Tag: Jews

Made Free

44898913_347591266047355_59580177172135936_nRomans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Freedom is never wholly free. There’s conditions. Limits.

We say we are the Land of the Free in America because we are free FROM things our ancestors were not. Free from kings and queens; free from religious persecution; free to congregate, and so forth. But we’re not wholly free because full freedom is an illusion.

You’re not free to murder someone in America. There are consequences for breaking laws like that.

You’re not free from gravity no matter where you live on Earth.

You’re not free from the need to eat, to sleep, to breathe.

You’re not free in many ways.

I wish we were free-er in some areas. I wish we had the freedom of health care like Canada does. I wish we had freedom from racism, and sexism, and agism.

But I also wish we weren’t as free in other areas. The freedom businesses have to move companies here and there wherever labor is cheapest hurts us. The level of freedom given to pollution is a great peeve of mine. I’d like us all to care for our earth much better. And the freedom we give to cruelty, to indifference, and to apathy deeply hurts me.

Jesus’ phrase today, “The truth will set you free,” is not about whole freedom from everything and to do anything. It’s not about how freedom is the end and goal and holy purpose we Americans like to hold it up. Freedom has to be FROM or TO DO something. What does Jesus mean here?

That’s exactly what his fellows ask him, “What do you mean, ‘Be made free?'”

Freedom changes depending on who is hearing or viewing these words- and the text given to us has several lenses we can use.

First – “In this text Jesus is engaging the “Jews who believed in him.” Doesn’t that strike us as a bit odd? Were there many non-Jews who believed in him? Certainly, by the time of the gospel writer, there were Gentile Christians.” (( Rev. Dr. Lucy Lind Hogan)) No one sat down and wrote the Gospels as they were happening. They were wrote decades – even a century – after Jesus died and were based on oral traditions. So by the time we get this story in John there are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians and Roman Christians and so forth. Our first lens, therefore, is the author of the scripture – a Jewish Christian – writing about the past where Jesus the Jew spoke to other Jews about Jewish conflicts on Jesus’ identity.

John, the author, and his community “believed in Jesus, believed that he spoke the truth, and believed that their freedom lay in walking the way of Jesus. But for that they had been cast out of the synagogue. They no longer had their “place in the household.” Their freedom, their new life was to be found in “the Son,” even if that meant disagreeing with the Scribes and Pharisees. They were experiencing freedom, but it came at a cost, a profound loss for many.” ((Hogan)). They lost their identity as Jews – for the synagogue and Jewish community kicked them out. They lost family. Friends. Property. Status. They were confused – how could our fellows not believe? How could they be slaves to the old way of thinking and not welcome in the Messiah?

So John wrote this story about when Jesus felt that same rejection. This is the second lens  – the one of when Jesus still physically walked the earth, this story is about the idea that the prophesied messiah had to come from a certain lineage. The Messiah had to be a descendant of King David – and Jesus is just some nobody from Galilee. This is why so many of our gospels have long lineage charts – trying to PROVE Jesus is related to David. And Romans makes a contorted argument that the high priest can be from this lineage instead of that. To us, today, we don’t really care. Then, at that time, this was a huge deal. John frames Jesus’ rejection in this issue.

But the message is the same whether Jesus says it to his disciples in the scene, or his disciples living decades later rejected from their communities, or the third lens which is us, today.

If you continue to abide in me, you have a place in God’s household.

It doesn’t matter if the synagogue or community or church have kicked you out. You’ve gained freedom – a lack of ties – but you’re not groundless. You’re grounded in me. One of mine. Still one of the Chosen People of God.

Think what this meant to Martin Luther! “Freedom was crucial for Luther. Where was the truth, freedom, new life to be found? Luther argued that it was not to be found in the medieval pietistic accretions, the indulgences, that marked the Christians life at that time. Rather it was found only in belief in Jesus Christ. (Hogan)

It didn’t matter that the church, the community, the country called for Luthers’ death, and excommunicated him. Said he was Satan or at least hell-bound. Said he was evil. He was free from the sins he saw gathered into the church at that time. He’d seen the truth of how money and power was being abused. And seen the truth that Christ, alone, is who saves. No church can say whether you are going to heaven or hell. Only Jesus can judge.

It was pricey freedom, again, but it reformed our faith – both those who remained orthodox to the church and those who formed the Protestant denominations. All sides experienced new life, and transformation, and a fresh breath from the Holy Spirit.

