The Right Way

(sermon 8/25/19)

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Photo by KML. Used with permission

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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So there she was – hunched over, unable to stand up straight for almost two decades, in pain all that time, and you know there are few things worse than back pain – and yet she still managed to find a way to get to the synagogue most weeks. This week, she was running a little behind and didn’t get there until after things started. One person shifted a bit to make room for her to sit down there in the back, trying not to disturb anyone while she got settled in. That one busybody that every synagogue seemed to have looking over at her judgingly because she’d come in late; most people not even really noticing her at all.  But Jesus noticed her, and because he did, this would be the day she went down in history. It’s a shame that we don’t even know her name; we really should, but in any case, on this day Jesus healed her from eighteen years of discomfort and misery. Her pain, her burden, had been lifted. And the story tells us that all the people were amazed and rejoiced at what had happened – except for one.

The head of the synagogue wasn’t impressed at all. For some reason, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, he couldn’t see the goodness of helping this woman in need for what it was, because of the way Jesus did it. It broke the rules. Things have to follow the rules, or they obviously aren’t right. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things, even good things, and this wasn’t the right way.

It’s a claim that has run down through history to our current time just as much as the story of the woman’s healing itself. It’s been a continuous point of discussion and debate within the church, and beyond the church, for that matter: what is the relationship of obedience to established laws versus breaking them for what’s perceived to be obedience to a higher moral and spiritual law? When do we obey the laws that govern us, and when do we refuse to adhere to them? This has been the center of the debate whether looking at the way the first Christians were supposed to respond to the persecution they received from Rome, to whether it was right to protest and even separate from the church during the Reformation, to whether the Church should support the Nazi regime in Germany or fight against it, to whether it was right for Dr. King and his allies, including our own Stated Clerk at the time, Eugene Carson Blake, to break the law in their protests for civil rights – was a Christian supposed to obey an unjust law out of respect for the established governance, or was a Christian required to disobey an unjust law as being invalid because it was unjust? I remember being a little boy and hearing my family members sitting around at family functions discussing the events of those times, the mid- to late 60s and the civil rights movement, and saying that yes, there should be civil rights and equality, but the protestors had to stay within the law – that they went a literal bridge too far when they disobeyed the law; that was unacceptable. And I’ve been through Blake’s papers. The letters he got, the personal attacks, were brutal, with people bashing him because as the head of the church he’d had the nerve to break the law and get arrested while protesting to desegregate an amusement park in Baltimore. We think that the social media age has made us all meaner and harsher toward each other, but looking at those letters to him, I can tell you the language was the same back then; the only difference is that back then it came with a postage stamp. And of course, we hear this same issue come up in the current refugee and immigration debates, when people say that migrants need to “do it the right way” when entering the country fleeing for their lives and safety. What’s the answer to this question?

From the standpoint of the scriptures, Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And throughout Christian history, people who have argued for unquestioned obedience to the established order have quoted this passage as a definitive answer – even while they forget that it really can’t be quite that definitive, since the man who wrote this was himself sitting in a prison cell for defying the laws of the government, and who wrote that he was proud to have done so as a matter of faith, and who urged other believers to stand fast just as he had. Even more significantly, it’s no small thing to remember that at the very center of our faith is the crucifixion of Jesus, which was a direct result of his civil disobedience of Roman authority.

But let’s go back to the woman in the synagogue who was healed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been there in the synagogue that day? Everyone having come together from all the different events and cares of their own week, all of their problems, all of their setbacks, the continuous stream of bad and bizarre news showing up on their Facebook feeds to the point of emotional exhaustion – and then this. Something pure, and good, and right, happening before their very eyes, giving them hope that despite all the rest, God was with them, and that God was good. Jesus healing this woman was inspiring, joy-causing proof that there was indeed a right way and a wrong way to do things, and when it came right down to it, to do good – to be kind, to be compassionate, to be helpful, to love, is always the right thing, regardless of what any rules or regulations or laws might say to the contrary. Any rule or regulation or law that didn’t help to offer love offers hate, and any rule or law that offers hate is an immoral and invalid law that in God’s eyes doesn’t need to be obeyed; *should not* be obeyed. To always act in this way is, in fact, “doing it the right way.”

