Reclaiming Repentance

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Repent is one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian religious vocabulary.  The sound of it typically conjures up images of wild-eyed, Bible-thumping preachers screaming about hellfire and damnation from atop a soapbox on a street corner.  Even those who know better still tend to associate repentance with feelings of guilt and shame over past failures.

Jesus uses that word in this morning’s gospel reading when he says to the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  I don’t think he was trying to lay a guilt-trip on his listeners, nor was he trying to frighten them into becoming disciples.

When Jesus uses that word, repent, he is inviting his listeners into an experience of expanded consciousness.  The word repent in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) is metanoia.  It literally means “to change one’s mind.”  Jesus is trying to get his listeners to think differently, think bigger, think outside the box.  Specifically, Jesus is inviting us to change the way we think about three things: God, ourselves, and the world.

First, Jesus is inviting his listeners to think bigger, think differently about God.  In the world of first century Judaism, people thought of God as being far away.  Moreover, they thought there were certain things that people needed to do or think in order to get God’s attention.  They thought God had to be appeased by certain rituals or impressed with good moral behavior and theological belief.  This is what groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees did with their time: they worked hard to get God’s attention/approval.

All of this is pretty consistent with what I call the human religious instinct.  In just about every human culture, on every continent, in every part of history, people have had some kind of belief in a Higher Power (e.g. God(s), Brahman, Tao, etc.).  Likewise, they have also had some kind of system in place for contacting, relating to, garnering favor with, or even controlling their Higher Power(s).  This is how religions are born.  Some scientists have even done studies that indicate our brains might be hardwired for forming religious beliefs and rituals.

One of the really interesting things about Jesus is that he takes this whole human religious enterprise and turns it on its head.  All religions present us with a way to find God, but Jesus presents us with a God who finds us.

He says in today’s reading, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Other English translations read, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Think about that: at hand.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Think about those words: “The kingdom of heaven/God (i.e. the place where God lives) is at hand.”  Later on, Jesus would take this idea even further and say, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

This is a radical, prophetic, and mystical shift.  If it doesn’t blow your mind, then you weren’t really paying attention.  This turns the whole human idea of religion upside down.  God is not far away, God is close.  How close?  At hand.  Within you.  Taking a hint from Jesus, St. Augustine of Hippo says that God is closer to you than your own heart.

The other part of this is that there is nothing we have to do (or can do) to get God’s attention or gain God’s approval because we already have it.  Theologically speaking, this is called grace.  Grace is the unmerited favor, or unconditional love, of God.  Grace is God’s basic orientation toward the world.  It can’t be earned any more than a baby can earn the milk that comes from its mother’s breast.  It’s just there, free for the taking, because that’s just who God is in relation to the world.

This is how Jesus changes the way we think about God: he turns the whole human religious enterprise on its head by presenting us with a God who is close by and accepts us as we are.  The importance of this shift cannot be overstated.

As one might imagine, this change in the way we think about God would naturally have a profound effect on the way we think about ourselves and the world.

Under the systems and institutions created by our own human religious instinct, membership in the community of faith is intentionally kept exclusive.  There are certain things one has to do, think, or say in order to be let into “the club.”  The privileges of membership are reserved for the few who prove themselves worthy.  There is always an us and a them, insiders and outsiders, the saved and the damned.  This is the way that our human religious instinct has trained us to think, but it’s not the way that Jesus thinks.  To him, there is only us, there are no outsiders, no one is damned, and all are destined for salvation.  This is the good news that Jesus preaches.

And he doesn’t just preach it, either; he practices what he preaches.  For Jesus, the community of faith is not exclusive but radically inclusive.  They literally let anyone through the door of this party.

Jesus demonstrates this first of all in his ministry of table fellowship.  Sharing a home-cooked meal with someone in the ancient near east was a powerful thing.  It meant that you accepted this person as is, with no strings attached.  So, it was quite the village scandal when Jesus gathered a reputation for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” in the towns where he traveled.  The religious leaders of his time were constantly up in arms over the bad example he was setting by his willingness to accept and love all people unconditionally (even the losers, rejects, ne’er do wells, freaks, geeks, and criminals).

Another way that Jesus demonstrates the inclusive nature of his ministry is in the calling of his first disciples, which was also part of today’s gospel reading.  Look at this text with me, if you will.  What kinds of professional or spiritual qualifications does the text say that Andrew, Simon, James, and John had before Jesus was willing to call them to be his disciples?  Does it say anything about an interview process?  Do they have to attend classes first?  Does the text of Matthew’s gospel say anything about how often they went to synagogue, prayed, or studied their Torah?  No, it doesn’t.  Jesus just calls them and something within them responds, feels drawn to this person.  As I once heard someone else say, “Jesus doesn’t choose the qualified; he qualifies the chosen.”  That certainly seems to be the case here, even when it came to Christ’s apostles.

In the centuries since then, the Christian Church (in its better moments, anyway) has tried to embody the same kind of open inclusivity in its community that Jesus demonstrated in his.  In the early days of the Church, the big controversy was over the question of whether or not to let Gentiles (non-Jewish people) join the Church.  This might not seem like such a big deal to us, but I assure you that it was to Christians in the first century.  The debate got so heated that it almost split the Church.  They fought about it for a long time, but eventually landed on the side of inclusivity, saying that their faith would be a global faith with room for “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”

In more recent times, we’ve seen Christians reach out in the name of our inclusive faith to bridge the gap between denominations and religions.  We’ve worked hard to make room in our congregations for people from every race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and disability.

Right now, at this divided and polarized point in our nation’s history, when the spirit of community seems to be breaking down at all levels, the inclusive gospel of grace is one that people particularly need to hear.  In spite of the fact that people in our age are more electronically connected than ever, we have never been more spiritually isolated from one another.  We, the people of Christ, have been called to carry his subversive, disarming gospel to the nations.

We are called by Christ to repent (metanoia – “change the way we think”) about God, the world, and ourselves.  The gospel of Christ calls us to let go of our efforts to get God’s attention by doing, thinking, and saying the right things.  Christ calls us to rise up out of our polarized, divisive, and tribal consciousness shaped by the human religious instinct.  We are called to be a light to the world and show them by our gracious living that there is another way to be human.  We are called to lift up every voice and preach the good news of salvation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Amen.

The Heartroots Revolution

411px-Sacred_Heart_CurrierThe famous author and Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson tells a great story about something that happened to him when he was growing up in Montana.  Eugene used to have to deal with a bully named Garrison Johns.  Garrison used to pick on him and take cheap shots.  All along, the adults in his church kept telling Eugene to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  When Garrison found out that Eugene was a Christian, he started calling him “Jesus-sissy.”  Finally, the day came when Eugene decided that he’d had enough.  He was walking home from school with Garrison beside him, hurling his usual barrage of jeers and jabs.  I’ll let Eugene Peterson tell the rest of the story in his own words:

Something snapped within me. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it – he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again – blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. “Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!” A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them, although nothing compared with what I would, later in life, read in the Psalms. I said to Garrison, “Say Uncle.” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out in me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, “Say, I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.

