Monday, January 30, 2017

Good News


I made a trip to the Holy Land fully expecting to have an emotional response to visiting the biblical sites. Since childhood I have mingled my sense of what is right, holy, and just, through the lens of my love for Jesus of Nazareth. I return with a heavy heart. 

The land once known as Palestine is now known as Israel. The United Nations gave about two-thirds of the land to become a homeland for Jews 1948. The borders for the remaining indigenous peoples have not been respected. Israel the state, has bully control over all of life in the land. 
In the gospel of Luke, as Jesus made the approach to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday going down the Mount of Olives, Jesus paused and wept over the city. Luke 19:41-42. “As he (Jesus) came near and saw the city (Jerusalem), he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that made for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes!’” 
It became clear to me: in the documented treatment of the Palestinians; and the clear parallels to colonial rules through the ages; and the awful and arbitrary ways that the Dakota Access Pipe Line makes it true in our own time; and in the posturing and orders of my own new president; just how easy it is for the dominant culture to abuse the weak and ignore treaties and promises made to others. I am angered over the injustice in Israel, and I am increasingly aware of how easy it is for me to selfishly and carelessly take advantage of others. I return home with a heavy heart. 

Good News!  

Micah 6:1-8   
Matthew 5:1-12  

I have returned to you from the Promised Land with good news. We now know what it takes to please our God, and to grow in right relationship with God. This - answers the riddles of the millennium and solves the deepest of philosophical yearnings. 

I am sure that Matthew Eaton and Kathy Lawes would have much preferred to preach here this Sunday, when the scripture texts are really among the most wonderful of all the year. There is an unwritten tradition that says the pastor or senior pastor preaches on the high holy day Sundays, and leaves town when the texts are the most difficult. I swear, I did not schedule my trip based on the Lectionary readings, although there were a lot of preachers in my tour group, including the tour leader.  

The history and motivation behind the various passages of scripture are different. We believe that most of the scriptures beyond Genesis and besides the Apocalyptic texts like Daniel and Revelation,  are rooted in practical and specific events in the world. The Bible is inspirational writing, and not a science or history book, so the tests of truth-fullness, are best asked about how do these texts inspire us to know, love, and serve God. 

As inspiration, it is hard to do better than the passage from the minor prophet Micah, Chapter 6. This glorious text celebrates the entire sense of faithful people serving God while living in this world. 

From the introduction of the book, we know that Micah preached from about 720 to 680 BCE. Much of the vocabulary used does not seem appropriate for this era, suggesting that later editors or redactors adapted the text, appropriate for another time. This causes us to reflect more on the transcendent meaning, than get too focused on the specific historical events of the original prophet’s life. 

In Chapter 6, God challenges the covenant partner Israel to declare their faithfulness, and live up to their commitments. The structure uses a courtroom setting, with the ancient hills and mountains serving as judges for the mortals, whose lives are comparatively so short. 

The eternal question, does God give more honor to the riches of wealth and power of this world? Are the rich and the powerful granted favoritism before the God of Creation? As a people of faith living in a culture where the grave sins and injustices committed by those who live opulent lifestyles are ignored, it is good to remind ourselves - that while we might be dazzled by the riches of this world, God is not now, and never has been interested.   

There is no more succinct summary in all of the scriptures than Micah 6:8; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

In a way it seems that if the world would only absorb and treasure this guidance, the kingdom of God would be far more evident in the world today. If the heart of this text became the driving force of the faithful, it may have changed the history of the whole world. In a theme you will hear me repeat again in Lent, Jesus did not come to us in order to change God’s mind about humanity, but Jesus came to change humanity’s understanding of God. 

The jewel in the crown that is the gospel of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount. In what is unmistakably a literary construct, Matthew gathers the teaching of Jesus in the form of a remarkable single sermon that spans Chapters 5 through 7 verse 28. It is the first of five collections of Jesus sayings that carry the largest part of the work of this gospel. 

The opening of this sermon are the Beatitudes. The Church of the Beatitudes is on the side of a hill, west of Capernaum which became the base of operations for the public ministry of Jesus. It has a wonderful view from the north end of the Sea of Galilee. The word means blessings, sometimes translated as happiness or joys. Let us focus on the first one, on a day when there is business to do, and a Pot Luck to consume. What in the heck does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” 

In Micah, the question was asked, does God want the splendid offering that only the rich can afford? Offerings of food and oil, and the trappings of the rich and powerful? The answer was clearly “No!” 

What God wants is for human beings to live with respect for each other, and the planet, and to love God. It seems so simple, except that we live in a world that has ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, made special provision for the rich. 

The text does not say that the rich will be damned. The text does not say that the powerful will be beaten. What the text says is that joy comes from those who understand God to be a God of the heart. What is in your heart? What do you do with the gifts that God has given you? How do you honor your relationships in this world? 

Joy, happiness, and blessings, come to those who can maintain a posture of confession, knowing that we depend on God’s forgiveness. There is no bank account that can purchase God’s favor. 

