life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

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