Our forebearers who came here were seeking freedom to worship and believe in God as they felt called. They, too, lost family and friends and land but remain in God’s household. They, like Luther, like the early Christians, like Jesus, heard the Spirit of God speaking a new truth – reinterpreting our old traditions in new ways for the context of now, today – and that truth set them free to follow the law of their faith.

We’re at just such a crossroads now. What has been for the last 501 years of the Reformation is not what will be. The truth of church as we know it – meeting on Sundays, in a designated building, passing on the music and songs and traditions of the last centuries – is not the truth of our youth.

And this is good.

Good!

The Holy Spirit is breathing upon our faith again. It is awakening us to a new revolution, a new way of being. It is taking our faith which has grown stagnant and blowing the doors open to set hearts on fire in a brand new way.

The comic “The Naked Pastor” drew a comic with Jesus standing with other Jewish rabbis of his time. And Jesus says to them, “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what scripture means.”

Yes! This is true in Jesus’ time, and in John’s, and in Luther’s, and in the formation of America, and now.

Scripture tells us how to love… but love is contextual and changes. No two people are alike. No two people love the same things. No two times are alike. And what was once very important – lineages, who is or isn’t related to a priest – later is no longer important. What once was not important –officials using marriage and sexuality to establish dominance – later becomes very important.

Those who are orthodox use scripture to determine what love means. Love means, according to scripture, marrying your dead brother’s wife.

Those who live into orthopraxis use love to determine what scripture means. Love is caring for one another. Marrying your dead brother’s wife was loving her by providing for her. Today, it is more loving to not marry her but to provide for her with finances, hugs, and a listening ear.

Each time our faith explodes into new life it is because orthopraxis – living love – challenges orthodoxy – traditional love. Each time we come to new truths for our faith it is because we realize how our needs have changed, and we see the truth, and Christ releases us to be free to love as Christ loves.

But it’s not freedom from everything or freedom to do anything.

It is freedom from stagnation and sin. It is freedom to love God, your neighbor, and yourself.

Can you feel the Spirit active in our faith? Can you feel the tension between those who cling to old ways of understanding scripture and those who welcome in new ways of interpreting scripture through love?

Can you feel the tension among Christians? That same tension Luther felt. The same tension Jesus awoke among Jews.

Something beautiful is being brought forth out of us. A new church. The next reformation. Out of these growing pains will rise new life to classical churches like our own – with pews and hymns and a building – and the new churches just beginning – on streets, and in coffee shops, and online. Maybe our own Saint Michael’s won’t be a place we go to – but a place that comes to us. A bus, that picks us up in our post-driving years. And we sing hymns on the way to get our weekly groceries together. And are a congregation the whole way there and back. I don’t know!

I do know it is a beautiful time to live! It is a marvelous time to be Christian! It is an interesting time – a painful time – a changing time – and a time where we have been placed to discern, to live, and to walk together into the liberating truths Jesus provides.

Go and be the church known for its love!

Amen.

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Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

Caretakers of Love & Knowledge

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

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I like reading websites full of weird facts, stories, and research. This week I fell down the internet rabbit hole of the Smithsonian Magazine online. I read about the Herero Genocide. Never heard of it? Me either until now. But it was where Germany perfected genocide, and tested out the methods used in the Holocaust.

 

The same arguments of social Darwinism and cleansing the world of inferior ethnicities appear in period debates about the Herero and the Jews, Rroma, and gays. The same methods of collecting into death camps and using the captives for labor, their bodies for experiments, and their bodies for profit occur. Indeed – when you look at the names of people involved in the Herero Genocide… those same names appear in the Holocaust.

 

So who are the Herero? They are a cattle herding people in West Africa. They joined with their neighbors in the early 1900s to try to expel the Imperial Germans who were raping their women and girls, stealing their cattle, and taking their land. The Germans debated what to do about the Herero problem, and their general decided the issue the decree,

 

“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”

 

Their neighbors the Nama and the Herero themselves had their wells poisoned. People were driven into deserts. People were fed to sharks. Those that were captured were turned into labor slaves, or “comfort” slaves, or used as human guinea pigs in the name of medicine and science.