          (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 134-136)

This story is a great example of a Christian doing the right thing in the wrong way.  We Christians are famous for that.  Ironically, it seems like we tend to be at our worst when we try to do something really big and beautiful for God.

Take, for example, the story of the Roman emperor, Constantine I.  Constantine was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian.  He legalized Christianity and ended centuries of persecution against the Church.  That was a good thing, as far as Christians were concerned.  However, he also started the process of merging church and state into one institution, a state of affairs that would eventually lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials.  From Constantine’s point of view, he was establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth in the form of a Christian government.  But when that government (and its successors) started to operate, it started to look less like the kingdom of heaven and more like all the other kingdoms of the world.  In the end, the Roman Empire became just another superpower, but with the name of Jesus tacked on it.

That’s part of the problem with us humans: we assume that our ways are God’s ways, that a good end justifies bad means.  We think that, in order for right and good win to out over evil, we have to use power and violence to force our will (or God’s) on others.  But that isn’t how God works in the world.

We’re talking a lot about authority and kingship today.  First of all, we’re wrapping up our six week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve covered the first five already: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; and the promotion of social righteousness.  This week, we’re looking at the final Great End of the Church, which is the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  We’re going to talk about what it means to “exhibit” “the kingdom of heaven.”

Today also happens to be Ascension Sunday, the holiday when we celebrate Jesus returning to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, as it says in the book of Acts.  The meaning behind this image is the sovereignty of Christ as ruler over all creation.

So the subject of kingship is our central theme today.  You might have picked up on this theme in our first reading from the letter to the Ephesians where the author talks about Christ, who is seated “at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  Obviously, this is an image of supreme authority.

Based on what people tend to experience from the corrupt powers and authorities of this world, one might imagine a person with supreme authority to wield it like an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus.  His idea of kingly authority is very different from most others’.  In our gospel reading, Jesus described his idea of what God’s kingdom, God’s ideal society might look like as it becomes established in the world.

It doesn’t look like an invading dictatorship or a hostile takeover by a competing corporation.  There’s no violence and coercion in this kind of kingdom.  Jesus said the coming of God’s kingdom is like “a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.”  A little later, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

According to Jesus’ model, the kingdom of God is a growing thing.  It works slowly and subversively beneath the surface of society.  I especially love the image he uses about the kingdom being like yeast that leavens a loaf of bread.  For those who might not know about bread making, yeast is alive.  It’s a little microscopic organism that causes bread to rise once the yeast has infected the entire batch.

Did you get that?  God’s kingdom is like a microbe: the smallest kind of life-form.  It’s the exact opposite of dominating power and overwhelming violence.  The various authorities of this world depend on violence and power to preserve order and get things done, but Jesus’ kingdom of God seems to work on the exact opposite principle: smallness and weakness.  The greatest way to exercise power, according to Jesus, is by exercising service and mercy.

Jesus seems to have had some very upside-down ideas about kings and kingdoms.  I would daresay that Jesus also seemed to have some very upside-down ideas about life itself.  When Jesus first shared these radical ideas, he wasn’t just talking about a new system of government; he was talking about a new way to be human.

Jesus’ vision for the transformation of the world was a grassroots vision.  In fact, the term grassroots isn’t even sufficient to describe it because it doesn’t go deep enough.  We might have to make up a new word for this: how about heartroots?  Jesus’ vision for establishing the authority of the kingdom of heaven on earth is a heartroots vision.  It’s not imposed from the outside or above, like a bureaucratic dictatorship or an invading army: it changes the world from the inside out.  Like a mustard seed or yeast.

Few of Jesus’ followers, even among Christians today, have ever accepted his teaching about nonviolence, service, and mercy in the Heartroots Revolution.  By most accounts, these crazy, impractical should have been dismissed long ago, but they weren’t.  For some reason, they continue to chase, disturb, and haunt us to this day, slowly transforming our hearts from the inside out… just like yeast slowly leavening a batch of bread dough.

I believe that we are called to be like that yeast in Jesus’ parable.  In contrast to the violent and coercive way that power is exercised in the governments and corporations of the world, the citizens of the kingdom of God use the gentle skills of presence and persuasion.  We work our Heartroots Revolution from the inside out.

We’re kind of like mothers in that way.  They say a mother’s work is never done.  I’ve certainly been reminded of that truth this week as my own mother has been staying at my house and helping me take care of my kids while my wife is out of town at a conference.  Her help has been most appreciated.

But the real work of motherhood happens as her unconditional love and deeply held values shape the persons and perspectives of her children.  That’s how God works in the world as well.  That’s what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Unlike the young Eugene Peterson, God will not pin us to the ground and punch us until we agree to follow Jesus.  God doesn’t work through violence and coercion.  Neither should we do so as citizens of the kingdom of God.  We will not establish God’s kingdom by forcing our will on others through direct violence, or the threat of violence, or behind-the-scenes manipulation.  The arrival of the kingdom of heaven on earth is not to be equated with the success of our country, our political party, our business, or our church.  God’s vision is bigger and deeper than those things.  God, like a mother who will neither forget nor forsake her children, works the Heartroots Revolution from the inside out, moving slowly and patiently across time.  We Christians show ourselves to be citizens of God’s kingdom when we work in the same way: when we show up to work or school each day, consciously carrying the Holy Spirit in our hearts and letting our words and deeds act like yeast, leavening the loaf of our community with faith, hope, and love.  That’s what God’s Heartroots Revolution looks like.

I want to send you out this week with that image in your mind.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, think of the Holy Spirit living in your heart, leading you to act like an undercover agent, infiltrating the dark systems of this world with the light of love.  Let Jesus be your model for how to do this.  To the best of your ability, say and do things the way you imagine him saying and doing things.  If you’re not sure what he would do, try picking up a Bible and reading from one of the gospels.  Maybe one of those stories about his life will spark your imagination.

May your life, like Jesus’, exhibit the kingdom of God to the world.  May others look at you and hear through your words and deeds the message that brings us together and carries us into the world each week: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  Be blessed and be a blessing.

The Preservation of the Truth

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

These are the words that rattled around inside Peter’s head.  They were troubling, even disturbing.  The implications of these words would shape the future of Christianity and the world for millennia.

These words came to Peter in a vision he had while meditating one morning on the roof of a house.  The Bible records his vision as a very clear and vivid experience, but I tend to think it was probably more fluid and subtle when it first happened.  I bet it started with a hunch, a nagging feeling in the back of Peter’s head that just wouldn’t leave him alone.  In time, this hunch gave way to a particular mental image, which was then summed up in this single phrase, arising from the depths of Peter’s subconscious mind.

