Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

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Being There

(sermon 4/14/19 – Palm Sunday)

palm-sunday

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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So today is the day that Christians around the world remember the amazing event of Jesus’ ride out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, surrounded by throngs of supporters shouting and singing and dancing, and laying cloaks and branches in the roadway like a red carpet for Jesus, and he and the mass of people entering in through the fortified walls of Jerusalem and into the very heart of the city, into the courts of the Temple in the days before the Passover. This march on Jerusalem is often called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry,” and most of us have heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that there was definitely an aspect of joy and triumph to it. But most of us have also heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that this event was also very thoughtfully planned to mock and oppose the local powers of the Roman Empire. That every year during the days leading up to the Passover when the city ballooned to over a million people, the Roman governor and the army would stage a big ceremonial procession through the streets of the city, with fully armored war horses, and carriages, and masses of troops, and music and banners and carriages, all designed as a show of overwhelming power, and a reminder of who was in charge – and that it was OK for all of the little people to observe their quaint, backward religious observance, but if any of them got out of line they were going to get squashed by the superpower who was governing over them. And Jesus’ procession into the city was meant to be the counterimage of all that; Jesus proclaiming the coming of the reign of God; and God’s love and care for the people in the throng over the one on the throne; and that there’s really only one true superpower and it isn’t Caesar.

Given that, while there was real jubilation in this crowd marching in from Bethany, there was also no small amount of trepidation. Worry. Fear. Would they be arrested, mobbed, beaten, killed, for standing up and speaking truth to power? It was the same mixture of emotions felt by the Freedom Riders stepping off the bus to face Bull Connor in Birmingham. Or the mass of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of armed police, teargas, and attack dogs in Selma. Or the people who had the guts to come out of the closet and go out into the middle of Christopher Street in New York, risking police beatings and arrest to kick off the first Pride parade in 1970.  Or marching to protest the illegal and immoral treatment of refugees and immigrants, and being met by a mass of armed white nationalist radicals. The people in each of those examples, even if some of them wouldn’t have put it in these words, were putting themselves on the line to bring a bit more of God’s justice and peace and equity into our world.

Every year on this Sunday, we need to be reminded of just exactly what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was all about; and that when we all boldly process into the sanctuary singing and waving our palms, we’re recognizing that the very beginnings of our faith are rooted in God’s calling us, and empowering us, to speak truth to power. An essential part of the faith that we proclaim is showing up. Standing up. Being there, in the name of Christ.

“Being there” can manifest itself in a number of ways, all of them just as important, and God might call us to one or more of them. Certainly, the most direct parallel to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is, as in the examples I offered, when some Christians feel called, as a matter of faith, to stand up for God’s justice “on earth as it is in heaven,” by literally marching, rallying, protesting, praying. But that certainly isn’t the only way of “being there.” Maybe your legs, your body, your schedule, won’t allow for “being there” for the reign of God in that way. That’s OK. Maybe your call to being there  is more like that of the people who volunteer with the group Grannies Respond here in Louisville. When immigration officials at the southern border allow refugees into the country, they just drop them off at the nearest bus station. A national network of groups, including Grannies Respond, will meet these refugees at the bus terminals and help them get the ticket they need, give them advice and directions, provide them with some food and drink and personal care items, maybe a blanket; but just as importantly, to offer them a smile, a warm welcome, and assurance that there are people who care about them. You’ve heard of the Underground Railroad; this network has become known as the Overground Railroad. It’s simple. It’s easy. Anyone *could* do it, but they *are* doing it. And it means everything to the people being helped. It’s taking a stand for God’s justice, and speaking truth to power. It’s showing up. It’s being there.

It’s also being there to be part of our fledgling ride share ministry – getting members to church for worship and other events, or to an appointment, or even to vote. It isn’t complicated or strenuous. All you need is a car, a driver’s license, and a little bit of free time. But it’s so important, and so appreciated.