 

Why were these articles coming across my screen this week? Because the grandchildren of the few Herero who survived approached the American Museum of Natural History in New York and asked for hundreds of bodies. The largest collection of bones the museum owns are the bodies of the Herero who were sold for science and curiosity after the victims were murdered. The bones had been cleaned of flesh and muscle a hundred years ago with glass shards given to the still-living captives in the camps. They had to cut apart, desiccate, and then sell their loved ones away. These grandchildren came to ask for the bodies so the Herero story could be told, and funerals finally held. The museum and the Herero are in talks now about how best to tell the story and honor the dead.

 

You and I, everyone, we like to say we’re an advanced society.

 

The Herero, and later the Jews and Rroma and others, were considered ‘lesser’ societies. Backwards. “Sh*thole” societies, if you listen to some American leaders.

 

But it is our advanced society that has perfected mass murder. And recently perfected it.

 

Rev. Fred Craddock uncomfortably writes that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”

 

Evil is real. Evil is happening. Genocide is STILL happening today. What I described? Change the dates and the names, and it is happening in Dafur this very moment and 250,000 have died. It is happening in Syria, and Ethiopia, in the Congo and in Burma. ((genocidewatch.org))

 

We don’t really believe in demons much. When we read Jesus expelled a demon from the man in the crowd, we think ‘well, they thought it was a demon. But it really was just mental illness.’ Or Epilepsy. Or some other thing. Demon possession isn’t real.

 

Demon possession doesn’t need to be real. Evil is real. Evil is happening. And evil doesn’t care if we believe in it or not.

 

In Jesus’ encounter, we see what evil does. “People who suffer the effects of being occupied or “possessed” by demons lose their ability to control their movements and their voices; either they are immobilized or compelled to move destructively” ((Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge))

 

The Herero were possessed by demons. Demons who were driving them into deserts, death camps, and slavery. Demons who stole their movements and their voices.

 

The soldiers who listened to their leaders were possessed by demons. They were immobilized, and thought they had no other choice than to follow orders. They were scared to speak up, scared to look weak, scared to lose their own lives.

 

The leaders were possessed by demons. They dreamed of money and cattle and land. They feared the natives. They were compelled to move destructively.

 

Evil has a way of being ‘the norm’ and that is when we get possessed – taken over – and lose our freedom and agency. Sometimes we give this up willingly. It is easier to say you did wrong because everyone else was doing it. Sometimes freedom and agency is stolen from us. And sometimes we don’t even realize we’re captives.

 

My voice is stolen when others speak at me, instead of listening. Who listens to you? Right now, plenty in my local and national government are speaking to the world for me, but it is not my message – a Christian message of love, tolerance, forgiveness and welcome. My voice is stolen and I am possessed.

 

Immobilized. Are we immobilized? We feel powerless, feel unable to really change things. Feel tired. Feel helpless. Feel as through there is too much pain in the world for us to actually do anything… we’re demon possessed.

 

The norm is evil. The norm is we’re compelled to be destructive. To ourselves – harming our health, our communities, our peace. Destructive. To others. Harming the balance of the world, and damaging the world whether we do nothing or we act. Compelled to destroy just by being.

 

Consider the lights here – we have clean electric energy, but it is only clean for us because down on the Ohio River are people living in the shadow of a coal plant, breathing its smoke, and taking the toxins for us.

 

We are captives to demons. Captive to evil systems.

 

When Jesus appears in the synagogue, it is a normal worship day like any other. People are there to hear the hope that their present world doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Jesus appears in as normal of a place as if he were to walk into Saint Michael’s right now. And those in the crowd were just like us here today – gathered in hope, in prayer, and carrying on the love and knowledge of God.

 

We’re caretakers. Safe guarding a treasure for generation to generation. We share with all our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim siblings the knowledge that God has revealed God’s self to us, and the way the world is — with present evil – with entrapping systems that bring us to violence after violence – this is not how things HAVE to be.

 

Today, just as that time 2000 years ago, we’re gathering in hope, while aware so much destruction has occurred and is occurring. But we have hope. We have love. We have knowledge God is working with us and will not let the divine dream die.

 

Whenever I think about hope, and Jesus, I like the image of a new sprout from the root of Jesse. The idea is that the tree, the lineage, of King David (Jesse’s son) has been cut down by the ancient Romans. But God will cause a new tree to grow out of the roots, out of a cousin or distant relative. It’s why the New Testament spends a lot of time tracing Jesus’ genealogy. Those are his roots back to Jesse to fulfill the prophecy.

 

You may picture a grand oak or maple.

