Context

Note: This is a transcript of an extemporaneous sermon

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

I confess I hardly know where to begin today.  The three readings that we have this morning are the kind of texts that are very easy to take out of context and twist them to whatever end someone wants.

In the first reading, Jeremiah is calling out the false prophets.  He was speaking at a time when the false prophets were telling the people of Israel and the political powers that be that they didn’t have anything to worry about from the approaching Babylonians because God was going to save them.  And Jeremiah was saying, No, that’s not how it’s going to happen.  You haven’t listened to God’s warnings, you’re completely unprepared, and that’s just not how it’s going to happen.  He reminds them that the Word of God is like a fire or a hammer that can smash through the rock of our denial.

And then we come to the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews.  It starts off with this wonderful remembrance of all these heroes of faith, people who stayed faithful.  The passage starts off talking about how they were rewarded for their faith.  Some of them were given kingdoms. Some of them made great accomplishments.  But then it quickly turns and talks about martyrdom.  

It’s so easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as martyrs when things are not going our way.  Or when we find ourselves facing forces or circumstances in the culture or in life that put undue pressure on us, especially if it happens because of our faith.  We forget that that letter was written at a time when people really were being tortured for their faith.  Hebrews was written probably around 63 or 64 CE, when Nero was the emperor—Nero, who would light his garden parties by putting the bodies of Christians on poles and lighting them on fire as human torches—Nero, who executed Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifying him upside down—Nero, who sent Christians to the arena to fight wild animals without any weapons.

And then come the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:  “You think I came to bring peace?  No, I came to set the world on fire and I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and I am under such anxiety until it is complete.”  He was on his way to the cross.

At the beginning of that chapter, chapter 12, Luke tells us that thousands of people were now following him.  Thousands.  And you know Jesus walked among that crowd and listened to every single way that people were misunderstanding him.  And every single misplaced expectation.  So he talks about division.  And I don’t think he’s saying this with any kind of forcefulness or bravado.  I think he is lamenting.  I think he understands that the world is going to be pretty hostile to those who truly follow what he’s been saying about proclaiming the reign of God and working to see it established nonviolently.  

And I think it breaks his heart to say those words.  Father will be pitted against son and son against father.  I remember the first time I talked to my dad about going to seminary when I was about 15 years old.  I remember he said, “It’s a good thing to have religion, but don’t go overboard with it.”  

These texts that we have this morning, as I said, can so easily be pulled out of context and used the wrong way.  When I first read these texts this week, I couldn’t help but think about how a White Christian Nationalist preacher might use these texts.  

You could use this text where Jesus talks about division, for instance, to make it sound like he’s endorsing that, like we’re supposed to be splitting ourselves apart from each other.  You could use what Jeremiah is saying about the false prophets because it’s oh so easy to think that the people who are saying what we don’t like are the false prophets, instead of the ones who are speaking the Word of God.  And as I said, with martyrdom, it’s so easy to think of yourself as the martyr. We have romanticized martyrdom in our world today.  This is why terrorist groups talk about martyrdom and the possibility of martyrdom when they’re recruiting.  It just sounds so glorious. 

On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass published a piece in her online group called The Cottage, where she shared that she’s extremely worried because there’s been an increasing amount of rhetoric from a certain quarter of our society about civil war, especially after Mar a Lago was searched by the FBI early this week.  There were thousands of posts saying it’s time for civil war, thousands of posts with a headline that said lock and load.  And the scary thing is that the people who are saying this don’t stop to think about what that really means.

It means violence.  And bloodshed.  It means misery and suffering.  It means crashed economies.  It means poverty and hunger.  It means destruction.  It’s not going to be like the last time.  There won’t be some dividing line between North and South.  No, it will be between you and your next door neighbor.  It’ll be right outside your door…or maybe inside your house…if it’s a thing we allow to happen.

One of the things that we are called to as faithful people is to be faithful to Jesus and to be faithful to what the scriptures are actually saying, to keep them in context and use them in context.  But also to speak to a society that is taking them out of context, to remind them of what they’re really saying when they say things like, “It’s time for a civil war.”  To remind them that what they’re saying is that it’s time for bloodshed…and destruction and violence and pain and suffering beyond their imagination.  If they talk about the words of Jesus saying, “But look, he’s calling for this division!” it’s our job to say, “No, he’s lamenting the ways we divide ourselves from each other because of the way we interpret our faith.”  

Jesus was just so prescient when he talked about our division.  So prophetic.  There are 40 church bodies in North America, in the US and Canada that call themselves Lutheran.  There are 45,000 church bodies in the world that call themselves Christian.  And all of them have separated themselves from some other church body at some point in history.  

The message of Jesus is that we are supposed to build bigger tables, not higher walls.  We’re supposed to open our doors wider, not close them against people who disagree with us on minor things.   The message of Jesus is that we’re supposed to embrace each other with love, not take adamantine stands against each other because of the way interpret a few words here and there.

As I said, I don’t know where to begin this morning, because if these three scriptures that we have this morning tell us anything, they tell us that we have enormous work ahead of us in a dangerous time.  They tell us that this is a time to really and truly be faithful to the gospel of love, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that embraces everyone.  They tell us that this is a time to speak truth for the sake of the reign of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen       

Restless Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-4, 8-16;  Luke 12:32-40

Just as he was about to begin his sermon one Sunday, a pastor was handed a note.  He unfolded the paper then said to the congregation, “This says there will be no B.S. tomorrow.”  He paused for a long moment then said, “I’m pretty sure that means Bible Study, but I have to confess that for just a moment there I thought, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a day scheduled for no B.S.—no Bogus Stuff?  

In the alternate first reading for this morning from chapter one of Isaiah, Isaiah takes the people to task for their Bogus Stuff.  He tells the people quite plainly, “God doesn’t want your bull.”  Well, what he actually says is:  

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!

Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 

12   When you come to appear before me,  who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— 

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

Somewhere along the way, the people had substituted the practice of their religion for the ethics of their faith.  They had fallen into the habit of thinking that as long as they performed the right rituals and offered the right sacrifices, as long as they celebrated certain festivals and observed certain holy days in the calendar, then everything would be okay between them and God.  

But Isaiah tells them in plain language, “No.  God thinks all of that is B.S.  Bogus Stuff.  God doesn’t want your bull…or your ram or your goat.”  So what does God want? Once again, Isaiah is blunt:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

The texts assigned for today are all about faith.  They tell us what faith is and what it is not.  

Isaiah makes it clear that faith is not simply worship.  It is not liturgical worship or praise worship or any other form of worship.  Faith may move you to worship God.  Worship is one way to express your faith.  But it is not a substitute for faith.  And worship without faith is meaningless.

Faith is not mere belief.  Faith does not mean you accept or give your intellectual assent to certain propositions or truths about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit.  Faith is not creeds or doctrine or dogma.  Those are tools that can help guide our faith in the same way a map can help you get somewhere you want to go.  But the map is not the journey.  It’s a depiction of the path others have traveled before you.   

So what is faith?

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God… It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith… Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”[1]

Faith is trusting God.  And that’s not always as easy as it sounds because God’s ways are not our ways and God’s timetable is not our timetable.

Abram trusted God, but that didn’t stop him from complaining.  He had left his home in Ur to find a new homeland that God had promised.   Everywhere he went in the new land he prospered.  He acquired vast parcels of property.  His flocks increased.  Local kings respected and feared him so much that they tried to recruit him as an ally in their territorial wars.  He could have built his own city, but Abram continued to live in a tent because God had told him to keep moving.  But when  long years had passed and he and Sarah had not been blessed with children, Abram complained.

So God took Abram outside to look up into the night sky.  “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can,” said God.  “If I can make that, do you really think giving you descendants will be a problem?”

Genesis tells us that Abram trusted God, and God regarded Abram as righteous because of his faith.

Faith is trust in God. 

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples announcing that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach, his followers started to worry about all the things one worries about in daily life.  Jesus turned to them and said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.  That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.  Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!  Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

    “Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

   “So don’t be afraid, little flock.  For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.”[2]

Faith is trusting God as we follow the Spirit-driven yearning of our hearts toward the better world that Jesus described for us.  It is trust that carries through this in-between life—living between what life and the world are now and what we hope and dream they will be as we work to transform them.  Faith is a holy restlessness.  A longing.  A hunger.  A desire.  Faith is not a destination, it is the journey.