Peter’s vision, as the Bible records it, went like this:

He was meditating on the roof of his friend’s house when he saw a sheet come down out of heaven with several ritually unclean animals on it.  Then a voice came from the sky saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

This was a big deal for him.  This voice, which Peter identified with the voice of God, was telling him to go against the cultural traditions of his people.  There were certain animals they just weren’t supposed to eat.  It wasn’t “the way they’d always done things.”  Even more than that, the vision went against everything Peter had been taught from the Bible in his youth.  According to Jewish dietary laws in the Torah, known as Kashrut, there were certain animals that God had commanded the Jews not to eat.  So, from Peter’s perspective, the voice of God in this vision was asking him to do something that went against everything he’d read in the Bible.  This was a problem for a good Jewish boy.

Just think about that: even today, we continue to look to the Bible as the primary source of inspiration for our faith.  The Bible holds an honored place in our churches and our worship services.  Its authority was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and continues to sit at the center of our Presbyterian tradition.  What would we say if some preacher showed up denouncing the Bible’s authority on a Sunday morning?  We’d be pretty upset.  So you can imagine how Peter must have felt when he heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

As it turns out, the vision wasn’t actually about food at all.  Coincidentally, just as Peter was having this vision, there was a knock at the door.  A group of people arrived who would take Peter to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, not a Jew, who wanted to convert to Christianity.  Cornelius’ conversion turned out to be the tip of an iceberg that would transform Christianity into a truly multicultural religious movement in the early centuries of the Church’s existence.

Peter determined pretty quickly that his vision wasn’t really about kosher food at all, but kosher people.  The message he took from his experience is that the kingdom of heaven is a community where all people are welcome, regardless of their ethnic origins or adherence to Jewish ritual laws.  This welcoming event, far from being accepted by all, became the Christian Church’s first controversial debate in history.  Church leaders back then were as divided over the issue of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together as current church leaders are now divided over the issue of same-sex marriage.  After two thousand years, the issues have changed but the process remains the same.

I made us of Peter’s vision this week because this is the fourth week in our series on the six Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve already looked at the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, and the maintenance of divine worship as three Great Ends of the Church.  This week, we’re looking at a fourth one: the preservation of the truth.

Now, this is an aspect of church life that Presbyterians have specialized in over the centuries.  We’ve always been an intellectual bunch.  We like to bring our brains to church.  So, you can imagine that questions of truth tend to factor rather highly in the Presbyterian mind.

In the past (and sometimes in the present), we’ve done such a good job at caring about the truth that our theological debates have led to fights, which have in turn led to church schisms.  At one point, there were so many different Presbyterian denominations in the United States that people started jokingly referring to our tradition as the “Split P Soup” (P is for Presbyterian).  Each and every one of these separate denominations claimed to be the one true Presbyterian Church while all the others were simply heretics.

Starting in the mid-twentieth century,  the largest group of American Presbyterians, then called the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, came up with a new way of expressing its relationship to the idea of theological truth: they adopted a Book of Confessions in place of a single statement of faith.

Before the 1960s, American Presbyterians had almost uniformly looked to a series of documents called the Westminster Standards as the summary of what they believed and taught.  The Westminster Standards included a confession of faith, two catechisms for teaching theology to young people in Q&A format, and a directory for planning and leading worship.

These documents, so it was said, presented the summary of Presbyterian teaching in a single voice.  But the problem is that Presbyterians, going all the way back to John Calvin himself, have always acknowledged that there are other legitimate believers in other churches around the world who don’t necessarily know about or follow the Westminster Confession.  In fact, John Calvin himself never read the Westminster Confession or called himself a Presbyterian.  In recognition of this fact, American Presbyterians in the twentieth century adopted a collection of multiple statements of faith from various times and places around the world.  Taken together, these documents present a composite picture of what we value and believe.  All have equal authority as confessions of the church.  No single statement perfectly summarizes what we think.  Many of these statements even disagree with one another.  Moreover, our Book of Confessions is not a closed book; it can be added to.  The last document to be added was the Brief Statement of Faith, which was added in 1991.  As recently as 2010, our denomination has contemplated adding yet another document: the Belhar Confession from South Africa, although this document failed to achieve the 2/3rds majority vote to be included in the book.

The many documents that now comprise our Book of Confessions are taken together as “subordinate standards” and “expositions” of what the Bible teaches.  We acknowledge that these documents are not perfect, they can be mistaken in their interpretations.  Nevertheless, we include them in our book because we feel they are important.  They are the first, outer layer of church tradition that we embrace and honor as our own.

The next level down from the Book of Confessions in our preservation of the truth is the Bible itself.  This is the big one for most Protestants.  We view the Bible as the inspired and authoritative witness to the Living Word of God revealed in Jesus.  Some have supposed this means that the Bible itself contains no errors of a doctrinal or historical nature.

While I respect such folks’ reverence for the biblical text, I’m not inclined to agree with them about the Bible being inerrant or infallible.  These folks claim that the Bible speaks with a single voice on all matters and serves as the final, debate-ending source to quote in a theological argument.

However, reality is much more complicated than that.  First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice about anything because it’s not a single document.  The Bible is a library.  Like the Book of Confessions, the Bible is a collection of many different documents produced by different people in different places and different times for different reasons.  Parts of it contradict one another.  Most of the documents are stories, poems, and letters that have been preserved over millennia.  This collection is much more central and important to our identity than the Book of Confessions, but it too falls short of the modern ideal of a once-and-for-all source of accurate information.

What we have in the Bible and the Book of Confessions is conversations within conversations about conversations.  Like late-arrivals to a cocktail party, we present-day believers walk into the room, pick up on the nearest conversation, and try to get involved while catching up on what’s already been said.  Chances are, the party and the conversations will still being going on when it’s time for us to leave.  The best we can hope for is to contribute meaningfully to the best of our ability and bond closely with our conversation partners in the time we have available to us.  At no point does anyone seem to have the last word on any part of this conversation.

How then can we be preservers of the truth?  By admitting that we don’t hold all of the answers.  Truth is not a commodity that can be owned, bought, or sold in the open market.  The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is something that is known only to God.  The rest of us are obliged to listen to one another if we are to enlarge our understanding of truth.

Preserving the truth, for Presbyterians, means continuing the conversation about God, the church, the Bible, and morality.  We often disagree about what the truth is about any given matter.  I would dare to say that it’s okay.  Faith is not about having all the answers.  Faith is about reaching out beyond what we know in order to touch the mystery of existence.  Faith is the trust that transforms our lives to look more like Jesus’ life.

In Peter’s case, faith meant trusting the voice in his heart that said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  For him, faith meant opening the doors of the church to welcome those who were not previously welcome due to someone’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible and religious doctrine.  Preserving the truth, for Peter, meant keeping an open mind toward the new thing that God might be doing in the world, in spite of the fact that it went against what felt familiar and sounded orthodox to him.  Preserving the truth and possessing the truth are mutually exclusive of one another.

When Jesus’ ministry was coming to an end, he said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Even Jesus admitted that there are truths that could and should be spoken but didn’t pass through his lips.  He entrusted that ongoing work to the Spirit of God living in the hearts of his followers.  He told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, [that Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.

A church that preserves the truth is a community of people who continually listen for the still, small whisper of that Spirit in their hearts, who keep open minds toward the mystery of truths they do not yet know, and who welcome the presence of outsiders in their midst as potential messengers of truth, insight, and discovery.  May we be such a church and may we preserve the truth to the best of our ability.