 

I picture in my head a hybrid poplar. Okay, not any hybrid poplar but THE hybrid poplar named The 4th of July Tree. Picture a mulberry with poplar leaves and you’ve got the look of this tree. This little foot long stick was planted on year on the 4th of July, and by the 4th the following year, it was now two feet large. The third year it was up to my shoulders. The fifth year it now spread about nine feet high and wide. Year five it was a story large, and year six two stories large. In six short years it went from a foot to taller than the farm house. In six short years its roots went from its hole fifty feet away from the house to coming up through the house toilet. We cleared out the roots, but year seven… once again they appeared in the toilet bowl.

 

You know what we had to do. The 4th of July tree had to go.

 

So my family cut it down. We stacked the wood so it would season and chopped the base of the tree to the ground so we could mow over it.

 

One week later, there was a strange patch of grass. I went out to look and found that the stump had grown eight little six-inch trees. My dad said – don’t worry – when I mow, they’ll be cut down. Sometimes trees have a little bit of energy stored up in their roots, and they come back after the main trunk is cut.

 

So he mowed.

 

And mowed all summer.

 

And every week the tree came back from its roots.

 

This really befuddled all of us. How much energy did this tree store up in its roots? How long could it keep living without leaves and sunlight?

 

In fall, we went to split wood. But the woodpile was missing. In its place was a little woods of hybrid poplars. Each and every log had not just shot up on BOTH ends with new branches, but had also placed ROOTS. Long roots grew all over the seasoned wood and tall new trees shaded the green wood.

 

Dad decided it was time to gasoline burn all this hybrid poplar.

 

The pyre over the stump burned all day long as we split wood and tossed the bad into the blaze. Inside the hybrid poplar logs and stump roasted.

 

And the following week they all sprouted up from the ashes. The following spring, new hybrid poplars appeared in the grass everywhere a branch had fallen from mowing down the tree over and over and over again.

 

How much energy did this tree have?! It’s been twenty years and my mother is still finding bits of this tree growing.

 

When I think about the root of Jesse, I think about this tree. God’s has way more energy than we can even begin to fathom. Horrible things happen – genocides, murders, possessions of evil of all kinds big and small. We mess up. We hurt ourselves. We hurt each other. We hack and chop and burn and poison the life of the world… and yet… the tree comes back.

 

The ancient people in the synagogue were waiting for the tree to grow again. Jesus said — it is growing now!

 

We modern people in the church are waiting for the tree to grow again. And Jesus tells us – it is growing now!

 

It is always growing.

 

We are the caretakers of this knowledge. It’s our job to guard it, and pass it with love to the next generation. It’s our job to look evil in the face and say ‘not today! Not ever!’ We’re to speak with the authority gifted to us to “heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners” When is the year of the Lord’s favor? Now. Immediately.

 

Paul reminds us not to get puffed up with what we know, because there is always more we don’t know. Maybe demons are real. Maybe there are many gods and many lords. There is much we don’t know… what we do know is love. And love knows us.

 

And love — God– wants the world to know it is loved.

 

And that God can raise up new beginnings even out of stones, cut down trees, and desolated people.

 

Amen.

Sheep and Sheep

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24ararat-sheep-20

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday – the day we proclaim Christ is King over all the world, the lord over all lords, the highest politician, highest ruler, over all rulers. Everyone and everything belongs under Christ’s rule and we anticipate the day this reign is fully actualized.

This sounds fantastic.

Until you consider there are 1.3 billion Muslims; 1.1 billion atheists, 900 million Hindus, not to mention a billion some more Buddhist, Pagans, Jews, Sikhs and hundreds of more religions. These people are not Christian.

If Jesus were to return right now, this very moment, would 70% of the world’s population be instantly damned – just because they were born in non-Christian areas, or to non-Christian families, or found a connection to God in a non-Christian religion?

Matthew’s gospel is addressed to early Christians living among all the non-Christians. And Matthew recounts Jesus talking about sheep and goats among the nations.

Nations. Peoples.

Not just the Jews Jesus was speaking with, but the nations – the gentiles – the non-Jewish, non-Christian, Romans or Grecians or Egyptians or Babylonians — people who did not confess Jesus as Christ. People like all the neighbors and communities, indeed, families, of the early Christians.

The neighbors and communities and families of ourselves.

Jesus says when he returns, the whole world will be judged.

Are all non-Christians going to hell and all Christians going to heaven?

Jesus’ parable says that to the shock of the nations – to the shock of Christians and non-Christians everywhere – there are blessed people among all nations. There are heaven-bound men and women and children who are Muslim, and who are spiritual but not religious. There are faithful Hindu priests and Buddhist monks in heaven.