“Faith,” wrote Debi Thomas, “is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going.  Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights.  Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside.  Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.”[3]

Faith is a holy dissatisfaction.  Faith wants to tear down walls and build bigger tables.  Faith wants to open the doors wider so more can come to the feast.  Faith trusts that there will always be enough for everyone.  Faith trusts that Love is not diminished but multiplied when it’s shared.  Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

This week, our denomination, the ELCA is having its churchwide assembly, the national gathering that takes place every three years to discuss and vote on theological, structural and administrative matters.  This year there are a number of proposed changes in our national constitution.  In addition to the constitutional changes that are already part of the agenda, a number of synods have submitted memoranda calling for a complete restructuring of our denomination in order to root out any systemic racism, but also to make our denomination structurally and administratively less top-heavy, lighter and more nimble.  They want to ensure that we are able to follow Jesus more closely and more quickly.  They want to make it easier for us to respond to the needs of the world and our communities, more by faith and less by organizational systems.

Changes are coming to our church, in fact change has been happening for some time.  We don’t yet know what all the changes will be or what they will mean for us.  Faith is a journey, not a destination, and it might be time to move.  But whatever changes we face, we can trust that God is in the change.  God will be with us.  

So, Jesus tells us, travel light.  Sell your excess stuff and give to those in need.  Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, so let your heart go out to those in need.  Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.  And be ready.  The kin-dom of God is close…and we don’t want to let Bogus Stuff keep us from getting there.

Have no fear, little flock.  It is your Father’s great pleasure to give you the Kingdom.


[1] An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

[2] Luke 12:22-32 (NLT)

[3] Debi Thomas, Called to Restlessness, Journey With JesusAugust 7, 2022

Perfect

Thoughts Along the Way

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  –Matthew 5:48. 

“Perfection is the enemy of good,” said Voltaire, although he was rephrasing an older saying: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress,” and Tolstoy said  “If you look for perfection you’ll never be content.” Salvador Dali said there’s no point in being afraid of perfection because you’ll never find it.  “If people reach perfection they vanish, you know,” wrote T.H. White in The Once and Future King.

Well, Voltaire, Churchill, Tolstoy and Dali were right.  You can keep trying to make something flawless, and since you don’t know what perfection really is or what it looks like—after all, nobody has ever actually seen it or experienced it—you may end up ruining something that was perfectly good enough.  You can re-write and over-edit your writing until the words lose their meaning.  You can agonize over finding the perfect words for your speech and end up alienating your audience because you sound like you’re from another era or stratum of society.  You can sand and polish your woodwork until the grain disappears.  You can keep adding details to your painting and end up overcomplicating what might have otherwise been a masterpiece.  

If you’re trying to make yourself perfect, it would be good to take T.H. White’s words of caution to heart.  You can try to live a life that is so moral, intelligent and upright in every way that you make the you that everybody loves—you know, the you that has an slightly wicked sense of humor, the you that’s just a little unorthodox, the you whose heart sometimes overrules the head—if you try too hard to be perfect, you can end up making the genuine you disappear into the shell of a pious mannequin.  Or into craziness.  Because there is no perfect.

We all know that perfection is not possible.  And yet, here is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount telling us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  So is Jesus commanding us to do the impossible?

Probably not.  We probably have the wrong word…or at least the wrong understanding of it.

Some scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew may have originally been written in Hebrew.  If so, then the word that appears in English as “perfect” would have been either tamam or kalal;  Hebrew has two different words that might have been used.  Tamam is a word that connotes wholeness, soundness, or integrity.  It is a word that is usually used to convey ethical significance.  So if tamam was the word used, we could hear what Jesus is saying as “Be whole, be mature, be honest as your heavenly Father is whole, mature and honest.”  Kalal, on the other hand, is a word meant to convey an aesthetic sense of completeness, elegance, natural grace or beauty.  “Be elegant as your heavenly Father is elegant.”  

In Greek, the language of most of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel, the word our English Bibles translate as “perfect” is teloi which comes from teleios or telos.  The overall meaning is wholeness and completeness.  It’s a word that’s used to describe something or someone that is mature, a grown person, an adult.  It can also refer to someone who is fully initiated into a religious community of faith or who is fully consecrated to a faithful way of life. Sometimes it is used to describe someone who is completely genuine.  “Be genuine, therefore, as your heavenly Father is genuine.”

Author and scholar Chaim Benorah points out that Jesus was probably speaking Aramaic.  In Aramaic, the word he used would have been gmeera.  Gmeera describes someone who has understanding, someone who has reached maturity, an adult.  So we could read the instructions of Jesus as something like “Have understanding of the Way, the way God understands the Way” or “Be an adult, the way God is an adult.”  I think this meaning may be what Eugene Peterson had in mind when he translated this verse in The Message this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

David Lose has pointed out that there is an important word in this “be perfect” passage that we tend to ignore.  Therefore.  That little “therefore” should make us back up a bit and look at what Jesus was saying before we got stuck on “be perfect.”  He was telling his disciples—telling us—to practice nonviolence, to love our enemies, and to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.  He was giving instructions on adulting in the kin-dom.  Be a grown up as your heavenly Father is a grownup.

Perfect.  It’s just a word, but it’s a crazy-making word, and it reminds us that we need to think about the words we’re using and how we use them.  Telling someone they need to be perfect could set them on the path to life-long neurosis. Inviting someone to imitate God’s maturity and wholeness, though, is another pathway altogether.  After all, as it says in the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, “By loving and blessing all people, you will be walking in the footsteps of your Father from the spirit-world above, who is perfect in all his ways.”

Teach Us to Pray – Part 2

Teach Us to Pray – Part 2

Luke 11:1-13

Last week we finished Part 1 of our deep dive into Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer with the petition Your kindom come.  As I said last week, a literal translation would be “Let it come, the reign of you,” or “Let your reign begin.”  I also pointed out that this petition, “let your reign begin” is where this prayer stops being a nice religious sentiment or litany of devotion and becomes an endorsement of a better reality.  

Your kingdom come, or Let your reign begin is a declaration that we are in favor of radical changes in the way the world operates.  When we pray your kingdom come, we are asking God to work through us to make significant changes in economics, politics, religion and society in order to bring the justice and shalom of God to our everyday lives.  When we pray your kingdom come, let your reign begin, we are volunteering to live here and now God’s shalom and also to do whatever we can to bring God’s shalom to others and to all creation.

Shalom is what the Lord’s Prayer is all about.  Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace.  But it’s not merely a peace based on the absence or suppression of hostility.  The word Shalom comes from the Hebrew root shalam which literally means “make it good.”  It is a word used to describe completeness and wholeness.  And, while it’s good for us to seek our own inner shalom, the real shalom of God’s reign happens in community.  The Shalom of the kin-dom is a peace that recognizes that we are all interconnected and interdependent.  Shalom desires the peace and well-being of others, which means that it requires justice and fairness.  

Cherokee theologian Randy S. Woodley describes it this way:  “Shalom is communal, holistic, and tangible. There is no private or partial shalom. The whole community must have shalom or no one has shalom. As long as there are hungry people in a community that is well fed, there can be no shalom. . . . Shalom is not for the many, while a few suffer; nor is it for the few while many suffer. It must be available for everyone.”[1] 

When we pray Your kingdom come, we are praying for shalom in our homes, in our towns, in our churches, in our nation and throughout the whole world.  We are praying for peace and justice and fairness for everyone.  And that brings us naturally to Give us each day our daily bread, because in God’s shalom everyone is fed and no one goes hungry. 

Give us each day our daily bread.  There is some ambiguity in the Greek wording here, and it can be translated in two ways.  The first way, of course, is the way we’re used to hearing it or saying it: give us today our daily bread.  Amy-Jill Levine points out, though, that this is not only redundant but rather odd.  She suggests that a better translation would be give us tomorrow’s bread today.  