Why We Worship

dzhokhar-tsarnaevWe may be New Yorkers, fans of the Yankees or the Mets, but this week we’re all rooting for Boston!

When I heard the news about the atrocity at the marathon, my first inclination was to change this week’s sermon topic.  These are the moments when collective trauma demands a response from the pulpit.  I’ve done it before, especially after the shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT.  My first thought was that I should diverge from our current series on the Great Ends of the Church and use our time together this morning to offer words of healing.

But then I remembered something that happened to me on September 11, 2001.  I was a senior in college then.  It was a Tuesday and I was late to my 11 o’clock class.  I didn’t usually turn on the news in the morning, so I had no idea what was going on in the world.  I remember looking over my shoulder as I rushed past a conference room and seeing a group of people huddled around a television and there on the screen was the image that would forever be burned into my consciousness: the burning towers of the World Trade Center.  I immediately stopped in my tracks, walked back, and sat down with the others in the conference room to take in what was happening.  Needless to say, I never made it to class that day.

The next day, I went to see my professor, Dr. Hauser, and apologized for missing class.  He had a strict attendance policy and I wanted to explain why I had missed class.  “I understand,” he said, “but your absence will still count against you.”  When I asked him why he wouldn’t excuse my absence, Dr. Hauser said these words, which I will remember for the rest of my life: “Because the goal of terrorism is to disrupt and I refuse to allow them to accomplish that goal, so far as my class is concerned.”

And so, borrowing a page from Dr. Hauser’s book, I have decided that I will not give the Tsarnaev brothers the pleasure of disrupting our church service this morning.  We’re going to continue with our regularly scheduled sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church.  In fact, their actions will only serve to illustrate my point, as you’ll soon see.

This week is the third in a six-week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’re using this old Presbyterian document to answer the question, “Why does the Church exist?”  On the first week, Easter Sunday, we said the first Great End of the Church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”  Last week, we said the second Great End of the Church is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”  And this week, we’re saying the third Great End of the Church is “the maintenance of divine worship.”

I actually think today is the perfect Sunday to talk about worship because it is moments of crisis, like this one, that so often lead us to lean more heavily and stand more firmly on the foundation of our faith.  When one part of our identity is attacked, we humans almost instinctively look to ground our collective sense of self in some deeper and stronger source.  I think it’s no surprise that people flocked in droves to churches, mosques, and synagogues in the days after 9/11.  I also think it’s no coincidence that we saw so many ecumenical and interfaith worship services going on at the same time.  Even if it was just for a moment, labels like Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu were being set aside in favor of some larger reality that embraces and connects us all.  This week, we’ve even got Yankees fans wearing Red Sox jerseys (which is the biggest miracle of all, if you ask me).

When we talk about worship, we’re using a word that comes from the Old English term worth-ship.  We’re talking about that which has ultimate worth or value in our eyes.  In worship, we direct our attention toward that which is most important to us in life.  We stop for a moment to orient our little lives within the larger context of the big picture.  It is from this exercise that we draw strength, hope, and courage for facing the days ahead.

Drawing from the resources of our Judeo-Christian heritage, I picked out two passages of scripture that illustrate the act of worship and its power to sustain us in times of crisis.

I’ll start with our New Testament reading.  It came from the book of Revelation, at the very end of the Bible.  Here we read about a vision of what worship looks like from the perspective of heaven.  The author saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”  The author is told that these people are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal”.  Having passed through life’s hardships, they exist in a state of constant, ecstatic worship before God’s throne in heaven.  As Charles Wesley wrote in his famous hymn, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, they are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”  The angel serving as the author’s celestial tour guide says:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

This is the effect that worship has on their lives.  They want for nothing.  They fear nothing.  We’re used to thinking of passages like this one as descriptive of the afterlife, but I see no reason why we cannot experience at least a taste of that heaven in this life.

This morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel tells the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three young men who refused to bow down to the idols of the society they lived in and were made to pass through the fire by the powers that be.  It was their worship of God that put them at odds with the values of the dominant culture around them.  They saw their lives as part of a bigger picture than the one made up of the demands and concerns of the Babylonian Empire.  So, when the reigning powers of that empire demanded their allegiance, they said no.  The full weight of imperial sanction was brought to bear against them, but still they refused.

When they were finally cast into the fire, the reality of their faith was vindicated as it became plain to see that these three young men were not alone in their struggle.  Someone was walking through the fire with them, some mysterious person who had “the appearance of a god”, according to those who saw.

As it was with them, so it is with us.  As we pass through the fires and ordeals of this life, worshiping as we go, we discover that we are not alone.  Our God walks with us in the fire.  As it says in the book of Revelation, God shelters us and shepherds us, guiding us toward “springs of the water of life” where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

The purpose of worship is to open our hearts and minds to this grand reality in which we live, move, and have our being.  In worship, we lift our vision higher than our visibility.  We look at our circumstances through the eyes of faith.  We gather the fragments of our myriad little stories and lives into one Great Story told in prayer, creed, scripture, sacrament, and song.

This is why worship has the power to get us through times of crisis like the ones we lived through this week.  Through it, we come to realize (or are reminded yet again) that the deepest part of ourselves is connected to the deepest part of the universe.  “Deep calls out to deep,” as it says in the psalm.

We reach out to feel the bond of this deep connection in moments of crisis.  What we need to do is nurture that same sense of connectedness in our regular, everyday living.  That way, when crises happen, large or small, we have a well of spiritual resources from which we can draw the water of life.

Those who learn how to live from this deep center are often the very same ones who are ready, willing, and able to share their abundance of spiritual strength and compassion with others.  They are the ones who can walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with them.

That’s what the worship-life of the church is here for: to nurture that strength in believers.  We do it together in our weekly services of public worship, but I hope we also do it individually during the other six days of the week.  This is why it’s so important to have a regular, daily practice of devotional prayer and Bible reading at home.  These spiritual disciplines, far from being rote religious exercises, are as essential to the health of our souls as food and water are essential to the health of our bodies.

We need to maintain that sense of deep connection, not just during moments of crisis, not just on holidays, not just weekly, but daily.

That sense of community bonding we saw in Boston this week is available to all of us, all the time.  The purpose of the church’s worshiping life is to maintain that sense of connection in the normal, boring seasons of life so that we can be ready to spring into action as heroes and leaders when these moments of crisis arise.  We can face the flames unafraid because we know that our God walks through them with us.

This week, I believe we saw God walking with us through the flames.  The stories of heroism, goodwill, and sacrifice cannot undo our grief and anger, but they can exist alongside it, reminding us that evil, chaos, and darkness are not, in fact, the only forces at work in this world.  Furthermore, they will not have the last word.  So long as there is still one good person in this world who’s willing to run toward explosions for the sake of other, wounded human beings, we know that “the light [still] shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The worshiping life of the church reminds us of this truth and seeks to grow in us that same kind of strength and compassion, in hopes that we too might become beacons of hope and justice in this world, people strengthened by faith to stand up for love and walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with us.