Being there can be taking a meal to someone who’s mourning a loss, or who’s going through some other stressful time. And it’s being there to tutor or read to a child, or to manage a Little Free Library, or to write a greeting card to a shut-in, or to teach a class or mentor a Confirmand. In these ways and so many others, we’re called by God to be the People of Being There. Being there to proclaim and promote God’s love, and peace, and justice, and equity in this world, and doing it out of gratitude to God, who, through Christ – his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection – was being there, and continues to be there, for us.

The amazing thing about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that even though it was meant to put the powers that be on notice that something bold and new was breaking into the world, compared to the massive show of force put on by the Romans that same week, they must have looked like a joke. It couldn’t compare. It couldn’t possibly send the message they wanted to. And yet, somehow, by God’s grace it did. It struck fear and worry into the hearts of the civil and religious leadership to see such a bold, in-your-face display of opposition to them – and they knew that for every person in that ragtag march, there were dozens who weren’t there but who felt the same way. In taking to the streets, and boldly proclaiming the reign of God, Jesus and his followers accomplished exactly what he’d set out to.

On that ride out from Bethany and toward Jerusalem as Jesus sat on that donkey, I wonder what he was thinking. Was he caught up in the joy of the moment? Was he feeling resignation and fear over what he knew was going to unfold that week? Could he see beyond that? Could he see all the divisions, the hostility, the hatred and meanness and violence that would be perpetrated in his name across the ages? If he could, I hope that he could also see all the times his followers would stand up, would be there, would speak truth to power, and love to hate. And if he could see that, I hope that he could also see each of us, in our own way, being a part of that.

Thanks be to God.

“Can Anything Good Come Out of…?”

(sermon 1/14/18)

comeandsee

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

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In this part of John’s gospel, we’re picking up in midstream the story of Jesus beginning to call his first disciples. The day before, Andrew, who had been a disciple of John the Baptist, had become a follower, along with his brother Simon. Now on this particular day, Jesus was out and about, and somewhere along the way he met Philip, and they struck up a conversation, and Jesus ultimately invited him to come follow him. Philip was intrigued and excited about Jesus and what he was saying – so much so that he tracked down his friend Nathanael and told him that he was convinced that he’d found the messiah, the specially anointed one sent by God, and foretold by Moses and the prophets, and it was none other than this Jesus, from Nazareth.

But apparently, Nathanael had the same opinion of Nazareth as the president has of Haiti, and you can almost hear the sneer, and see the can of his lip as he snorts, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of that place?” That crummy little crossroads filled with nobodies; that miserable, poverty-stricken place that’s only managed to survive, and just barely at that, because it’s just an hour and a half’s walk from the jobs and work in the large, wealthy city of Sepphoris? I’m supposed to believe *anyone* any good, let alone the messiah, could come from a hole like that?

In the end, though, when Jesus and Nathanael meet, Nathanael learns how wrong, how mistaken, he was.

This story offers us two ideas to consider – two parts of God’s good news for us, to hold up together and think about how they might be related. The first part is that lesson that Nathanael had to learn, and, as we’ve been reminded of by the past few days’ news stories, that many people still have to learn: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Out of Haiti? Out of West Louisville? This is the lesson that a person’s place of birth, or any other factor outside their control, doen’t determine their significance, their intelligence, their character, their status as an important and beloved child of God. This great gospel truth was validated by the fact that God chose to dwell among us as a nobody with a Nazareth mailing address, ZIP Code 9021nowhere.

The second thing is this whole idea of being called to follow Christ, and to live as one of his disciples – Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael, us.

It’s a bit ironic, actually, that the president’s outrageous thoughts and comments about the people of Haiti, Latin America, and Africa, which we’ve all heard ad nauseum at this point, were uttered just on the eve of this Sunday, when the Lectionary texts included Nathanael’s similar misguided dismissiveness and insult. You can bet that preachers all over the country are having a field day with that coincidence this morning. But it’s even more ironic, in that it also coincides with the day that we celebrate the life, the prophetic vision, and the lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was clearly someone who had been called to speak gospel truth, even when it was discomforting and dangerous truth, about equality – and that that equality demands justice – in the courts, in schools, in the workplace, in places of business, regardless of whatever bigoted or discriminatory religious beliefs someone may have, and no matter how sincerely they hold them.

