Sermon: Jerusalem News Broadcast

Sunday 14 April 2019
Palm Sunday

Based on the work of Henry Admiraal.

Thank you, Joseph. As you heard in the previous reporting, the unusual display from Jesus of Nazareth happened during a time of already heightened alert. The population of Jerusalem can increase multiple times over as pilgrims stream into the city for the Passover holiday festivities. Every business and home is struggling to accommodate the massive crowds.

If the size of the crowd weren’t enough to put the Romans on edge, the theme of the Passover holiday certainly does. After all, Jews everywhere are celebrating when God freed us from the oppressive rule of a mighty empire by striking dead the first born sons of every family of the Egyptians. That the Romans let us celebrate this holiday at all is a bit of a miracle. That’s why, as we do every year, we’re encouraging residents and visitors to Jerusalem to keep things calm and not cause any trouble.

But there’s no doubt that Governor Pilate and his legion will be on high alert. Supplementary troops marched in yesterday and today from their base in Caesarea by the sea. Anytime there are this many pilgrims in the city, the legionaries will be looking to suppress any unrest, but especially during a season like Passover, a celebration linked so closely with Jewish nationalism.

And we all know what happens when the Romans sense resistance. It seems we can hardly go two years without some supposed Messiah rising up and trying to overthrow the Roman occupation. Usually they don’t get very far, of course. A few highly public crucifixions and everything is over. They want to make it clear. This is what happens if you challenge the Peace of Roman, you end up hanging on a cross.

But many of you will remember the revolt of Judas the Galilean. Not 25 years ago, after the Great King Herod died, he started an uprising that still echoes today. His followers, the Zealots, are still agitating for a new order, a new Jewish state that has no king or emperor, but is ruled only by God. Is this new Galilean rabbi, Jesus, planning to pick up where is follow countryman, Judas, left off? Can we expect more violence in the streets in the days to come?

And who hasn’t heard the stories of one of the elders about Antigonus Mattathias the Hasmonean? Seventy years ago, he courted the help of the Parthians, Rome’s enemy to the east. With their help, he ruled as King in Jerusalem for three years. That’s when Herod the Great first came to power. He was a personal friend of the emperor’s family. They sent him to Judea at the head of a Roman army. After three years of fighting and brutal siege in Jerusalem, Herod and the Romans brought Antigonus, and Herod became King of the Jews. Ever since then, Judea has been one giant construction project, with Herod expanding the temple, building new fortresses and palaces, and even founding whole new cities for the glory of the emperor.

So, what are we to make of this new rabble-rouser, this Jesus ben Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee? His late father was a small-time carpenter, although there are rumors about whether or not he was Jesus’s father at all. They say that his wife, Mary, was pregnant before they were married.

Jesus himself is a bit of an odd duck. Thirty-some years old, but never married. No children, let alone the grandchildren we might expect from someone his age. His life seems to have changed when he went out to the Jordan wilderness and was baptized by John ben Zechariah. After that he seems to have left everything behind and become some sort of wandering preacher, exorcist, and faith-healer. He’s become a bit of a sensation across Galilee and the surrounding area. Crowds have been flocking to him with their sick and demon-possessed. And he’s even been sending his disciples out ahead of him, two-by-two, with the same powers of healing and exorcism.

But the real story has been his controversial preaching. Critics are divided or what it is that he means. So much of his teaching is done with enigmatic stories called parables, it seems like the meaning changes depending on who is hearing him. But there can be no mistake that his constant references to a Kingdom of God have raised the hackles of authorities. Some claim that Jesus is simply speaking metaphorically, but others hear a clear critique of Rome in this subversive, political imagery.

Concerns over Jesus’s possible revolutionary views will certainly not be relieved by his actions today. Parading into town on a donkey like an ancient king can be nothing but provocative. The crowds were even calling him a Son of David. What else could the authorities think except that he fancies himself a king?

And he drew even more attention to himself when he visited the temple. On the busiest week of the year for the temple, he went in and disrupted its regular operation. Jews coming from hundreds of miles away depend on the animal sellers and the money-changers in order to procure appropriate sacrifices. But Jesus came in and overturned the whole thing. A provocative action in an already tense time.

So what is next for this Jesus of Nazareth? If he keeps a low profile for the rest of the week, he might just skate by without punishment. But there is no doubt that the authorities, both the Sanhedrin and the Romans, will be watching him closely. If he shows up in the temple again for anything other than a quiet sacrifice, you can bet that there will be consequences. If he starts preaching his radical message in and around the temple, the authorities will have to do something.

And yet these crowds that are following him are a problem. He’s got them so whipped up with Messianic expectation, who knows what will happen. If he gets arrested and his followers try to resist, we could have blood in the streets, curfews, martial law.

Right now, though, it’s just too early to tell. If Jesus passes through the rest of the week without controversy, he might just make it back home to Galilee and continue his eccentric ministry. If he provokes the authorities again, we could have the start of another rebellion. With the city packed like it is, there could be hundreds, even thousands of deaths. There could even be a return to war.

But more than likely, Jesus’s story will end like so many other so-called Messiahs before him. He’ll poke the Romans in the eye one too many times and get himself arrested. If so, he’ll probably end up hanging on a cross, made an example of, just like everyone else who challenges Rome. And that will be the end of his story. Jesus of Nazareth. Just one more outlaw who tried to stand up to the power of Rome. One day the talk of the town, the next day hung on a cross, and a week later, his name completely forgotten.

Be sure to tune in next week as we bring you full coverage of the continuing situation in the holy city. For Jerusalem News Broadcast, I’m David ben Horace. Stay safe, and good night.

Sermon: The Anointing at Bethany

Sunday 7 April 2019
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:1-8

Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume by a woman. Some version of this story happens in all four of the gospels, but the details are different in each gospel. Three gospel have the anointing happening at Bethany, but Luke says it happens somewhere else. Two have it at the house of Simon the leper, one at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and one at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Three have an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus, one has Mary of Bethany. Two have Jesus’s head being anointed and two have his feet being anointed. Each of the stories is a little different.

Here’s how it happens in the gospel of John, the last of the four gospels. Jesus is within a week of his death. He is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, but before he is able to, he will be killed. On his way, he is told of the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Now, everyone is talking about him. This is unlike anything anyone has ever seen or heard of before. The authorities are up in arms. They are convinced that Jesus must die because everyone is flocking to him. And they are also determined to kill Lazarus, because his resurrection is the reason that Jesus has become so popular.

It is in this context of heightened danger that Jesus finds himself at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He will soon enter the ancient city to the riotous acclaim of the crowds. But before that, he sits down for dinner.

Martha is serving. If you know anything about Mary and Martha you’ll know that that isn’t a surprise. Martha is the sister of action, the sister of service. But the language that is used in this story has eucharistic connotations. The word for service is the word we have in English as deacon. Martha is serving as the deacon at the table of the Lord. Jesus the savior stands as the high priest, and Lazarus, the one who was saved, raised from the dead, is there at table with him.

Their sister, Mary, is the one who anoints Jesus. Anointing was a well known ritual in the ancient world. Kings and priests were anointed in preparation for their service. The dead were also anointed before burial.

But this anointing is unusual. Priests and kings were anointed on the head. Corpses were anointed on their whole bodies. But Jesus is anointed on his feet. No one really knows what this means. It wasn’t usual for anyone to be anointed on the feet. One guess is that the feet were associated with action, and so Jesus is being ordained for action.

It was, however, a custom to wash people’s feet. People mostly wore sandals, and the roads were very dirty and unsanitary. When guests came into your house, it was customary to have a slave wash their feet. It would be quite unusual for a host like Mary to wash a guest’s feet. But that is what Mary does, even wiping them with her hair, which would also have been very, very unusual. Less than a week before Jesus humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples, Mary washes Jesus’s feet.

Mary uses a very expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. In Greek it’s called myrrh. You’ll remember myrrh as being one of the gifts Jesus received from the magi. It’s made of pure nard. It’s related to the word “faithful”. It’s myrrh made of faithful nard. And it’s worth nearly a year’s wages. Think about that. Can you imagine washing someone’s feet with a $50,000 bottle of perfume?

So why does Mary anoint Jesus? Is it to proclaim him as king? Is it to make him a priest? Is it to prepare him for burial? Yes. Christ is the King, the ruler of the universe, and his identity will soon be revealed to all. He is also the great high priest, and he is about to preside over the greatest sacrifice of all time, the sacrifice of himself in which Jesus is both priest and offering. And Jesus is being prepared for death. No one will ever get a chance to prepare his body after he is dead. He will have risen before they are able to get to him. But what Mary does prepares him beforehand. Through these ritual acts, Mary proclaims who Jesus is. She anticipates his own act of humble service.  She marks the incredible, history-changing event of his death and resurrection.