And each and every one say, “Jesus – when did I serve you? I didn’t.”

And Jesus, in his parable, replies, “Whatever you did to the most vulnerable in your community, you did to me.”

And Jesus takes the sheep, the people who followed the Good Shepherd without even realizing it, and takes them into his heavenly flock.

And what of the goats? When Jesus talks about the nations — all peoples and all religions – this includes all religions, including Christianity. We’re the largest religion on the face of the Earth.

Jesus tells his disciples that the goats are just as shocked as the sheep to be NOT included. They thought they were sheep, thought they were following the Good Shepherd, but instead, they were following other lords and kings and gods while giving lip-service to Jesus. They ran with the flock of sheep here on earth, but their hearts and deeds didn’t reflect the heart and deeds of Jesus.

These Christians say, “Jesus, when did we not aid you?”

And Jesus replies to them, too, “Whatever you denied the most vulnerable in your communities, you denied to me.”

Jesus here is referencing but also advancing the words of the prophet Ezekiel.

In Ezekiel, the Israelites are scattered in exile across many lands. Why has this happened? Ezekiel says because the people have been exploited. The exploitation of the vulnerable, the weakest, the people have ruined communities and destroyed the nation. The shepherds of the people, their leaders, have failed them. The shepherds have gotten rich and changed rules to benefit themselves while the people have gotten poor and suffered injustices. As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3).

Ezekiel spoke about how God would go out and gather in God’s people from all the nations… and then God would separate the sheep from the sheep. They all look the same, but God sees a difference. A difference in who these sheep truly belong to. Remember – sheep follow the voice of the one who leads them – not a stranger.

Ezekiel says when God comes, God comes with justice. God reverses each wrong dealt to the people. Wounds are healed, bellies are filled, rest is given. God, God’s self, takes over and is in charge. And God separates the fat sheep from the lean. “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will judge between sheep and sheep.” And the fat and strong sheep are destroyed, while the hurting ones are fed justice. Injustice has made them lost, injured and weak. Justice will make them strong, united, and healthy again.

Ezekiel is not speaking about Israelites and non-Israelites. He is speaking about all the Israelites. Among God’s own people – among the sheep and sheep – God is judging which of us have been bullies, and have led soft lives at the detriment of others. Which of us have gotten rich off the labor of the poor. Which of us use more resources than others. Which of us refuse to share and attack the starving, injured, or weak when they come to our areas.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on the throne to judge all nations… the surprise is there are many non-Christian sheep, and many Christian goats. The surprise is there are many holy and good people who are not Christian; and there are many sinful and evil people who ARE Christian.

The judgement is, who has, in the words of Micah, done justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God?

In Matthew, being a Christian does not make you good or bad; does not mean you are Saved or Unsaved; does not mean you are pleasing or displeasing God. What you believe, and how you act upon that belief, determines your destiny. If you believe in the goodness of the world, and you believe we are meant to love one another, and you act in loving deeds – you are a sheep, whether or not you know it. And if you believe its a dog-eat-dog world, and no kind deed goes unpunished, and you act in selfish ways – you are a goat, whether or not you go to church.

Now, in our country, it is rare to find any politician who says they are a religion other than Christian. Being ‘Christian’ gets you votes. It means you’re mainstream, respectable, trustworthy. Being ‘Christian’ means you can claim God is on your side, and if people don’t vote for you, they are voting against God. Being ‘Christian’ means you are above any wrongs.

These ‘Christians’ are fat sheep and goats. These Christians are the ones who cry ‘Lord, lord,’ but who never actually know Christ. You know who these false Christians are because the way they vote in the House or Senate, or their executive orders, or the policies they advocate, harm the most vulnerable.

The most vulnerable people in our country are illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, gays and lesbians, transgendered, unwed single mothers, children, teachers, and those with criminal records. The most vulnerable people in this country are blacks, women, Native Americans, the elderly and millennials. The most vulnerable people in this country have mental health issues. Physical ailments. Addictions.

The fat sheep in our country are born here, are sexually ‘straight’ or pass as heterosexual, they are white, married, and male. The fat sheep in our country have never been in trouble with the law – or if they have, had had their record expunged. They are affluent, educated, and are able to shape the world about them through their financial, political, or social sway. Instead of using all the power they were born into to be a wise leader, a good shepherd, a guide to make the world a better place… instead, they use their power to make sure they have more power, more money, more sway.