Dr. King spoke the gospel truth that God calls us to lift up and help the poor, not to abuse them by making their situation worse just to give a tax break to the wealthiest of the wealthy. He spoke gospel truth to the insanity of war, and sending people off to die for the sake of not losing face, or to protect business interests, or to rack up profits for arms manufacturers.

He sensed, on a deeply personal level, the significance of God’s call to him to speak boldly, and to act boldly, about these issues. Even at times when he didn’t want to see it through, when he’d have much rather just gone off and lived a quiet, comfortable, safe life out of the limelight with his family, he heard that call, “Come, follow me.” And we’re a better society, and a better church, and better followers of Jesus ourselves, because he did.

But while we’re better Christians because of the witness and prophetic voice of Dr. King, there’s still a lot to learn, a lot to do. Racism, and bigotry, and ignorance, and injustice, and homophobia, and poverty, and economic disparity, and homelessness, and hunger, all still exist, and we, the church, still need to boldly call them all out as being inconsistent with the God that we worship and the gospel we proclaim.

We’ve all been called to do that, in some way. Today, we’re recognizing people who will be ordained or installed to do it in a particular way – to be servant leaders of this congregation, helping to shape the way that we answer Christ’s call to follow him, in both our work and worship. To those of you being ordained or installed, I remind you that this isn’t like being elected the Treasurer of the Rotary Club – your ordination and installation reflects this congregation recognizing particular gifts that you have for leadership, and sensing that God is calling you to this particular type of service and ministry. Each of you will be an important part of how this congregation moves forward, and keeps focused on its mission to advance this gospel truth of God’s desire for love, and compassion, and equality, and justice for all of God’s people. I invite you to take this commitment seriously. When you kneel and receive the laying on of hands, you will be continuing a tradition that goes back to the very earliest days of the church. When you feel those hands on you, imagine the love and support and the prayers for God’s guidance for you, that they represent.

I remember before my own ordination as an elder, I worried that maybe I wasn’t worthy of that. Maybe there’s something about you that makes you have that same uncertainty about this call. Something that causes you to wonder if you’re a big enough spiritual somebody to be ordained. maybe there’s something about you that people have sneered at in the past and said, “Can anything good come out of that? Can anyone like that be good?” If that’s the case, rest assured that you can tell those nay-sayers – even if the nay-sayer is you, yourself – “Yes, that’s true – but God knew that about me, long before I was born, and still, Jesus held out his hand to me, and smiled, and said, “Come, Follow me!” Today, in a new and special way, you will.

Thanks be to God.

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.

The Borders of Compassion

(sermon 8/6/17)

ice arrest

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

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A while back, I was online and stumbled across a site that was selling T shirts. One of the shirts they were advertising that made me laugh was one that said, in big, bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then below that, in smaller print, it said, “…But I’m His Favorite.”

There’s a little bit of that mindset in this passage from Deuteronomy that we heard today. According to the passage, God tells the Hebrew people that they’re especially chosen; that God loved and chose them and their ancestors alone. I’m going to say right now that I don’t literally believe that for a moment – that God really did only love the Hebrews and no one else. In fact, there’s plenty of Old Testament scripture that shows that to not be literally true. And since I don’t believe that, I certainly don’t believe that Christians have now replaced Jews as God’s exclusively loved and chosen people. That’s a particularly nasty and dangerous theological idea that’s caused unbelievable harm over the last two thousand years, and that we especially need to reject now, in our post-Holocaust world.

But rather than get stuck on that point in this reading, let’s consider the bigger point that’s being made. According to one place in the passage, God is saying, you, Hebrews, are special and beloved and chosen by God, whether exclusively or not – and because of that, you have a special, higher obligation to be attentive to God’s ways, and to do likewise in your own lives. In other words, yes, you’re chosen, but it’s a kind of chosen that comes with homework.

