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.”

=====

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.

Advertisements

“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.”

=====

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.”

=====

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.

Dinner Reservations (sermon 8/28/16)

place cards

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)

=====

Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.

I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe  just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”

And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.

It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.

But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.

There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.

There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.

From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.

But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do.  We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.

Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Remembrance

buddy poppy.jpg

Over the course of the past week, I’ve seen a lot of Facebook posts commemorating Memorial Day, and honoring those who have died while serving in the armed forces. This is a very fitting thing, obviously. Some of these posts are a bit disturbing, though, because they go beyond just offering respect for the fallen and co-opt the holiday, and all of the dead, to make some political or religious commentary with a decidedly partisan slant.

As we observe this holiday, let’s remember that those who have given their lives in service to our country were people of all different descriptions.

They were White, Black, Asian, and Native American; with ethnic heritages as broad as the planet itself.

They were male and female.

They were straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.

They were Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist, Green, and Independent; politically liberal, moderate, and conservative.

They were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Pagan, Wiccan, Atheist, Agnostic, and a raft of other religious expressions.

They came from north, south, east, and west; from dense urban settings, sparsely populated rural areas, and everything in between.

They came from families rich, poor, and in between, knowing both privilege and oppression.

Many, many of them gave their lives in service to this country, defending your Constitutionally-protected rights and mine, even while they were barred by law from fully enjoying their own.

Let’s remember and honor them all – recognizing the full spectrum of who they were, what they believed, and what they personally stood for. And let’s never cheapen their memory by using their death to bolster some narrow political or religious agenda that they’d never have supported in life. They deserve better.

Through their sacrifice, they’ve not only illustrated the greatness of the diversity of this country, they’ve also sealed in blood what was first promised in ink – that all Americans have the right to equal protection under the law. If, after their deaths, we would deny full and equal justice and civil rights to all who are now as those dead once were – if we demean their political or religious beliefs, their race or ethnicity, their gender or gender identity, or their sexual orientation  – then we dishonor their service and their sacrifice in a way that won’t be repaired by just waving flags or wearing poppies in our lapels.

Let’s respect the dead by respecting the living, and working to truly establish liberty and justice for all. The diversity of the dead has eliminated any justifiable concept of “them” in our society. Through the blood ante, now there’s only “us.”

Rabbit Season – Part 2

Rabbit Season part 2

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

=====

If you were here last week, you probably remember that part of the sermon talked about the rabbits in the novel Watership Down. I figured that we’re still in the church season of Eastertide, and we all think about the Easter Bunny and rabbits at Easter time, so that made some kid of sense. Well, it’s still Easteride, so I have some cover for still talking about those same rabbits and their adventures this Sunday, too.

Last week, I said that when the rabbits left the security of their old warren and set out on their own, they survived for two reasons. I talked about the first of those reasons last week – that they realized they couldn’t get by on their own as individuals, that they had to work together as a group, a community that recognized and valued the contributions of every member of the community; and that they developed that sense of community largely through maintaining and retelling their common stories that shaped their moral and ethical lives together. This week, we’ll look at the second reason that was the key to their success.

At one point in their wanderings, the rabbits are welcomed into another warren as guests. In some ways, the warren seemed like a paradise. It was near a farmhouse, and the people who lived there spread lots of food out for them; they didn’t have to work hard to find enough to eat. Life was easy, because the people had chased away and fenced out all the natural predators the rabbits would have had otherwise. But there was something that just wasn’t quite right about these rabbits. Without the need to work for their food, the rabbits had gotten fat and lazy, and even a bit self-absorbed. And they’d stopped telling all the great communal stories of the hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies,” because they didn’t really seem to have any to worry about. And because of that, these rabbits also had very little sense of community or connectedness. And for some reason, they never answered any question that began with the word, “Where”.