It’s important to note that what Mary does is incredibly generous. Again, based on average incomes in Oregon right now, we’re talking about a $50,000 bottle of perfume here. I feel like you could buy the entire contents of a Bath and Bodyworks for less than that. She gives it for Jesus asking absolutely nothing in return. She gives an extravagant gift to Jesus. Are we as generous with our resources when it comes to Jesus and God’s Kingdom? Or are we more likely to keep the best for ourselves. Mary’s incredibly generous act is a model to us for how to use our resources for Jesus.

Judas, though, is not impressed. John makes it clear that Judos objection is motivated by greed, greed that contrasts with Mary’s generosity. But if we set aside Judas’s motives for a moment, he still asks a good question. Why should Mary have spent so much money on something as frivolous as perfume? Why so much expense for something that won’t last and makes no different to anyone? Why shouldn’t the perfume be sold and the money given to the poor? Wouldn’t that be a better use of the resources? Wouldn’t that be more in line with Jesus’s teachings, Jesus who never sought wealth or power but who always advocated for the poor and lowly?

Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to object to this kind of opulence? But he doesn’t. He does quite the opposite. And he says something that we would never expect Jesus to say. He says, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

Is Jesus really saying that there will always be poor people around, so it’s no use doing anything to help them? That’s how this verse has often been used. It’s been used to say that things will never change, the poor will always be poor, so there’s no sense in trying to change it. Just let the rich be rich and the poor be poor. It’s the way of things.

But that isn’t what Jesus is really saying. Jesus is saying that the poor will always be around and that we can help the poor anytime we feel like it. That ministry will always be available to us. But this moment, as Jesus prepares for death, this moment was something different. It was a special occasion, an occasion that merited some extra expense.

There aren’t many times when Jesus approves of extravagance. This is one. Mary does a beautifully generous thing for him. She prepares him for what is about to happen to him. She prepares him through ritual. An action that on the surface seems completely meaningless. How could perfume possibly help Jesus? But on the level of ritual and symbol this act has incredible meaning. It declares who Jesus is. It proclaims the sum of the gospel in one simple act. Humble service, saving sacrifice, glory born of suffering—it is all there. Not on the surface, but at the deeper level of the ritual.

Sometimes people complain that what we do in church is just a bunch of empty ritual. We have some bread and wine, we dump water on someone’s head, we march around with palms, we light candles. What is the point? It doesn’t actually change anything. Wouldn’t it be better to sell the communion chalice and give the money to the food bank? It’s all just empty ritual anyway.

My friends, a ritual is only as empty as we make it. Is it just water, or is it the gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth into a living hope? Is it just bread and wine, or is it the body and blood of Jesus, spiritual food to sustain us, pure grace offered from God in heaven. Is it just a candle, or is it the light of Christ, the spark of wisdom, the life that cannot be snuffed out, the light that no darkness can overcome? Is it just empty ritual? Or is it the Gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in ways more profound than words?

For Jesus, even for the Son of God, on that night when Mary anointed his feet, as he sat at table with the one who had been raised from the dead, as Martha served, it was a ritual. But it was far from empty. It was full to overflowing with the grace and the power and the generosity of the love of God. May our eyes be opened to the grace and power and generosity of God’s love that is revealed in our worship, may we glimpse in our ritual the gift of the divine.

Sermon: Reckless Love

Sunday 31 March 2019
The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we turn to one of the best known and best loved of Jesus’s parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It appears only in the gospel of Luke, and is the third of three parables about things lost and found.

At the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, we hear the circumstances under which Jesus told these three parables. Jesus is attracting crowds of all kinds of people to listen to his liberating gospel. And among those who are coming to hear Jesus preach are many tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors, of course, were despised by most Judeans, because they collected money to support the Roman Empire who controlled their nation and occupied their land. So these sinners and collaborators were coming to hear Jesus.

But this is not pleasing to everyone. Specifically, we are told, some Pharisees and religious scholars are scandalized that Jesus not only welcomed these sinners to come and listen to him, but more importantly that he shared meals with them.

And sensing the disdain that these very religious people have for the way Jesus is conducting his ministry, Jesus tells three parables and how God cares more for sinners than for those who are already close to God. The first is the parable of lost sheep. If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and realize that he has lost one, he will leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and go searching for the one that is lost. And once he finds it, he will through a party to celebrate that he has found his lost sheep. Likewise, if a woman has ten coins and she loses one, she search the whole house until she finds it, and when she does she will invite her friends and throw a party because she has found the coin that she had lost. God is like that shepherd. God is like the woman. When someone who was lost in sin is found and brought home to God, God throws a party with the angels to celebrate that the one who was lost is found.

And then Jesus begins to tell a third story, the one we read this morning, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons. It’s a relatively wealthy family, wealthy enough, anyway, to have both slaves and hired hands. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is, of course, highly irregular. This son is wishing that his father was dead. In the honor-conscious culture of the ancient Middle East, this would have been absolutely unthinkable. It would have been incredibly shameful. And it would be equally shameful for the father to grant his request. The father divides the estate between the two brothers. You’ll notice that the older brother doesn’t complain about it, either. He seems content to treat his father as if he were dead as well.

The younger son takes his fortune with him to a far-away country. Before long, he has spent it all. Notice what the parable does not say, here, though. It does not say anything about prostitutes. The son simply spends too much too quickly. There is no indication that he used the money for anything immoral. It’s his older brother who makes up the story about him spending the money on prostitutes. As with many people who come upon a great deal of money for the first time, he spent it without thinking much about what was coming next.

But it isn’t just spending his money that gets the younger son into trouble. He doesn’t run into real trouble until the famine comes. That’s when he has to find a job working with pigs. For a good, kosher Jew, this would have been an especially shameful kind of job, taking care of an unclean animal. And despite his work, he finds himself eating worse than the pigs do. He is without any family, without any means of support. He is on his own and desperate.

It’s at this moment that he comes to himself and decides to return home. He has nothing where he is, but if he returns home, he knows that even as a hired hand for his father he would be better off than he currently is. He practices his speech, what he is going to say to his father when he returns in shame. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands” He has sinned against heaven by violating the fifth commandment; he has not honored his father and mother. He no longer deserves to be called son because he has treated his father as if he were dead. He is going to ask to be a hired hand, which is the lowest place in his father’s household. You might think that it is worse to be a slave, and it’s true that a slave may have had a lower social standing. But a slave had a guaranteed place in the household. A hired peasant had no land of their own and no guarantee of work from their employer. Among men who were able to work, this would have been one of the most perilous places in society.

Having practiced his lines, the son begins the long journey home. But while he is still a long way off, his father sees him coming. It’s not one of the servants or slaves who sees him. It’s the father himself, which seems to imply that every day the father is looking, searching, waiting for his son to come home. Immediately, the father is moved with compassion. There is no sense of bitterness or judgment. There is immediate forgiveness, immediate compassion. And at this point, the father doesn’t know anything about his younger son’s circumstances. He doesn’t know anything about what he has done with his inheritance. All he knows is that his son is coming home.

And the father runs out to meet his son. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, this is a shameful act. It should be beneath the father’s dignity to run for any reason. It would certainly be beneath his dignity to run after the son who has treated him as if he were dead. But despite the risk to his honor, he runs out to his wayward son, hugs him, and kisses him.

The son launches into his prepared speech, but before he can finish it, his father interrupts.  He never gets the chance to ask to be a hired hand. Instead, his father welcomes him home with a completely over-the-top display. The best robe, a ring for his finger, new sandals for his feet, a huge party, because, he says, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” Again, it is completely unwarranted. This son has acted shamefully. He has treated the father as if he were dead. He has endangered the survival of his family by taking half of their possessions and frittering them away. But the father acts with no attention at all to propriety. He makes a fool of himself in his ridiculous welcome to his ill-behaved son.

And that is precisely the point, because that is the nature of God’s grace. God cares for us more than God’s own honor. We see it again and again in the story of Jesus, God acting shamefully, acting beneath God’s dignity, in an effort to reach out to us in love. God shamefully sheds the form of divinity and visits us in human form in Jesus. God shamefully appears not in the form of a king, priest, or emperor, but in the form of a poor carpenter’s son from the unremarkable town of Nazareth. God shamefully consorts with tax collectors and sinners, much beneath God’s dignity. God shamefully submits to death, and not just any death, but the particularly shameful and cursed death by execution on a cross. God cares more about us than about honor. God’s love for us is more powerful than God’s sense of retribution.