So what is that homework? That they must love the person in need, and the stranger in their midst; the foreigner living within their borders. They need to provide them with food and clothing, caring for their unmet physical needs. They need to do this, God says, because at one time, they themselves were in the same boat – they had been resident aliens in Egypt, exploited and kept in poverty doing hard physical labor for the financial benefit of others. In fact, the entire Old Testament Law, the entire Jewish faith, has this idea of being compassionate to the foreigner, the resident alien living within their borders, as a constant undercurrent. It’s an absolute essential tenet of the faith – and by extension, it’s an essential tenet of ours, too. So when we hear those familiar words of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore –
send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

When we hear these words, we know that they aren’t just a reflection of some of our most cherished national principles, they also reflect a core, non-negotiable, baseline principle of compassion within our Christian faith.

These days, it’s almost impossible to escape the topic of the stranger, the foreigner living within our borders. It seems like every day, there’s another news story about refugees or immigrants. An ICE crackdown that arrests and deports a dozen men in south Louisville, ripping them away from their wives and children. A proposed federal law that would could legal immigration and refugee entries almost in half. A state law that would prohibit cities, universities, and similar institutions from establishing themselves as safe havens for immigrants, and imposing stiff financial punishment on them if they tried to do so. Almost every night, another public statement of extreme isolationist, white-nationalist, alt-right ideology being spouted; men in suits offering up words that used to be reserved for men in hoods.

Well, this is the pivot point in the sermon. Some people might call it the “lettuce” point – the point where the preacher has laid out some situation, some problem, and then says, “So therefore, let us work harder to [fill in the blank];” “Let us go forth and be even more diligent about [whatever]. But I’m not going to do that today, because I know that you already get it when it comes to immigration and refugees. I’ve seen how this congregation has worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for years. I see the mountains of donated good that this congregation collects to help new refugee families get settled in. I’ve seen a Session that had the courage to take a stand against an unconstitutional ban on Muslim refugees and immigrants, and I’ve seen us host thoughtful community discussions on the topic. Every week, I see members of this congregation helping to teach immigrants English as a second language, and helping them prepare for their citizenship exams.

So today, I just want you to think about all those great things you’ve done. Be glad of the fact that together as a church family, Springdale gets it. And you’ve done it all because you’ve known and felt God’s love in your lives. You’ve heard, and lived the gospel – God’s good news of reconciliation and compassion for all people – and you’ve acted out of gratitude for it. And most likely, also because you remember some time when you benefited from someone else’s help, We may not have ever been slaves in Egypt, but all of us have likely known what it feels like to be in need.

So think about all that today. Recognize the good the you’ve done. Own it. Embrace it. Be grateful that you’ve been able to do so much.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that can just rest on our past achievements. We do always need to watch for ways to be just as compassionate in the future. See, I guess maybe there is a little bit of “lettuce” in this sermon after all. We should always be alert to new and unexpected ways we might be asked to show that there’s no green card in the kingdom of heaven; that God’s compassion knows no borders.

In 2003, on my fist trip to Montana de Luz, the orphanage in Honduras, I met Ramon. He was part of the bricklaying crew I was working with. That week, and one week every year for the next five or six years, I got to know Ramon. We worked together, ate together, laughed together. Once, he’d rushed to help me when I was hurt in a little accident. I was a guest in his tiny little home. I met his family. Simply put, Ramon became my friend.

About four years ago, I got a call out of the blue from Ramon. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, he told me that he’d paid a coyote – a human smuggler – to take him on the very dangerous, and often deadly, trip north through Central America and Mexico, and to get him across the border into the U.S., where he could make enough money to send home to his family to keep them sheltered and fed and his children in school. But when they got to the border, the coyote changed the rules. Now, he wanted even more money to complete the job and get him across the border. Ramon was desperate. He didn’t have any money; he didn’t know what to do. So he called me, and asked if I might be able to send him $200 to help him get across.

I told him that as much as I’d like to help him, what he was asking was illegal, and that we’re a nation of laws, and that whether we like the law or not, we still have to obey it. So I told him no.

And I’ve been ashamed of my answer ever since. Every time I think of Ramon, I think of his face, and the face of his children. And I think of the poverty, and hunger, and destitution, and hopelessness that I allowed him to remain in. For two hundred dollars and so I could say I hadn’t broken the law.