Love Conquers All

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons,

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): a distant relative of the legendary Phoenix? Image by Pierre Dalous. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons,

Before I say anything else, I think it would be appropriate on this particular Easter morning to express thanks for the brave work of the men and women of the Boonville Volunteer Fire Department in their handling of the fire that destroyed part of downtown Main Street this week.

I don’t know if you heard, but there was a class of kindergarten students that was looking at a picture of a fire truck with its crew and trusty Dalmatian close at hand.  One student asked the teacher why fire trucks always traveled with Dalmatians.  The teacher didn’t know, so the kids began to speculate.  One said, “Maybe they help control the crowds.”  And another one said, “Maybe it’s just for good luck.”  But in the end they all agreed that the best answer came from the third kid who said, “They must use the dogs to find the fire hydrants.”

Like Dalmatians on fire trucks, there is so much in this world that we simply accept as present without asking why it’s there.  Take the church, for instance.  A lot of people go to church their whole lives without ever really asking why.  What is the purpose of the church?  Why is it here?  Is it just to keep the pipe organ and stained-glass window companies in business?  Is it just to give our pastor a place to bring all his corny jokes that no one else will laugh at?  Is it a civic organization where people can gather as a community to reflect on their beliefs and values?

According to our ancestors in the Presbyterian tradition, the church does have a particular purpose.  Actually, it’s a six-fold purpose.  It was most clearly delineated and written down a little over a hundred years ago by the United Presbyterian Church in North America, one of the predecessor denominations to our current national church: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The statement written by our forebears is called The Great Ends of the Church and it reads as follows:

The great ends of the church are:

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Now, I don’t expect you to remember all of these points at once.  But starting today, we’re going to spend some time with the great ends of the church over the next several weeks (not including next week, when I’ll be away from the pulpit).  One by one, we’re going to look at these related ends and ask ourselves why we are here.  My ultimate hope is that our discussion of the great ends of the church might lead us to explore questions about what it is that God might be calling our particular congregation to be and do in this community and the world at large.

Today, we’re going to look at the first great end of the church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Now, that’s a mouthful of theologically loaded terms that don’t always conjure up the most positive mental images of the church.  When the average person hears church-folks talking about “proclaiming the gospel” and “salvation”, the first thing they tend to think of is proselytism (the active recruitment of converts to one’s religion).  In other words, they think of people going door to door with Bibles in hand, winning converts for Christ and saving souls for heaven.  At best, people see this kind of activity as misguided and self-seeking.  After all, aren’t these people just trying to grow the ranks of the church and fill the offering plate?  Most folks (understandably) would much rather be left alone from this kind of “gospel”.

So what else might we mean when we say that the first great end of the church is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind?  Well, we’ll have to take a closer look at the words “gospel” and “salvation” in order to get a clearer picture about that.  The word “gospel” simply means “good news” and the word “salvation” comes from the Latin word “salve” which means “to heal or make well”.  So we’re really talking about some piece of good news that has the capacity to bring wellness to the entire earth community.  When I let that definition roll around in my head, I imagine a TV news bulletin interrupting regularly scheduled programming in order to inform the public about some momentous discovery, like a cure for cancer, for instance.

For Christians, we see the life of Jesus as representing just such an occasion of good news.  We see in him a way to heal the darkness, chaos, and brokenness of this world.  We hear it in his teachings.  We see it in his actions.  Most of all, we believe this good news to be embodied in the stories we tell about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Whether or not we take these stories literally, we see them as expressions of truth: the truth that the pure Love living in Jesus could not be silenced or held back by the hateful, violent, and power-hungry forces of this world.  No, this Love that he revealed to us is more powerful than all the crosses, all the bombs, and all the schemes of all the nations of the world.  Death itself is not strong enough to keep this Love down.  This Love is so powerful that we would even call it divine.  We would go so far as to say that the Love revealed in Jesus pulses in the nucleus of every atom, in the core of every star, and in the heart of every person.  No matter what you try to say or do to it, the divine Love of Jesus lives.

In other words: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s it.  That’s the message of resurrection.  That’s the story of Easter.  That’s the gospel: the good news that brings wholeness and well-being to all.

The first great end of the church, the first reason why we exist at all, is to make this good news known to as many creatures as possible.  The Love we see in Jesus should be apparent in our words and deeds as well.  Our lives, as Christians, should make it easier for others to believe that Love does indeed conquer all (even death).  Every service, every prayer, every hymn, every sermon, every building, every service project, every committee meeting, every rummage sale, and every dollar raised or spent should be directed toward making this one truth more clear and visible to the world:

Love conquers all.

God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Can we say that our church currently embodies this truth in everything we do?  If not, how do you think we can do it better?  What concrete steps can we take toward that end?

How about your individual life?  Do people ever look at you and say, “Wow, that person’s life makes me want to believe that Love really does conquer all”?  If not, then what concrete steps can you take to make the reality of Love more apparent in your life?  Maybe it’s even something as simple as learning the name of your server in the diner where you eat lunch today?

There are bigger ways we can do this as well.  This Easter morning, our congregation is collecting the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, which will go to support national and international organizations that provide, disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development resources to people all over the world.  Grants funded by One Great Hour of Sharing go to support initiatives like the Water for Life project in the African country of Niger.  Since 2006, Water for Life has dug six large wells for drinking water, 85 small gardening wells, and ten water-retention pools.  “As a result,” according to the website of the Presbyterian Hunger Project, “19,892 people in 3,292 households, as well as 28,000 livestock animals, have benefited from improved access to potable water for drinking and food production.  Additionally, over 853 acres of land have been cultivated with food crops and over 4,942 acres have been reforested.”

This is Love in action, embodied at a distance for people we’ll never meet.

On a more local level, I’d like to draw your attention to the post-fire recovery effort currently underway at the Boonville United Methodist Church.  From the very beginning of this crisis, before the buildings had even stopped smoldering, the Methodist Church opened its doors as a command and resource center for victims.  Donations of food, clothing, and supplies have poured in from all over our community.

Rev. Rob Dean tells me the one thing they need most right now is people who can come down to help sort and distribute donations.  Starting Tuesday, I’ll be spending most of next week over there as well, lending a hand and assisting Rev. Dean with any pastoral care needs for the families.  You’re invited to come along as well.  We could really use the help.

I spent yesterday afternoon over there.  When we sat down to dinner last night, we had more food than we knew what to do with.  In that upper room together were displaced families, dedicated volunteers, exhausted firefighters, and two bewildered pastors who still had services to lead and sermons to write for Easter Sunday.  Looking around the room last night, I discovered this sermon.  I realized that I was witnessing resurrection in action, right before my eyes.  In the midst of these people: suffering, hugging, laughing, and eating together.  Within them and among them, new life was rising up from the ashes and taking flight like the Phoenix of Greek legend.

Friends, this is not just charity, nor is it simply a worthy cause.  This is the good news that brings wholeness and well-bring.  This is the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.  This is the first great end of the church.  It is why we are here.