The band of roving rabbits learned why that was the case one day when one of them got caught in a snare set out by the people in the farmhouse, and when they ran to get the other rabbits to help get him free, they all just stayed quiet and turned away, ignoring their cries for help. It turned out that this happened every so often; the people would catch and eat one of the rabbits – not often enough to make the rabbits move away from their comfortable living, but enough to make them stop asking the painful question of where someone was when they went missing. That’s why they’d stopped telling the morality-building community stories of the hero-rabbit. It would only have reminded them of the moral compromise they were making for their own personal comfort. And forming close community bonds would only have made it more difficult to look the other way and let go of someone when they got caught in one of the snares. That was why these rabbits had been to welcoming to the visitors – they were just seen as snare-fodder; with them around the odds that one of their own getting caught was reduced.

It isn’t hard to see the potential parallels between this story and where we find our own society. Almost every day, we all participate in some way in preserving or enhancing our own personal comfort and well-being at the expense of other, more or less invisible people who we have little or no personal connection to. It shows up in all kinds of small ways. We buy shoes made by slave labor in some foreign country, in order for them to cost as little as possible. Or we eat food or drink coffee that came cheap to us because the corporate buyers have so much market clout that the producers can barely survive on the prices they can get for their goods. We look the other way when other countries treat their own people with all kinds of injustice, because we don’t want to rock the boat, or maybe more accurately, we don’t want to rock the oil tanker, and potentially disrupt the free flow of oil to prop up the standard of living we’ve become accustomed to. We pick up our value meal at the drive-thru, knowing full well that the person behind the window is working 55 or 60 hours per week, with no benefits, and still can’t get through the month without SNAP and the food pantry. We know all this, but too often we turn away and try to ignore it, refusing to confront the reality, because it means cheaper consumer prices for us and higher corporate profits for the companies our retirement funds are invested in.

It’s a rotten part of our common life; one that hurts to shine the light on too brightly or too often, but it is a very real moral dilemma for us as Christians; as followers of Jesus. The reality of the brokenness of our world is that we can never totally avoid our complicity in things like that, which unjustly harm others. But we do have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to minimize the situation. What can we do? For each of us, it might be something different. Do we boycott companies that operate in unjust, exploitative ways? Do we shift our investments to more socially responsible funds or companies? Do we only buy Fair Exchange coffee for our fellowship time, or refuse to shop at the big box store that rolls back its workers’ wages while raking in excessive, record-breaking profits?

We’re all knee-deep in this situation – this sin – and there’s just no getting completely out of it. None of us is going to do some big thing to solve the whole problem. But all of us can do some little things in the way we live, in the decisions we make, to at least minimize the problem. We can all focus on ways that we can structure our own lives in ways that don’t exploit those nameless, faceless others that are caught in the snares of our world. We can, and we have to, find ways to help get as many of them out of those snares as we can. Because even if we don’t know their names, or they’re faces, they’re all just as much God’s own as we are. God has said that we’re all part of the same rabbit warren.

Our own hero-rabbit – our own “Prince with a Thousand Enemies” gave us the model for how we need to think ethically of others. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, who loves and tends and cares for his own flock even to the point of laying down his life to protect and shelter them – us. This same Good Shepherd says that we’re all to be part of one flock, or maybe we could say one warren, and he gave us the command to go onward, in his name, doing the same for others – extending that same loving care to those we meet, and even to those we may never meet, in the way we live and in the way our lives affect theirs. This is really a matter of justice, the kind of justice that God calls us to as part of the kingdom of God. And it’s a matter of hospitality, too – not the shallow, self-serving hospitality of the host rabbits in the story, but the radical, extensive, costly kind of hospitality that our Good Shepherd extends to us – leading us to green pastures and still waters – and that he’s told us to extend to others.

Thanks be to God.

You Think You Know (sermon 1/18/15)

https://i1.wp.com/seattletimes.com/art/mlk/index.jpg

(This sermon is a tribute to the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic proclamation of the equality and justice of the Kingdom of God. In a secondary way, it’s also a tribute to Dr. Phil Hazelton, a mentor of mine who once delivered a different sermon by the same name, and who somewhat loosely, and until now, anonymously, makes an appearance near the end of the sermon.)