I guess if there’s any “lettuce” in this sermon, I guess it’s this: let us always be on the lookout for ways to show compassion to the stranger, the foreigner in our midst, because it’s a bedrock teaching of our faith. And let us use our words, our voices, and yes, our votes, to keep immoral people from enacting unjust laws. Let us avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, blindly obeying unjust laws that are already in place. Let us never be too timid to love the way that God has called us to. And let us always remember the great truth of another T shirt that was on that website I told you about. That T shirt was right next to the first one; this one said “JESUS LOVES YOU – But Then Again, He Loves Everyone.” And so he does.

 Thanks be to God.

 

Shake It Up

(sermon 7/30/17)

ziplining

John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.  

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I remember being on a family vacation once, when the girls were pretty young. We were in a McDonalds, grabbing a quick breakfast before getting on with the rest of the day. We’d allowed ourselves to sleep in, and we were getting a bit of a late start, so our breakfast was pushing right up against the time when the McDonalds was about to switch over to serving its lunch menu. This particular McDonalds had what’s now an old-school mechanical menu board, where at the designated time – I think it was ten o’clock – all the strips showing the breakfast menu items would mechanically flip to the lunch menu items. While we were eating, Andrea was really hungry, and she really liked the pancakes she’d gotten, and she said she wanted to get another order of them. But by this time, it was just a couple of minutes before ten, so we told her she’d better hurry if she wanted to get more. So she got her sister to slide out of the way, and she wiggled out of the booth and was making a beeline to the counter – but when she was still only about halfway there, all of a sudden – flipflipflipflipflip…. The menu board changed over to lunch. And from where we were sitting, we could only see Andrea from behind, so what we saw as she was going up to the counter was something like this: [walking fast toward counter – stops – shoulders dramatically sag – dejected, turn around, trudge back to booth]. Not a word was said, but the disappointment was palpable, and I’m sorry to say that we all got a laugh at her expense that day.

That incident came to mind again this week when I read through this gospel text. I expect the lame man must have felt something like that, but of course, in a much more serious way. I mean, just imagine, 38 years of trying unsuccessfully to be the first one into the pool when the water stirred, and tradition was that the stirring was caused by an angel who would heal the first one into the water – and never getting there in time.

But in today’s lesson, we heard that this was the man’s lucky day. This day, he encountered Jesus and was healed. It happened without any stirring of the water, but Jesus certainly stirred the pot – because he had had the nerve of healing this man on a sabbath day. And we all know from countless past sermons and Sunday School lessons that healing was considered work, and work was prohibited on the sabbath, according to long-standing religious rules and customs. Imagine that – being so beholden to rules and traditions that the big news here wasn’t that a man who had been lame for 38 years had been healed, but instead, that it broke the rules because it was done on a particular day of the week.

Here, and in numerous other places in the gospels, Jesus makes a point of breaking established rules, of violating long-standing customs and cherished traditions, whenever it was necessary to extend compassion in a situation – to bring healing, wholeness, something good into a person’s life. Based on Jesus’ example, it seems that any time there’s a conflict between showing compassion or obeying established rules or laws, being compassionate always trumps following the rules. Always.

We’ve talked before about our need to be willing to break the rules when necessary to show and stand up for compassion. I won’t tick off the list of historical examples again here today; we’ve been through all that before, and that isn’t what I want to talk about this morning. But still, we almost can’t stress enough how important this concept seems to be to Jesus – the idea of showing others compassion even when we have to break or reframe the rules in order to do it. Jesus shows us clearly, over and over again, that sometimes, the old rules, the old normal, have to give way in order for new avenues of compassion and goodness to come forth.

A lot of times, when the old rules, the old normal, gets disrupted in the largest ways, it isn’t intentional – it’s some kind of change or disruption or getting shaken up that’s thrust upon us, that we don’t really want. A relationship crumbles. A loved one dies. A job situation changes. Or even war breaks out, and causes a complete upheaval in life, and requires starting life all over again from scratch – maybe even in a strange new country surrounded by strange new people.