It’s a sentiment that is captured well in a song I just recently learned, and I’m going to invite Melissa to come up and help share it.

God loves us with a reckless love. It is not something we earn or deserve. It is a grace that God offers us freely. God welcomes us lowly human beings and calls us children, sons and daughters of the Most High.

Like the older brother, and like those scribes and Pharisees who prompted Jesus to tell the story in the first place, there always seem to be some pious religious people who are upset by the radical inclusivity of God’s love. There always seem to be religious people who think they know better than God about who should be in and who should be out. But God surprises us again and again by accepting people we thought were outside of the scope of God’s love. God surprises us again and again with a reckless love that searches out the lost and celebrates when any one of us comes home. Through the grace that is offered us in Christ Jesus, we know that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. There is nothing that will cause God to disown us. There is nothing that will dissuade God from searching us out. There is nothing that can destroy the identity that we celebrate in the sacrament of baptism. There is nothing that can change the reality that God loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it, that God claims us as God’s own, daughters and sons of the Most High. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: If You Think You Are Standing

Sunday 24 March 2019
The Third Sunday in Lent

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

During this season of Lent, we have lots of time to reflect on wilderness. The forty days of Lent parallel the forty days that Jesus spent being tested in the wilderness and the forty years that the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, but before entering the Promised Land. In his letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul uses the story of the wilderness wandering of the Hebrews in order to make a very interesting point to his contemporary Christians.

Like many Christians in our day, some Corinthians seemed to believe that because of their baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, they were completely free from the law and were thus able to do whatever they wanted without fear, guilt, or consequence. Now, Paul is usually all about the freedom of the Christian and how in Christ Jesus we are no longer under the curse of the law. But in this case, Paul thinks some of these Corinthians have taken the idea of Christian freedom too far, and he thinks they need some correction.

So Paul draws a very interesting connection between his contemporary Christians and those early Hebrew wilderness wanderers. Paul tells the Corinthians that they had better beware of Christian arrogance. They had better beware of thinking that they are in a new age and that none of the old rules apply to them. They had better learn from the lessons of the past instead of thinking they are a rule unto themselves.

Looking back at the story of the Exodus, Paul notices that the escaping Hebrews were led by a pillar of cloud to their freedom, and that they found their freedom by passing through the waters of the Red Sea. This is an established part of the faith. No one would question it. But the way that Paul interprets these events is shocking. He claims that those ancient Hebrews were actually baptized into Jesus Christ. The waters of the Red Sea, the spirit of the cloud—that was baptism through water and the Spirit, just as much so as the baptism that we practice today. Which is really kind of ridiculous on its face. It’s a bit shocking for us to think about, the idea that people who lived more than a thousand years before the birth of Jesus were actually baptized into Christ Jesus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it is what Paul argues.

And Paul doesn’t stop there, either. He goes on to point out that when the Hebrews were in the wilderness, they were fed with holy food, that is, they ate manna from heaven, miraculous bread on the desert floor. And they also drank holy drink. When they were thirsty, Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water came gushing out of it. And Paul says that rock, the rock that Moses struck for miraculous water, that rock was Jesus Christ. The Hebrews ate spiritual bread in the form of manna, and they drank spiritual drink in the form of water from the rock. Alarmingly, Paul says that that was the sacrament of Holy Communion. Again, this should be shocking, to think that centuries before Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Hebrews in the wilderness were practicing it. It makes very little logical sense, but it is what Paul argues.

So, Paul says to those among Corinthian Christians who are full of themselves and overconfident, You don’t have anything over people in the past. Yes, you have the miracle of salvation in and through Christ Jesus. You have the redemption that comes in Christ. But, Paul argues through his rather clever interpretation of scripture, so did the ancient Hebrews. They had salvation in and through Christ Jesus. They had baptism. They passed through the Red Sea, led by the Holy Spirit in the form of a cloud. And they also had holy communion. They were fed with bread from heaven, and they drank water that flowed from the rock of Jesus Christ. Don’t think that you are any better than they were. Don’t think that you have some advantage that they didn’t. They shared in every bit as much of the blessings of Jesus as you do.

And Paul draws the comparison out even further. Even though the Hebrews in the wilderness had salvation in Christ Jesus, they still fell. Many of them succumbed to idolatry when they worshiped the golden calf instead of the God who had freed them from slavery. Some of them engaged in sexual immorality. Some put God to the test. Some were overcome with complaining and ingratitude, poisoning their spirits. They fell.

And just like they fell, despite the fact that they had all the advantages that we have today, we too can fall. The fact that they fell short of the glory of God should be a lesson and a warning to the Corinthians, and to us, that becoming a Christian does not automatically make you perfect. It is a warning against Christian arrogance. It is a reminder that we will all find ourselves tested at times, that we will all find ourselves missing the mark.

So if you think you are standing, Paul says, watch out that you do not fall. Just like everyone else in the world, you will be tested. Just like the Hebrews in the wilderness, just like Jesus in his forty days in the wilderness, we too will be tested. In that sense, we aren’t special. We have to live our lives, with all of its ups and downs, just like everybody else.

But, Paul tells us, there is still reason for hope. Yes, we will all be tested, we will all endure some hardship and suffering, but God is faithful. God will not let us be tested beyond our strength.

Now, those are interesting and perilous words. They have been words of great comfort to many, and they have also been words of great angst. When you are in the midst of real hardship, real suffering, real testing, real pain, is it comforting to hear that God will not give you more than you can bear, that however hard it seems, you are strong enough to handle it? Or is it just aggravating, depressing, and destructive? Does it just seem like God is saying, chin up, it’s not so bad, remember, I’d never give you more than you can handle, so what are you complaining about?

More than once, I have been with people who are in terrible pain, and I have heard them say, “I know God never gives us more than we can handle, but I just don’t know. I’m trying to be strong, but I just don’t know.” Sometimes remembering that God won’t give us more than we can handle is just the reminder that we need, just enough hope in our time of doubt to carry us through. It becomes a source of strength and encouragement in difficult times, a reminder that we do not face our troubles alone, that God is always there, right beside us, offering us strength.

But other times these words can be downright destructive. Sometimes these words discourage us from expressing our feelings of pain and doubt. We become embarrassed to admit that we feel like we have been given too much to bear. We get forced into an unhealthy silence that denies our situation and our struggle. We cannot let anyone else know that we feel overwhelmed, because that would be to doubt God’s faithfulness. Sometimes it even discourages us from seeking help, because we think we should be able to handle these things on our own. Both guilt and shame prevent us from reaching out when we are most in need, because to do so would somehow be doubting God, questioning God’s goodness, or would be admitting to some lack of faith.

That’s why Paul’s next words are so important. In the midst of trials, God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. God does not ask us for quiet, obedient suffering. God does not ask us to endure whatever befalls us without question. Along with the testing God will provide the way out. God does not leave us to suffer alone. This can be particularly important for people in abusive situations. God is not asking you to suffer in silence; God will help you find a way out. God will provide people who can help you, and it is no shame at all to ask for help when you need it. Providing help is part of God’s plan for you.

There’s an old preacher’s story you may have heard before. It’s about a man whose town is being flooded. As the waters are coming toward his house, he prays to God, saying, “I know that you are faithful and you will save me.” A car comes by and the driver says, “You’ve got to get out of here. Do you need a ride?” “No,” the man says, “God will save me.” The waters came higher and as the man goes up to the second story of his house, the first floor floods. He prays, “God, I know you will save me.”  A boat comes by, and they tell him, “You’ve got to get out of here. Get into our boat.” “No,” the man says, “God will save me.” The waters get even higher. Pretty soon, the man has to climb out onto the roof. He prays, “God, I know you will save me.” A helicopter comes by, and the megaphone projects, “You’ve got to get out of here. Climb up this ladder.” “No, says the man, “God will save me,” and he waves the helicopter off. The water continues to rise, and the man prays again, “God, I have faith, I know that you will save.” The water continues to rise, and the man is drowned. When he comes before God he is upset and confused. “God, I was a good and faithful man, why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter—what more did you want?”

God never promised us that our lives would be free from all suffering and hardship. What God does promises is that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God will be with us. God will walk with us in our suffering. When we are most under pressure, God will guide us to a way out. God will provide us help.

And that help doesn’t have to come from some showy, supernatural intervention. Much more often, God’s help comes from very ordinary means, from the people God has put in our lives. And so there is no shame in asking for help nor in accepting help. That is part of God’s providence for us. God has made us to help one another. God has made us to be support for one another in times of trouble. God has made us a community together, not only so that we can offer help, but also so that we can receive it. Thanks be to God, who graciously provides for us in our hour of need.

