Monday, April 24, 2006
By Stephen L. White
Episcopal Church at Princeton University
Princeton University Chapel
Do you remember Eric Severeid? He was a pioneer TV journalist and at the end of his career was the nightly commentator on the CBS Evening News opposite "America's uncle," Walter Cronkite. He retired and went off the air in 1981.
In one of his opinion pieces, Severeid very famously said: "The major cause of problems are solutions."
I remembered that wise saying as I read through the lessons on peace [Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 37:1-6; 1 Cor 1:18-31; Mat 5:1-12] appointed for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Listen again to some of the key phrases from each of the readings:
> From St. Matthew: "Blessed are the meek, the righteous, the merciful...Blessed are the peacemakers."
> From First Corinthians: "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God."
> From Psalm 37: "Do not fret yourself over evildoers... Put your trust in the Lord and do good."
> And from the prophet Micah: "...the Lord has a controversy with his people... do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God..."
When Severeid said, "The major cause of problems are solutions," he was speaking of Vietnam. It was true that communists in the north of the Indochina peninsula were behind a massive insurgency in the south and that was perceived as a problem for democracies everywhere. The solution was first to send in massive amounts of military resources to fight the insurgency. That policy failed. And then, when that was not working, there was an attempt to "win the hearts and the minds" of the people by democratizing South Vietnam, American-style. That failed too.
The "solutions" to the problems in Vietnam resulted in between 1.2 and 3.1 million people dead in the American phase of the Vietnam War. But we usually only hear about the 58,000 Americans who died there.
Back then there were other solutions offered by people who, in their own way, were every bit as courageous as those fighting in the jungles in Vietnam. they were the ones calling for peace and for a cessation of the war. It took courage to say this, especially in the early days of the anti-war movement, because communism was then seen as the great evil force in the world that had to be opposed at all costs. We thought our freedom and liberty were at stake in every conflict, no matter how small or where it was fought. But people like Daniel and Philip Berrigan reminded us not to fret ourselves over evildoers and that peacemakers are always--always--the big winners in the end.
Sadly, those who are Christian leaders are not always the best source of wisdom concerning matters of war and peace. Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman of New York advised President Johnson as follows with regard to the North Vietnamese: "Bomb them, just bomb them." Billy Graham, the quintessential evangelical Christian, was at lunch with Johnson and Spellman when Spellman said this, and Graham remained quiet. And so a couple of million people died.
The interesting thing about matters of war and peace in the world is that there are at least two sets of language that are employed in our deliberations and we often mix them up. That is to say, there is the "world's" language, the language of Caesar. And there is the language of the Bible and of the risen Christ. We tend to mix them to suit our purposes. But it is clear that Caesar and Christ have different answers--different solutions--to the same problems.
The solution that worked for Caesar and the Roman Empire was one that we might summarize--and here I am borrowing from John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed's In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom--as "peace through victory" or implicit faith in a sequence of "piety, war, victory, and peace." Crossan and Reed suggest that the Roman world accepted this worldview as normal--how could things be otherwise? So you get the Pax Romana, but at an awful price in human suffering.
The alternative that St. Paul put forth--and this is what made Christianity radical than and makes it radical now--is a vision of "peace through justice." This vision was and still is based on a faith in the sequence of "covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace."
Covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. That is the counter-cultural unifying thread for all our readings tonight. We are put on notice about this theme in the Collect of the Day where we ask God "...in our time grant us your peace..." Your peace--that is, God's peace, not the world's version of peace, not Caesar's peace. In our time, not at the end of time. We ask, in other words, for the peace of the kingdom of God here and now, not for a peace that we await in the afterlife or for a peace that is transitory or that is only available to victors.
The biblical lessons concerning peace mentioned above suggest to us why there is such a noticeable difference in the peace that Caesar offers and the peace of Christ.
To achieve the peace of God through justice we must be just. We must walk with God. We must be meek, righteous, poor in spirit, merciful, and hungry for peace. We must not fret ourselves because of evildoers. We must trust God. We must walk humbly with our God. Humbly--not with the self-assurance and arrogance of those who now make war and plan for future wars--but humbly.
If you aspire to a life in politics, this is not a winning platform, this Christian vision of peace through justice. And I do want to emphasize that this, indeed, is the Christian agenda in its purest form. As the crusades of the 11th and 13th centuries as well as experiences from our own recent history point out, this vision of peace through justice has not been much identified with Christianity. In fact, it is the Roman paradigm of peace through victory that has most closely resembled the message that much of organized Christianity has preached to the world in a kind of echo chamber of the church telling the world what it wanted to hear. And even now some Christian leaders are enthusiastic about rumblings in the press about possible American military action against Iran. Once again we hear Christian leaders advising our president to "Bomb them, just bomb them."
Where is the true source of peace in our time or in any time? Is it through vanquishing the enemy or loving him? Killing and humiliating him or reassuring him justice? Does the solutuion we embrace to a problem bring real peace in our time or cause more problems?
And is the gulf between the way the world really works and the life the risen Christ beckons us so wide that it is not possible for a modern world power to embrace any other paradigm than Caesar's peace through victory, no matter what the cost? If so, we have to ask ourselves a question that is deeply and profoundly disturbing, a question that challenges our most cherished assumptions about who we are as a people. Brace yourself, because you're not going to like this. If the Christian vision is peace through justice, not peace through victory, then to what extent can America be Christian?
Mabe the historian Barbara Tuchman was right when she wrote in her 1978 book A Distant Mirror: "Christianity in its ideas was never the art of the possible." We might ask ourselves what each of us can do to prove her wrong.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
May God's peace be with us all in our time.
Monday, March 27, 2006
By Mel Williams
Watts Street Baptist Church, Durham, NC
John 14:8-17, 25-27
“Greater works than I you will do.”
Jesus said it, but what did he mean? He was obviously addressing his disciples who would be around after he left. What greater works did he mean?
Did he mean that they – we—would be a kinder and gentler people? Did he mean that we’d all grow up to be “compassionate conservatives”? Did he mean that we would take up his healing ministry? Did he mean that we are to reform the religious bureaucracy? Did he mean that we would include people different from us? Did he mean that we’d all become non-violent as he was? Perhaps he meant these – and more!
One of the dangers of having a bold leader is that as long as the leader is there, we can keep our distance, remain timid admirers and say, “Oh, let him/ her do it for us.” I remember hearing some church member say, “I give my money to this church so Rev. Goodheart can keep doing good works.”
One way we can avoid our own responsibility is to support someone else who will do the leading for us. But that’s clearly not the way of Jesus.
Clarence Jordan said long ago, “Jesus did not want admirers. He wants disciples--followers.”
To follow the leader is to do what the leader does. So, the least we could do is to try to imitate Jesus. If he heals the sick, we do the same. If he calms a disturbed person, we too try to calm the disturbed. If he protests unjust treatment of women, we do the same. If he faces violent people with non-violence, we do the same. And with a bloated Pentagon budget in this country, Jesus’ disciples will be clearly counter-cultural. We follow Jesus by spending our resources not on war, but to find non-violent solutions and to meet the needs of the “least of these” – the poor and the weak. The task of the church is simply to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus.
When Jesus got ready to leave this earth, to ascend to be with God, he made an unsettling statement: “You will do the works that I do; but in fact, you will do greater things than I.” What is he saying? Jesus may sound a bit like a parent saying, “I want my child to surpass me. I want those who come after me to do greater things than I’ve done.” The child is to be better than the parent. The true disciple is to do more than be a cookie-cutter follower. The church is far more than a sweet society of pleasant, nice people; our job is to be a Greater Works Company of Disciples.
Someone said that there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who don’t know what’s happening.
Jesus seems to be saying that true disciples will make things happen. They will be facing the future with clear resolve, with Jesus’ agenda in our minds and hearts. What is Jesus’ agenda? Put bluntly, his agenda is: alleviating suffering, caring for the poor, and bringing peace on earth. This sounds like an overwhelming mission, impossible to accomplish. But as we’ve said many times here, our job is to pick up the “near edge” of these great problems – this great mission---and act at some sacrifice to ourselves.
We are called to be Pentecost people, filled with the Spirit and eager to continue the ministry of Jesus. Some might respond by saying, “That sounds good and idealistic. But, well, we’ve got a lot of other things on our plate, a lot that claims our attention.”