Give us tomorrow’s bread today is a valid translation from a linguistic standpoint, but it may also give us both a more practical and a more wholistic way to think about what we’re asking.  In most households in Jesus’ day, the dough for the next day’s bread was prepared the evening before and allowed to rise during the night.  If you were going to have bread tomorrow, you needed to have the ingredients today.  Understood this way, this petition is a way of asking for something very practical.  We’re asking God to save us from at least a little anxiety by ensuring that we have today what we will need tomorrow.  

But this petition of the prayer reaches beyond our family table.  It is reminiscent of a traditional Jewish table prayer called the motzi: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”  It reminds us that God doesn’t just magically put bread on the table, God uses the generosity of the earth and the labor of the whole community to put bread on the table. 

Last week I told the story of the little boy who was saying his bedtime prayers and prayed very loudly, “AND GOD, PLEASE GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!”  When his mother reminded him that he didn’t need to say it so loudly because God isn’t hard of hearing, he said  “I know, but Grandma is.”  As I said last week, this little guy was onto something—God often uses others to answer our prayers, in fact, that’s how it works most of the time.

When we pray give us tomorrow’s bread today, we are asking God to care for the land where the wheat grows.  We’re asking for clean and gentle rains so the crops can grow.  We are asking God to guard and protect the farmers who plant and care for and harvest the crops.  We are asking God to care for those who transport the wheat and mill it into flour.  We are asking God to care for the hands that make the dough and knead it and bake it.  We are asking for fuel for the fire in the ovens.  

Bread on the table depends entirely on the well-being of the community and on our relationships within the community.  God brings forth bread from the earth, but it is a team effort.  When we pray for both today’s bread and tomorrow’s we are once again praying for the shalom of God’s kin-dom.  The next time you hold a piece of bread in your hand, or any piece of food for that matter, think of all the hands that labored to bring it to your hand.

Shalom is what makes it possible for us to have our daily bread.  But sometimes things we do or say disrupt the cooperation and mutuality that make shalom possible.  Sometimes our sins or the sins of others rupture relationships, and forgiveness is needed to restore those relationships.  And that’s why Jesus taught us to pray And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  

Luke says “forgive us our sins.”  Matthew says, “forgive us our debts.”  In both Aramaic and Hebrew, “debt” was another way to talk about sin.  In the version we pray in our congregation, we usually say “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  That’s a perfectly fine way to pray this petition.  It reminds us that we do sin against God and against each other.  We do need forgiveness from God and from each other.  This petition reminds us that there is a reciprocity involved in forgiveness.  As Jesus said in Luke 6:37, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Once again it’s about relationships all the way down, which means that this petition, too, is also about God’s shalom.

But let’s go back to the language about debts and forgiving debts.  Remember that Jesus was a Jew and he was teaching this prayer to his Jewish disciples.  This language about debts would have been a reminder to them of everything the Torah has to say about economic justice.  Jesus is telling them and us to live in an economically just way.

In Hebrew, the word for charitytzedakah, is from the same root as the word for righteousness, tzedek.  Torah says in Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”  Deuteronomy 24:14 tells us, “You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers, whether Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” 

In this petition, Jesus reminds us to think of our spiritual indebtedness—we are all indebted to God’s grace—but we are reminded to consider the economic implications of the way we live.  Are the products and services we buy produced in a way that’s economically fair to the workers who produce them?   Does my lifestyle depend on or contribute to some economic injustice?  What can I do to change that?

Living a life of faith as a follower of Jesus means that sometimes we face difficult questions. Sometimes it feels almost as if we’re being tested.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.  When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1604, the phrase “and lead us not into temptation” in The Lord’s Prayer caused a huge controversy.  The Puritans were quick to point out that the Book of James says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13)  This was only one of several complaints they had about the Book of Common Prayer, but it was one they were not willing to compromise.

They had a point.  What the Greek says in both Luke and Matthew is “do not bring us into a peirasmon.  Peirasmon is a time or place of testing, trial or examination.  Temptation may be a kind of test, but not every test is a temptation.  In this petition, you are asking to be spared from any kind of catastrophe or stress, any situation that would put your faith to the test. 

As I said in Part 1, The Lord’s Prayer, this prayer that Jesus gave his disciples is not only one of the great treasures of our faith, it’s also, in its way, a radical call to a discipleship.  In this prayer we are asking God to empower us, guide us, and walk with us as we embrace a new way of life with new values and a new vision of what the world can be.  It really is, in six simple lines, a kind of manifesto for life as a follower of Jesus.  In this prayer we are asking for peace, health, and  wholeness for ourselves and for our community.  We are asking God to help us live in the shalom of the kin-dom here and now.  We are asking God to help us live in the Way of Love.

“Shalom,” writes Jamie Arpin-Ricci, “is what love looks like in the flesh. The embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, shalom is a hint at what was, what should be, and what will one day be again. Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers and frees us from the pretense of our false selves.”[2] 

When we pray for God’s name not to be profaned, when we pray for God’s reign to begin in earnest, when we pray for a healthy community and world so that everyone may have tomorrow’s bread today, when we pray for forgiveness and the power to forgive, we are praying for God’s vision of a healthy world.  When we say “Amen,” we are not only saying “Make it so,” we are saying we will do what we can to live in that vision and make it a reality for others.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] Shalom and the Community of Creation; Randy S. Woodley

[2] Jamie Arpin-RicciVulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick

Teach Us to Pray – Part 1

Luke 11:1-13

A little boy was saying his bedtime prayers and finished by saying very loudly, “AND GOD, PLEASE GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!”  “Why did you say that so loudly?” his mother asked. “God’s not hard of hearing.”  “I know,” he said.  “But Grandma is.”

Whether he knew it or not, this little guy was onto something.  God often uses other people to answer our prayers, in fact, I would say that that’s how it works most of the time.  I’ll say more about that next week.

The Gospel text for this week contains Luke’s version of the prayer we know as The Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer that Jesus gave his disciples is not only one of the great treasures of our faith, it’s also, in its way, a radical call to a discipleship.  In this prayer we are asking God to empower us, guide us, and walk with us as we embrace a new way of life with new values and a new vision of what the world can be.  It really is, in six simple lines, a kind of manifesto for life as a follower of Jesus.

Because this prayer is so important, not just historically, but also for the life and future of the church, I’m going to take us through it in two parts.  This week we’ll go up through “Your kingdom come.”  Next week we’ll start with “our daily bread.”

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”  Now why would the disciple be asking this?  The disciples almost surely already knew how to pray in general.  They had probably all learned the various traditional Jewish prayers, and they had watched Jesus pray many times.  So what, exactly is the disciple asking for?   Well, there’s a clue in the phrase “as John taught his disciples.”

John the Baptizer had apparently taught his disciples a special prayer for their community.  This prayer would have identified them as followers of John, and it would have contained key words or phrases that would have reminded them of John’s teachings.   Now this disciple of Jesus is asking for a similar prayer to be used by the community of his followers, and Jesus responds by giving them what we’ve come to know as The Lord’s Prayer.  

Because Jesus gives this prayer to his disciples as a kind of gift to the community of his followers, I’ve often thought that calling it The Disciples’ Prayer would make more sense, but we’ve known it as The Lord’s Prayer for so long that trying to rename it is probably a lost cause.  Still, it’s worth remembering that this is a prayer that Jesus gave to his followers to be used as something that would identify and unite them, and at the same time remind them of what he had taught them. 

There are a few different versions of the Lord’s prayer.  That’s partly because it was originally transmitted and taught orally.  As such, it would naturally be remembered slightly differently from community to community.  This is probably why the version in the Gospel of Luke differs slightly from the version in the Gospel of Matthew, and both of them differ from the version in the Didache, the late first-century manual on how to do church.  The most common version used today is based on the wording that first appeared in The Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  That version, in turn, was based on William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew from 1526.  That’s the only translation, by the way, where you’ll find “forgive us our trespasses” in Matthew 6:12 instead of “forgive us our debts.”[1]

I could talk all day about difficulties and variations in translation and transmission of the prayer.  It has even been a centerpiece of controversy a time or two in church history, but for now let’s use Luke’s version to take a deeper look at the meaning of this amazing prayer that Jesus has given to us.