Sermon: Imitators of Me

Sunday 17 March 2019
The Second Sunday in Lent

Philippians 3:17-4:1

There are three phrases that jump out at me from the passage we have this morning in Philippians. “Be imitators of me,” “enemies of the cross,” and “citizenship in heaven.” So I want to take a little time considering each of them.

It’s always struck me as a little strange, the advice that Paul gives at the beginning of the passage we have today from the Epistle to Philippians. “Be imitators of me.” We might expect him to advise his readers to imitate Jesus, right? We even have a Latin term for that, the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. But instead, here we have the imitatio Pauli, the imitation of Paul. That’s a fair bit of hubris to come right out and say, “You all should imitate me!”

But of course Paul has never really had a problem with self-esteem. Or at least he has never had trouble promoting himself. One of his many self-promoting speeches appears a little earlier in the letter to the Philippians. He’s arguing against his opponents, Christians who want new Gentile converts to be circumcised into the Jewish community. He says, “We don’t put our confidence in rituals performed on the body, though I have good reason to have this kind of confidence. If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” Paul saying that he is better than the people who oppose him. They say that you can only get right with God if you follow the biblical laws, if you stay Kosher and have your men circumcised. Paul rejects those standards, but at the same time he says that no one is better at fulfilling those standards than he is. There is no one who follows the biblical laws more zealously than Paul does. There is no one who is a more perfect Jew than Paul is.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul tells the Philippians to imitate him. He’s pretty confident about himself and his own abilities. He’s pretty sure that he is beyond reproach. So why not recommend that other Christians imitate him?

But what is it about his life that Paul wants people to imitate? He doesn’t want the Philippians to imitate his perfect observance of the biblical law. He’s pretty clear about that. Just after the section where he’s praising his own observance of the law, he writes, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.”

And that is interesting. Paul says that his righteousness, his very identity comes from participating in Christ’s sufferings. What does that mean, to participate in Christ’s suffering?

Well, that leads us even farther back in to the letter to the Philippians, to the second chapter, and the most famous verses of the letter. They probably aren’t written by Paul at all. He’s quoting a very early Christian hymn, likely among the most ancient of Christian words that we have.

Paul tells his readers to adopt for themselves the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, and then he quotes the hymn: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

For Paul, the story of Jesus is not all about glory. Yes, there is glory in the message of Jesus Christ, but it is glory that is always born out of weakness, vulnerability, and even suffering. The story of Jesus is a story of self-emptying, a story of vulnerability, a story of solidarity with human beings. And not just any human beings. It is important the Jesus is God incarnate in human form. But the particular human form is also important. He did not come as one with great earthly authority. In fact, Jesus made a point of rejecting earthly authority, of rejecting wealth and power. He came from backwater Galilee and wandered the countryside with nowhere to lay his head. The incarnation of Jesus is a sign of God’s solidarity with humanity, but it is especially a sign of God’s solidarity with people who are on the margins, people who have been left aside and counted out.

And that is a reality that Paul is very mindful of. It is important to know that when Paul tells the Philippians “Be imitators of me,” he is writing them a letter from prison. Paul is in jail for preaching of the gospel. That is the example that he hopes they will follow. Because Paul himself is following the self-emptying example of Christ. He is being emptied himself. He tells the Phillipians, “Even if I am poured out like a drink offering on the altar of service for your faith, I am glad.” He is happy even to face death if he is doing it for the benefit of others.

So when Paul tells the Philippians that they should imitate him, he is also saying that they should imitate Christ. They should resist the praise of the world and instead align themselves with all who are suffering, just as Christ did. They should be in solidarity with those who are on the margins, with those whose story is not told, with those who are taken advantage of by the powerful. Because that is what Jesus did, and that is also what Paul has done, finding himself among the prisoners, those who have run afoul of the powerful.

In doing so, Paul aligns himself with the cross. He is following the same path that led Jesus to the cross, a path of solidarity with the weak and suffering, a path of self-emptying love. It’s Jesus’s solidarity with those on the margins of society, those on the outside, that leads him to the cross. Were he not crossing societal boundaries and flouting societal norms and upending the power structures, he would not have needed to die. But it is that solidarity with the suffering that leads him to the cross.

In today’s passage, Paul talks about those who are enemies of the cross. And when I first heard that phrase, I thought it was just a way of talking about people who aren’t Christians, that it was just a way of Paul excluding people who have not claimed Jesus as savior. But as I thought about it more, something else occurred to me. You know, the cross is scandalous. The idea that God, the perfect and all powerful, could come humbly in human form, that is scandalous. And the idea that that incarnate God could not only live as a human, but also die as a human, that is more scandalous still. And the idea the God could die in such a humiliating way, nailed to a cross, that is scandal upon scandal. It isn’t right. It’s not the way a God should behave. It is beneath God’s dignity. It is shameful, scandalous.

And that’s the point, Paul says. That is what makes the revelation in Jesus so remarkable. God in Jesus was completely shameless, no sense of dignity or decorum whatsoever. God in Jesus endured the utter humiliation of death on a cross. Why? For you and for me. To show us that there is no place that we can go that will separate us from God’s love. There is nothing we can do that can shame God. There is no pain we can endure that is too much for God to understand. There is no amount of guilt or shame that we can feel that will hinder God’s ability to love us. That is the scandal and the miracle of the cross.

And to be an enemy of the cross is to deny God’s incredible, shameless love. To be an enemy of the cross is to deny that God can care for us even when were are in the depths of sin, even when we are in the depths of pain, even when were are in the depths of guilt, even when we are in the depths of humiliation and shame. God in Jesus has already been to the depths on the cross. God in Jesus has never been afraid to claim the sinner, the leper, the outcast, the orphan, the widow, the tax collector. God in Jesus has never found a human being that is unworthy of divine love. Never. There is nothing you can do that will put you outside of God’s love. No matter how unworthy you might feel or how hard you might try to hide from God’s love, God will seek you out.

And recognizing that fact, and accepting that love makes us what Paul calls citizen’s of heaven. Being a citizen of heaven means that we belong, even when we don’t feel like we belong here on earth. Even when we feel alienated from the world, from our families, from the people at work or the kids at school, we aren’t alienated from God. In God’s Kingdom, we belong. We are citizens of heaven. Even when we feel like we are disempowered, like our voices don’t matter, like we are pawns in someone else’s game, we are not disempowered in God. In God’s Kingdom, we have the full rights of citizenship. We are full members. Our voices matter. Our gifts and service are needed. We are citizens of heaven.

Paul invites us to follow him on the Jesus Way, to walk in solidarity will all those who are suffering, in pain, excluded, or unheard. He invites us to surrender our sense of propriety, our delusions of self-mastery, our endless quest to make ourselves worthy of love, to surrender all of that in the absolute assurance of God’s love. Because it is when we walk the way of the cross, it is when we surrender all, that God’s power is able to work in and among us. It is when we surrender our striving to be perfect that God’s perfection is manifest in our weakness. It is when we surrender our guild and our shame that God’s grace can fully embrace us.

Melissa and I just got back last night from a conference for adoptive and foster parents. It’s called Refresh, and it’s hosted by Overlake Christian Church near Seattle. The theme this year happens to fit perfectly with the text we have before us this morning: Beautiful Surrender. It comes from a contemporary Christian song of the same name by Melissa and Jonathan David Helser. And I want to close this time today by sharing it with you. I didn’t give anyone any warning, so there won’t be any words on the screen, but if you start to catch on to it, I’d love to have you sing with me. Beautiful Surrender.

Sermon: The Test

Sunday 10 March 2019
The First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, after his baptism, is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He spends forty days and forty nights out there in the desert. It’s reminiscent of the forty days that Noah and his family spent on the ark, and of the forty years that the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness. During the whole forty days, Jesus doesn’t eat anything. At the end of the time, we are told, he was starving. And while the devil has been testing him the whole forty days, at the end of that time he appears with a series of tests for Jesus.

There are three tests. First, the devil encourages Jesus to use his power to transform a stone into bread, so that he won’t have to be hungry. Then, the devil offers Jesus control over all the nations of the world if he will simply acknowledge the devil’s authority. And finally, the devil suggests that Jesus prove his status as the Son of God by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angels will appear to save him and his identity will be revealed.

Now, I’ve often thought that Jesus was weakened by his time in the wilderness, that his energy was sapped by his lack of food and lack of companionship. And that’s the way this text is usually taught and preached.  Jesus was at his weakest, and so the temptation that the devil delivers is especially effective. That means it is a sign of Jesus’s exceptional fortitude that he is able to withstand the devil’s wiles.