When that kind of unbidden change happens, all we can do is to look for how compassion and goodness might arise out of this in new and different ways. If this weren’t “Congregation’s Choice” Sunday, one of the hymns I might have picked today would have been “Hymn of Promise,” #250. The last verse of that hymn says,

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection, at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

There’s a lot of truth in those words. When we experience unexpected, unbidden, unwanted change in our lives, when the rules and customs and patterns we’d come to know and trust get broken, we can, and should, search for how God could be bringing new compassion and goodness out of it.

But that deals with unbidden breaking of the rules and norms. It’s the other kind of situation, the kind more like Jesus’ intentional breaking of rules and customs in order to show compassion, in order to heal the lame man at the pool, that I want to think about now. In order to follow Jesus’ lead on this, we need to always have the kind of personal flexibility that would allow us to do that. Our hearts and minds need to always be in the right place, where we aren’t worshipping our rules and traditions more than the God who says that we should always be willing to toss them all aside, if it would lead to greater compassion in the world.

It isn’t always easy to have that kind of flexibility. It’s almost like we need to do some spiritual and mental stretching exercises, so that we’re limber enough to see and take those opportunities when they arise.

Several years ago, I suggested to another congregation, in another sermon, some possible things that we could do that might help us to have that kind of flexibility, and to not be overly beholden to old rules or customs or patterns in our lives. They were little things – silly things, really; they certainly weren’t anything that would ever be mistaken for true spiritual disciplines or practices, and they really didn’t have anything directly to do with being more compassionate per se. They were just suggested activities that might loosen us up a bit, and make us more ready and able to break rules in order to be more compassionate when the opportunity arose. These were the suggestions I offered to them, and now, I offer to you:

Try some kind of international food you’ve never tried before, but always thought you might like to try. Take a different route to work, so you’ll experience another part of town than you’re used to. Sit in a completely different place in church from where you normally sit, so you experience worship from a different vantage point. If for fifty years, the first thing you did when you jumped into the shower is wash your left arm, start washing your right leg first. Find some common hobby or interest that you share with someone on the completely opposite end of the political spectrum, and engage in that hobby with them. Let your grandchildren take you to a concert of their favorite music group. Let your grandparents take you to one of theirs. And in both of those options, be sure to dance. If you haven’t done it in decades, go to a costume party, and don’t be timid; go large – be fabulous; be outrageous; be over the top. I can tell you from personal experience, clown shoes work well for that. Go zip lining, or maybe even, if you’re feeling really adventurous, try tandem skydiving. Commit to go skinny dipping at least once a year. Have breakfast for dinner – at least, that is, if they’re still serving it.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion Reaches Out

(sermon 7/23/17)

reaching toward you

Luke 7:11-17

[Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. 

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They continued along the road, Jesus and the group of people who were following him. Some of them, of course, were with him long-term; others were just tagging along to hear what he said and see what he did while he was passing through their neck of the woods, before they returned to their normal routine after Jesus moved on. The day was hot and the road was dusty and they were tired and thirsty, but it wasn’t so bad because now they could easily see their destination – the walled town called Nain, which was a solid four- or five-hour walk south of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in the northern part of modern-day Israel and very close to the northern edge of that part of Palestine that we call the West Bank.

As they got closer, they could see the main gateway into the town – small and narrow so it could easily be defended, with stone-walled rooms on either side of the portal meant to house armed men who could take care of any enemy troops trying to enter the town by attacking them from both sides as they tried to get through the narrow opening just a few soldiers at a time. Usually, though, it was much more mundane than that, being just a pinch-point for people trying to get out and others trying to get into the town.

Just inside the main gate would have been a stone-walled courtyard – again, with relatively narrow access points to it could be easily defended. This was the main public gathering place in town. It was the coffee shop where people came to have offsite business meetings and cut deals. It was the magistrate’s court, where the town elders heard and settled legal disputes. It was the park, where young people hung out and laughed and watched each other and did the things young people do; and where old people hung out and read the paper and talked about the good old days and complained about the young people. It was the central gathering place for public celebrations, like weddings, and public mourning, like funerals as we heard in this gospel text was happening on this particular day.

Just as Jesus and his followers got to the main gate, this funeral procession was moving out of the courtyard and was coming through the gate. And just as we pull over or stop to let a funeral procession go by or pass through an intersection, Jesus and his followers and all the other people who were trying to get through the checkpoint and into town moved over to the side of the road to let them by.