=====

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.” – John 1:43-51

=====

 It had been a rough day of selling his fish in the marketplace. Nathaniel worked long, hard hours catching the fish, then hauling them to his stall in the market in Bethsaida, then having to smell all that unchilled fish all day long while he tried to schmooze and smooth-talk the customers to buy his fish that day instead of someone else’s. It could get frustrating. People just didn’t realize, or care, how much it actually cost him to get these fish to market. What he had to pay his workers, and the maintenance and upkeep on the boat and his nets, and the slip fees at the lake, and the health department inspections and the monthly rent for the stall in the market itself, and then all the taxes and fees on top of that, and the fact that he had so much competition in this little town where almost everybody was a fisherman; he was barely making a living. And even at the rock-bottom prices he was able to charge, people would still try to haggle him down further. There was one customer in particular who showed up every few days, a very shrewd and hard-bargaining man who’d moved to Bethsaida from further inland in Galilee, from Nazareth near the big city of Sepphoris. Nathaniel swore that if he’d set the price of the biggest, freshest tilapia he had at just two cents, this guy would try to get him to drop the price to a penny.

All the haggling, all the bruised shins Nathaniel had gotten through years of conducting his business, and from life in general, had made him jaded and suspicious of people. He was sitting there on that hot, late afternoon in the shade of a fig tree trying to enjoy his dinner of lamb, or chicken, or anything but fish, when his friend Philip came running up and started going off about something he was excited about. Ah, Philip. So naïve. Always the dreamer, always ready to believe whatever anyone said. Last week, it was some health food craze; the week before that it was the Ginsu steak knives. Now today, it was… what? The messiah? Really? Again? This was the third would-be messiah Philip had gotten worked up over in just the past year. And when Philip said this latest one was from Nazareth, Nathaniel could only think about his annoying customer and almost snorted as he spit out his scornful answer to Philip about people from Nazareth. Really, Philip, they’re all alike.

But Philip was persistent, and mostly just to get him to shut up, Nathaniel followed him to meet this man. As they got near, Jesus called out to him, “Ah, here’s truly a good and honorable man, a man in whom there is no deceit!” And immediately, Nathaniel’s BS meter spikes. It just sounded like the same kind of smarmy, insincere flattery he doled out to the people in the market all day long, and this particular day, Nathaniel wasn’t having any of it. “How do you know that? You’ve never met me before this very minute. You don’t even know my name!” And then Jesus smiled and very calmly answered, “Actually, I know all about you, Nathaniel, whose very name means gift from God; and in my mind’s eye I even saw you sitting under that fig tree having your diner.”

Jesus’ words hit Nathaniel like a lightning bolt. He realized that his preconceived notions about this man were wrong. He thought he knew; he just didn’t know.

We all do the same thing, of course. You, me, each of us, almost every day, in one way or another. With next to no real evidence, we’ll make snap judgments about a person based on the flimsiest of reasons. Skin color, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, net worth, education level. My list won’t look exactly like yours, or yours, but still, we’ll pre-judge others based on meaningless things – often on things that are simply inherent aspects of their creation; no more the person’s doing, and holding no more moral content, than the color of their eyes.

You confide in your long-time friend that you just don’t like people who get piercings or tattoos; that you just don’t get it, and that you think anyone who goes in for those things is ignorant, low-class, trashy; and she gets a funny look on her face and doesn’t say much after that, but when she says goodbye and turns to walk away, fir the first time ever you notice through the thin white fabric of her top a beautifully colored butterfly tattooed between her shoulder blades. You think you know; you just don’t know.