But it occurs to me that perhaps we’ve gotten that backward. Maybe all the fasting, all the time out in the wilderness, maybe it doesn’t make Jesus weaker. Maybe it makes him stronger.

Let’s take a look at that first test. After forty days, Jesus is starving. The devil appears and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” If fasting makes Jesus weak, then the devil is trying to exploit this weakness in order to easily tempt him. But if fasting actually makes Jesus stronger, then the devil is trying to eliminate his strength, to break him down so that he’ll be more vulnerable later.

Jesus answers the devil, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” It’s a quotation from the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy. And the context here is important. Moses is warning the Hebrew people about the importance of following the commandments that they have been given, even after they have entered the promised land and become a mighty nation. This is while the Hebrews are still in the wilderness, but they are about to enter the land of Israel. The text says:

Remember the long road on which the Lord your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not. He humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so he could teach you that people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the Lord says. (Deut 8:2-3)

The text Jesus quotes comes directly from the time when the Hebrews were in the wilderness, being tested, enduring hunger. It seems clear that there is a connection between these two stories. There is a connection between the Hebrews being humbled by hunger and Jesus being humbled by hunger. And what is more, by looking at the larger context of the story in Deuteronomy, we can gain even more insight into Jesus’s situation.

Moses warns the people not to grow slack in their faith once they have an easier life in Israel:

But watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God:
the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery;
the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water;
the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock;
the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end.
Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.(Deut 8:11-18)

It seems clear from this text that while their time spent in the desert was hard, it was actually good for them. It was easier for the people to recognize the power of God when they had to rely on it each day for their very survival. But Moses is afraid that once the people get settled, once they get a taste of security and even of luxury, then they will no longer recognize their need for God. They will forget that everything in this world is a gift from God. They will begin to think that they have earned their wealth and prosperity through their own power, and they will forget about the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness.

So in a way, the wilderness, the hardship of being refugees, of having to rely on God for everything, has made the faith of the Hebrews stronger. And since Jesus quotes from this story, we may assume that the same is true for Jesus. His hunger allows him to stay closer to God. It is not through power, but through humility that Jesus stays connected to God. Fasting allows him to remember that he is dependent upon God. It helps him to keep from trying to usurp God by forgetting his place in God’s plan and showing off his own power.

Most of us here today live pretty secure lives. For the most part, we don’t have to worry about whether we will have enough food to eat or whether we will have a place to sleep at night. Most of us have plenty of possessions and plenty of leisure time. We rarely have to worry about our survival.

And as Moses warns, this comparative luxury puts us in danger of forgetting the importance of God in our lives. When times are good, it’s easy for us to forget our need for God. We start to trust in our own abilities, to rely on ourselves. We start to think that we don’t really need God, that we can do just fine on our own.

And that is precisely why we have the season of Lent. It is a chance for us to do precisely what Jesus did, to spend time in fasting and prayer. It’s not an exercise in spiritual machismo, as we often assume. It’s not about proving how much we can give up or sacrificing things just so that we can endure suffering. Fasting during Lent is a spiritual discipline designed to help us get closer to God, to give up some physical strength in order to gain spiritual strength, to give up our own willing so that we might be open to the will of God.

I go back and forth on whether or not it is a good idea to compare Lent with a physical fitness plan. I think sometimes that analogy can lead us astray. Because Lenten discipline is often connected with our diet, sometimes we end up focusing on gaining physical benefits instead of spiritual ones. Giving up dessert becomes more bout losing 10 pounds in 46 days than about anything spiritual.

But I think in general, the analogy is an apt one. Lent is like a spiritual fitness program. Taking on a Lenten discipline is a way of improving our spiritual health, of strengthening our spiritual muscles. It should help us to be in closer relationship with God and our neighbors. It’s a reminder that we do not need all of our stuff in order to be happy and fulfilled. In fact, sometimes that stuff gets in the way of our happiness. Lent is an opportunity to strip away the distractions and focus on what is important.

Lent shouldn’t be depressing. It’s not supposed to be about beating ourselves up or about denying ourselves any happiness. I know that’s often the direction that we tend to take it, but I don’t think that’s right. Lent is about stripping away what is unimportant so that we focus on what is important. And what is important is quite simple: love God, love people. That’s it. That’s what Lent should be driving us toward: loving God and loving people.

And so, I invite you to the observance of Lenten discipline, with these traditional words:

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
the early Christians observed with great devotion
the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection,
and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration
there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation.
During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.
It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins
and had separated themselves from the community of faith
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness,
and restored to participation in the life of the Church.
In this way the whole congregation was reminded
of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ
and the need we all have to renew our faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,
to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.
That your faith might be strengthened
and your connection to God confirmed.

Sermon: Who Was I?

Sunday 3 March 2019
Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-36, Acts 10:1-11:18

In the story from Luke today, Peter and James and John see Jesus transformed before their eyes. They see him shining like the sun and accompanied by Moses and Elijah. They see him looking like nothing they have ever seen before, and they are terrified by it.

Of course, it’s not Jesus that changed. He has always been shining with the light of his glory. It’s just that most of the time they can’t see it. Jesus has always been the glorious Son of God, it’s just that most of the time that is hid from their eyes. It’s when they see him shining that they see the truth. And they are terrified.

My sermon topic changed midweek. As many of you already know, there was news in the United Methodist world this week. The church’s General Conference, the legislative gathering of the whole denomination, met in St. Louis. This was a special session of the General Conference, with delegates coming from around the world to debate the church’s understanding of human sexuality. And for those of us who were hoping for a move toward greater inclusivity for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, it was a disappointing week.

The United Methodist Church is a global denomination, with congregations in the United States, Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and parts of Europe. That is a very broad spectrum of cultural contexts, and it makes it hard to find consensus. There were hopes that the General Conference would have voted to allow for regional differences in the church’s understanding of sexuality, just like the ELCA did in 2009. But instead the conference chose more of the same: prohibitions on same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay clergy.

The church has been struggling with these issues for longer than I have been alive. The first reference to homosexuality appeared in the church’s law book, The Book of Discipline, in 1972. And since then, it has been a topic of conversation and controversy every four years when General Conference rolls around.

I remember when I first became aware of the issue. It would have been 1992. I was in middle school, and we were pretty new members at West Salem United Methodist Church.

Our pastor, La Vernae Hohnbaum, had died while she was serving there. A retired pastor who was in the congregation served as an interim. But then it came time for a new pastor to be appointed. And the bishop appointed Rev. Jeanne Knepper.

Now, I didn’t meet Jeanne back then. But I remember that her name was used almost like a curse word. You see, she was… a lesbian. Always in that hushed tone. Lesbian. And that was all that we needed to know about her. Clearly she was unacceptable. Clearly she was not a real Christian. Clearly she was a liar and a cheat, and certainly a sinner. Clearly the bishop was trying to destroy our little church.

There was a huge uproar in the congregation. There was a meeting with the bishop, and the superintendent, and Rev. Knepper. I remember that I wanted to go. I had already been confirmed, so I was a full, voting member of the congregation. I should be there. But my parents went without me. In retrospect, I’m pretty glad I wasn’t there. It got pretty ugly, I gather. I’m pretty sure there were some people there who weren’t living their Christian values, but probably not the ones I thought at the time.

The appointment was rescinded. All I knew about Jeanne back then was her sexual orientation. What I didn’t know was that she was a highly-gifted, massively overqualified pastor and advocate. She had her doctorate, because although she had been a qualified pastor for ten years at that point, she could not find an appointment. She was qualified, but she couldn’t find a congregation, so she got more schooling.

What the Book of Discipline said, both then and now, I believe, was this: “While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world.” Okay, that’s a high bar. But we should be aiming high, right? It continues: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” That’s the bit there. That’s the provision that she was supposedly violating.

It’s interesting, though. It says pastors are subject to human frailty, and it says that pastors should nonetheless maintain the highest moral standards. But it only lists one activity that should bar a person from ordination. Only one. Nothing in there about adultery, fraud, embezzling church funds, domestic abuse, gambling, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, participation in a hate group… none of that. Just one thing. Self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Strange.

As you can imagine, there has been a fair amount of wrangling over what that phrase means: self-avowed practicing homosexual. It has been the subject of eight separate rulings from The UMC’s highest legal authority, the Judicial Council, kind of like the Supreme Court of The UMC. They offered this clarification. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.” So, if you’re gay but you’re celibate, you’re fine. If you’re gay but you’re closeted, you’re fine. You’re only violating the clause if you’re gay, you’re in a relationship, and you announce that publicly and officially to a particular set of church authorities. By that definition, by the way, Rev. Knepper had done nothing wrong.