Our Guest Preacher is Oscar Romero

Icon by Fr. Robert Lentz

Icon by Fr. Robert Lentz

Today is Palm / Passion Sunday.  From the gospels, we heard about the final suffering and death of Jesus.  Today also happens to be the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

I brought this icon to church and set it upright on the Communion Table as I preached.

Instead of my own sermon, I preached Archbishop Romero’s final homily: the one he was preaching when he was gunned down in a hospital chapel on March 24, 1980… one week to the day before I was born.

I have tears in my eyes to think that I was able to bring his words to life again this morning.  One of the little old ladies at my church commented on her way out that what he said is even more relevant today than when he first preached it.

It is as the good Archbishop himself said: “If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”  Not only Salvadoran…

By some amazing coincidence, the gospel text for Romero’s last homily was John 12:23-26:

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.

Click here to read the full text of Oscar Romero’s last homily (in English)

Why Be A Christian?

Maria, sister of Lazarus, meets Jesus who is going to their house (1864). By Nikolai Ge. Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Maria, sister of Lazarus, meets Jesus who is going to their house (1864). By Nikolai Ge. Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

My favorite part of our church’s mission statement is the part at the end where we declare that we are “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.”  I like to remind you of those words at the beginning of worship every Sunday because they speak volumes about who we are and what we do in this community.  The world at large desperately needs to hear this message about a community that is truly “open to all”.  So many other groups and organizations, even churches, divide themselves from one another along ideological lines.  Here in this church, it is my privilege to be a pastor to so many people from so many different political and religious backgrounds.  I can testify from experience that the Spirit who binds us together is deeper and broader than any one set of ideas or opinions.  This is a church that has been built from the heart up, not from the mind down.

Almost everywhere else you can go in the world, the exact opposite is true.  Most people want to know if you agree with them before they enter into a relationship with you.  But we are different.  We’ll move over and make room for you in the pew no matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you think.  We’ll just keep on telling you that we love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Yup, we’re “open to all and reaching out to the world in love”.  I want you to know this morning how rare and unique that is, especially for a church.  I personally believe that this part of our identity is the key to our future as a church.  This commitment to openness is what makes us different from so many other Christians, who make people pass some kind of dogma test before they’ll accept them.

Recently, I was engaged in an intense discussion with one of these “other Christians”.  This person said to me, “You think it’s okay, in God’s eyes, for people to practice other religions.  So then, why would anyone want to be Christian if it’s not the one and only true religion?”  I thought that was a great question.  Why would anyone choose to be Christian if they could also choose to be Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim?

I was reminded of this conversation when I read this week’s gospel passage from the lectionary.  It’s the story of a woman named Mary of Bethany, who knelt at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair.  This was an incredible act of affection and devotion toward Jesus.  Mary obviously loved and cared about him very much.

That got me thinking: if I was in Mary’s place, what is it about Jesus that would make me fall down on my knees in love and devotion?  What is it about Jesus that makes me want to commit my life to him?  Why am I a Christian?

I think this is a question that each and every one of us should ask.  Whether you’ve just started coming to church or you’ve been here your whole life, you’ve decided to be here for a reason.  We owe it to ourselves and the world to know what that reason is.  I can’t answer that question for you.  But what I can do is tell you why I’ve decided to be a Christian.  I hope that my answer to this question might help you answer it for yourself.

So here’s what Christian faith means to me.  This is what has driven me, like Mary of Bethany, to kneel down before the feet of Jesus and offer him all that I have and all that I am:

For me, being a Christian is all about love.  Love is what I have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth.  When religious scholars quizzed Jesus about the most important part of the Bible, he told them it all comes down to love: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Jesus embodied love in the way he lived his life.  He broke bread with tax collectors, Jews who sold their own people out to the Romans in order to make a quick, dishonest buck.  He pardoned the sin of a woman caught in adultery when the rest of her village was ready to stone her to death.  He nurtured relationships with Samaritans, the ethnic and religious rivals of the Jews, and saw the best in them.  He praised the faith of a pagan Roman soldier.  He reached out and touched a leper, who had been shunned and exiled from society because of his disease.  Finally, he spoke words of forgiveness to his executioners as they waited for him to die.  This is love.

Love, he said, is the first duty of any religious person.

When he wasn’t around, Jesus called upon his followers to love each other in his place.  Any good deed rendered unto the most despised and forgotten members of society, Jesus said in Matthew 25, he would count as service rendered unto him.  “Truly I tell you,” he said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”

The love that shone through Jesus came to have a profound impact on his followers.  The apostle Paul declared that, if it wasn’t for love, all his words, knowledge, and faith would be meaningless.  John the Beloved went so far as to let Jesus’ example of love redefine his idea of God: “God is love,” he said, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

What I learned through Jesus is that God is not some angry judge, sitting high up on a cloud, hurling down lightning bolts at people he doesn’t like.  No, God is that dynamic energy of love that flows out from within us.  God works through persuasion, not coercion.  This divine love takes on an infinite variety of forms, depending on the person and the situation.  As we open ourselves up to this love more and more, we are continually filled with God’s Spirit, and we begin to resemble Jesus.  Love, then, is the measure of our faith, not religious dogma.

Through Jesus, I learn how to love and I learn that I am loved.  Jesus didn’t just teach people about love, he didn’t just point to love.  No, Jesus embodied love in his very being and person.  Love shone through his every word and deed.  That’s what I mean when I praise Jesus as the Son of God and the Incarnation of God: Jesus is the embodiment of divine love who invites me to do and be the same, in whatever imperfect and limited way that I am able.

This is what takes my breath away when it comes to Jesus.  This is why I want to fall down at his feet and offer everything I have and all that I am, so that I might be part of that love too.  This is the kind of God that I can believe in.

For me it is no contradiction to believe that the dynamic God of love I discovered in Jesus can be active in the lives of people from every time, place, culture, and religion.  I hear the voice of this God whispering to me in the pages of the Bible and singing to me in the clouds at sunset.  Jesus has opened my eyes, ears, mind, and heart to experience the presence of God in all things.  For this, I am amazed and give thanks.  What else can I do but collapse to my knees before Jesus and worship?

That is why I am a Christian.  It has nothing to do with creeds, dogmas, or being the one and only true religion.  It has everything to do with love.  I hope and pray that the people around me will experience through me, in some degree, the love I have received through Jesus (whether they recognize it by that name or not).

How about you?  Why are you here in church today?  If you call yourself a Christian, why do you choose that label for yourself?  I want to encourage each and every one of you to answer that question for yourself today.  Something has brought you here.  You are not sitting in this church by accident.  It is therefore incumbent upon you to ask yourself: Why?

In your imagination, put yourself in Mary of Bethany’s place: kneeling at the feet of Jesus, offering the very best of what you have and who you are.  What has brought you here?  Even as you acknowledge and respect the faith of others who are different, something about this faith and this person, Jesus, has captured your attention.  What is it?