In this story, we hear that the people there rejoiced when Jesus healed the woman. In that moment, all the negativity they were experiencing off their shoulders and they felt refreshed, renewed, inspired.

I believe that it’s the same with us, too.  When we’re faced with questions of whether a rule or regulation or law is good or proper and to be obeyed; or whether to disobey it favor of a greater moral, spiritual good in the kingdom of God; when we have to decide what “doing it the right way” really means, all that we have to do is follow the simple theology of Mr. Rogers – “Just be kind.” Always choose to do the kind, compassionate thing, and we will *always* be doing the right thing. We will always be doing it the right way. And we should do it out of gratitude, knowing that God has been kind and compassionate and loving to us in our own lives, even when the rules and regulations and laws have opposed it. So out of that gratitude, we too are called to do things this right way, regardless of what the rules and laws say. Because it isn’t just Mr. Rogers’ theology, it’s Christ’s theology, too, so it should be all of ours as well?

Thanks be to God.

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Stress and Shalom

(sermon 8/18/19)

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Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

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Watch this sermon online: https://bit.ly/2Mqe7PM

There was a Washington state representative who’d gotten himself in some trouble a while back when a manifesto he’d written was leaked to the public. The representative is an extremist conservative Christian, and his manifesto was titled “The Biblical Basis for War;” it was all about how people who shared his religious and political views needed to prepare themselves for a coming holy war between them and Muslims, liberals, and pretty much everyone in the world who didn’t hold to their specific extremist beliefs. This man found himself back in the news this past week because it was discovered that he was connected with a group that runs camps for adult men, teens, and even children, to teach them actual combat techniques to prepare for this supposedly coming religious holy war.

The representative is far from alone. He’s just one person in a growing extremist movement within Christianity that espouses what’s known as Dominionist Theology. There are different strands of it, but they all agree on the idea that they have been specially appointed by God to exercise complete dominion over society by taking control of all religious, political, and cultural institutions, in order to implement their interpretation of God’s will on society as the law of the land – essentially eliminating the idea of democracy or representative government, and replacing it with an extremist conservative Christian theocracy.

These people are a very real threat to our country and our society, and their dangerous beliefs are increasingly being put into violent action. They believe that God ordains and blesses the idea that Christians – their kind of Christians, at least – are called to take control of government and society by force if necessary. They believe that Christianity isn’t supposed to be humble, or meek, or peaceful, but instead, it’s supposed to be strong, and powerful, and take the world over for God by force. It’s the same twisted concept that was used to justify the Crusades, and the so-called German Christian movement in Nazi Germany, and that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, and any number of other harmful movements within Christian history, and now we’re seeing it rise again. In each case, these people will point to certain snippets of scripture to justify their militant mindset – and today’s gospel text is one of those.

In this passage, Jesus seems on the surface to be looking forward to, he almost seems to be longing for, the violent divisions that his coming into the world would cause. So what are we supposed to make of this? Are these Dominionists right? Well, in a word, no; in fact, their twisted biblical interpretation borders on crazy. They’re actually so kooky that if they weren’t so dangerous, they’d be laughable.

But really, with all the divisiveness in the world today, it would seem like the last thing we need to hear  are words from Jesus that seem to glorify and encourage this kind of violent division as being God’s will, and that would give these extremist groups any cover. Still, here are the words that Luke attributes to Jesus, and these are the words that we have to deal with. So what’s he talking about here?

It’s really undeniable that Jesus is saying that his coming into the world, and the message of the gospel he was proclaiming, was going to cause great division, disagreements, stress, as people wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ life. Trying to understand the gospel that he proclaimed has certainly split families, and nations, apart; we all know that; and it’s done that on its own without any added help needed from half-baked pseudo-Christian paramilitary groups trying to start another holy war, or any addle-minded politicians who cozy up to them. If you just consider your own life, your own beliefs, I’m sure that you can identify some difference of belief, probably a strong difference of belief, between you and some relatively close family member. Parents; children; brothers or sisters, who just operate on a different religious belief system than you do. The division is real; the stress that it creates is real. And most of us don’t like or want confrontation and division; most of us would be much happier if we could all find a way to avoid that. But Jesus tells us that we really can’t ever totally avoid it. Sure, we need to work at being a peaceful, unifying presence; this is an important command that Christ has given us – but at some time or another, we’ll be unable to reconcile with someone else, and it’s going to cause division, and stress. The truth is, there are simply times that we’re going to have to take a stand for some aspect of our faith, and speak out against those who would have a different or opposite view. There will be times where we have to speak truth to power, and stir the pot, and even cause discomfort to some, in order to work some change for the betterment of God’s people. And sometimes, that will make us unpopular. It might cause people to say unkind things about us. Sometimes, it will probably lose us friends. It might even break family relationships, as Jesus mentions in this gospel text. I’m sure that most of us has experienced that in some way or another.