“When you pray,” said Jesus—and the “you” is plural here—“when all y’all pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Prayer is simply a conversation with God.  You start a conversation by getting the other person’s attention and you usually do that by saying their name or title.  For example, my grandsons call me Pono.  When I hear one of the say, “Pono,” I know they want to talk to me about something or ask me something or sometimes just come sit with me.  It’s the same when we begin the Lord’s Prayer saying, “Father…”  We’re letting God know we want to communicate something.  

The word Father also conveys a relationship.  “Father” acknowledges that we have a personal relationship with God.  It’s supposed to help us feel like we’re sharing our hearts with a warm, nurturing, loving parent.  

That’s the kind of relationship Jesus is encouraging us to have with God.  But the Father image, or for that matter the Mother image doesn’t work for everybody.  Some people have experienced abuse or conflict with their father or mother or both so parent imagery isn’t inviting for them.  When that’s the case, it’s perfectly okay to address God in some other way.

Devout Jews will often address God as Hashem in their prayers.  Hashem means “the name,” and addressing God as Hashem gives them a way to address God by name, sort of, without actually saying God’s name, which they believe is too holy to be spoken.  In effect, Hashem becomes a name they call God in much the same way that Pono is the name my grandsons call me.   

In her book Help. Thanks. Wow., Anne Lamott wrote, “Nothing could matter less than what we call [God].  I know some ironic believers who call God Howard, as in ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard by thy name.’  I called God Phil for a long time, after a Mexican bracelet maker promised to write ‘Phil 4:4-7’ on my bracelet, Philippians 4:4-7 being my favorite passage of Scripture, but got only as far as ‘Phil’ before having to dismantle his booth.  Phil is a great name for God.

“Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to.  Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard;  to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us.  We could call this force Not Me, and Not Preachers Onstage with a Choir of 800.  Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.’”

Anne Lamott’s advice to call on God with whatever name opens your heart and draws you closer to God might seem contradictory to what comes next in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be your name,” or to translate it directly from the Greek, “Let it be sacred, the name of you.”  So are we treating God’s name as sacred if we call on God as Howard or Phil or Hashem?  Well that depends entirely on your attitude when you use that name. 

The Jewish people have always avoided saying the actual name of God, the name God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.  One reason they avoid speaking God’s name is that it’s one way to ensure that they don’t break the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Taking God’s name in vain means a lot more than just saying God’s name at the wrong time or in the wrong way or saying “Oh my God” as an expletive.  Taking God’s name in vain means using the name or authority of God in a way that draws ridicule.  It can mean taking the authority of God upon yourself for purposes that have nothing to do with God’s reign or God’s desires.  It can mean using God’s name or authority to further your own ideas or agenda, to buttress your own authority, orr simply using God’s name or authority for show.

Let it be sacred, Hashem.  Let it be sacred, the name of you.

When we pray this, we are asking God to help and guide us and everyone else who “calls upon the name of the Lord.”  It’s a way of saying, “Keep us honest, Hashem.”

The next petition in the prayer is maybe the most challenging if we really think about what we’re saying.

“Your kingdom come.”  Or again, translating directly from Luke’s Greek text, “Let it come, the reign of you.”   

I think sometimes that if we took this petition seriously our knees would buckle.  When we pray this, we are volunteering to do whatever we can to make God’s reign a reality here and now.  We are saying that we are not just in favor of radical changes in the way we do things—radical economic, political, religious and societal changes—we are saying that we will volunteer to make those changes as God guides us.  

This is where the Lord’s Prayer is no longer merely a nice religious artifact or litany of devotion. This petition is where the Lord’s Prayer becomes subversive in the best possible way.  And if anyone wants to suggest that Jesus is really praying about the establishment of God’s heavenly kingdom at the end of time, then I would suggest that they haven’t really read the gospels or understood the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t crucified because he talked about heaven; he was executed for proclaiming that the kin-dom of God was within reach.  

“Your kingdom come” or “let your reign begin” also has to go hand-in-hand with “let your name be sacred.”  We are praying for God’s vision to become a reality, not our own vision.  

So… I’m leaving you with a lot to think about this week.  How do you speak to God?  How do you call upon God?  What name or practice opens your heart to deep communication with the heart of Life and Love?  How do you safeguard and respect the authority of God?  How do you avoid abusing that authority and power?  And most importantly, are you really ready and willing for God’s reign to begin here and now?  


[1] I’m very grateful to Brian Stoffregen for this bit of history and other insights in his weekly Exegetical Notes.

Familiarity Blindness

Luke 10:25-37

Note: This sermon was preached in 2 parts which are combined here.

Have you ever experienced familiarity blindness?   A lot of us develop familiarity blindness with one thing or another—that condition where you know something so well that you actually stop seeing it.  The upshot of it is that the next time you do take a hard look at that familiar whatever it is, you see all kinds of things that you hadn’t noticed before.  

In my office at home I have a black and white photograph, a portrait of my grandparents—my mother’s mom and dad.  That picture was taken the year I was born, so I’ve been seeing it my entire life.  My grandmother, the woman in that picture, died nine days after my first birthday, so a lot of my impression of her came from that photograph.  As a kid, I always thought she must have been kind of stern and austere—that was how the picture struck me.  But the other day, I took a moment to look at it again from a slightly different angle, and I realized that she is  actually smiling ever so slightly, and her eyes look very loving, gentle and understanding.  Now that I was really looking at her picture, I also realized that there was something strikingly familiar about her eyes, and then it suddenly dawned on me that I was seeing my mother’s eyes in this picture of her mother.  That smile, those gentle eyes had always been there in the photograph, but I hadn’t seen them because of familiarity blindness.

I think it’s fair to say that many of us have a kind of familiarity blindness with the parables of Jesus in general and this one in particular, and I shared with you last week how Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s amazing book, Short Stories by Jesus, helped me see this familiar story in a new way.

We talked last week about the lawyer who tries to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him.  We talked about his trick question about inheriting eternal life and how Jesus turned the tables with a trick question of his own but amplified it with an even more important question when he asked, “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?” 

That first question, “what is written in the Law,” was a red herring.  Torah, the Law, doesn’t say anything at all about eternal life.  The Law of Moses isn’t interested in life after death but it is vitally concerned with how we live here and now.  The really important question is the second one Jesus asks the lawyer: How do you read it?   That question is just as important for us today as it was then.  Maybe even more so.

The lawyer responded to Jesus by quoting a mashup of the Shema from Deuteronomy and the Golden Commandment from Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  “That’s correct,” said Jesus, “Do that and you will live.”

The bottom line is love.  Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Do that and you will live.  Love is the key to an abundant life.

It sounds simple.  The problem, though, is that this commandment to love is all inclusive, and there are some people we really don’t want to love.

I think the lawyer in this story is honest enough to realize that about himself.  He knows there are some people—you know, “those people”—that he will never love, and he suspects that this is true for everyone standing there listening to Jesus.  Luke says he wanted to justify himself.  He wanted to make himself look right in the eyes of all those listening.  But he also wanted to maybe find a loophole.  Surely Jesus can’t mean that he has to love everybody, because, you know, there are some people—those people—who have clearly demonstrated that they are not on our side.  Are we supposed to love them?  

So he asks another question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

In the context of law, the question about who is a neighbor has legal merit.  After all, good fences make good neighbors.  But in the context of love it’s irrelevant.  

So Jesus redirects with a story.

A man travelling on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho is violently assaulted by robbers.  They don’t just rob him, they strip him and beat him so badly that he’s half dead.  So there he is half dead at the side of the road.  A priest happens by and does nothing to help the poor victim who is lying there bleeding.  He passes by on the other side of the road.  He gives the wounded man a wide berth.  Next a Levite comes by.  He also passes by on the other side of the road and does nothing to help the wounded stranger.

At this point, those listening to Jesus tell this story are shocked and the lawyer has to be wondering where this is going.  For them, it’s unthinkable that a priest and a Levite would pass by without helping.  The Law is very clear on this.  They are required them to help!  That would be their duty and it would take precedence over any other duty or obligation.  Even if the wounded man turned out to be dead, they had a responsibility to care for his body.  

The people listening to Jesus would have been shocked.  But they are about to be utterly scandalized.  Because the hero of the story turns out to be a Samaritan.  