You’re the president of the high school athletic boosters club, and one day you’re having a nice conversation with one of the kids – a big, strapping guy, first-string quarterback, captain of the wrestling team, maybe the best all-around athlete the school’s ever produced. An academic all-American to; a really great guy, and a real “man’s man,” you figure. And in the course of the camaraderie and joking around, you let your guard down, and you put on a swishy, effeminate voice and tell a “fag joke,” and then you go on to say to him that you think the gays are all a bunch of immoral, ungodly perverts, and they ought to all be thrown out of the locker room. And he laughs because he thinks he’s supposed to laugh, but what he’s really wondering in his mind is if he finds the courage to come out, will his intensely homophobic parents throw him out of the house? You think you know; you just don’t know.

Conservative guy who likes to go hunting? Must be one of those gun nuts; little education, hateful, racist, bigoted, probably from the south, too, if I had to guess. High school student? Must be shallow, self-centered; dumbed-down academically and spiritually; probably wastes the whole day texting, tweeting, and video gaming. You think you know.

This is the three-day weekend that we honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I’d argue the most significant prophetic voice speaking God’s truth to the world and our culture over the past century. A man who ended up giving his life to spread God’s truth that you can never know what’s in another person’s heart by judging the externals. God’s truth, God’s good news – the gospel – that in God’s eyes those distinctions are meaningless. Because of the reconciliation that God has shown us, all of us, and made possible for us, all of us, through Christ, there is no longer east or west, north or south. There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female. The gospel, God’s good news, is that we’re all created and loved as the very image of God. I can’t just point to myself and say that I’m created in God’s image. You, alone, aren’t created in God’s image. But you and you and you, and me, all of us, together, in all of our diversity and difference, are created to show the fullness of the very image and nature of God. So if we dismiss or discriminate against *any* of God’s creatures on the basis of those meaningless distinctions, those externals and incidentals, just as Nathaniel did with Jesus, then we not only harm the person we’re pre-judging, and we’re not only harming our own souls in the process, but we’re also harming and frustrating God’s intention of revealing more about God’s own self by having created us with all that diversity to begin with.

You’re church shopping. You’re looking for something different from the stuffy, boring church you grew up in; something current, something relevant, something that speaks to our time and place. But this Sunday you blew it, because there in the pulpit is the most old-fashioned minister you could imagine. He looks like a Hollywood caricature of a boring, ineffective minister. Just a few wisps of hair left on his head, hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses sitting in front of steely eyes that have that extra-sharp intense look that some near-sighted people have. Not in jeans and rolled up shirtsleeves like Rob Bell or Landon Whitsitt or some other hip young preacher, but a drab, black robe; he was even wearing those goofy little white “preaching tabs” like Henry Fowler or one of the Puritans used to wear. Probably the most un-hip, un-relevant, whitebread, hypocritical, part-of-the-problem-not-the-solution minister you could ever imagine. This Sunday is going to be a disaster; this sermon is going to be a waste of time, you think.

What you don’t know is that the very un-hip looking minister was actually a star athlete in his day. Went to college on a football scholarship, then decided to go on to seminary. And one day when he was in seminary, he turned on his little black=and=white portable TV to watch the evening news. And as he watched, he saw a large number of unarmed, non-violent African-American protesters in some godawful place called Selma, Alabama, trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He didn’t know who Edmund Pettus was or why anyone would want to name a bridge after him, but he did know that the violence, the beatings, the sheer brutality that the police unleashed on the protesters that day was gut-wrenching, disgusting, a crime against God and country and humanity. Outraged, and inspired to make a statement and to further the real, radical, inclusive nature of the gospel, he decided that day to head south, where he was a Freedom Rider, and worked in several states in the civil rights movement. He became, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, one of those “men of God and good will” who felt called by God to work for equality and justice, and for an end to prejudice and bigotry, for all of God’s people. Afterward, he’d go back to seminary, and out into the church, where he continued to proclaim that gospel of God’s love, and justice for all of God’s people, for many years. That was the man who stared out at the congregation that morning through the hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses.

You think you know; you just don’t know.

Thanks be to God.