While they waited, I imagine they had the same kind of thoughts that run through our own minds when we’re in a similar situation; a combination of respect and compassion, and if we’re being totally honest, maybe also mixed with some minor annoyance that we’re being held up as the procession goes by. And with thoughts running through our heads:  I wonder who it was that died? Did they die from old age, or were they younger; was there maybe some illness or tragic accident? What was their story? Who are they leaving behind; will they be OK? Yes, there but for the grace of God go I, and even at that, I’ll go that way all too soon. So sad. Oh well, the road’s clear now; I can get back on my way. I wonder what I should have for dinner?

But that isn’t what happened on this particular day, at least not completely. This day, as the procession came through, Jesus didn’t just stand quietly and respectfully on the sidelines. He stepped into the procession and into their grief. He learned that this was the only son of a widow, whose well-being, maybe even whose very survival, was threatened by the loss of this last male provider, beyond even the grief that any parent would feel over the loss of a child. And having compassion for her in her suffering, he reached out, raising this man from the dead, bringing life back to not just him, but to his mother too. Put simply, Jesus didn’t just passively watch this situation play out. He didn’t just continue into town after they’d gone by. He didn’t just organize clusters of people to walk around town and pray for the widow’s well-being. He stepped into this most public of tragedies as it unfolded, in the moment, and he concretely did what was in his power to bring physical and emotional and spiritual healing into the lives of these total strangers. He apparently didn’t know and didn’t care about any of the details of the man or his mother. Were they good people? Were they devout Jews? Had they lived the kind of life that people would approve of? Did they deserve this special attention? None of that seemed to be important to Jesus. Apparently, he raised the man from the dead strictly out of compassion and because they were beloved children of God.

We’re supposed to do the same kind of thing, of course – to step in and provide life and love and hope and compassion and healing into people’s lives, even the lies of total strangers – people we know as little about as the man and his mother, and to do it in the same unqualified way that Jesus did.

You think you can’t do this same kind of thing? You think you don’t have the power of life and death and healing? Jesus would disagree. He told his disciples that after he left them, that through the Holy Spirit they would do far greater things than even Jesus himself had accomplished. And by definition, that’s true – I mean, Jesus was just one man, whose earthly ministry only lasted about three years or so; while more than two billion followers have been working for good in the world in Jesus’ name for two thousand years now.

Well sure, you might say, we have the ability to do good things, and to help people, but we don’t actually have the power over life and death; that’s in the realm of miracles…. Really? Collectively, through our voices, through our actions, we have the power to shape our society. We have the ability to push our social policies in one direction or another, toward more ethical action and compassion, or in the opposite direction. When we hear on the news about official government analysis that the proposed changes to our current healthcare insurance system would result in the unnecessary, premature deaths of an additional 23-30 million people over a ten-year period because they’ll be stripped of the healthcare coverage that they currently have – friends, we do very much have the power of life and death, the power of health and healing, in our hands.

In compassion, Jesus reached out, and he calls us to do the same, in our own way, in our own time and place.

Is that hard? Yes, sometimes. Is it something to dread, or to do because we’re trying to earn God’s approval? No, we’re no more able to earn God’s approval than the dead man on that stretcher was. We need to work this way on behalf of others out of gratitude, thankful for the grace that God has filled our lives with. And we can have that kind of gratitude because of the full power and meaning of this gospel text. I know that I’ve said that it’s a good thing to try to experience a story from scripture by imagining it, experiencing it, through the eyes of different people in the story. In this case though, I don’t think we get the full power of the message of God’s compassion, or develop a true sense of gratitude, by seeing this story through the eyes of one of the people standing along the road watching it all play out. We don’t even get the fullness of this story if we see it through the eyes of the widow. We don’t get its full meaning seeing it through the eyes of the people carrying the stretcher. We get it when we see it through the eyes of the one being carried. Through the eyes of the one who Jesus reached out to, and touched, and healed, and gave new life to. Because whoever we are, I think we’re a lot like him.

Thanks be to God.