It’s hard for us to imagine how much the Jews hated the Samaritans.  And vice versa.  There antagonism between these two peoples went back centuries and was all the more intense because they were so closely related.  

We traditionally call this parable the story of the Good Samaritan, but in the minds of those who were listening to Jesus, the words “good” and “Samaritan” would never go together.  It was an oxymoron.  Samaritans were the enemy.   The people listening to Jesus as he tells this story might have thought, “If I were the man in the ditch, I would rather die than admit that I was saved by a Samaritan.”  In their minds, Samaritans were something less than fully human.  

So how did things get to be that way between the Jews and the Samaritans?  Well, centuries before Jesus, in the time of Jacob, Samaria was called Shechem, and it was a Prince of Shechem who raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah.  In the time of the Judges, the false judge Abimelech, who murdered all his rivals, came from Shechem.  For a time, Shechem became part of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon, but after Solomon died, the Northern Kindom of Israel—which had been Shechem—broke away and a kind of low-grade civil war broke out that continued for generations.  When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom which was now called both Israel and Ephraim, they brought in people from other conquered kingdoms to resettle and then renamed the land Samaria after the capital city.  That’s also when the people of Judah began to refer to Samaritans with a kind of racial slur,  calling them “the people with 5 fathers.”  But the thing that the people of Judah found absolutely unforgiveable forever and ever amen, was that when they returned to Jerusalem after their time of captivity in Babylon, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, joined forces with other people in the region and attacked them to try to stop them from  rebuilding the city wall and the temple.

For their part, the Samaritans called themselves the Shamerim, meaning “guardians” or “observers” of the Law.  They had built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and they had their own version of Torah, which they insisted was the “true” version.  They believed that only Torah—their Torah, of course—contained the word of God and they did not include the writings and the prophets among the books they regarded as holy.

For Jews, Samaritans were the ultimate “other.”  For Jesus to cast the Samaritan as the benevolent hero was almost beyond belief.  It would be like an ultra-orthodox Jew being saved by a Hamas Palestinian.  To bring it closer to home, it would be like someone wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt being saved by someone wearing the Confederate stars and bars and a red MAGA baseball cap.  

Who would it be for you?  Who is that ultimate “other” who, in your mind, only just barely qualifies as a real person?  Who is it who, in your mind, seems to be so radically different from you that there’s really no point in even talking to them?  Or maybe there’s someone who sees you that way.  How would you feel if it was one of those people who pulled you out of the ditch?

The lawyer had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus reframed his question.  Jesus wants us to understand that the question is not “who” merits my love or even “from whom” should I expect love.  As Amy-Jill Levine wrote, “The issue for Jesus is not the ‘who,’ but the ‘what,’ not the identity but the action.”  Love—loving God, loving your neighbor, loving yourself—is revealed in action.  Love does not exist in the abstract; it must be enacted.

The Priest and the Levite did not act in love even though their law and duty commanded that they should.  In his sermon on this parable shortly before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. had an explanation for why they did not help:  “I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me.  It’s possible these men were afraid… And so the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ … But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question:  ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

The Samaritan gave first aid to the man at the side of the road.  He put him on his donkey and took him to the nearest inn where he could receive more help.  He paid the innkeeper two days wages to take care of the wounded man and then gave him a promise that amounted to a blank check.  “Take care of him,” he said, “and when I come back, I will repay you whatever you spend.”

“Which of these three,” Jesus asked the lawyer, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan.’  I imagine there was a long pause before the lawyer finally said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Mercy.  It’s an important detail here at the end of the parable,  a well-chosen word.  In both Greek and Hebrew, the word we translate as mercy can also mean “kindness.”  It is also a covenant word in Hebrew.  It signifies a shared bond of common humanity in the eyes of and under the Law of God.  It is an acknowledgement that we “are of the same kind.”  The Samaritan showed mercy.  Kindness, a word that takes us back to the prophet Micah:  “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness…mercy…kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus to the lawyer.  And to us. 

In our country today, we find ourselves living in a culture scarred by cycles of division, antagonism, conflict, and even violence.  In this parable, Jesus is telling us that these spirals of perpetual antagonism can be broken with kindness.  The question that Jesus wants us to wrestle with is this: Can we learn to treat even our enemies, the “Samaritans” in our lives, in ways that acknowledge their humanity?  Can we dare to see them in ways that acknowledge their potential to do good?  Can we can bind the wounds of those “others” and dare to imagine that they would do the same for us?    

When we encounter each other on the road full of bandits and other dangers, will we be blinded to each other by our familiar stereotypes, or will we step outside of the roles we’ve cast for each other to show kindness and be the good neighbor?  

Learning to Dance

One night when I was about 14 years old, I saw something that was almost indescribably beautiful, something that left me completely transfixed.   Mom and Dad had gone out for dinner, just the two of them.  I don’t know what the occasion was, but Mom was wearing a black cocktail dress and Dad was wearing his best suit and tie. 

A few hours after they left, I was in my bedroom doing homework when I heard the front door open and then close.  When I didn’t hear anything else for a minute, I padded down the hall to poke my head into the living room and make sure everything was okay.  And that’s when I saw it.  

Mom and Dad were dancing.

Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade was playing on the stereo, and my parents were dancing.  They weren’t just dancing…they were dancing beautifully.  They moved together perfectly.  They didn’t just sway together in time to the music, they knew The Steps, and they did them together flawlessly, as if they had practiced this every day for their entire lives.   

My parents were dancing, and it transformed them.  My dad was no longer the stocky guy with a short temper who, frankly, scared me a little, he was suddenly Gene Kelly, elegant, athletic and graceful.  My mom was no longer the brainy little elf with her nose forever in a book, she was suddenly Cyd Charisse, fluid, weightless and willowy!  They were no longer two separate persons, they were one, united by the music, their synchronized steps,  and their embrace.

So why am I telling you this very personal story about a very personal moment between my mother and father?  I’m telling you this story because this is Trinity Sunday, and for one brief moment when I was 14, I saw the Mother, the Father, and the Holy Music united together as one:  a nearly perfect analogy of the Holy Trinity.

Nearly perfect.  And also, not even close to perfect.  That’s because even the very best analogies break down at some point.  They break down because they are trying to describe something that is too vast and deep and intimate to fit into human words.  Martin Luther said that to deny the Trinity imperils our souls, but to try to explain the Trinity imperils our sanity.

And that makes sense when you think about it.  Can you explain you?  Could you give a concise yet comprehensive description of everything that makes you you?  You are not an intellectual construct to be defined and understood.  You are a person to be befriended and loved.  The only meaningful way for someone to “understand” the mystery that is you is to relate to you—to be in a relationship with you.  

When I saw my parents dancing that night, all those years ago, it was an epiphany for me, but it was by no means the final epiphany.  I had a new understanding of who they were together and what they meant to each other, but it was by no means a complete and exhaustive understanding of the mystery of their relationship.  Much of their relationship would remain a mystery.  In the same way, no matter how many epiphanies we have about the relationship, the oneness of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, there will always be more that remains a mystery.

The infinite God cannot be boxed into our very finite minds.  The limitless God cannot be corralled by our limited understanding.  The Holy Trinity, the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons united as one God, is not a puzzle to be solved.  It’s a mystery in which to immerse ourselves.  Frederick Buechner called the Trinity the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery among us, and the Mystery within us.  You don’t solve mysteries, you explore them.  You enter into them.  You participate in them.  Maybe instead of calling this day Trinity Sunday, we should call it Mystery Sunday.

When something is a mystery, especially when it’s a God mystery, that doesn’t mean it can’t be understood, it means that it can be understood endlessly.  There is always more to see.  There is always more to relate to.  There is always more to understand.  There are always new steps in the dance.

And it is a dance—or at least that’s one of the best descriptions we’ve ever had of the Trinity.  But how did we come to have the Doctrine of the Trinity in the first place?

Well, early followers of Jesus had a problem.  Like the Jews—and remember, the first followers of Jesus were Jews—these early Jesus followers believed that there is only one God.  But they also believed—or at least most of them did—that Jesus was divine in nature and that he was somehow completely one with God whom he called Abba or Father.  On top of that, they had received the Holy Spirit—the very breath of God, who they also experienced as a divine person because the Spirit often seemed to exist and act independently of Jesus and Abba.  At the baptism of Jesus, all three seemed to have been present: Jesus coming up out of the water, the Spirit, descending in the form of a dove, and the Abba, speaking like thunder.  So how do you reconcile three divine persons but hang onto the idea that there is only one God?