So we have to take Jesus’ promise that the gospel, and living it out, would cause division, seriously. But we shouldn’t take these words more seriously than many other promises that Jesus gave us. Most importantly, we should take seriously Jesus’ words that even when we face problems, divisions, stress, as a result of taking a stand to live out the precepts of the kingdom of God, and especially working to help make the kingdom real in the lives of others, not to fear – that as bad as those stresses might be, God has also promised us a life of joy, and complete, utter contentment and peace in every aspect of our present and future being, physically, spiritually, emotionally – a life of the all-encompassing peace described by the Hebrew word shalom. So here again today, we’ll eat bread together, and drink wine together. We’ll do it together recognizing our differences, even celebrating them, and praying for difference without division. We’ll come to this table as a sign of our desire to be in relationship with God, and not only with God, with one another. Coming to this table is a sign to the world that we offer a different way, a way of peace, a way of unity, a way of compassion; not a way of division, violence, or war. We’ll come to this table, this meal, proclaiming the good news of that time when God will end all divisions, end all stress, and draw all of us into unity with God’s self, and unity with all people, in the great eternal banquet prepared for us, and in the great shalom that we’ve been created to enjoy. That’s the dominion that we look forward to – a dominion that won’t be ushered in by a militia of violence and stupidity, but rather, by the incarnation of God’s eternal Wisdom, the Prince of Peace.

Thanks be to God.

 

(Another) Unnamed Sermon

(sermon 8/4/19)

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Photo © Ken Chuchu

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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Imagine this scene: you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re explaining something in great detail, something important, something they really need to be paying attention to; and then, in the middle of that, the person will ask you about something completely unrelated to anything talking about. And you know that they haven’t been listening; their mind has been somewhere else. It’s all been a waste of time, ten or fifteen minutes of your life you’ll never get back. It’s annoying, and frustrating, and at one point or another, we’ve all been there.

It seems that Jesus was there, too, at the beginning of today’s gospel text. As it opens, Jesus has been speaking with a crowd of people, teaching them about the ways of the kingdom of God. And in the middle of his teaching, someone in the crowd pipes up and asks step into a financial dispute between him and his older brother, to convince the brother to split up the inheritance with him. It probably caught Jesus broadside for a moment, realizing the man hadn’t heard a word of what he’d been saying. And after he shook his head for a moment, he said to the man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Trying to refocus the man’s attention back onto God, the subject of Jesus’ message that day. Then, he essentially offered a warning to the man to be careful what he asked for; that while wealth and personal possessions weren’t an inherently bad thing, it can lead to greed – wanting more and more, and wanting to hoard it all for yourself, and maybe worst of all, eventually leading to a false understanding of where the wealth came form to begin with. For example, if the man in the story did actually get his brother to split up the inheritance, it wouldn’t be long before he’d forgotten that this wealth had been given to him, and he’d be telling people that he’d earned his wealth by his own two hands, his own hard work and smarts.

I say that might be even worse than the underlying greed because not only isn’t it a delusional lie, contrary to facts, it ends up poisoning the mind into thinking that the self is the center and measure of the universe. Greed leads a person to think that they’re a self-sufficient, self-contained system, insulated from needing or considering or caring for anyone else, including even God. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he tells the story of the rich man that he ultimately calls a fool. Did you hear the man’s inner monologue in the story? “What should *I* do?… *I* will do this… *I* will build bigger, taller… *I* will keep more of *my* stuff, all for *me*… it will all be by my doing, without anyone’s help, not even God’s, so *I* will say to my soul, good job; well done, now take it easy – you got yours; let everyone else worry about getting their own….” It’s all about him and his own supposed abilities – it’s a closed system where no one else enters. He’s good at gaining wealth and building things, but his life isn’t connected to anything. His buildings are full but his soul is empty.