We also know that there are times when our courage is low, when we feel clumsy and awkward in the face of such a challenge. You may remember the Charlie Brown story about Charlie Brown and Lucy sitting in the back of a big boat. Lucy says, “Charlie Brown, do you think it’s better to open our deck chairs facing forward to see where we’re going or backward to see where we’ve been. In his usual fumbling way, Charlie Brown says, “I can’t even figure out how to get my deck chair open.” We all have days when we feel like Charlie Brown.
Even when we know that our job is to pattern our lives after Jesus, it’s very difficult to do it. We have many obstacles — awkwardness, anxiety, depression, job worries, low self-esteem, excessively high expectations and more.
Jesus is trying to tell us that we are limited only by the extent of our vision—and our openness to the Spirit. We’re called to do what Jesus did—and more. We’re called to be Jesus’ People, filled with his love and justice and powered by the energy of the Holy Spirit that he sends us at Pentecost. Part of our job is to allow the Spirit to enter, to breathe through us, to energize us and carry us beyond our fumbling, muddling ways.
What did Jesus mean by “greater works” that we’ll do? We get our direction by first looking at Jesus’ priorities. He spent his time worrying about the things that God worries about—the poor, the outcasts, those who suffer. He was in the business of bringing about reversals. The poor are lifted up, the prisoners restored to freedom, the sick healed, those pushed down are pulled up, those who are isolated are brought into the circle of community. He came in complete non-violence; he came to bring peace, not a sword, not a gun, not an electric chair, not stealth bombers and tanks. His only weapon was love.
Jesus didn’t spend his time hanging out with only “my kind of folks.” He spent his time mostly with the down-and-outers, the marginal people—the poor, the sick, the mistreated, the left out. He broke down social barriers. He treated women as equals. He welcomed children. He spent time with people who had little power or authority. He wanted to lift up the “little people” and give them new dignity and help them see how much God loves them.
In other words, Jesus took risks on behalf of the least privileged people. That means then that we too will be following Jesus by giving a voice to those who have no voice, by being advocates for the poor, by being agitators for peace in a world gone mad with war and violence. Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, to give us energy to continue his mission—and to do “greater works” than he did. Stop war, end poverty, welcome the stranger, heal the sick.
We do this by taking one person, one project at a time---the “near edge.” As the Spirit leads us, we will write letters to Congress, stand in vigils, use our energies and resources to lift the poor, and reach out to the stranger. We can start a mission group in this church—for migrant workers, for Hispanic neighbors, for the environment. We can’t do it all, but we can respond to the specific task that the Spirit sets before each of us. With our limited energy, we take risks, just as Jesus took risks.
There is a story that some of you have heard me tell. It’s about a general who came to inspect a division of paratroopers, the soldiers who make those parachute jumps out of big airplanes. The general came to one paratrooper and asked him, “How many jumps have you made?” “Over fifty, sir,” the soldier said. “Do you enjoy it?” the general asked. “Yes sir,” he said. The general went down the line asking each soldier these same questions. The he came to another man, small, swallowed up by his uniform. “How about you?” asked the general. “How many jumps have you made?” “Twenty-nine, sir.” “Do you enjoy it?” “Oh no, sir, I hate it, sir. It scares me to death every time I jump.” And the general asked him, “Man, why did you ever join the paratroopers?” The little man swallowed and said, “Because I like to be associated with people who are not afraid to jump, sir.”
Our business is to be a part of a people, Pentecost people, who are so committed to following Jesus and living by the Spirit, that we are not afraid to jump into the middle of human need with all the gumption, courage and compassion we have.
“Greater works than I,” Jesus said, “you will do.”
May it be so. By the power of the Spirit, may it be so.
Friday, March 24, 2006
By Brian McLaren
Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, MD
Dear Mr. President,
I will never forget the day the ballots finally revealed you as our nation’s 43rd president. I was listening to the radio. You were asked in an interview what you wanted to say to the American people, and you said, “We have to love one another,” and I thought, “This is a different kind of president indeed!”
Those hope-inspiring words, echoing the words of Jesus, said something about your sincere commitment as a Christian. They also signified, to me at least, that we are entering a profound new era, called by some a postmodern era. In the premodern era (before, say, 1500), church and state were one. In the modern era, the two wisely separated, but the state often marginalized the church and the spiritual life to a private sphere, excluded from public life, where the state reigned supreme. Or else the state admitted a domesticated civil religion to the public sphere as its chaplain, its justifier, its assistant, its baptizer, but not often as its peer or conscience or advisor.
But in the postmodern era, we realize that while spirituality and politics can and should be separate (for the benefit of both), they are best never to be dis-integrated or alienated or isolated, nor should one be subordinate to the other. Instead, like good neighbors partnering in a difficult task, like two wings on a flying bird, like two participants in an important dialogue, they each must be strong and free to give their best, respectfully interacting with one another as peers with distinct God-given roles.
Mr. President, I am a pastor, serving a congregation of ordinary Americans in the suburbs of Washington, DC. They’re good folk, a mix of GED’s and PhD’s, a mix of white, blue, and no collars, a mix of Democrats and Republicans (who get along pretty well most of the time!), a mix of skin tones and family shapes and sizes. Many of our members work for the government in various capacities, and many are current or retired military people for whom I have deep respect. Several are in the process of being deployed to the Middle East right now. I know you are very busy, and I doubt my words will ever reach your ears, but in case they do, I will seek to keep them brief and simple, in hopes that I, as a fellow Christian, can be of some help and encouragement to you at this difficult time of war and rumors of war.
In addition to our ongoing war against terrorism, we now face the imminent prospect of war with Iraq. I know that politics involves all kinds of gamesmanship and rhetorical maneuvering, requiring far more dexterity and skill than a halfback dodging between tacklers or a quarterback scrambling, faking, and weaving a pass between blocking hands to reach its target. I can understand that sometimes, to prevent a war leaders must make a strong stand by preparing for war. I know that enemies like Saddam Hussein are wily, deceitful, desperate, and dangerously ruthless, and that one must be as wise as a serpent (as Jesus said) in order to deal with them.
Jesus also said, though, that in our serpentine cleverness, we must remain as guileless as a dove, pure in heart as peacemakers, because the God who is real is a God of peace. Whatever clever tactics we must use to seek to prevent war, however we must bare our teeth and expose our claws to dissuade our attackers, we must reverence the harmless dove (God’s Spirit) who flies among us, within us. I have been asking myself what it means to be a true Christian in a time like this, facing war yet loving and seeking peace, wise as a serpent, yet innocent as a dove. So here are four reflections that have been resonant within me in recent days that I wish to share with you.
1. For the follower of Jesus, war must always be seen as a defeat, before the first shot is fired or the last body is buried. In the Scriptures, the voice of God through the prophets plants a dream in our hearts, a dream not of military power and victory, but of peace that makes military power and victories unnecessary. Many people think the prophets primary aim was to predict the future … and there is some little truth to that. But more important, I think, the prophets were helping form the future. They were making history and changing history in a very profound and powerful way: by reaching into the imagination of their hearers, by planting a dream in people’s hearts, a dream that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. This happened in the 7th century BC, when Isaiah was given this message to give to the people. In those days, the Jewish people were under threat from superpowers around them that threatened to overpower them. At a tense time like that, one would expect a rousing, “Let’s go get ‘em! Prepare for war!” kind of speech. But what the prophet says at this critical moment is stunning, surprising:
Many peoples will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths."
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD. (Isaiah 2:3-5)
At this dangerous time, when people were sharpening swords and forging spears, God plants in the hearts of the people a dream of peace, of a time when weapons will be melted down and recast as farming tools. True, they may still have to fight, but in their fighting, this dream from God will have taken root, reminding them that fighting will one day be obsolete, and that training for war was not God’s dream.
So, going to war is never a dream come true; it is always a nightmare come true, God’s best dream for us being temporarily defeated. Training for war is a reminder that the dream of God for planet earth is still frustrated, and taking up swords and spears (or tanks and bombs) means that one or both sides have failed, one or both sides have been defeated, have failed to let God “judge between nations” and “settle disputes for many peoples.”