It puts our LGBTQ clergy in a terrible situation. We tell them we are happy to have their service. We just want them to be celibate. But if they aren’t celibate, that’s okay too, just don’t tell us anything about it. But in the mean time, we’ll discriminate against you, call you names, refuse you positions, because we have this complicated language that allows us to use you and abuse you, whichever we choose, and whenever we choose.

When Rev. Knepper’s appointment was cancelled, I felt like that was a great step forward for good Christian values. My church had been saved from sin and corruption. You see, I knew that homosexuality was wrong. I knew that it was condemned in the Bible as an abomination. I knew that  it was unnatural. I knew that none of my friends or family members was gay or lesbian.

Except that I was wrong about every single one of the those things. But it took me a while to realize it. And I want to tell you how God changed my mind.

Temperamentally, I’m pretty conservative. I don’t like pushing the boundaries. I don’t like causing a fuss. I am not a radical. I don’t like stirring up controversy. I like following the rules. I know that sometimes rules have to be broken, but I don’t like doing it unless there is a really good reason. I’m the kind of person who has their own copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and has actually read the whole thing. I don’t change my mind just on a whim.

So what changed me? It was two things. One was a personal encounter, and one was the bible.

Now I’m college. I think it’s the summer between freshman and sophomore year. It would have been 1998. I was a youth delegate to Annual Conference in Boise, Idaho. After sessions were over one night, I was walking with a friend of mine from college. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah was a few years older than me, and I really looked up to her. She was one of the most gracious people I knew, someone who had been a model to me of Christian living. I knew that she was planning to pursue ordination as a pastor, and I was sure she would be a great one.

In Methodism, when we talk about whether someone is called to ordained ministry or not, sometimes we talk about “the gifts and graces for ministry.” It’s more than just asking if someone has the skill to be a pastor. It’s more than whether they have the qualifications. When we talk about gifts and graces, we’re asking if there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s life. The evidence that God has called someone should be visible in that person’s gifts and graces, or rather, the gifts and graces that the Holy Spirit is working in them. Sarah had the gifts and graces. It was clear that the Holy Spirit was working in her. I had no doubt of it.

That night, as we were walking across campus, Sarah came out to me. No one had ever done that to me before. I was no longer quite so naïve as to think that I didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian. And I was beginning to realize that gay people seemed to be very much like straight people. But this friend coming out to me was something new.

I don’t remember what I said to her. Probably not what I should have. I think I at least had the grace to listen more than to speak. I remember thinking it was brave of Sarah to be so vulnerable. I remember feeling a sense of embarrassment, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain exactly why. And I was anxious and confused. This did not fit with the truth I thought I knew.

But it didn’t change my mind, not on it’s own, not right away. What changed my mind was the bible. And the text that God gave to me was from the Book of Acts, the 10th chapter. It’s a long story, the story of the Apostle Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Now, the centurion is a Gentile, which means that Peter, as a good follower of the Bible, is not supposed to consort with him. An encounter in public would be one thing, but he certainly should not enter the house of a Gentile or accept hospitality from a Gentile. That is because the Bible says that Gentiles are sinful. They are, by definition sinful. They are unrepentant sinners. Peter knows that they cannot be part of God’s people, not as long as they remain as Gentiles.

And yet, God is about to do something new. God is about to do something that will violate the faith that Peter knows, something that will violate the precepts of the Bible. God is about to pour out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles. God is about to adopt Gentiles into God’s family. They won’t have to change first. They won’t have to repent of their sinful ways. They will keep on violating the commands of the Bible, commands about circumcision, dietary rules, and purity. They will keep on in their unrepentant, sinful ways, but God will accept them anyway. And God wants Peter to welcome them into God’s family.

But God needs to prepare Peter first. So while Peter is praying, God grants him a vision. He sees a tablecloth being lowered down by its four corners from heaven. And inside the tablecloth, he sees all of the different animals that the Bible says are unclean, all of the animals the Bible says it is sin to eat. Peter knows that it is a sin to eat them. But he hears a voice, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

“Absolutely not!” Peter replies. “I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter has the same vision and the same conversation three times. Never consider unclean what God has made pure.

And it’s just as the vision is ending that messengers knock on Peter’s door. Cornelius has also had a vision from God that led his people to come and find Peter. Peter hears a voice telling him not to ask any questions and to go with them. Despite the prohibition, Peter invites these Gentiles in as guests, and the next day he goes to visit Cornelius. After Peter enters the house, he tells them, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.” After Cornelius explains the vision he has had from God, Peter continues, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships and does what is right is acceptable to God.” And he begins to preach the story of Jesus.

And as he’s preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles who are listening. Just like had happened with all of those Jews at Pentecost, now Gentiles are speaking in tongues by the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter and his fellow Jews are confronted with evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in people that they thought were impure, unholy, outside of God’s love. They see something they thought was impossible: the Holy Spirit at work in a Gentile sinner.

And they change their minds. It takes a while for them to convince others in the Jesus community, but eventually they do. They decide that God has done a new thing and that they should go against the Bible and include these new followers of Jesus even though they have no intention of following any of the bible’s rules about diet or circumcision or purity. They go against the Bible because they see the Holy Spirit at work in a way they did not think possible. Peter explains to the other church leaders what had happened and how they saw the Spirit working in these Gentiles, and he closes, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

I heard that story, and my heart burned. I felt convicted. I felt like I was Peter. I was sure I knew who was inside of God’s plan and who was outside, who was a saint and who was a sinner. But I had been presented with evidence to the contrary. I had seen the Holy Spirit at work in Sarah. I had seen that she had the gifts and graces for ministry. And I felt just like Peter. Who was I that I could hinder God? That’s how God changed my mind.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that those six passages I had been taught condemned homosexuality really had very little to do with a loving, committed relationship between two people of the same sex. They had to do with rape, temple prostitution, the abuse of slaves and children, but not about same-sex marriage. But even without that, my mind was changed. The bible says that eating shellfish is an abomination, but we don’t bar people from ordination for eating shellfish. The bible says that mixed fabrics are an abomination, but we don’t bar people from ordination for wearing poly-cotton blends. More telling, we don’t bar people from ordination for succumbing to greed, even though Jesus preaches more about greed than any other subject and more than 2000 verses of the Bible are devoted to the subject. All I needed to know was that God was doing a new thing and that I could not presume to hinder God.

Of course, in truth, God was working among LGBTQ people the whole time. It was not something new. But I had failed to see it before.

I am grieved that the General Conference again told our LGBTQ sisters and brothers that we know better than God and that they are not full participants in our community. I am thankful for the many brave LGBTQ pastors and deacons who have served faithful for years in this church and for those who have been brave enough to tell their stories. I give thanks for those who have continued their ministry in The UMC, and I wish well to the many, like Sarah, who eventually felt they had to go somewhere else to fulfill their call from God. I ask forgiveness for the ways that I have hindered God. I am grateful that our Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and our Western Jurisdiction are continuing to insist on full inclusion and are gladly welcoming the ministry of our LGBTQ clergy. I know that there continue to be complex cultural and social issues surrounding this topic, and I know that some of you may be in a different place than I am. I pray for the unity of the church and that we might find a way to continue to be in ministry with each other even when we disagree. But as for my part, I know what God has shown me, and I will do my best to love with the unimaginably expansive love with which God loves us.

Sermon: Love Your Enemies

Sunday 24 February 2019
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

Most every week I get together with a group of local clergy in a gathering we call Reflectionary. On Wednesday afternoon, everyone comes over to the Spirit of Grace office building, and we spend a little time checking in with one another, and then we read through the Bible passages that are assigned for the coming Sunday and talk about our reactions to them. Pastors come from Hood River, Odell, Parkdale, White Salmon and The Dalles, and from six different denomination to participate.

The lectionary assigns at least four different bible passages for every Sunday, and sometimes there can be eight or even twelve to choose from. So most weeks not everyone is preaching on the same text. Usually there are two or three different lectionary readings that different pastors are preaching on. Sometimes most everyone is preaching on one text, but just one or two have chosen a different text to preach from that week.

But not this week. This week everyone is preaching from the same text. I can’t remember the last time that happened. But this week none of us could avoid what may be Jesus’s most radical teaching of all, Luke 6:27: “I say to those of you who are listening, Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.” Easy right? Just love your enemies. No problem.

So what is that supposed to mean? Is it like what Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high”? Does it have that sense of not being dragged into the mud by other people? That’s definitely part of it. Just because someone treats you inappropriately, it doesn’t mean that it gives you an excuse to treat that person in an inappropriate way.

That sounds a lot like the advice that you might give a child, right? Well, he hit me first. She called me a name first. Okay, but that doesn’t mean that you are allowed to hit or to call names.