Make no mistake: that mindset, regardless of the specific details and wherever and in whoever it’s found, is the complete, polar opposite of the gospel. It is the complete opposite of the precepts of the kingdom of God. It is the complete opposite of Christ.

And make no mistake about this, either: the same mindset that’s embedded within that greed, the wanting to have and to keep more of everything for yourself at the expense of others who are supposedly not as important as you; is exactly the same mindset, taken to its ultimate conclusion, that’s embedded in yesterday’s white supremacist, white nationalist terrorist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso – this man who came to believe that just by virtue of the color of his skin, he had a right to kill or wound 46 people all in the name of protecting the country from the supposed threat of brown-skinned people, and preserving the supposed “whitenesss” and white control of our country. It’s the same self-centered mindset that was behind the shootings in Gilroy this past week, and El Paso yesterday, and then again, not even getting a single night’s sleep after El Paso, early this morning in Dayton. It’s the same damned mindset.

I’m not going to say much about these shootings today, because frankly, I’ve run out of things to say. It’s all been said, over, and over, and over again, and I’m just sick and tired of it. I’m done with trying to craft  another lofty sounding prayer of lament, and asking “How long, O God, how long?” because at this point, I’m pretty much convinced that God’s response to all the beautiful sounding prayers offered up after another mass shooting is to scream at us to just shut up. That our society’s obsession with guns and violence, and using them in order to solve our problems, and that our current lack of common-sense regulation of gun ownership that still respects our Second Amendment rights is just insane. God has given us the intellect and the ability to do something about the problem but for whatever reason, we don’t. So I’m convinced that God’s response is to say stop trying to pin the problem, or the solution, on me; the problem, and the solution, lies with you.

Jesus was trying to get his listeners that day to stay focused on the real truths, the real priorities that he was explaining to them. He was trying to show them that he was talking about an alternative way of living from the insulated, self-focused way the rich man in the story saw life, the way that many people in the world see life.

The way of the rich man – the way of loving self at the expense of others, leads to hatred of the other, and all manner of harm and violence against the other.

Proclaiming and teaching and living out that alternative way, the eternal way of living, is what all this is about. This church family, this building, everything about us, is geared toward proclaiming a reality 180 degrees away from that other sick, twisted way of thinking.

Here, we’re part of a church family that includes people born not only in the United States, but Mexico, Iran, and India, and Hongkong, and England, and those just the examples I can quickly think of. Members of our church family are from all different ethnic backgrounds, and while we’re predominantly white, we are multiracial. Members of our church family are from different religious backgrounds – on a given Sunday, you can find members of all three Abrahamic faiths here in this place. Within our church family and our immediate families, we represent L, G, B, T, and Q. If you aren’t here in the building throughout the week, you may not know it, but with our ESL students and their children, you can often hear laughter and a dozen different languages being spoken. God draws all of us together here, under this roof, which was raised not like the rich fool raising the roof of another barn to hoard his stuff but rather, to shelter all of God’s people under it, to offer the world a witness to the gospel truth that all people are beloved and equal in the eyes of God. We come here, to this Table, to this sacrament, this common meal shared by all, to offer witness to our unity with God and with one another; to say NO to anyone who would preach the evil of separation and division and self-centeredness and the supremacy of one race or one people over another; and YES to the kingdom of God and to the dignity, equality, and value of all of God’s children. Here at this Table there is no room for hatred. There is no room for racism. There is no room for white supremacy or white nationalism. There is no room for xenophobia, for fear of foreigners, immigrants, or asylum-seekers. There is no room for homophobia; there is no room for sexism; there is no room for self-centeredness or exclusion of any kind because here at this Table, Christ says that there is room and welcome for ALL. That is at the core of the gospel. That is at the core of what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners that day. And that is at the core of our response to the evil of white supremacy, white nationalism, and hatred of the other that has become so common in this country today.

Amen.