Jesus resonated with this ancient prophet’s dream. In his day, many of his Jewish countrymen dreamed of being free from Roman oppression – a good dream. But to get free, many dreamed of slitting Roman throats – a nightmare, Jesus said. His strategy to achieve freedom and peace was stunningly different:
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-29)
Many have interpreted Jesus’ words as a mandate for all followers of Jesus to be strict pacifists. It is hard to contradict that interpretation, although there is a respectable counterargument in what is called “just war theory” that arises from several Biblical passages, and especially the writings of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. (Unfortunately, I don’t know of any wars ever being called off because theologians convinced anyone that a particular war was unjust in view of the theory, although many wars have been justified through the theory, often at the same time by opposite sides.) But in spite of just war theory, as followers of Jesus we must believe that if pacifism is not right for this or that particular war, it is only a matter of time. Someday, pacifism will be right for everyone, even if it isn’t now, and we should prepare our hearts for that day and long for it to come. In the meantime, it is clear that when war happens, a loving God weeps. After all, Jesus himself, by his way of living and dying, made it clear that God’s kingdom is better welcomed by suffering violence than by causing others to suffer violence. General Douglas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
I would add that for the Christian who is a soldier, his motivation to pray for peace is intensified by his concern for the scars of war suffered by his enemies. So, for the Christian, we must begin with God’s dream, God’s desire, God’s will for us … which is peace. This leads to my second reflection.
2. Whenever we talk of war, and if we must go to war, we must do so with sadness for all concerned. Jesus said we are to love our enemies, and if we love people, to see beloved enemies as the targets of bullets and bombs is a tragic thing.
I grew up, as you did, Mr. President, hearing Walter Cronkite’s weekly reports on the death toll in Viet Nam, first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. I remember the first time I heard Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sing, “Four dead in Ohio, four dead in Ohio, four dead in Ohio,” showing a different kind of casualty of the war, smaller in number but closer to home. But something I never heard, and still have never heard, is the death toll of the North Vietnamese. A decade ago, in the Gulf War (which I watched unfold while sitting at the bedside of my son, who was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia), I never heard the death toll even estimated of the Iraqis. Perhaps these numbers were never released, or never counted.
Colonel Samuel J.T. Boone, a chaplain in our Army and a Gulf War veteran, wrote,
“In the five months of Desert Shield, prior to Desert Storm, I took prayer requests every day during daily worship service. At every service, some American solder asked that we pray for our enemies. One staff sergeant noted, ‘…A mother’s wail at the loss of her son knows no language, race, or religion.’” (Colonel Samuel J.T. Boone)
In this war, Mr. President, if war must happen, I wonder if you would make history by being the first president to share the death toll of our enemy, not as a score of victory, but as another tragic cost of war? I wonder if you could teach the American people to mourn the death of Iraqi mothers’ sons along with our own? I wonder if you could, in this way, deepen our dread and hatred of war, so that if this war happens, it will bring us one war closer to the end of the nightmare, and the beginning of God’s dream for us? When Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn…” (Matthew 5:4)
I think it is this sort of situation he had in mind.
In our history, I think of Abraham Lincoln, whose sad, sad face – shown in nearly every old photograph and painting -- revealed a heart that was broken by war, a heart that took no joy even in victory in such a dirty business, but only relief that the nightmare was over. If we go to war, Mr. President, my prayer is that your face will show similar lines of sadness, not because I wish for you to be sad, but because I pray for you to be as good a man as Lincoln was, a man who knows the blessedness of mourning that Jesus spoke of. I often think that Lincoln’s sadness was intensified because the war he presided over was a civil war, a war between brothers. And then I think that from God’s perspective, every war is really a civil war, every war a battle between brothers.
Third, Mr. President, it’s important to remember that one doesn’t get a military exemption from the teachings of Christ. So, in light of Jesus’ words, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12)
it should never be easy to drop a bomb on them. In light of Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:44)
it should never be easy to load a machine gun with a belt of bullets. But if these things must be done (again, with a heavy heart, with a sense of defeat even before we begin), we must ask, “What do we wish others would do for us if they attacked us and made war against us?”
Three answers rush to my mind. First, I would wish that they would never forget that we are human beings. We are not faceless enemies. We are not gears or pistons in the machinery of an evil empire. We are not subhuman orcs from a Tolkein movie. We are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, lovers and friends, neighbors and colleagues. You reminded us of this again and again at the outset of our attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. You constantly referred to the people of Afghanistan as neighbors, even friends; you asked the children of America to send a dollar each to the children of Afghanistan. If war breaks out, Mr. President, please do this again, with no less passion and compassion. Be our moral leader even more powerfully than our military leader, and tell the world that we see even our enemies as human beings.
Second, if I ask how I wish our enemies would treat us if they went to war against us, I would wish that they would take every pain to avoid the loss of innocent life. So, if another fifteen minutes of preparation, another fifteen days of taking extra pains and precautions, if another fifteen hours of checking and rechecking satellite data or whatever other tools are at the disposal of military planners … if these extra efforts on our part could save a civilian family, a school girl, a teenager, and old grandfather … I hope we will take the extra effort. I am sure that this is always a concern, but Mr. President, I would wish and hope that you would double the concern, or triple it, or more.
And third, Mr. President, if I were the one being attacked, I would wish that my enemies would spend at least two dollars to repair whatever damage each dollar of weaponry caused. Jesus talked about walking the second mile, and perhaps today he would talk about paying the second dollar. If this means raising taxes, Mr. President, I for one will pay twice the taxes to have the chance to do right to the Iraqi people after the war – if we must go to war.
This would, I realize, triple the cost of war for us. But that would not be a bad thing at all. I think you’ll agree: war should be costly, too costly. A cheap, convenient, easy war could make it easy for us to become barbarians, abusing the power and wealth which we have been given, and for which we will be held accountable as stewards. When we add the high cost of postwar rebuilding to the high cost of war to begin with, we will be more likely to seek creative alternatives to war. We may realize that it would be a bargain to be more generous, to use our money to make friends through wise generosity and humanitarian development rather than using it to make enemies through foreign war.
So, if you and our other national leaders can not find a good alternative to going to war, we must remember after the fighting ends: there is a high cost to being cheap. If we wound but do not heal, the memories of our enemies will keep track of our debt, which will accrue a high rate of interest, perhaps for decades if not centuries. This is one of the consequences of victory, which can be even more dangerous than the consequences of defeat. That final cost of victory may be multiplied a thousand times over our initial expenditure on bombs, bullets, and MRE’s, compared to twice that expenditure on aid immediately after the war.
4. Finally, Mr. President, even if we must prepare for war, up until the very, very, very last minute, I would hope that you would keep asking (and praying), “Can we wait another day? Can we pursue another option? Can we see any other way ahead? Can this cup pass from us?” I will never forget the day in 1994 I heard on the radio news that Nelson Mandela had been elected as president of South Africa. When I thought of the bloodshed that his election precluded, when I thought of the tenure of injustice and oppression that his election ended, my heart leapt with joy. I was driving down the highway, listening to the radio, and tears of joy brimmed in my eyes.
Mr. President, if you fight and win a war in the spirit I have described above, I think the whole world will look back with gratitude that you were elected president. And if you manage to avoid a war while increasing the security of our little planet, our gratitude will overflow in tears of joy and pride, and history will never forget that you represent one of the peacemakers whom Jesus said are truly blessed.
Well, I promised to be brief, and perhaps I have broken that promise. This is my sermon for you. I do not envy you or your associates in making these grave decisions. I know it is easy for others to criticize from the sidelines, easy for pundits and commentators to chide or mock, but they would find it very different if they walked in your shoes, sat at your desk, slept and woke with your pressures on their minds and hearts.
Perhaps I am saying things so obvious that they don’t need to be said. Saying them, of course, is not enough, so I and my congregation will pray for you, and for our world, and for our enemies, and for peace, during these difficult days. May God bless you, and may God bless America, and may God bless our enemies, and may God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Rev. Steven A. Peay, Ph.D.
Heritage Congregational Church, Madison, WI
24th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Without a doubt, everyone gathered here knows and has prayed those familiar words from the Lord's Prayer. Our Congregational forebears viewed the prayer only as a model for prayer and not something to be recited in rote repetition. I'm beginning to understand why they took that position. When we pray that prayer are we simply saying nice, familiar words or do we really mean what we're saying? If we mean what we say, we'd better understand what is implied. As the fourteenth century spiritual writer Meister Eckhardt said, "The kingdom of God is no small thing."
When Jesus stood before Pilate to answer the question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" he was facing someone with a limited notion of kingship. In fact, most of us probably share Pilate's limited view that kingship is something political and territorial. When we think of kingship or monarchy our thoughts go to England or some other country that still supports a royal establishment. In the mind of Israel, however, God was the king of the Jews. Thus, Pilate had no idea what he was asking or that the answer he got carried enormous implications.