So part of the message here is about integrity. Don’t let your values be compromised by what other people are doing. If you know it’s not right to hurt other people, then don’t hurt other people, even if they might be trying to hurt you. 

But that’s not all of it. Jesus doesn’t say, Don’t hate people who hate you. That would be hard enough, right? But that’s not what he says. He says, Love people who hate you. And that’s a lot more difficult. What would that be like?

Well, let’s look at some of the examples that Jesus gives. What does he say? “It someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either.” Matthew’s version of this same text also adds, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with them two.”

This is a really dangerous passage, because it can be very easily misinterpreted. It often leads to a kind of doormat theology. People who are without power are encouraged to let people with power hurt them, over and over, without putting up any resistance or protest. You’ve certainly heard these words used that way, right? Turn the other cheek. Just don’t let it bother you when someone abuses you. Just be quiet and put up with it. These words have been used, especially against women and oppressed minorities, to keep them down. If you are being abused by your husband, just be quiet and take it. If you are being brutalized by society, just be quiet and take it.

But I want to tell you today, that is not what Jesus is saying here, not by a long shot. Jesus does not say to just be quiet and take it. He does not say that if you are abuse you should do nothing. He says that if you are abused, you should do something. And what you should do is shame the person who is abusing you.

In ancient Mediterranean culture, and to some degree today, there is a difference between a backhanded slap and a forehanded slap. The backhanded slap is considered more shaming to the person who is hit. A forehanded slap is what you might use on an equal. A backhanded slap implies that the person being slapped is inferior. It’s a bit more clear in Matthew’s version of this saying, where Jesus says to turn the left cheek if you are struck on the right. Doing so would force your assailant to slap you forehanded, to acknowledge that you are a person of equal humanity.

But even if we forget about the left and right thing, turning the other cheek is not an act of submission, it’s an act of defiance. The normal reaction to getting hit, especially if you are hit by someone who has power over you, is to cower, to shrink away. Or the other reaction would be to hit back. Be a victim, or fight back. But Jesus suggests a third option. Protest the act of violence that has been committed. Imagine what that looks like to get hit and turn the other cheek. “You want to hit me? You missed a spot!” That is defiance! And it shames your abuser. Everyone will know that they are one who resorted to violence, not you. Everyone will know that they were wrong, and everyone will see you weren’t afraid.

It’s the same thing with the coat and the shirt. Your typical Judean peasant only had two articles of clothing: a sort of tunic, called a χιτῶν (chiton), and a cloak that went over it, called a ἱμάτιον (himation). Jesus says if they take your cloak, you should give them your tunic also. Again, this is not just standing by while someone abuses you, this is defying that abuse and shaming the person who has done it. They take your cloak. If you give them your shirt, you’ll be standing their naked. It brings attention to the wrong that has been done to you. They can’t get away with taking your coat without suffering the shame of having caused your nakedness. It is defiance, not submission. It is a form a protest.

In fact, we have a name for this kind of protest. It’s called nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance was famously taught by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. They all came upon this strategy through their study of Jesus and each other. Nonviolent resistance is a strategy that refuses to engage in the violent tactics of the oppressor, and instead defies them. It points out the injustice of the situation and highlights the humanity of the person being injured. It attempts to make the abuse public, so that it cannot escape notice. That should engage the abusers shame. They will see that what they are doing is wrong and stop. But even if the abuser is shameless, having made the harm public should inspire the outrage of other people. Once the abuse is exposed to the rest of the world, in a way in which it cannot be ignored, then there should be pressure to make things right.

Nonviolent resistance is not easy. It requires people to endure abuse and to make that abuse public. And it usually doesn’t work right away. It takes time to convince enough people of the virtue of your cause so that those in power will be forced, through shame or through other political pressure, to change. But it is the sort of activity that Jesus recommends here. It’s not meeting violence with violence. But it’s not being a doormat, either. It is an act of defiance in the face of violence.

But that isn’t all that Jesus is talking about. What Jesus calls for is even more radical than that. It’s not just about refraining from harming those who are against you. Jesus says that we should love our enemies, do good for those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us. So part of that is going high when others go low. Part of it is nonviolent resistance to abuse. But there is still more.

How can I love my enemy? What does it do if I try to love my enemy? Obviously I’m never going to be able to love an enemy in the same way that I love someone who is dear to me. It’s going to be hard to have affection for someone who hates me. That’s not the kind of love we’re talking about.

You may remember a few weeks ago we talked about agape love. It’s not like the love between spouses, or the love between friends or the love between parents and children. Agape love, the kind of love we’re talking about here, is the kind of love that God has for us. It is unconditional love, not based on any merit at all. It is a love that is based on grace. In fact, the passage today says as much. It says, if you love the people who love you, what credit is that to you. What it actually says in Greek is, what grace is that to you. In other words, it doesn’t take grace to love someone who loves you, but it does take grace to love someone who doesn’t love you.

So if I try to love my enemy, what happens? Well, first I would try to wish good things for them. I would want them to have a happy and fulfilling life. Of course, having a happy and fulfilling life does not include abusing other people. But nonetheless, I would wish good things for them. And then I might start to think about the circumstances of their life. What would a happy and fulfilling life look like for a person in their situation? What are the things in their life that bring joy? I would wish them more of that. And what are the things in their life that bring discomfort and pain, fear and anxiety? I would wish them relief from that.

And in the process, I might find that I am starting to see my enemy not as some heartless foe, but as a human being. And human beings are complicated. If I am loving my enemy, then I start to be able to see things from their perspective. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with them, but perhaps I can begin to understand. When people hurt others, it’s usually not because they are just evil to the core and enjoy inflicting harm on others. There are usually motivations behind their actions. Those motivations may not justify their actions, but they might explain some things. Because behind destructive behavior, there is usually some need that is not being fulfilled, some hurt that is not being tended, some fear that is not being addressed. Fear is often at the core. Fear of change. Fear of losing power. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the loss of identity. And as Master Yoda has taught us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Behind that hate and suffering, there is usually some fear. And if I am trying to love my enemy, I can begin to see the fear or the hurt that lies behind their hatred for me.

And like Yoda, Jesus warns against a dark-side response to suffering. Jesus encourages us to break the cycle of hatred and violence with a godly love. To love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us.

And again, it doesn’t mean simply submitting quietly to continued abuse. But we can wish well for someone even if that person is hurting us. Sometimes our act of love for an enemy is enough to transform the situation. How do you react when you heap abuse on someone and they return it with love? It can be disarming. It can lead us to see the wrong that we have been doing and make a change.

But things don’t always work out that well. Sometimes our love for an enemy does nothing to lessen their hatred for us. And even in that case, it is still worthwhile to love. It is good for us, because otherwise we can be consumed by our own fear and hatred. It is good for those around us, because it sets an example for how to be made free of hatred. And it is good for the world, because evil can never be defeated with more evil.

Our Buddhist sisters and brothers have a word for a concept that is not dissimilar to our agape love: Metta. Metta can be defined as benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others. And many Buddhists spend time in meditation, seeking to cultivate this Metta compassion. Many of you will know the Ven. Kozen Sampson, who is the monk in charge of Buddhist temple at Trout Lake Abbey. Whenever we have events together, if Kozen is asked to give a benediction, he uses a Metta prayer. And it’s very simple. It is: may you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace. But he always likes to lead us in it together, so I’d like to lead you through it now. We always start with ourselves and move out. So repeat after me:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I know joy. May I know peace.

And now we’ll move beyond ourselves and address those who are around us.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

And now think of someone who is dear to you, but someone who is not in the room here with you now. And direct this blessing to them.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

This time we’re going to try to stretch like Jesus asks us to. Call to mind the person or people you would call enemy, rival, the thorn in your side, and direct this blessing toward them.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

And finally, think of all the world’s people, in our great variety and diversity. And with the whole global community in mind, let us say,

May we be well. May we be happy. May we know joy. May we know peace.

This is the kind of love Jesus is calling for. He says that when we have that kind of love for our enemies we will be greatly rewarded, because, he says, we are acting like children of the Most High, because God is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Jesus says: “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” This is what Jesus calls us to, a transformative love in the face of hatred. It is not easy. It is a gift of God. So may we be empowered, along with all of God’s children everywhere, to see each other with the eyes of compassion, to wish well and do good even for those who are against us, to love our enemies, because God has offered us unconditional love.

Sermon: Level Ground

Sunday 17 February 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 6C

Luke 6:17-26

Today’s passage from Luke is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Plain. What is the Sermon on the Plain? you might be thinking. I’m glad you asked.