Well, you don’t, said one group of Christ followers.  These people were called Arians because the main proponent of their theology was Arius of Alexandria.  The Father is God, said Arius.  Jesus, the Son is a slightly lesser god.  All his authority and power comes from the Father, but he is separate in substance and stature.  And the Spirit is a lesser god than Jesus, the Son, and also of a lower stature and substance.  What the Arians were saying, more or less, is that there are really three gods and the Father is the only one who is really God, the one with all the power and authority.   

Hang on a minute, said the Trinitarians.  Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.  You who have seen me have seen the Father.”  After the resurrection, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples.  He is in his breath.  It’s his Spirit flows in us.  When the prophets would say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”  they were talking about the Father’s Spirit.  So, the Three have to be One.  They are also Three.  But they are also one.  Three persons, One being.

This disagreement had started to become violent and threatened to completely and irreparably divide the church which had only recently really begun to come together in a meaningful way.  So in 325, the emperor Constantine, who had recently declared himself to be a follower of Christ, decided that this question had to be settled for the good of the Church and the good of the empire.  He called for a Council and ordered all the bishops to meet at Nicaea to debate the matter.  After much argument, Constantine declared that the Trinitarians had won the debate. 

Constantine ordered the Council of Nicaea to formulate a statement of Doctrine to describe the Trinity.  This was the very first official doctrine of the whole Church, by the way, and the bishops and presbyters argued heatedly over the words they would use.  They argued about whether the Father and the Son were made of the same substance and whether they had the same nature.  They knew they were standing at the edge of an enormous Truth about God and they felt it was vitally important to get all the details exactly right even though there was no possible way for them to even know or see all the details.  In some ways, they were like children who stand on the beach and think they can fully describe the breadth and depth and power of the ocean and all the life contained in it.  

They created the first draft of the Nicene Creed and decided that adherence to this statement of faith would determine if someone was a true Christian or not.  Ironically, their very useful insight about the all-loving, all-relating God who exists eternally in the expansive community and relationship of the Trinity led them to formulate a faith statement that would be used to exclude people from the community and the embrace of the Church.

Fortunately, about 50 years after Nicaea, the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen, the patriarch of Constantinople came up with a better description of how the three persons of the Trinity exist as one God.  The model they used was a circle dance, and the fancy theological name they gave their idea is perichoresis, a Greek word which more or less literally means circle dance.   The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they said, exist as one in an eternal circle dance of love.  The Trinity is an eternal, joyful, radiant manifestation of love, loving, and being loved.  The love that endlessly flows between, in and through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit creates and sustains the universe.

One of the beautiful things about this idea is that there is no hierarchy in it.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in their eternal love for each other and for their creation, which includes us.  Another wonderful thing about this idea is that it describes God as always in motion, God as a verb and not as a static noun, exists as an endless flow of love.  But perhaps the most powerful thing about this idea, at least as far as we are concerned, is that we are invited into their dance.  We are invited to participate in the endless flow of love, loving, and being loved.  The Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, carries us into the loving embrace of the Father and the Son and invites us to learn the steps of the dance.

When I saw my mother and father dancing on that long-ago night, they had lost themselves in each other and the music.  They were still themselves, but they had become something more, and that something filled up the whole room and spilled out into me and my sister and the dog.  It’s like that with the Trinity.  The eternal dance of love spills over to create the universe and fills that universe with love.  You and I are invited into the dance.  Never mind if you don’t know the steps.  The Spirit will teach you, and as you learn, the dance itself will carry you.

The Breath, the Wind, the Spirit

John 14:8-17, 25-27

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

It’s no surprise that this is the text that usually gets all our attention on Pentecost Sunday.  It’s a big, dramatic story.  The language is intense and the narrative is filled with almost cinematic details that light up our imaginations!  Violent wind!  Tongues of fire!  Everyone streaming out into the street speaking different languages!  This outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the second chapter of Acts is so vivid and powerful, so action-packed and full of good stuff for motivating the church that it’s no wonder we return to it every year to be inspired by it and to have our own personal zeal and dedication rekindled. 

This Pentecost story in the second chapter of Acts is an important part of our heritage.  Many call it the birthday of the church;  Pentecost is the day that God endowed us with God’s own Holy Spirit, right?  Well, yes. The Pentecost story in Acts  is one version of how the followers of Jesus were endowed with the Holy Spirit.  Over the past few years, though, I have felt myself more and more drawn to the way the followers of Jesus receive the Spirit in the Gospel of John. 

In chapter 20 of John, the disciples were huddled together in hiding.  It was evening, three days after Jesus was crucified.  The day had been an emotional roller coaster.  Just before sunrise, Jesus’ tomb was found to be unsealed and empty.  Mary Magdalen claimed that she had seen Jesus and spoken with him, but no one else had.  And then suddenly, even though the doors were locked, there he was standing in the room with them!  “Peace be with you,” he said.  “As the Father has sent me, now I’m sending you.”  And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This is a much gentler and more subdued giving of the Spirit.  It’s not as flashy as Luke’s Pentecost story, but it is very powerful in its own way.  It’s more personal.  The Holy Spirit is given and received as the very breath of Jesus.  

This is the culmination of a wonderful play on words that has been going on throughout John’s gospel since chapter 3 when Jesus told Nicodemus that “The wind blows wherever it chooses, and you hear its sound, but do not know where it is coming from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  In Greek, the language in which the Gospel of John was written, the word for wind and breath and spirit are all the same word.  Pneuma.  So when Jesus breathes on them in chapter 20 and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” it could also be understood as “receive the Holy Breath” or “Receive the Holy Wind.” 

What does it do to our understanding of the Spirit if we can hear it all three ways: to hear it as the Spirit, the essence of God that resides with us and in us guiding and speaking to our spirits; but also to hear it as the very breath of Jesus filling our lungs, empowering our words when we speak; and then to also hear it as the wind of God that blows us where God wants or needs us to go?  Receive the Holy Breath.  Receive the Holy Wind.  Receive the Holy Spirit.

I like the rambunctious giving of the Spirit in Acts 2.  It’s a joyful and empowering picture of the Spirit at work.  But as I said, I have been more and more drawn to the way the Gospel of John describes the movement and work of the Spirit.  I find this quieter, gentler “Pentecost” more in keeping with my own experience and more consistent with the ways I have seen the Spirit move and work in others.  I find that very often the work of the Spirit is so subtle that it’s not until I look back on the moment that I even realize that the Spirit was at work.

Let me give you an example.  As I was preparing this sermon, I had done my research and gathered all the bits and pieces in my notes, and prayed, so that the only thing left to do was to start writing.  And that’s where I was stuck.  My brain needed more time to percolate all the things I had been reading and thinking.  I guess I was still in sermon-avoidance mode.  So I went online to Facebook just to get the synapses firing and blow out the cobwebs.  As I scrolled through different posts, I came upon a painting of Jesus.  It was an arresting and well done picture, and there were two things I liked about it immediately.  First, in this painting Jesus looks like a Palestinian.  There’s an authenticity about it that makes it easy to say, “Yeah.  Jesus could very well look like that.”  But the thing that was really striking was that in this picture, Jesus is smiling.  He looks warm and friendly and understanding.  And loving. 

Staring at this marvelous picture of Jesus, I found myself thinking about our gospel text for today from John 14.  This passage is part of the Last Supper Discourse, also called the Farewell Discourse.  John pictures Jesus gathered with his disciple on the night of his betrayal, taking advantage of their short time together to prepare them for what is to come.  I have always imagined him being very somber throughout this whole discourse, after all, he’s sharing some very serious things with his disciples.  But looking at this picture where he’s smiling, where he looks so loving, I began to think, “What if this was his expression as he said all these difficult and necessary things?  What if he was looking at them with love and gentleness and patient understanding?”  As I looked at that painting, I began to hear his words differently.  The tone of voice changed and the words of Jesus came alive for me in a new way.  I could hear Jesus saying with that gentle smile, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” and those words went to my heart in a deeper way than ever before.