Early on the Jews had no monarchy. You can remember the story told in the book of Samuel about how they whined and complained that they wanted to have a king like everybody else. So, out of the hardness of their hearts and their unwillingness to be ruled directly by God, they got a king: Saul. Saul turned out to be a disaster and was replaced by David who, though a bit of a rapscallion, was the "man after God's own heart." Israel had a king and a dynasty, but the kings knew that it was really God who ruled and that their function was to be regents on God's behalf. If they forgot, the prophets reminded them of their true role! So God was the true king of Israel and any authority the king had was derived from God's gift of favor. Thus, we hear the words of David in Second Samuel testifying to God's covenant faithfulness, "Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure." There was an understanding that God's kingdom was Israel.
Jesus' response, "My kingdom is not of this world" was a powerful shift in the arrangement of things. Now Jesus is the regent and kingly rule moves from the earthly to the heavenly representative. Jesus comes to declare God's ultimate kingship (God's truth) and to assemble God's own people (everyone who belongs to the truth). Now the kingdom is not a matter of politics or territory, but of person and relationship.
Jesus' declaration that his kingdom is something not of this earth, something religious, tells us that God is showing forth his great love for humanity through him. Pilate never does seem to get it; he's stuck in the realm of policy. What is at stake here isn't territory, however, it's the human heart. Jesus comes to reveal the magnitude of God's love for us and this brings us to a point of crisis, of judgment, where we have to decide whether we are on the side of truth or against it. Jesus doesn't have followers to take up arms and fight on his behalf. Rather, he has followers who show forth love in the same sort of self-giving, life-affirming manner that Jesus himself does.
When we pray, "Thy kingdom come" we're asking for the very presence of Christ in our midst. Our prayer says that we're open to the reality of what God's kingdom means for us. To be in the kingdom of God is to be one who is IN the world, but not OF the world. In other words, our approach to life and values is, and must be, different than those around us. This is what is implied in these four very dense verses from the Revelation of John.
In these verses John the Revelator tells us about who God is, "him who is, who was, and is to come. . . .the Almighty." He tells us about who Jesus is, "the faithful witness, firstborn of the dead." And declares what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, "who loves us, freed us, made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father." There's a great deal tied up right there, it's one of the most doctrine packed passages in all of Scripture. Ultimately, John reminds us when we pray for the coming of the kingdom that we're calling to mind our own obligation to service. We are freed, but for a purpose. Our freedom is one to serve and love God, and each other, with abandon just as Jesus did. When the early Congregationalists talked about "freedom" this is what they meant. Our freedom is a freedom TO, not a freedom FROM.
To pray for the coming of the kingdom, then, reminds us of our responsibility. Our prayers should also remind us of who we are. When Jesus comes among us preaching the kingdom, he is also proclaiming the royal personhood and dignity of every person made in the image and likeness of God. Thus the Psalmist writes: "You have made humans a little less than God, and you have crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands putting all things under your feet" (Psalm 8:6,7). In that same vein Meister Eckhardt said, "Every human person is an aristocrat. Every human person is noble and of royal blood, born from the intimate depths of the divine nature and the divine wilderness." To pray for the coming of the kingdom is to pray that God will help us see and realize who we are and what we are called to be.
Everyone who hears the voice of Jesus, who heeds his Word of truth and is born anew by it, is brought into this wondrous state of being. Christians are called upon to acknowledge this dignity in themselves and in others, and then to live accordingly. Long ago, Patrick the Enlightener of Ireland penned a prayer called The Lorica. A portion of it reminds us of God's kingdom in us and in others.
I arise today through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me . . . .
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I
Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every person who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me . . . .
I arise today through the wonder of the Trinity.
What is true of individuals is even truer of the community of faith, the church. The gathered people of God are to demonstrate God's love for the world by their love for each other and their acts of service. Our call to life in God, to life in the kingdom, is a call to community. As Peter says in his first epistle, " . . .you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). It is unfortunate that we've not always lived up to what we're called to be. Around the turn of the last century the French Biblical scholar Alfred Loisy, who was excommunicated by the Roman Church for his use of modern methods of Bible study, complained: "Jesus came preaching the kingdom and what we got was the churches ö what a letdown!" Why did he say that? Because we pray for the coming of the kingdom, but we don't mean it. Because we are made royal persons by Christ, given the gift to transform ourselves and our world, and we choose to remain the same. What a letdown, indeed!
Eckhardt said, "The kingdom of God is no small thing." How true! And he wasn't talking about expanse of territory, or numbers of population, or breadth of policy. No, he was talking about relationship and the wonder of God's love made real in the here and now by ordinary people like you and me. It's not small thing to pray for the coming of the kingdom because it's already right here among us ö if we have the eyes of faith to see it. The kingdom was in front of Pilate and he had no idea it was there. The kingdom is all around us here, right now, do we see it? When we pray that prayer that Jesus taught us later in the service, perhaps we can try harder to mean what we pray and then begin to see the kingdom here among us. Together we should pray the coming of the kingdom and mean it by making it visible by the words we say, by the thoughts we think, and by the deeds we do. The world needs us to mean it when we say, "thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven." Amen.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational Church, Fort Collins, CO
We love to wave palm fronds to welcome Jesus, and we shout “Hosanna!” “Save!” We like the image of throngs of people adoring Jesus and welcoming him triumphally into Jerusalem. The church celebrates it kind of like a liturgical pep rally every year. But, we know something that the crowd in Jerusalem didn’t know.
One thing the crowd knew is the prophecy of Zechariah, who in the sixth century B.C., advocated for the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was finished soon thereafter. His prophecy may be familiar to some of you, if for no other reason, that it’s used as an aria in Händel’s Messiah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble, riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
So, if you saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, it would trigger your response to shout to him, “Save the people!” You’d pave the way for him by throwing down your coat, you’d wave your palm branches. You’d be ecstatic that your true king had arrived, just as the prophet foretold.
But, we know something that the crowd in Jerusalem didn’t know.
You’ll notice the title of this sermon is “From Triumph to Tragedy …” (Note the ellipsis.) Even though we have heard the story of the whole last week of Jesus’ life, let’s not rush toward the empty tomb and the walk to Emmaus. Let’s deal with the knowledge we have about the Passion (literally the suffering) of Jesus – perhaps in a deeper way than Mel Gibson did. By the way, how many of you have seen his recent film?
One of the critical questions his film didn’t tackle was this: Why would anyone want to kill Jesus? Why did the powers that be – the domination systems of Jesus’ day – want Jesus dead? Clearly, both the Roman Empire and the Temple hierarchy in Jerusalem were domination systems. One had an empire that spanned from the Scottish border to North Africa to Asia. And the other claimed to have a monopoly on access to God’s grace and forgiveness, which raised the ire of Jews in the diaspora, who in Jesus’ time already outnumbered the residents of the Jewish homeland, and this eventually helped give rise to Pharisaic or rabbinic Judaism without the Temple hierarchy: the Judaism we know today. And were these two domination systems ultimately the cause of Jesus’ death, or was there some sense in which God mandated that Jesus had to die for our sins?
In February, the confirmation class went to Boulder to hear John Dominic Crossan speak at the MacKenzie Lecture, and he said in his wry Irish wit, “That’s not the kind of God I’d like to meet in a dark alley.” I would also point out that in Genesis, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, the angel of the Lord intervenes and says, “no.” If God said “no” to Abraham, why would God demand the sacrifice his own son?
“The substitutionary atonement” is a rather highfalutin way of saying that God needed a human blood sacrifice in order to be reconciled with humankind, and that God demanded Jesus as the lamb to be slaughtered, who would, through his death on the cross, take away the sins of the world. This is an integral part of the Roman Catholic Mass, and it’s also deeply engrained into Protestant theology, as well. You don’t believe me, do you?
I asked half a dozen ordained ministers who are members of this congregation if the substitutionary atonement was part of their theology, so that we could do a dialogue sermon about it. How many of them do you think believe in that doctrine? None. And most mainline scholars assert that this doctrine does not go back to Jesus himself, but to later interpreters, coming into full development about 1,100 years after Jesus’ death.
So, while it may not be an integral part of your theology, it is a part of our tradition that we must deal with. Listen to these words contained in our supposedly progressive, liberal, leftist manifesto, The New Century Hymnal: (Now, some of you love the music of these hymns, and that’s fine; what I’d like you to do is pay attention to the theology of the lyrics.)
“Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide: my shelter be. Let the water and the blood, from your wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.”
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of the Spirit, washed in Christ’s blood.”
First of all Jesus isn’t mine: I’m Jesus’! Second, we don’t purchase grace from God: it’s free! Thirdly, I don’t want to be washed in the blood of Jesus; I’d rather be blessed by the love of Jesus.
“O sacred body, wounded side, by cruel spear opened wide, that water streaming mixed with blood might cleanse us in the precious flood.”
Okay, picture this: Jesus is on the cross bleeding to death, are you going to duck underneath the “precious flood” and take a shower?
Now, here’s the disclaimer: what the gospel writers intend is that this is a metaphor. (Surprise, surprise!) But it’s a metaphor that has been bent out of shape by writers and theologians over the centuries. As Marcus Borg comments, “Jesus as the sacrifice has its metaphorical home in the temple story: his death as ‘the once and for all’ sacrifice for sin replaces the temple and the temple sacrifice.”
And as we heard in this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus made some enemies among the Temple elites.
Did Jesus die for you? Was it human sinfulness that precipitated his crucifixion? In a sense, I can affirm both of these statements…though with a lot of footnotes. Listen to these words from the gospel according to John: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Jesus lays down his life for his friends. He voluntarily risks his life – and loses it – for what he believes in, the God he trusts, and the people who follow him. Did Jesus die for you?
Jesus’ self-sacrifice reveals the absolute moral bankruptcy – and the estrangement or hubris…or sin – of domination systems. And let us not lose the point that Jesus is the only figure at the center of a major world religion to have been subjected to capital punishment by a legitimate government. He knew that he was risking his life by preaching a subversive theology: the kingdom of God, an alternative to both the Romans and their Herodian toadies. He saw what had happened to John the Baptizer, yet he moved forward, knowing it would probably get him killed. Are you part of any domination system today? Does your estrangement or hubris (in other words, sin) help to perpetuate such systems? Did it – does it – precipitate the crucifixion?
Barbara Brown Taylor, a wise Episcopal priest, suggests that “A cross and nails are not always necessary. There are a thousand ways to kill him, some of them as obvious as choosing where you will stand then the showdown between the weak and the strong comes along, others of them as subtle as keeping your mouth shut when someone asks you if you know him.”
So, why exactly do you think the Romans wanted Jesus dead? You heard high treason in the scripture this morning, and you probably didn’t even notice it. (And you probably committed treason by saying the Lord’s Prayer, acknowledging God’s kingdom first and foremost – ahead of any national allegiance.) “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” If Jesus is king, Caesar and Herod are not. That’s treason. Jesus’ crime against Rome is named on the placard above his head on the cross, which you’ve seen in countless paintings: INRI, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum: Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.
What act of Jesus do you think precipitated his arrest? Why do you think the Temple authorities wanted him dead? Luke says it plainly: “the leaders…kept looking for a way to kill him.”
Desecration of Temple property and disruption of the system of sacrifice (and ultimately his enmity toward the Temple authority), added to a healthy dose of blasphemy, led them to try and find a way to eliminate him, which they did in cahoots with the Romans, through their high-priest puppet Caiaphas. In is book, Who Killed Jesus? Crossan compares Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple to going into a draft office during the Vietnam War and overturning drawers of draft cards. “It is a symbolic negation of all that office or Temple stands for.”
“The pilgrim feasts and especially Passover were always potentially explosive; rather than speech alone, actions, even symbolic actions, against the Temple could get you killed.”
But, let’s not forget that this was a small handful of elites in power – and not Jesus’ own people, the Jews – who wanted Jesus dead.
Where were the crowds to support Jesus on Thursday and Friday? The same people who waved palms on Sunday might have been those who jeered at Jesus or who, like Peter, kept their heads down and denied they even knew Jesus. We have to view the last week of Jesus’ life in totality: triumph leads to tragedy, which in turn leads to triumph. This week, I’d invite you to sit with the uncomfortable feelings of Jesus’ last week on earth. To remember his self-sacrifice, to ask “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, to ask of yourself how you are complicit in domination systems in our own time and place, and to commit yourself to reconciling your relationship with God, self, and others.
One of our members was a bit disturbed by the words of institution we use during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: “this is the new covenant in my blood.”
While the official Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is still on the books – that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ – I can assure you it’s not observed here at Plymouth. We must remember that our sacrament provides a tangible symbol that Jesus gave his life. As Christians we need to take Jesus’ self- sacrificial love seriously.
And every time we celebrate communion, we remember the last meal at which Jesus gathered with his friends, because we know – and Jesus knew – something the crowd in Jerusalem didn’t know.
Friday, March 17, 2006
By Linda Sue Harrison, MDiv
St. Hildegard's Church, Arlington, VA
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Ezekiel and them dry bones! What an image … a pile of bleached, dry bones becoming a veritable army of skeletons. Can you hear the clattering that makes – the clicking and clashing of bone on bone, bone against bone … that hollow kind of clink that bones with no marrow in them and no tissue between them would make. Why, it is the stuff of an old black and white thriller!
It is also the stuff of a great metaphor for a life with and without God.
When the book of Ezekiel was written, Israel was in exile. God seemed so far away. Israel’s collective spirit was dry and lost without their home, their rituals, their God. Just like dry bones, there was no life in the people of Israel: alienated, oppressed, and pushed to the margins, they were as dead and hollow as dry bones. Caught in the grip and power of death, individually and collectively, Israel had forgotten about life and the God of life.
Ezekiel’s metaphor is a powerful one.
Who assembled here today has never been thirsty? … never felt drier than dust in the depths of her or his soul? … never felt dead inside and wondered to where the joy and the life had disappeared?
I have … more than once. I cried to God from the depths of my being and my despair. From the depths of the parched places in my soul, I cried out to God just like the psalmist: “Hear me, O, God!” It echoes hollowly in the ears that hear no life – it reverberates as I imagine sound would reverberate inside a dry bone. The disconnect a person feels at this time is great. God seems so far away, and so do other people.
Israel was disconnected from God and from one another. The community lost its traditions and rituals in exile – the very rituals that kept the community connected to God and each other. It must have seemed hopeless.
You know, that’s God specialty. God does hopeless real well. God spoke a word of hope to Ezekiel concerning Israel. That word took on shape and form when Ezekiel envisioned dry bones assembling, then muscles and sinews and finally flesh covering the bones. Dry bones became filled with the potential for life. Only when the breath of God came into the bones covered with flesh, did they actually come alive.
We are the dry bones – we are filled with the potential for life. Sure, by definition each of you sitting here is alive in the technical sense: hearts are pumping blood, neurotransmitters in the brain are firing, and lungs inhale and exhale the air around us. But are we truly alive? Are we truly living in the full potential of who God has called each of us to be or do we merely exist? Have we fully repented and accepted the grace that God offers us daily and then live out that grace?
Like two characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, we could be empty hollow shells – like empty hollow bones with no marrow and no breath. The characters Roger Chillingworth and the Rev. Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale are technically alive: they go about their business in the small New England town where they live and work. That is the extent of it. Both characters reject God’s Spirit and by the end of book, that rejection literally destroys them. They cannot or will not accept the love and forgiveness that God offers to them. They reject life.
Hester Prynne, on the other hand, accepts God’s Spirit whole-heartedly. She is marked as an adulteress, a fact she cannot deny because of the birth of her precious baby girl, Pearl. Even so, she lives life. Hester is fully alive to herself, her child, and the community in which she lives, the very community that branded her. She carries herself well, holds her head up high, and eventually becomes known to the people in her town as a sort of angel of mercy for all her work with the sick and the poor. Living so fully in the breath and Spirit of God, the people come to say that the scarlet “A” on her breast means “able.”
Out of the despair of her sin, according to 17th century laws and customs, God knit together a new life and Hester embraced it, allowing God’s breath to breathe upon her and through her. It is important to point out that Hester did not keep God’s breath to herself. She shared it in the community, among the disenfranchised: the poor and the sick. What an excellent role model she was for her daughter, Pearl: a woman given a second chance in life and living it fully, joyfully, and sharing it with community.
Like Lazarus, who comes out of the tomb when Jesus calls to him, we are offered the opportunity to emerge from our self-inflicted tombs. The God of breath, the God of life calls to us, begging us in love, mercy, and compassion to live. Hester could have become a shell of her former self: resentful, bitter, and guilt-racked. Instead, like Lazarus, Hester answered God’s call to life. Hester accepted the call to life in the forgiveness and love of God. A life in the true Spirit of God. She could not help but share that life with those around her.
Not only does God call us out of our tomb-like existences, filling our dry bones with marrow and our lungs with breath. God also calls us to speak a word of hope to those around us. Like the promise made to Ezekiel, God will open our graves, call us up from our graves, fill us with the breath of life, and place us on our soil. We will be a living community – we are a living community! God revived the bones, God breathed life into the bones, and the vast multitude became a living community and a living community cannot be silent, but will witness to the love of God.
You have to note that as John records the story, Jesus did not act wholly alone when he revived Lazarus. Jesus asked the crowd, the community around him, for help: he asked for directions to Lazarus’ tomb, asked that someone roll away the stone from the tomb, and for someone to unwrap the bandages that set Lazarus free. Jesus spoke the word, but the community acted to set Lazarus free! God even invited a mortal to help revive those dry old bones in the valley. God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy, mortal, prophesy to these bones.” If God is powerful enough to make dry bones come alive, why in the world would God even waste time asking a mortal to help? Why indeed? … Because that is our job. Because God expects us to be in community. Because we are called to help restore life in individuals, in families, and in communities. The broken, lonely, tired, outcast, marginalized – they are all depending on us, the individuals who make up this living Christian community, to breathe the breath of God upon them.
Holocaust survivor, professor, author, and Jewish theologian Elie Wiesel says every generation needs to hear, in its own time, that these bones can live again. I declare to you today that these bones can live again.
So, in that declaration, in the promise of God, what is it going to be? You are already knit together: bone-to-bone, filled with marrow, covered with flesh. Will you persist in your existence, going about your business in your self-inflicted tomb? Or, are you going to allow God to breathe upon you and fill you with life? Will you embrace that life, which is forgiveness, mercy, and compassion? Will you bring that breath and Spirit of God, that hope, joy, and life, to the world as you are charged? Will you bring the message to this generation that these bones can live again?
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
May 9, 2004
The Rev. Blair A. Pogue
Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna, VA
Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18; Psalm 145; John 13:31-35
Let’s begin with our culture. Most of us here today would probably say that we love and have loved people. By saying this we usually mean an intense emotional feeling, and sometimes romantic love. Most of us sign our letters to friends with the salutation “love” meaning deep friendship. At the same time we speak of loving vacations, ice cream, and someone’s new outfit.
Out of curiosity, I googled the word love. One hundred and twenty two million references came up. The first page on my computer included the following entries: “Love, Courtney, charges to be dropped?”; “Troll: a Love Story (from the Village Voice)”; “The Love Calculator” – something which, “helps you calculate the probability on a successful relationship between two people” in an “affective” way; “Love Dogs”; “Love Cats”; “Free Love and Personality Tests”; “Love Poems and Quotes”; and the Question “What is True Love?” followed by the sub-questions, “How do I know if I’ve found it?” and “How can I make it last?” and including a website for the curious, www.lovetactics.com. Other than Courtney Love’s latest antics and “Love Dogs” and “Love Cats,” love here seems to be about romantic relationships and finding the love you want and think you need. What about a biblical understanding of love?
Today’s passage from the thirteenth chapter of John takes place at the last supper. Jesus has just indicated that he will be betrayed by the one to whom he gives a morsel of bread. He dips the bread in the wine and hands it to Judas saying, “what you are going to do, do it quickly.” Jesus knows that the time has come for his crucifixion and death, and he prays that his disciples understand the import of all that he has done and said. Prior to the meal he washed the disciples’ feet and gave them a new commandment, that they love one another just as he has loved them. It will be through their love for each other that others will know that the disciples follow Jesus. It will be through their love for each other that others will see and come to know God. Jesus’ ultimate goal is that his love for his disciples and those around him, leading ultimately to his death on the cross, makes God known.
In our reading from Leviticus, the Ten Commandments are taken to a new level. The people of Israel are called to manifest the character and nature of God in their words and actions. They are called to be holy as God is holy. Other ancient religions did not appeal to the person, nature, and actions of their deities as the basis for moral thinking and acting. Judaism, by contrast, appealed to a God who was holy and beyond reproach. The Jews’ God spoke to them through Moses, exhorting them to choose life. Choosing life was living a life pleasing to God, rooted in God’s vision and promises. In Leviticus God’s people are instructed to, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Love here is not a vague expression of sentiment, but something expressed in concrete acts of mercy and service. Holiness is expressed through love for neighbors, the poor and the alien, the rich, the deaf and blind, truth and honesty. God’s people are called to live lives of integrity and interconnectedness. Each set of instructions is emphasized by the closing phrase, “I am the LORD.”
How do these passages relate to us? How are we to live our lives in light of these commandments to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love others as Jesus has loved us?
I recently learned of a woman who underwent a near-death experience. The woman began to fade away and to see an intense light. The feeling was overwhelmingly one of peace. And then she heard a voice which she believed to be the voice of God. The voice told her that she needed to go back. She wasn’t ready to die yet. She needed to increase her capacity to love. We need to increase our capacity to love. This is, I think, what God has been trying to teach us from the dawn of Creation. From the creation of a world deemed “good” to Abraham and Sarah to the Prophets to Jesus, God has reached out to us, attempting to get the message through: we need to increase our capacity to love. One of God’s primary attributes is love. If we want to be rooted in God, if we want to live the lives God intended for us to live, we must daily ask God to increase our capacity to love.
Increasing our capacity to love is not about feelings – although feelings may come into play – but about committing ourselves to the way of God – not just through resolutions but by asking God to work in us, to do a new thing. Love manifests itself in concrete acts of compassion, service, and inclusion. It involves seeing others as God’s beloved. It involves openness and humility. It comes from a posture of thanksgiving, from having received and experienced God’s grace. Love desires to give back. Love is not toleration of dysfunctional behavior on the part of others, but calling ourselves and others to a higher standard of commitment, to behaviors that give rather than take life.
Already, I see so much that is of God in this congregation. I constantly witness and learn about people who have been welcomed here – especially those who could easily have fallen through the cracks. I see the many people who give their time to further God’s mission here at Holy Comforter and beyond. I see the people working quietly behind the scenes, never asking for a word of thanks or praise, preparing the altar for worship, taking consecrated bread and wine from this altar to homebound parishioners, serving as spiritual companions and listening hearts to those who are ill and alone, teaching our children and young adults about Jesus, volunteering at Five Talents, facilitating small group Bible studies, tutoring children in our community, loving our brothers and sisters in Honduras, and making meals for those without food in the route 50 motels. I know that many of you are the light of Christ to co-workers, acquaintances, and friends. I see the outpouring of love and support when each of us shares news of a birth, an illness, a death.
In these and many other ways, we are increasing our capacity to love. It is a daily practice. I leave you with three questions. If God were to call you home today, would you be ready? What would God say to you? How large is your capacity to love?
December 5, 2004
Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna, VA
The Second Sunday of Advent
“Isaiah spoke of John when he said: He is a voice shouting in the wilderness; ‘Prepare a pathway for the Lord’s coming! Make a straight road for him” (Matthew 3:3, NLT).
I love the season of Advent, and I am sympathetic with those who try to make room in their busy lives to give this short season a semblance of recognition and practice. Advent has become something of a “Cinderella” season. It gets squeezed out of contemporary life by the big sisters of commercial and social activity that arrive long before the 25th of December. . Advent is supposed to be a season of focus and delayed gratification, of waiting in hope for Christ’s love to be born in us anew. So I was thrilled to hear President Bush mention the season of Advent in his remarks at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree this past Thursday evening. Here’s what he had to say:
The season of Advent is always the season of hope. We think of the patient hope of men and women across the centuries who listened to the words of the prophets and lived in joyful expectation. We think of the hope of Mary, who welcomed God's plan with great faith. We think of the hope of the Wise Men who set out on a long journey guided only by a slender promise traced in the stars. We are reminded of the hope that the grandest purposes of the Almighty can be found in the humblest places. . . .The old carol speaks of a "thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn." And every year at this time we feel the thrill of hope as we wait for Christmas Day.
The problem for many of us is that we rush too quickly to the manger before we even know why we are going in the first place. If we would slow down and listen to the way Advent is structured, we would notice that there are two, not one but two, Sundays focused on this powerful yet odd figure: John the Baptist. The message of these two Sundays is, listen first to what he has to say, and then perhaps you can think about Christmas.
Now to be sure, John the Baptist is something of a public relations nightmare. He is stern, he is reported to be abstemious, and he is apparently not sympathetic to his audience, calling them at the earliest opportunity a “brood of vipers.” Imagine sending season greeting cards featuring John the Baptist instead of Santa Claus on the cover, with Matthew’s text written underneath: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you from the wrath to come?” And then on the inside it would read, “From our family to yours at this most special time of the year: Merry Christmas!” I guarantee such cards would capture the attention of those who receive them. That is, after all, I think the purpose of John the Baptist, and why he is featured on two of the four Sundays of Advent. Someone is trying to get our attention.
And once he has it, this is what he has to say: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” or as another translation has it, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here! (Matt. 3:2). He warned the religious leaders that being a descendant of Abraham is no guarantee of being in a right relationship with God. What counts is the person you are now and the person you are becoming. Is your life green and bearing fruit or is it deadwood, fast burning fuel for the fire?
John’s message, like the prophets that came before him, is a true diagnostic message. He says clearly that something is wrong. And if we feel that right now—if we are tired, angry or depressed, if we are falling short of what we believe is our best selves, if we are dissatisfied with our work or with our relationships, if we have directed some shame or fear or guilt toward ourselves—then we are just where John the Baptist wants us to be. We have a choice. We can with God’s help, move beyond where we are and repent.
John’s diagnostic message has reached me at a good time. As José mentioned in his sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, we’ve had our share of serious illnesses and deaths in recent months. And though I’ve been a priest for some 23 years, losing friends and companions in the faith does not get easier with time. It has been hard to observe the sorrow and aching emptiness of those who are left behind and to dry the tears of those who weep. Once again, I have been reminded of my own mortality, of the shortness and uncertainty of human life, of my need for God to make me whole, of making the most of my time. And so this year, I hear John’s call for repentance as a call to respond to that reminder in a constructive way.
If we hear it correctly, John’s call for repentance is in fact very good news, for it reminds us of our freedom and power to choose something different. Unfortunately in English, the word “repentance” has been trivialized. For many of us the first thing we think of is our introspective guilt. We immediately think repentance means feeling really sorry for what you have done or left undone, feeling really bad and disappointed about the person that you are. But what if the meaning of the word “repent” is not primarily about contrition, but about resolve—of taking steps to improve and to grow? The very etymology of the word for repentance in Greek implies this. The root meaning comes from two Greek words: meta – “beyond”; and nous – “mind.” Literally, metanoia means to move beyond our present mindset, beyond our present way of seeing things, in order to become more deeply the person God created us to be.
In an article I read recently, a young theologian out of the Chicago area named Fr. Robert Barron, offers a simple, yet profound, understanding of repentance. In his view, within each of us there are two souls, a little soul (a pusilla anima) and a great soul (a magna anima), similar to what Thomas Merton described as the false self and the true self. On any given day we tend to identify more with one or the other of these and we are a very different person depending upon which soul is reigning within us.
If I take my identity from my little soul I will inevitably feel disappointed and resentful. It is here, in the pusilla anima, where I am most often frustrated, uncertain, aware of my hurts, and unwilling to trust others.
But I also have within me a great soul. When I let it reign, I become a different person altogether. I am relating out of my great soul at those moments when I am moved by compassion, when I see that everyone around me matters to God and they should matter to me, when I want to give of myself without concern of cost, when I am grateful for what I have, when I am generous and patient, willing to trust, willing to serve. When John asks us to “repent,” to do metanoia, what he is asking is that we cease identifying ourselves with the little soul and instead choose to live out of our larger soul.
And it seems to me that this is the call of Advent and the way to prepare a highway for the coming of God in new and fresh ways in the coming celebration of Christmas. To move beyond our current mindset, to turn in a new direction, we might choose put ourselves places of quiet prayer and contemplation, where we can be still and know that God is God. Other spiritual practices such as study, physical exercise, volunteering to serve and support those around us, getting involved in issues of social justice, are all way we can move beyond our current mindset, beyond the small soul to the larger soul.
Wherever you find yourself on this second Sunday of Advent, remember that you have a choice, to go beyond your current way of seeing in order to experience the transformation and growth of your deepest and truest self in Christ. The next time your hear a prophet calling for repentance, no matter how odd or unusual that prophet may be, don’t think in terms of guilt, but in terms of resolve; think freedom, think transformation. It’s a mindset that will help you prepare in a highway in your heart for the coming of God. Amen.
By Linda Sue Harrison, MDiv
St. Hildegard's Church, Arlington, VA
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Grace – God’s grace. It is unfathomable and ineffable. The more we attempt to talk about the grace of God, the more tongue-tied we get. Even the parables attempt to describe God’s grace using metaphor. Matthew’s Jesus introduces a parable about grace with the words, more appropriately translated as, “The domain of heaven is of the same nature as…”. It is of the same sort, similar to, the same nature as …but not exactly the same. How could it? It is of God.
I find myself using examples from my life, or others’ lives, to explain God’s grace. It is of the same nature as the ballet teacher who told a parent not to withdraw his child from classes because family finances prohibited payment. The classes would be offered whether his child attended or not, so why not let the child attend?
God’s grace is like the continual support of the Lamb Center – a walk-in facility for the homeless in Fairfax. They have no budget for food, but the shelves are over-flowing with good things like canned fruit, beans, brown rice. Daily lunch trays come in from area churches filled with homemade casseroles and stroganoffs, fresh fruit salads and pasta salads. I heard one guest of the Lamb Center say that meals at the facility were as good as those of five-star restaurants he once was able to frequent.
God’s grace is of the same nature as a ten year old daughter who tells you how much she loves you after you admit that you have forgotten what was a very important appointment to her. She also tells you to “let it go, Mama, it’s in the past.”
God’s grace is of the same nature as the tens of thousands of dollars collected within days after Hurricane Katrina, and the amount just grows. The grace of God is like the people who opened their homes to shelter those who lost everything in that storm.
What did any of these recipients do to deserve the outpouring of love, acceptance, and help? Nothing.
Yeah – that is God’s grace for you. Unearned, unmerited, offered daily and without restriction. It is beyond our description and comprehension. We only have stories and metaphors to describe the grace of God, like the story from Exodus and the parable from Matthew.
The Hebrew children tasted God’s grace in the wilderness. They toiled for generations in Egypt. Fear, oppression, anxiety accompanied their daily bread – bread they sweated to earn. Then in the wilderness, a desolate and empty place, a place of starvation, the Hebrew children ate their fill in peace. They feasted on the bread and quail that God provided. There was no more oppression, anxiety, or fear. They toiled and sweated no more. Once upon a time, the Hebrew children were threatened and beaten, and then “rewarded” for their coerced productivity. They were exploited as slaves, and knew only distress connected with bread. Then God provided rest and manna in the midst of their grumbling and complaining – grumbling, no less, in freedom. Talk about undeserved
Same with the laborers in the vineyard. Does the worker who got to the vineyard for an hour’s work really deserve a day’s wage? Certainly not by human standards. It rankles our sense of fair play, doesn’t it? Can you imagine a major corporation paying its employees on that model? If your employer promised a yearly salary so long as a new hire showed up by mid-October or November, how would you feel about that? You: who have been there since January and worked your tail off through September when this new policy was announced.
It is absurd to take this parable as a directive of how we should live our lives here and now, or run our businesses. We certainly have plenty of admonishment on how to behave and interact with our sisters and brothers in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures that we choose to ignore already – so let’s not add this impossible parable to the list. No, this is clearly a metaphor concerning God.
Both the Exodus and Matthew texts this morning challenge our understanding of ourselves and of God. On the one hand, we do not want to think of ourselves as petty bean counters, keeping score of what is deserved and who is deserving. On the other hand, we do not want to think that God would really love and grant grace to those who have harmed or oppressed others, or who come late to the job. It is just not fair! It is not fair according to our rules of polite and civil society. Both texts tell us that God plays by very different rules; and neither text expects these rules to be directives for our daily lives. We are to accept God’s rules of grace and the business of running God’s dominion as God sees fit to run it.
Is that all there is? Just accept that some racist or homophobe will receive as much grace as me? Or, just sit back, unconcerned, and enjoy all that God-given grace? Score keeping or cheap grace: is that the response God expects from us?
What is our response to this rule-breaking and radical grace? What is our response to the good news that God is egalitarian in God’s love – and thank God for the equal distribution of love and grace, because there are times I’m not sure I’d receive any of it if it were not for God’s radical rules.
Look at the appointed psalm for today. It is a jubilant psalm of praise and thanksgiving for all the grace God has shown to Israel. It is a witness to God’s radical grace. Israel never forgot what God had done, and Jews sing about that grace still today.