Most of you have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel of Matthew, toward the beginning, but after Jesus has begun his ministry, great crowds of people come flocking to Jesus for exorcism and healing, and he climbs up onto a high place and begins to preach to them. He gives a series of blessings that we call the beatitudes, which is just a fancy way of saying blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. And he goes on preaching for three chapters, talking mostly about ethical issues. For some groups of Christians, particularly Mennonites and other Anabaptists, those three chapters of Matthew are the most important words in the entire bible. The Sermon on the Mount is the lens through which they look at every other part of the bible. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Love your enemy. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear. Don’t judge, lest you be judged. Take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened. Go in through the narrow gate. Watch out for false prophets. The house built on a rock. Almost every word of the Sermon on the Mount would be familiar to most of you. It has a key part of Christian teaching for two thousand years.

It is so popular that almost everyone forgets about the Sermon on the Plain. It’s found not in the Gospel of Matthew, but in the Gospel of Luke. It happens at just about the same part of the story, early in Jesus’s ministry, as great crowds of people are flocking to him for exorcism and healing. And again, he prepares to address the crowd. But instead of climbing up to a high place, like Matthew tells the story, Jesus descends from a high place and comes down to the level ground, comes down to the plain, before he begins to speak.

The Sermon on the Plain is shorter, but it covers some of the same ground as the Sermon on the Mount. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. Take the log out of your own eye. The house built on a rock. But although the both sermons hit some of the same key notes, they are not the same. And since the Sermon on the Mount has been so much more central to Christian teaching, few of us have taken the time to notice what it is that Jesus has to say in Luke’s version of the story. In fact, just this week I was reading a modern-day retelling of the Gospel of Luke, called Esperanza Reyes, when it came time for the Christ character to deliver this sermon, the author substituted in some of the words from Matthew rather than staying true to the words in Luke. So let’s take a closer look at what it is that Luke’s Jesus has to say, and what Luke’s Jesus leaves out.

So, this is the Beatitudes. And in Luke, they sound like this: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are weeping now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for this is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

And that should sound a little bit similar and a little bit different to the version that you have running around in your head. Both Matthew and Luke have that extra-long beatitude at the end that talks about being hated because of Jesus, but I want to set that aside for right now and look and the rest of the beatitudes.

Luke has only three. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. In the same place, Matthew has eight beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Luke keeps things simpler and more to the point.

But that’s not the only difference. In Matthew, Jesus blesses people in the third person. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers. But Luke’s Jesus blesses people directly, blesses people in the second person. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. In Luke, Jesus isn’t making a philosophical speech, he’s talking directly to people who are hurting, directly to people who are in trouble.

But that may not be the biggest difference. The biggest difference isn’t in what Luke’s Jesus says, it’s in what he doesn’t say. You know the familiar version from Matthew, right? “Blessed are the poor… in spirit.” Who are the poor in spirit? People who have weak faith? Or maybe people who have strong faith? People who are simple? It’s hard to say for sure. But one thing we can say is that it probably doesn’t have anything to do with people who are actually poor. If I talk about the poor in spirit, chances are you will not think about people who are in actual economic trouble. You’ll be thinking about their prayer life or their attitude to God, not about whether they can afford to pay their rent, or feed their kids, or pay for their medicine. Matthew talks about the poor in spirit.

But Luke talks about the actual poor. Blessed are you who are poor. There’s no metaphor here. It is just what it says. Jesus is talking about people who are worried because they can’t pay all of their bills, or because they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from, or because they have to choose between their kids prescription and the electric bill. Jesus is talking about actual poverty, about real, tangible, physical, in-the-real-world need. Blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom belongs to you.

And it’s the same with Luke’s second blessing. Matthew’s version is “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst… for righteousness.” What does that mean? Someone who tries extra hard to be holy? Or maybe someone who is an activist for social justice? Maybe just someone who hopes for a more just or a more righteous society in the future? It’s hard to say. But it doesn’t mean someone who is actually hungry. Matthew talks about some kind of metaphorical hunger for righteousness.

But Luke talks about actual hunger. Blessed are you who are hungry now. There’s no metaphor. Jesus is talking about people who have been skipping their own meals so they can feed their kids, about people who aren’t sure whether they will have food tomorrow, about people who have to choose unhealthy food because it’s cheaper. Jesus is talking about actual hunger, about real, tangible, physical, in-the-real-world hunger. Blessed are you who are poor now, because you will be filled.

Luke’s third beatitude is a bit less tangible, but it is no less real. Blessed are you who are weeping now. Jesus is talking about real grief, real pain, real anxiety and distress. There’s nothing philosophical or metaphorical about. Blessed are you who are in pain, who have been battered and abused, who have been kicked aside or left behind, who are at your wit’s ends. Blessed are you who are weeping now, because you will laugh.

That’s a big difference. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth; blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It’s all a bit etherial, isn’t it? Scholars call the difference between Matthew and Luke spiritualiztion. Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes. They stop being about real, everyday pain, and they become something that only happens in the mind. There’s a big difference between being poor in spirit and actually being poor.

Even someone who is very rich can convince themselves that they are poor in spirit, and so they can receive the blessing from Jesus. It’s not that easy to convince yourself that you’re poor when you aren’t. And that’s the way with most of Matthew’s beatitudes. If I put myself in the right mind, then I can receive all of the blessings. Sure, I’m poor in spirit sometimes. Sometimes I’m meek. Sometimes I mourn. Sometimes I’m merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker. I can receive all of those blessings, and they don’t imply that anything about my life will be changed. They don’t challenge me or even much about my society. They make me feel good.

But Luke’s beatitudes are a lot more real. And they don’t leave me or my society unchallenged. They call for a change, for an effort to eradicate poverty, an effort to eradicate hunger, an effort to eradicate emotional trauma.

And it’s all the more challenging because Luke’s Jesus doesn’t just offer blessings, he gives curses as well. We usually call them the woes. Woe to you who… But who talks like that? We know what the opposite of a blessing is, right? It’s a curse.

Cursed are you who are rich. Why? Because you have already received your reward. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will be hungry. Cursed are you who are laughing now, because you will mourn and weep. Cursed are you when everyone speaks well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

And that is challenging, isn’t it? It’s challenging because Jesus takes a side, and it’s not always our side. Jesus takes a side—with the poor, with the hungry, with the oppressed and hurting. Jesus takes a side—against the rich, against the well-fed, against those who have it easy. And that is challenging. Jesus wants to lift up some and bring others down. Like his mother, Mary, said back in chapter one: God has pulled down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. God is showing a preference. And it’s not a preference for the holy people. It’s not a preference for those who spend the most time praying. It’s not even a preference for those who have the most faith. God shows a preference for those who have the most need. It’s clear, over and over again in Luke. For God, the last are first and the first are last.

What is that about? Is it about revenge? Is it about penalizing people who have done well for themselves? Is it about punishing success?

I don’t think so. You know what I think it’s about? It’s about level ground. In Matthew, Jesus stands on the mountain like Moses and gives the people the law. But here in Luke, Jesus doesn’t stand up high above everyone else. He comes down to our level. He stands with us on level ground, and he says, “Blessed are you who are poor; because God wants to give you everything he has. Blessed are you who are hungry, because God wants you to be full. Blessed are you who are crying, because God wants to wipe away every tear and bring you joy.” And who is God’s action for? It is first for those who have the greatest need.

God doesn’t want anyone to languish in poverty. God doesn’t want anyone to worry about where their next meal is coming from. God doesn’t want anyone to cry in despair. What God wants is level ground. And that may mean that some need to have less so that everyone has enough.

It’s a radical Jesus that we get in the Gospel of Luke. If you want a religion that stays out of politics, then don’t read this gospel. Here, Jesus shows up on the scene and gives his mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he doesn’t deviate from that mission. Good news for the poor. Release for the captives. Liberation for the oppressed. That is how Jesus defines the Kingdom of God. It’s not some far-away place off in heaven. The Kingdom of God is good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.

Blessed are you who are poor, because the Kingdom of God belongs to you. And every time we feed the hungry, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we offer help to the poor, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we comfort someone who is crying or afraid, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we offer healing, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we work for the liberation of the oppressed, that is the Kingdom of God. Not the dark of buildings confining, not a some heaven light years away, but here in this place, as new light is shining. Now is the Kingdom! Now is the Day!

Jesus comes to level ground, and he proclaims, The Kingdom of God has come near. Thanks be to God. And let us live as citizens of that Kingdom, not high above those whom we think are outside, but down on level ground, face to face, brothers and sisters because we are all children of the same God, a God who calls us to live out the Kingdom, here and now, and wherever we may go.