The Internet Freedom movement is anything but freedom for you and I. It permits the rich to have freedom to choose what the poor must pay to access websites. Sites that speak truth to power, sites that challenge the way things are – sites that advocate for the most vulnerable – may not be accessible because you don’t pay enough… or may be blocked all together.

The tax bill the House passed gives steep discounts to owners of private businesses — but makes teachers pay for their own teaching supplies. It drastically reduces the taxes on the most affluent in the country and raises the taxes on the poorest. In other words, it rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

Those fleeing the lack of infrastructure, intense crime and poverty, and earth quake after tsunami after hurricane of Haiti are kicked out of the country. Along with all who try to escape Sudan. Although, we are now free to import all the oil we want from Sudan… but its people are denied sanctuary from the Sudanese wars where 6,000 some children fight in Darfur and crucifixion is still a legal way to kill political prisoners.

If what we do to the most vulnerable, we do to Christ…

We are deporting Jesus.

We are forcing Jesus to pick between paying his water bill or eating today.

We are telling Jesus he was born evil, thinks evil, and the world would be better off if he killed himself.

We are cramming Jesus into little prison cells and giving him 2 cents a day for his slave labor.

We are punishing Jesus for being born not-White, for being not-Married, for being Middle Eastern, for being a refugee, for being an advocate of the poor and destitute, for being a promoter of women’s rights, for thinking children matter, for challenging authority and government, and for being a lean sheep.

We are only as Christian as how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Now… being white is not a sin. But it is being born with power. Born as a shepherd. Are you a good shepherd? Or are you a shepherd who’d rather ignore or harm the other sheep?

Being rich is not a sin. It is owning power. But it means we have a responsibility to generously and lavioushly share that wealth with others – so none are fat and none are thin.

Being straight, and/or male is not a sin. It means, however, responsibility as the ‘norm’ to invite the other in and LISTEN to how life is different. It means you are responsible to help make the world a better place for ALL PEOPLE.

This is Christ the King Sunday. We are celebrating the current reign of Christ, and anticipating the full reign.

Think of what that day will be — when the low are lifted and the high are lowered so all are equals.

Think of what that day will be – when we all eat justice. Will justice be sweet or bitter to you?

Do you look forward or do you fear that glorious day?

We are called to a radical life. Radical. Outside the norm. We are envisioning a radical future. A time of reversals. That time and day are ever closer – and we are invited to live into it now.

Come – live as Christ’s own and give up the selfish idols!

Come be a lamb of God! For God is seeking you, welcoming you.

Come, repent, change your ways, and return to the fold of Christ.

Come, follow the good shepherd, born in a barn, yet king over kings, yet lord over lords.

In your own hearts, recommit yourselves to being Christian.

Amen.

Rearview Mirror

Luke 24:13-35
Acts 2:14a, 36-41

where-is-god.png

Elie Wiesel, his parents, and his sister were told to board a train. Upon debarking, they were separated. It was the last time he ever saw his mom or little sister. His father and he were placed together in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He writes about he witnessed as men were beat, starved, tortured, and murdered. Day after day. Jews, Romani ‘gypsies,’ homosexuals, people who disagreed with the government, and those suspected of being any of these categories – all subjected to cruelty.

Around the boy Wiesel the men confront their faith. Why does God permit this to happen?

Is God good?
Is God just?
Is God loving?

Is this a punishment from God? If so – what could a mere human do to deserve to watch their toddler tortured to death or their grandpa murdered by his fellows over a scrap of food?

Elie Wiesel writes in his memoir ((Night)) of how some people still prayed, and still praised God, even in deep heartache. But he could not. He writes,

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

The torture, the anger, the feelings of betrayal and abandonment led many prisoners to wonder… where IS God?

Wiesel recounts watching a very young boy being hung to inspire fear into the camp; “‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking.” But God doesn’t save the boy and the boy hangs – but he is too light and so instead of a quick death, slowly suffocates. Wiesel continues, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ and from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where-hanging here from this gallows…”

God is dying. God is dead.

Later, a Rabbi in the camp says, “”It’s over. God is no longer with us.” And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?””