That, I believe, was a Holy Spirit moment.   Finding that picture.  Reimagining that scene of the text.  Opening to the words of Christ in a new way.  That’s the kind of thing the Holy Spirit does for us much more often, I think, than tongues of fire and speaking in unfamiliar languages.

It was not a happy or festive night when Jesus gathered his disciples to give them the new commandment to love each other and to promise them the gift of the Spirit.  They were anxious and afraid.  They had so many unanswered questions.  Jesus had told them that he would be departing from them and it had begun to sink in that soon they would be on their own.  The needed some kind of reassurance.  

“The promise of the Spirit,” wrote Meda Stamper, “does not come to completely faithful, courageous people, already loving one another and the world boldly, already worshiping in spirit and truth.  It comes in the midst of confusion and fear, which has made them unable to grasp what he is saying, and it is the answer to that.  Jesus makes the promise of the Spirit, emerging from the mutual love of the Father and Son for one another and for us, into which they and we are invited, at the very moment when such grace seems most beyond their grasp and ours.”[1]  

Jesus tells them and us that simply in our love for one another we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in us and with us, to guide us and make us bold enough love a world which is both threatening and beloved.

Jesus promises that when loving the world and each other feels like a trial, when it seems to be beyond our ability to find one more drop of grace and understanding in what Johannes Buetler called our “lawsuit with the world,”[2] when life, itself, feels like an ordeal, Jesus promises that we will have an Advocate.  The Spirit comes alongside us and abides in us in the same way that the Father abides in the Son and Jesus dwelled in the world.  “When the physical presence of Jesus is no longer available, still the way, the truth, and the life are in us.”[3]

This is what the Spirit does.  She comes into us like a breath and carries us forward like a powerful wind.  She reminds us of all the things that Jesus has taught us.  She gives us courage to witness, to give our testimony, to convict or convince the world of the presence of Christ and the power of love.  She gives us the energy and the courage to do in our time what Jesus did in his own time—to love each other and the world.  

“Jesus in John shows us what living love looks like in his own life of making God’s love for the world known,” said Meda Stamper. “He enacts love… in words and works: in dangerously truthful testimony to political and religious authorities; in a ministry of boundary-breaking healing and of feeding the physically and spiritually hungry; and in a life of humility,… friendship, and prayer. He tells us that we are to follow his example…”

Jesus enacts love and tells us to do the same.  Jesus makes his own life an example of God’s love in the world and tells us to do the same.

This is the quieter Pentecost, the alternative Pentecost, a Pentecost centered in love. This is the Pentecost that empowers us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Spirit is breathed into us, dwells in us, advocates for us, and flows through us as a witness to God’s love in a hurting world.  Jesus calls us to live into the fullness of life in this Holy Spirit to bring light and love and restoration to all of creation.

Jesus breathes the Spirit into us to give us comfort and courage and peace.  “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give to you,” and the peace that Jesus give us is the breath of the Spirit.  It is the very presence of God in us.   Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  God is with you and in you.

Whether it’s with tongues of fire and a loud rush of wind, or with a whisper, a breath, or a breeze, may this Pentecost renew the power of the Spirit within you.

May the Spirit of God make you bold to love the world.  May this Holy Spirit, the breath of Christ within you, empower you to be kind, to speak truth, and to stand for justice and fairness.  May your life be centered in love.  And may the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.


[1] Meda Stamper, Commentary on John 14:8-17, 25-27

[2] Johannes Buetler, Paraclete, The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible

[3] Meda Stamper, Commentary on John 14:8-17, 25-27

Painting by Maria B., http://www.magnificatprints.com, used by permission

Rise Up

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord was on Thursday, but since most of us aren’t in the habit of going to church on Thursday, and since Lutherans and other protestants don’t really know what a Feast day is anyway, we moved it to Sunday.  So, Ascension Sunday.  Except that it’s really still the 7thSunday in Easter.  Also this is Memorial Day Weekend when everyone is out of town in their RVs or boats, or out shopping at those great Memorial Day sales, so maybe not so many are attending this Feast.  

The Feast of the Ascension.  It’s almost as if we really didn’t want anybody to notice it.  Ascension? Uh… yes.  Isn’t that mentioned in the Creed?  Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father…  and… he will come again with special coupons for everything you need for your Memorial Day barbeque.  No?

I have to confess that I’ve always had a little trouble taking the Feast of the Ascension seriously.  The way the Jesus ascending is described in Luke and Acts always felt a little cartoonish to me.  In my imagination I keep seeing it like a Terry Gilliam animation like the ones he did for Monty Python, with Jesus suddenly rising up from the ground then catching a ride out of town on a nearby cloud. 

I realize that’s not the best way for a pastor to be thinking about a significant event in the life and ministry of Jesus, an event so significant that it is included in the Creeds, so I’ve made an effort to think about it more seriously.  After all, the Ascension of Jesus has real significance for those of us who are followers of Jesus.  It deserves some thoughtful attention. 

The Ascension marks a turning point in the way God engages with humanity—with us.  For a very long time, God engaged with us infrequently through prophets like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah.  They gave us Torah—the teachings—with all the basic information needed to build good relationships and a just society, and occasional corrective advice and direction.  And encouragement.  Worship in the temple and reading the scriptures in the synagogue were formative community experiences that reminded the people that they lived in the covenant of God’s teachings, that God was with them, and that their relationships with each other and with God were important. 

Then came the Incarnation.  God entered human history as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  Jesus came to expand on the teachings of the law and the prophets, to confront human systems based on greed and oppressive power dynamics, to renew our relationship with God and expand our understanding of God and to teach us not to be afraid of God.  As Richard Rohr says, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, Jesus came to change our mind about God.  Most importantly, Jesus came to proclaim that the reign of God had begun—that a human society structured on God’s values was being inaugurated and was within reach. 

So after going to all the trouble of incarnation and living a fully human life from start to finish, after challenging our religious and political and economic systems and suffering the most extreme consequences for doing that, after training disciples, after being crucified and then resurrected—after all that, why would Jesus just up and leave? 

I can think of two reasons, and they’re connected to each other.  First, I think Jesus ascended, returned to his trans dimensional life, because it was time for the kids to grow up and go out on their own.  The kids being us.  God decided it was time to engage with the humanity in a new way.  Instead of working and speaking through only one person, God was now going to engage the world through multiple persons by endowing us with the Holy Spirit.  And for that to happen, Jesus had to step back so we could step forward.  His disciples and followers would never fully take the responsibility of renewing and transforming their world if Jesus was still handy in person to arbitrate disputes, point the way through dilemmas, and make all the tough decisions.  

Jesus had prepared them for this.  Luke says he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  He reaffirmed the key points of what he had been teaching them, telling them that repentance, metanoia,and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed to all peoples.  Then he told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for his signal.  “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” he says in Luke.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he says in Acts.

During that time of waiting in Jerusalem, the disciples prayed together, sang together, worshiped together, and ate together.  They created a model for the followers of Jesus that we still follow in many ways.  This life together was part of their preparation for the work that lay ahead.  Through all this they continued to remind each other of their discipleship experiences with Jesus, sharing what they had learned and imagining how they might apply that knowledge.  Though they probably didn’t realize it, they were building a foundation of community to fortify their relationships with each other and to build the mutual support that they would rely on to carry them through the challenging days ahead.

Jesus ascended so we could carry on the work of transforming the world as we are  empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit and enriched by our life together.  

I think the second reason Jesus ascended is that he had taught us everything we need to know to live a whole, healthy and helpful life.  These were the same lessons that we are called to share with the rest of the world: 

  • If someone lashes out at you, let it go.  Turn the other cheek. 
  • Don’t curse your enemies, pray for them instead. In fact, don’t stop there—love your enemies. 
  • Forgive and you will be forgiven.  
  • Do not judge and you will not be judged.  
  • Treat others the way you would like to be treated. 
  • Share—if you have an extra coat, give it to someone who doesn’t have one.  If you have 5 loaves and two fish pass it around to the multitude in front of you.
  • Give something to everyone who asks.  
  • Don’t make yourself crazy worrying about how you’re going to get by.  God knows what you need and God will take care of you.  
  • Don’t embrace violence or the tools of violence.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
  • And most important of all, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s what all the law and the prophets were about.  Love each other.