Yes, we will pass the collection plate today, because we still need to pay the light bill. When we all contribute, according to what gifts we have been given, we can continue to meet, and enjoy the gifts of a professional musician, and listen to the preaching of a trained and educated pastor. But we do not worship the musician, or the pastor, or even the building. 

It is the presence of the spirit of God, that draws us together. It is the unique way this church understands how wide the welcome that God presents to creation, that makes this one congregation important, among all of the churches in the area. It is our tradition that allows the wider organized church to support and encourage us, but acknowledges that each congregation, and each opinion of each member of the local church, is of equal importance. 

We are children of a loving God, who are informed by a great tradition of knowing, loving and serving that God. It is a blessing not to be taken for granted. It is a joy to be able to take part, and be counted among the faithful. It is near the root of all joy, to respect others - by doing justice, and not favoring the rich and powerful. 

It is near the root of all joy, to be committed to acts of kindness, being good to ourselves, our neighbors near and far, and to the very planet we call home. It is at the root of all joy, to walk humbly with our God - poor in spirit, in a posture of confession, and dependent on God’s love and forgiveness. 

This is Good News. Amen. 

Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Training Our Hearts

Training Our Hearts  

Epistle: Acts 10:34-43  
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17   

In these early days after the birth of Christ, we move quickly to Jesus’ public ministry. Beyond the birth, Matthew only includes the coming of the Magi and the flight to Egypt in his narrative. The gospels of Mark and John have no mention of the birth stories, and only describe the ministry of Jesus. All four of the gospels have the baptism of Christ as an initiating event in Jesus’ public ministry. 

The opening passage from Acts has Peter making clear, that in his perspective, Jesus was not set apart or aloof from humanity. In fact, as the anointed of God, it was specifically the access they had to Jesus, and how Jesus associated with everyone, that proves that God shows no partiality. The love of God is for everyone.  

This is such an important observation. God does not favor the rich, or the pious, or even the most trusted clergy in ministry. The love of God is directly accessible to all people. This is a radical statement. 

I have a new understanding of this due to our study and prayer this past Advent season. It became clear to me that salvation comes from the forgiveness of sins, large and small. Jesus promises that the repentant thief will be with him in paradise. The repentant thief then becomes our ideal model. So our salvation will not likely be measured by any of our success of this world, even any success we might claim in self-denial and purity. Our salvation only comes because we acknowledge our sinfulness, and accept the blessing of forgiveness. 

In this awareness, there is no distinction between the ordinary and the holy in creation. We are all equally dependent on God’s mercy. God shows no favor, but offers salvation to all who might accept that love and forgiveness. 

Maintaining a commitment to knowing ourselves as sinners, enables us to remain humble before God, and makes it possible for us to stop judging others. We are all equally sinners that depend on the perfect love of God, we know through Jesus. 

When Jesus goes to meet John the Baptist in the Jordan River, John protests. “I need to be baptized by you!,” he exclaims. But even then Jesus models the posture of confession, submitting to baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I expect to visit the presumed site of the baptism next Saturday. 

So let me comment that we stand at the boundary of deep theological water. Some claim that Jesus of Nazareth was not so much a perfect God-man, but was anointed by God to represent God’s love and forgiveness at the moment of his baptism. 

We can see that God clearly expresses satisfaction with the man Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit makes a unique and personal appearance at this time and place. All of this becomes a model for our understanding of the unique grace extended at the sacrament of Baptism. 

Others claim that the Baptism served to reassure the God-man Jesus - that this was the time for the transition to public ministry. The time was right for him to step into this new role. There should be no hesitation, but commit to living this new life, with the mission laid our before him. Jesus can be understood to be without sin, and not needing forgiveness, but modeling confession for us. 

I can honestly say that I can see both ways of knowing the Christ. I love the idea that Jesus is the very God of heaven, come to make clear that God loves creation and is with us, even in the most damaging and dangerous of events and circumstances. 

It also works for me, that Jesus is a man, anointed to a special calling. In this way, all of the acts of the Christ, are actual models of righteousness that can be achieved by real people acting with God’s blessing. Then none of the acts of Jesus are magic reserved for the divine, but are achievable by all of us, when we cooperate with God’s grace. 

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and mystic working in the US today, has captured this idea in a unique way. He claims that we humans were in such a hurry to put Jesus on a pedestal, and make him an object of worship, that we missed the point of his ministry. Jesus never asked us to worship him, he asked us to “follow him.” 

This shifts the emphasis to our living response to the offer of love and forgiveness and reduces the emphasis on believing the right thing. This perspective resonates with me, especially at this point in my life. I am a man with a living faith, a faith that continues to grow and change as I do my best to stay in relationship with God. 

By presenting faith in this way, we do not have to have it all figured out. We also do not have to turn off our brain, and accept everything in one big swallow of “I believe.” Instead, we walk with God, learning to know and love God, and becoming less anxious about the mystery. God is a mystery, and I am ok with that. 

Aspects of God are revealed in the scriptures, and in the lives of the faithful, as they try to behave in ways that reflect faithfulness. The Trinity then becomes a neat way of making peace with a God who seemingly exists with apparently conflicting attributes; a mystery. 