Answer that question for yourself and don’t be afraid or ashamed to share your answer with the world.  There are people out there who need to hear what you have to say.  Go out there today and tell them.

“Preach the gospel always… use words when necessary.”

May your words and your deeds say to the people of this world: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Prodigal Grace

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c.1663-1665). Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c.1663-1665). Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

The last one hundred and fifty years or so have borne witness to more technological and scientific advances than any other equivalent period of time in human history.  From industry to the internet, from the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to the first moon landing at Tranquility Base, from outer space to cyberspace, we have traveled farther, communicated faster, and dug deeper into the mysteries of the universe than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

In all this time, perhaps the greatest mystery we have encountered is the mystery of each other.  Without a second thought, I can pull a hand-held device out of my pocket and initiate an instantaneous conversation with someone on the opposite side of the planet.  Compare this ability to explorers like Magellan, whose trip around the globe cost him his life, four out of five ships, and all but 18 of his 270 crew members.  Compare it to the life of the average peasant in medieval Europe, who would likely never travel more than 5 miles away from the spot where he was born.  Our experience of the world in the early 21st century is so much more connected and cosmopolitan than our ancestors thought possible.

But it hasn’t been an entirely utopian experience, of course.  This heightened interconnectivity has brought us into contact with people very different from ourselves.  These people talk, dress, think, and worship very differently than we do.  Our knowledge of the world has given rise to more questions.  The most vexing of these questions have to do with religion.  Once the average person became aware of so many different religions on this planet, and especially once they began living next door to people who practice these religions, how are we supposed to make sense of such diversity?  With so many varieties of belief and so many opinions about the ultimate nature of reality, surely someone has to be right while everyone else is wrong, right?

These questions have sparked an ongoing debate about who God is and what God wants that has lasted to this day.  It seems like there’s always some nut-case out there who is more than willing to stand up on national television and claim with unwavering certainty to have the one and only right answer about what God’s will is.  Too many people, longing for something to hold onto in these confusing times, are only too willing to buy into such easy answers.  As we have seen, time and again, these peddlers of snake-oil and easy answers can make their followers say and do the unthinkable.  In exchange for absolute certainty about the will of God, people are willing to hand over the money in their bank accounts, cut off relations to friends and family, and even fly airplanes into buildings.  The philosopher Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  I like to pray a prayer I once saw on a bumper-sticker: “Lord, protect me from your followers!”

In these times of complication and confusion, the promise of absolute certainty feels like a virtue but turns out to be a vice.  As it turns out, the way we hold our questions with our values is far more important than the answers we come up with.

In Jesus’ time, there was a group of people who claimed to have all the answers.  They were the Pharisees.  Erudite scholars of the Torah, these well-respected citizens seemed to possess a monopoly on the truth market.  Their rabbis fielded questions of theology and ethics so well that they established themselves as defenders of the faith and guardians of family values.  Theirs was a world of black and white easy answers.  Faith and certainty went hand in hand with no room for mystery, doubt, or mercy.

You can imagine then that when Jesus came along, he really messed with their worldview.  We read in the opening verses of this morning’s gospel passage that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners.  The Pharisees were quite offended by this gesture, since eating with someone in that time and culture implied that you accepted that person just as he or she was.  From their point of view, Jesus was sending the wrong kind of message for an upstanding citizen and an acclaimed rabbi.  In response to their offended sensibilities, Jesus told them a story.  It’s the famous story we now know as the parable of the prodigal son.

The story begins with a fictional man with two sons.  One day, the younger of the two decides that he doesn’t want to sit around and wait for his father to die before collecting on his inheritance.  He asks for it ahead of schedule.  Basically, this move was his way of saying to his dad, “You’re dead to me.”  And his father, in spite of what must have been immense heartbreak over this rejection, acquiesces to his younger son’s demand.

The next thing we learn is that this son takes his share of the estate and burns out on the party scene of some far-away city.  But when the good times stop rolling, the son is hard-up for cash.  He ends up taking the most disgusting job possible for a young Jewish person: feeding pigs.  He was do hungry that even the hog-slop was starting to look and smell pretty good to him.

Finally, in a moment of desperation and clarity, the son selfishly cooks up a half-decent apology in order to get himself back into more stable living conditions.  And then he makes his way back home with his tail between his legs.  He wasn’t really sorry, mind you, he was just miserable enough that he would do anything, put up with any amount of humiliation, if it meant a warm bed and three square meals a day.

This is where the story gets really interesting.  Jesus says, “…while [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  Taken aback by this enthusiastic greeting, the son nevertheless begins his feigned apology speech, but his father never lets him finish.  He cuts him off by calling for his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals.  He kills the fattened calf and prepares a celebration feast.  In this moment, we get a clear picture of this father’s true nature as a man overflowing with love and generosity for his children.

Most tellings of the story end here, with the prodigal son’s redemption via forgiveness.  But that’s not where Jesus ends the story.  He keeps going.

Enter the older brother, the father’s firstborn son.  He has been the dutiful heir to the estate.  He has his stuff together, so to speak.  He has always done everything right.  But he’s not the hero of this story, not by a long shot.

It turns out that this older brother, in his quest to be the perfect son, has severely misjudged the kind of person his father is.  When he sees the welcome that his younger brother receives, the older brother gets angry and shouts at his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”  He thinks his father is a cranky old miser who demands absolute obedience without question.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Jesus’ cautionary tale about the older brother is a biting indictment of the leaders of the religious establishment in his day.  Like the older brother in the story, their devotion to certainty and obedience has led them to believe that their God is just as judgmental and small-minded as they are.

On the other hand, it is the tax collectors and sinners around Jesus, no strangers to imperfection and doubt, who have the keenest insight on the nature of reality.  Through Jesus’ acceptance of them as they are, warts and all, they are coming to have faith in the power of grace.

What is grace?  Well, a theological dictionary would define grace as “unmerited favor” but here’s my favorite definition of grace: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s how we end our sermons here every week.

But more than that, grace is one of the central religious values of our Presbyterian heritage.  In the 16th century, when established religious authorities once used guilt and fear to manipulate and control the people, the Reformers countered that there is nothing a person can do to garner favor with God.  Grace is a given.  It is God’s basic orientation toward human beings.  All we have to do is decide how we’re going to respond to it.

Will we, like the older brother and the Pharisees, storm off in a huff over the scandalous nature of grace?  Or will we, like the younger brother and the sinners, open our hearts to this undeserved love?  Will we allow it to transform us from the inside out, until we start to look like Jesus?

When I look around our world in the 21st century, I see a planet in desperate need of grace.  We’ve had more than enough of pompous, self-righteous fanatics who claim to hold all the right answers to life, the universe, and everything.  What we need now is a deep, abiding faith in the mystery of grace.

We need imperfect people, full of doubts and faults, whose lives have nevertheless been touched by the knowledge that they are loved, no matter what.  Such people know how to love in return.  Theirs is the only message that can successfully defend against the attacks of judgmentalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism.