What about the laborer hired at 5:00 pm? If we Christians were into midrash, I am sure there would be a lovely story about that laborer’s response. Do you really think he would have kept quiet about the wonderful landowner whose concern was more for the laborer than for profits or crops? The landowner was motivated by the need of the laborer for work. The laborer’s response to the landowner’s motivation would be similar to the song of praise by the Israelites: a witness to radical grace.
Our directive isn’t to do acts of radical grace – the point of these stories is that only God can work such grace. However, we are called to share that grace in other ways – human ways, by the very human examples of sharing what we have with those in need, by lending an ear or offering an encouraging word, by witnessing to all that God has done for us.
God’s rules change everything: barrenness becomes life giving; one hour of work deserves a day’s wage; life out of death. God’s rules turn this world topsy-turvy. God’s rules change the world. Our response to God’s rules breaking our rules should be shouts of joy from the rooftops and hymns of praise on street corners. Yes, God breaks the rules we humans make. That’s God’s business. Our business is to tell everyone about it. I can’t think of a better way of bringing about the domain of heaven, not just something that is “of the same nature as”.
The Rev. Richard A. Lord, M.Div., S.T.M.
Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna, VA
Sixth Sunday of Easter
I’d like to share a short excerpt from an email I received recently:
Dear Fr. Lord, I am a philosophy teacher at James Madison High School in Vienna. My philosophy class has been undergoing an in depth examination of metaphysics and discussed many questions involving topics like God, immortality, and the soul. I would like to expand this discussion to incorporating various organized religions and their beliefs. I have two morning classes and I was thinking that you could speak/answer questions for about 45 minutes. As far as focus is concerned we have discussed issues such as God’s existence (arguments for and against; specifically Aquinas’s ontological argument and Descartes argument), where we derive our morals from, is there such a thing as a soul, what happens to us when we die. If you want to share your knowledge/view on any of these issues that would be great.
I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity in this day and age, when an Episcopal priest gets invited to speak about the existence of God at a Public High School. I couldn’t resist. So this past Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking at both the first and second period philosophy class at Madison High School. Each class had about 25 students, and they were not shy in the questions they wanted to ask me. After giving them a general overview of the history and spirituality of the Anglican Communion, and sharing a bit of my own spiritual journey, I opened it up for questions. They were not hesitant in the least. What are the differences between the Episcopal Church and other denominations? What does the Episcopal Church teach about abortion, birth control and pre-marital sex? What do you think about the place of homosexual people in the Church? Why does religion have to be so organized? Why does organized religion cause so much division in the world? Do you believe the only way a person can know God is through Jesus Christ? Do you believe that God sends some people to hell?
I answered as many questions as time would allow, but it was that last question that seemed to be the most urgent one that was asked. I spent a little more time on it. I told the students, that in spite of what they might hear T.V. preachers say, or those who advocate a more literal interpretation of the Bible, I do not believe God sends anyone to hell; in fact, I said, I do not believe hell is a physical place where people endure eternal punishment for their sins. The greatest danger of seeing hell in this way is the desire to see others punished—including the desire to do the punishing ourselves.
I told them that the first and deepest thing about every human being is that they are created in the image of God. This gift of uniqueness, or our deepest and truest selves however, is not a right, and automatic possession; it is the gift of God himself. It’s like a wonderful instrument bequeathed to us by a loving parent. And the way to keep the wonderful instrument in tune is to play it—to play is for all its worth; to practice reflecting the image of God, which you do through loving God, loving your neighbor as your love yourself, you do it by bringing goodness and compassion to this world. But we can get out of tune very easily. We need to learn to respect the image of God in our selves and one another. If we don’t, we will become less human. It is possible, I said, that people could progressively choose to be less and less genuinely human, until they eventually cease to be human at all. In the end, I think Hell is a metaphor for what happens when we cease to practice God’s image. Jesus put it this way, “What does it profit a person, to gain the whole world but lose their soul?” God does not willingly want any human being to lose their humanity. In the end, the choice is really our own. “So keep practicing a good human life,” I added. “God truly believes in you.” It was not all I wanted to say about the matter, but it was enough for one day.
I was pleased to receive applause after that answer. When the classes were over, the teacher said to me, “The students really responded to you. I think they really appreciated your openness, your willingness to listen to their points of view without giving them hard-line answers. Last week we had a fundamentalist Christian pastor who told them with no exceptions that those who do not accept Christ as their savior are destined for hell, including those of other religious faiths. I think they were pleased with the way you handled their questions.”
It’s not a very popular word today. But what I was engaged in with those wonderful students at Madison High School was a little evangelism. It is a word with a good heart, in spite of its unlikable reputation. To the average person today, evangelism is equated with pressure. It means selling God as if God were just another commodity to add to your other possessions. It means shoving your ideas down someone’s throat, threatening him with hell if he does not capitulate to your logic or Scripture-quoting. It means excluding everyone from God’s grace except those who see it your way. When preceded by the world television or radio, the word evangelism grows even darker, more sinister, and even sleazy. There are good exceptions of course, but in general, what is portrayed as evangelism on the higher end of our cable channels leaves a great deal to be desired.
This is the reputation evangelism has for most people. But think about this: What if there really is a great and good and kind God, and we human beings are really God’s creatures, though we lose our ways sometimes? And what if our deepest dream is really true, that the God, who really exists, really loves us? And what if one of the best ways for God to get through to those of us who have lost our way is by the kindness and influence of those others who have been brought back to a good path? And what if for every obvious and sleazy religious huckster out there, there are in fact a dozen subtle but sincere examples of spiritual authenticity and vibrancy whose influence would do the rest of us a lot of good? Consider for a moment if it is not evangelism, but rather late twentieth-century styles of evangelism that deserve our criticism and avoidance. What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?
In our first reading today, we have the story of Paul in Athens, and a fine example of sensitive and respectful evangelism. He came to what was then the intellectual and cultural capital of the Mediterranean world. He was distressed to see that the city was full of idols: temples, shrines, statues, and altars. There would have been images of Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, and Neptune, all the gods of Olympus. And these images would have been beautiful to the eye, elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors.
Paul appreciated their beauty, but they troubled him as well. Paul felt compassion. He believed and knew in the depths of his heart that there is one great, and good, and kind God, and that we are created in the image of this one God. He wanted to enter into conversation with the people of Athens about their views on life and death, and he hoped to share with them the Good News of God’s love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He went to the synagogue every day and spoke with people in the market place. Finally, some philosophers wanted to hear about the resurrection, this “new religion,” they hear Paul speaking about and invited him to the Areopagus, the ‘council of the philosophers.’ What is beautiful about Paul’s approach is his sensitivity and respect for his listeners. This is what he has to say:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
Paul does not condemn their religious hunger, but points them to the one God who has placed that hunger within them. This God does not live in shrines, nor is this God dependent on human help. God gives life to all human beings, and since we are his offspring we should not think that God is like gold or silver or stone or an image of art created by our own imagination. In fact, God has appointed someone to show us how to know and experience this God, one who invites us to change our perceptions about God, and who will eventually bring justice to our world. This God assures us this will happen by raising this man from the dead.
Now truth be told, Paul did not have much success in Athens, but there were a few who did respond. More important in this story, is what we learn about sensitive and respectful evangelism. Let me close with three suggestions:
- Show respect for the worthwhile qualities in people’s lives. God has been at work in their lives long before you came on the scene. Listen to their stories. You may be surprised by the openness that is there.
- After you have made it clear that you are not there to “correct” their point of view, tell them your story. Be gentle about this by asking permission or opening the door for further conversation. “Sometime if you’re interested I can tell you about my own spiritual journey.” Or engage their curiosity, “A few years ago my life took a big turn for the better.” Or share with them what’s going on in your life these days, “I heard a really good message at church yesterday.”
- Be an inviter or an includer. If someone is interested in learning more, invite him or her to church, or to your home for more conversation, so they can see your personal life and what difference faith has made in the way you live.
There are many people outside these doors who yearn to explore and talk about things that really matter to them—their sense of God, their experiences of meaning or transcendence, their attempts to cope with their own mortality, their struggles with guilt and goodness, their hopes and longings. We are those whom God sends and wishes to use in bringing them to a good path. We are the ones who can be gentle, sensitive, and influential. Like Paul standing among philosophers at the Areopagus, we have a story to tell. Let us tell that story with respect, inviting curiosity, including those who seek a community where they can ask hard questions and know that they belong.
* I wish to gratefully acknowledge my friend Brian McLaren for his ideas regarding evangelism with young people today. See his book More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism As Dance In The Postmodern Matrix for a more thorough discussion of the approach I present in this sermon.