Within the mystery, we are called to go on living. We live in an often dangerous world. We live in a world where pain, disease, greed and injustice often hold sway. In these troubled waters, we try to live with grace. We try to train our hearts to look for blessings. We trust that when the need is greatest, blessings abound, but we have to train hearts to “see” those blessings, and live in a way that distributes blessings near and far. 

It is not an easy task, but it is time for us to come to the Baptismal waters. It is time to accept that the posture of confession, is not a sign of failure or weakness, but a sign of willingness to live in a new way, faithful and confident in God’s love. 

I invite you to stand or come to attention now, for a renewal of our Baptismal vows. I will coach you in the responses. We are not being re-Baptized, but refreshing and renewing our vows with whatever  understanding that God has shared with us in this particular time and place in our life’s journey. 

May we become freshly aware of God’s blessings, as we intentionally train our hearts to “see” and share the blessings that surround us each day. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

God with Us, Amidst the Treachery

God with Us, Amidst the Treachery 

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

The story of the wise men avoiding Herod and getting out of town in a hurry, highlights the reputation Herod had for cruelty and conspiracy theories. It is a pattern long associated with the immature and selfish leaders. 

Then that angel appears to Joseph in the middle of the night, as if the parent of a newborn needs another reason to be awakened in the middle of the night. The angel says that Herod will seek to destroy the child. How paranoid do you have to be to fear an infant? This is the same Herod the not-so-great, who had John the Baptist beheaded to please a dancing teen-age girl. He may be the king, but he is not mentally stable. 

The evangelist Matthew frames this story as another way to “prove” that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. He again recalls a quote out of the book of Isaiah, our old friend, saying that God will call a savior “out of Egypt.” Indeed, bringing Jesus back from Egypt is intended to remind the faithful of Moses leading the people through the Exile to the Promised Land. These Exile events clearly established the heritage of the Hebrew people as the “Chosen Ones” of God. Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the “new Moses.” 

In a practical sense, we understand that the rich and famous often have their weaknesses. We laughed as children at the old tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, when the impressionable King was persuaded to parade around naked, exposing his - his foolishness. The other side of this awareness is that these fools may also have a total lack of empathy for the pain of others. This causes immature people in positions of power, to be willing and able to inflict great harm to others with no correction from a guilty conscience. They cannot sense feelings in anyone but themselves. 

So the dutiful Joseph, soon to disappear from the narrative of the life of Christ, takes the child out of Israel to wait out the life and reign of the unpredictable, cruel, and self-seeking King Herod. Then he returns the family to Israel, but to the distant Nazareth. Matthew finds another Old Testament verse to justify the choice of Nazareth. 

In these short days after Christmas, why are we distracted by the political climate around Jerusalem? Shouldn’t we get to sing praises to the infant for a few weeks? 

The short answer is, we are people who live in both the Kingdom of God and the political world around us. We need to be aware of what goes on around us, and take the actions that are appropriate. Even the infant Jesus was threatened by political power entrusted to an unstable person. 
So if God is with us, it helps to know that from the moment of his birth, Jesus was impacted by the events of the political climate. Born in a stable not in comfort, threatened by the powers that be and not celebrated, clearly Jesus of Nazareth became a child of the real world. 

The more difficult question of course, is if an angel came to warn Joseph about the danger, what about all of those other families? Why allow those other families to suffer, but spare Jesus? Surely, the killing of infant boys should have more meaning than to simply reenact the birth narrative of Moses. 

Many Christian churches teach that heaven is only for those who have been baptized. I do not agree with this premise, but many accept it as truth. All who were not baptized were destined for hell. It may seem unfortunate, but it worked for the theology of the time. In time the church suffered pangs of conscience, when they considered the sacrifice of these innocent children, as Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus. If they were martyred in the name of the Christ, who would deny them entrance to the gates of heaven. There is an unofficial teaching about the Limbo of Infants, where these souls wait for the Savior to release them at the end of the age.    

These are the complications that arise when humans try to force a single, human understanding of God - into the narrow boundaries of human doctrine. You and I, we see that God acted to preserve the infant Jesus to carry out his role as our savior. We can see that the family of Joseph, armed with useful information, acted in time and space, to be responsible. 

We look in horror at the story of the slaughter of the innocents. We look in horror at the murder of Elementary School children at Sandy Hook four years ago, and turn our prayers and tears over to the God of Creation. In your great compassion O Holy One, help us to believe in your goodness in the face of cruel injustice. 

There is so much about the mind of God that remains a mystery to us. I will not try to resolve your uneasiness with platitudes and dogma. God permits humans free will. Some humans abuse that free will and behave dismally. In the face of tragedy and disasters, the love of God appears - in the creative protective actions of teachers, in the presence of the first responders, and in compassionate neighbors. 

Did you and I sleep through the warning message from the angel that might have allowed us to avoid the disaster? I do not know, but I will not create another artificial reason to feel guilty about what I was never responsible for. The angel did not stop Herod, but only warned Joseph. 

God is with us. In this messy, dangerous, and unstable world, God is with us. That does not make everything magical, although it is so much better than being alone. The presence of God is invisible, unless you and I actively look for blessings, and actively work to make blessings available to others. Amen.