Their scandalous message of grace, never popular or pragmatic, applies equally to liberals as well as conservatives, Muslims as well as Christians, North Koreans as well as North Americans.  Grace is the great equalizer.  Grace is the central value by which we know that we can never out-stay our welcome in the kingdom of God, and it is the enlivening force that empowers us to go out from this church this morning, saying to one another (and to the whole world):

“I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Abundance

Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island

Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island

When I was in seminary at Regent College, there was a professor there named Loren Wilkinson.  Loren was famous for regularly inviting students to join him and his wife Mary Ruth at their farm on Galiano Island, just off the coast of British Columbia’s lower mainland.  This trip to the Wilkinson farm became one of the central hallmarks of the Regent College experience for many students, myself included.

Now, this trip was no mere vacation, mind you.  No, when you went to Galiano Island, you went there expecting to work.  Loren got you up early and gave you a task to complete somewhere on the farm.  There was always something to be done, and with groups of students visiting almost every weekend, there were usually enough hands to get it all done.  Many students, like me, came from urban or suburban backgrounds, so we had never experienced life on a working farm before.  Loren made sure that we got our hands dirty and broke a sweat during the day.

And then, at night, the real treat came: dinner.  After work, the other thing you were expected to do at Galiano Island was eat.  And, oh my goodness, did we eat!  Homemade delicacies of every imaginable variety were set out before us in abundance.  Nobody left that table hungry.  And it wasn’t just the quantity of food that was abundant, it was the quality as well.  Everything was organic, homemade, and delicious.

Loren and Mary Ruth lived very simple lives on the island, but the main thing we learned during our stay with them is that simple need not mean austere.  Visitors never got the sense that these people were sacrificing or going without the creature comforts of life.  They live in abundance.

I thought about my trip to Galiano Island and the abundance I discovered there when I read this week’s scripture passage from the book of Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price…

…Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

Later on in the passage, the prophet compares the word of God to the life-giving qualities of rain:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Finally, at the end, the prophet leaves the people with a promise of even more abundance, which is yet to come:

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The power of these images is undeniable.  The earth itself is veritably bursting at the seams with life and blessing.  More than just “the way it is”, to this Jewish prophet, the abundance of creation is a divine revelation: it tells us something about God: the Ground of all Being, the core nature of reality itself.  We humans live, move, and have our being in a vast ocean of abundant blessing and amazing grace.

Why then don’t we see it?  Why don’t we believe it?  Why don’t we live our lives as if this was the most central truth of our existence?

It can be hard to embrace the abundance of creation when we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices and circumstances testifying to the contrary.  Every time we change the channel, it seems like there’s one more voice reminding us how close we are to the brink of Armageddon.  Politicians and advertising executives make their livings off of our fear that there is not enough to go around.  Popular media would have us believe that poverty and starvation are problems too big to be solved.  We tell ourselves there’s simply nothing we can do.  However, according to the World Hunger Education Service, the earth produces enough food to provide every man, woman, and child with 2,720 kilocalories per day… that’s over 1,000 times the amount of calories needed for a healthy diet.  Regardless of this fact, people all over the world (mostly in Asia and Africa) are dying of starvation while Americans are dying of an obesity epidemic.

Is the problem really that there’s not enough to go around?  Or is it that too much has been hoarded into one place?  Could it be that powerful, fear-mongering politicians and executives are holding the rest of us hostage with delusions of scarcity?

What makes it worse is that the powerful people who propagate these lies have come to believe in them so strongly that they are making decisions for the rest of us.  They lob their ideological grenades at one another on TV, meanwhile the children of God line up outside soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Senators and CEOs drive around in bullet-proof limousines while the people of this country stand in unemployment lines.  Friends, I daresay this is a sin against heaven itself.  Something is radically wrong with our collective worldview if we truly believe the lie that there is simply not enough to go around.

This morning’s scripture reading calls us to change this worldview.  First, the prophet gets our attention:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.

And then warns us:

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

The details of this passage are worth paying attention to: the problem, according to the prophet, is not the bounty of creation but the small-mindedness of its inhabitants.  Presumably, they want to live and live well.  What is needed then?  We must forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts.  The problem is not with the world itself, but with our way of thinking and living in it.  Average people are envious of those who have more than they need, so they run roughshod over the rights and needs of the poor in an attempt to emulate the powerful.

The prophet gives us the remedy:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live…

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

In other words: it’s high time to change our stinkin’ thinkin’.

It’s time for us to stop shouting at the sky about how big our problems are and start shouting at our problems about how big the sky is.

Instead of looking out for number one in our small-minded, self-centered little worlds, we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and sharing.  The abundance of creation is a free gift to all.  We lose it when we try to keep it all for ourselves.  It’s time for us, as people of faith, “to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  I borrowed that phrase from our neighbors in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The simplest answer is that it’s time for us to learn how to share.  I’m not just talking about opening our wallets on occasion; I’m talking about opening our minds on all occasions.  We have to expand our definition of the word family.  We need to nurture global family values, but that’s a tall order, so why don’t we start with local family values?  When we hear about that sickness, that layoff, or that foreclosure for our neighbors, let’s not harden our hearts or turn our backs saying, “It’s not my problem.”  Because it is our problem.  When we live in community with one another, not just proximity to one another, options, possibilities, and resources begin to open up.  All of a sudden, we don’t feel so desperate or alone anymore.  Together we find hope, strength, and courage to overcome adversity and make it through the darkest night.  In short: we begin to manifest the freely given abundance of creation that is our collective birthright.  We start small and work our way up.  As they say, “Think globally, act locally.”

Coming up in a few weeks, on Easter Sunday, our congregation will be participating in a single, unified manifestation of abundance for people all over the world.  It’s called One Great Hour of Sharing.  This ecumenical effort was begun over sixty years ago to pool the efforts of multiple denominations in the fight against global poverty and hunger.  Our forebears realized they could do more together than any of them could do apart.  To date, we have raised as much as $20 million annually to assist with disaster relief and development projects around the world.

Throughout the season of Lent, you will notice inserts in your bulletins that outline a different project each week that is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.  Take these inserts home with you, pray for the project highlighted that week, and please consider pooling your resources with ours on Easter Sunday so that we might collectively manifest the abundance of creation for the good of the whole.

These are our global family values.  This is our faith-based alternative to the politics of fear and the economy of scarcity.  It has nothing to do with the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street.  The kingdom of heaven-on-earth doesn’t belong to the powerful; it belongs to the little ones of this world, it belongs to the local communities of average Janes and Joes who reach out to care for one another in the midst of good times and bad.

In a few minutes, we will gather as a church around the Communion Table to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In this feast of the abundance of heaven and earth, all people are invited to come, eat, and drink without money and without price.

I pray that the message of this feast will not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent: bringing forth life and growth, manifesting the abundance of creation for the common good.  May the meaning of this mystery take root in the soil of your soul, and as you go out from this place today, fed and filled with Word and Sacrament, may you go out in joy and be led back in peace, may the mountains and hills burst into song before you and the trees of the field clap their hands.

May you know the abundance of creation as you share it with everyone you meet.  May you be blessed and be a blessing in the knowledge that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.