On that long, seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, I believe a similar conversation occurred. I am not saying it was as hellish as that Wiesel suffered, but similar conversation may have happened. I think the two walking had to ask each other:

Where is God?
Where is this God of Mercy and love?
If this Jesus was the Chosen One of God… how could mere mortals murder him?
If this Jesus was the Messiah to bring in God’s reign, why do bad people still rule and good people die?
Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty go rewarded?
If this is God’s reign… where is God? If this is God’s world – where is god?
What if… there is no god?

In situations not as hellish as seeing Jesus die. Not as hellish as seeing everyone you know tortured to death. But similar words you may have asked: where is God?

Is there a God?

Wiesel’s faith of God changes, wavers, stops all together at times and flourishes at others. He alone out of his family survives the concentration camp. As an old man, he spoke with a news paper reporter. ((The Star Ledger)) The reporter asked Wiesel,

Q: What is it like having strangers ask you if or why you believe in God?

A: You know who asks me the most? It’s children. Children ask, “How can you still believe in God?” In All the Rivers Run to the Sea, I speak about it. There are all the reasons in the world for me to give up on God. I have the same reasons to give up on man, and on culture and on education. And yet … I don’t give up on humanity, I don’t give up on culture, I don’t give up on journalism … I don’t give up on it. I have the reasons. I don’t use them.

Q: How often do people ask you this question?

A: Whenever there’s a question-and-answer period after a lecture, inevitably the question comes up. Inevitably. I still (can’t) remember once that I gave a lecture on philosophy or on history or the Talmud or the Bible (when it didn’t come up) at one point. It’s `How come you — or do you — believe in God?’

Q: How do you respond to people who no longer believe in God because of the Holocaust?

A: I ask them, `How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees, some with PhDs. Then they don’t know.

Q: Why do you think people ask you these questions?

A: It is for their sake. They want to understand. Look, a very religious person would not ask me this question; only if that religious person has some anxiety or some doubt, then that person wants to know how I deal with that anxiety and that doubt. And I say, `Look, I have faith. It’s a wounded faith.’

Elie Wiesel lives on with a wounded faith.

Out of that wounded faith, he inspires others to remember HUMANS caused the Holocaust – not God. We bear the sin. We bear the responsibility to never do this again.

Out of wounded faith, Wiesel heals.

Walking to Emmaus, I wonder if the two have a wounded faith. All their dreams and expectations have been murdered. Hung on a cross. Left to die. Buried. Already the close disciples of Jesus have begun to be captured up, to be stoned to death… murdered.

How could God torture and murder God’s own son?
How is that just?
How is that right?
Are we going to laud divine child abuse?

… Maybe, as with the holocaust… God didn’t do it. Humans did.

Humans accused Jesus. Humans killed him. The holocaust was not some part of a great big plan. Nor was the cross.

In the words of George Santayana:” If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.”

UCC Rev. Terry Williams continues, “Suffering is never redemptive. Christ’s love for us is shown in how he chose to live; our sinfulness is shown in how we chose to end his life. Suffering is never God’s will.”

Where is God?

God isn’t the one inflicting the pain.

God is hanging from the gallows.
God is hanging on the cross.
God is with the person suffering.

In our scripture, these two are suffering and Jesus comes up along side of them. They don’t even notice. Jesus joins in their reality, their conversation. Jesus then reassures them. The word ‘fool’ here is the kind of fool we call a beloved friend. Foolish beloved friend, the deranged babble of the women is true. God doesn’t leave you in suffering. God goes alongside with you. God accompanies you even with your wounded faith, because God has wounded faith in humanity. And together, we abide, side by side, and hope and trust in better tomorrows.

In Emmaus, the two invite in the stranger who has walked with them. And the stranger then becomes their blessing – and disappears.

In sudden hindsight, they realize Jesus was with them all along. In sudden hindsight, they realize that by welcoming in the stranger they welcomed in Christ. By welcoming in the lonely, they welcomed in Christ. By walking with someone and speaking of faith, even though they themselves felt their faith was wounded, they found Christ and found deep assurance that indeed- the Lord is Risen.

When I am in the middle of hell on Earth, I don’t always see where God is. I don’t always feel God’s presence. I don’t always trust God is love.

But in the rearview mirror… I see… I was never alone.

God was in the care strangers showed me. God was in the prayers of others. God sat with me while I asked the hard questions of: God – why? Why? Why? And WHERE ARE YOU?

In the rearview mirror… I see with twenty-twenty… it’s a talent and a skill we must develop to recognize our Lord in the present moment. For God is present. Right here. In our joys, but also in our deepest questions and sufferings. Amen.