Much of what Jesus taught was a restatement of what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning.  Jesus, himself, said, he had come to fulfill what the law and the prophets had been saying all along.  Jesus embodied what the prophet Micah had said 700 years before him, “God has told you what is good, people.  And what does God require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Or as Eugene Peterson translated it  in The Message Bible:  “God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

What else was there to teach?  All the bases had been covered.  So it was time for Jesus to return to the place he called “My Father’s House.”  As one of my friends said, “The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the day that Jesus started working from home.”  

Jesus started working from home.  But he promised that we wouldn’t be left like orphans.  Yes, the work of the kingdom was now in our hands, but we wouldn’t have to do it alone.  He promised that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us to guide us and prompt us and remind us of what Jesus taught us.  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you,” he says in the Gospel of John.  “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

The book of Acts tells us that while the disciples were gazing up toward heaven and watching Jesus ascend, two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  

Why do y’all keep looking up toward heaven?  Your work is down here.  Jesus will be back when the time is right.

Our work is down here.  And God knows we could be doing better.  War is still erupting all over the world even because people are greedy or sometimes because people are so convinced that their way of seeing the world is the only way and that people who see it another way must be eliminated. Or conquered.  Or controlled. People are still turning to self-medication in huge numbers because life for many is meaningless and painful or frightening…or just plain boring.   Whole groups of people are oppressed by other whole groups of people because we have made gods of power and competition and money instead of following the God of love and cooperation.  The planet itself is crying out in pain and becoming less habitable because we have trashed it instead of loving it and taking care of it and learning our proper place in the interconnected, intricate, and beautiful web of creation. 

In the church, the place where the followers of Jesus should be replenished and renewed for our work in the world, we are putting ourselves out of business with overthought, overwrought and exclusionary theologies that are long on structure and order but short on the love and teachings of Jesus, with patriarchies and hierarchies that Jesus never intended, and with abuse of authority and just plain abuse. 

In a week like this past week when a devastating mass shooting of school children is bookended by a convention of the Church of The Holy Gun in the same state, when yet another Christian denomination is revealed to have been covering up sexual abuse by its clergy and leaders, when once again a small cadre of politicians managed to block legislation that would make the country safer for all of us, it’s really tempting to gaze up to the heavens and hope that the next cloud that floats overhead will be carrying Jesus back to us to fix everything once and for all.

But that isn’t happening.  Jesus is still in heaven, working from home.  Which means that the work of transforming the world through love is still very much in our hands.  It’s time for us to rise up.  It’s time for us to ascend, not to a cloud that will take us away from it all, but to our feet taking us into it all—into the world with the ministry of love, healing, and transformation that Jesus has left in our hands.

God has told us how to live and what to do.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God and with each other.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love the world that God has given us.  Love it into peace and wholeness one person at a time.  And listen to the Holy Spirit reminding us of everything Jesus said.

What the Numbers Don’t Tell Us

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. –Jeremiah 31:15

I am writing this the day after a teenager walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and killed nineteen children and two teachers, and wounded 16 others.  Before going to the school, he had also shot his grandmother.  This was just 10 days after a young white racist killed 10 people and wounded 3 at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York.  Nine days ago, another gunman killed 1 and wounded 5 people at a church in Laguna Woods, just down the freeway from here.  In the past 10 days, there have been 17 mass shootings across the United States, resulting in the deaths of 44 people and leaving 89 wounded.  This is just a small 10-day sample of the 213 mass shootings which have already occurred in 2022.  By the time you read this, that number will be higher.  I guarantee it, because there were a total of 693 mass shootings in 2021 and we’re already on pace to match or exceed that.  You can see all the numbers at www.gunviolence.org.

There have been a total of 119 school shootings since 2018.  There were 34 school shootings in 2021, and the shooting at Robb Elementary was the 27th so far this year. 

There are 393 million guns in private hands in the United States, the equivalent of 120 guns for every 100 citizens.  Fifty-three people a day on average are killed by firearms in the US.  79% of all homicides in our country are caused by guns.  

According to Pew Research, 53% of the people in this country favor stricter gun laws, including universal background checks.  NPR and Forbes place that number at 60%.  Gallup breaks that down, finding that 91% of Democrats favor stricter gun control but only 24% of Republicans and 45% of independent voters.  77% are in favor of “red flag” laws that would remove firearms from the hands of persons in a mental health crisis, spousal abusers, and persons who threaten violence.  All in all, the takeaway is that a clear majority want stricter gun laws.  Two major gun control measures were passed by the House of Representatives last year: the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 and the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021.  Both bills are stalled in the Senate.  Think about that for a moment.  Fifty Senators are blocking legislation that the majority of the people in the country want to see passed.

All of that is just numbers.  Those numbers describe a country that is addicted to personal weaponry far beyond all need or reason, a country where life is cheap.  Those numbers tell a story of a country that is so sick in its soul that significant numbers of its people are so turned inward on their own fantasies or pain that they can’t see the other people around them as, well, people.  Not even children.

Those numbers tell us a lot.  But they don’t tell us anything about the pain of bereaved families.  They don’t tell us anything about the heartbreak.  They don’t tell us anything about the fear that scars the survivors of gun violence for life.

Nineteen kids in the 4th grade didn’t make it home from school yesterday.  That breaks my heart.  But my heartbreak is nothing compared to the devastation the families and friends of those 19 children are experiencing.

Nineteen 4th graders.  That hits so close to home that I can’t stop the tears as I write it.  Two of my three grandsons, the twins, are in 4th grade.  Their mother, my daughter, Brooke, is a former School Psychologist.  My son-in-law, P.A., is an elementary school principal.  Here’s what my daughter wrote on Facebook earlier today:

“This morning I talked to the twins about the Texas school shooting before school.  I remembered my school psych training, where we had to practice how to discuss this exact topic with different age groups.  We were taught to emphasize how rare it is for this to happen.

But…I just couldn’t say those words without feeling like a complete liar.  Instead, I reassured them that it is very unlikely that something like this would happen at their school and we discussed the safety measures in place.

And then I left them at school.  And I couldn’t stop worrying.

What if someone starts shooting at recess?  What if they’re in the bathroom?  Where are the most likely entry points?

If they come through the office this might buy enough time for the children and teachers to get into their locked classrooms.  But then, what will happen to the people in the front office, like P.A.?

What will happen to all my friends who are administrators, school psychs, counselors, speech pathologists, administrative assistants, parent volunteers?  What will happen to the teachers? WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE CHILDREN?

What if one fourth grader comes out of the school, but not two?  What if three kids come home, buy my husband doesn’t?”

The trauma from these incidents isn’t limited to the victims and their immediate families.  It spreads out in ripples and damages all of us.  I am heartbroken.  But I am also furious.  I am furious with a culture that lionizes violence.  I’m angry at a culture that makes life so cheap.  I’m furious with a country that puts profit above health and safety.  I am particularly angry at the politics that greases the wheels of all this.  I’m incensed by 50 Senators holding the country hostage to this violence while their campaign chests are being stuffed by the gun lobby.  And, quite frankly, I am also angry with all the people who wring their hands and say we’re helpless, that nothing can be done.  I am furious with all those people who work to oppose common-sense legislation to curtail the damage done by an overbroad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  The words “well-regulated” are in that amendment.  Let’s start there.

We long ago crossed any imaginary threshold of an acceptable number of deaths.  We are way past the threshold of patience.  We have spent too much blood on the altar of alleged “rights” and not nearly enough sweat on the sacred ground of responsibility.

And yes, we need to pray.  We need to hold the victims of our violent culture in our thoughts and prayers.  We need to ask God for help.  But we also need to ask God for the courage, the wisdom, the will, and the vision to be part of the solution as we try to find a way to disarm this country and to address the alienation and dysfunction that’s at the heart of these incidents.

Finally, I know that some people who read this will not like what I am saying here.  I offer no apologies.  My ordination vows obligate me to speak for justice and to stand with victims.  But beyond that, I want to live in a country that loves its children more than it loves guns.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve