Category Archives: First United Lutheran Church

Is Your Faith an ‘Innie’ or an ‘Outie’?

Or a Both/And?

This is a partial reprint of the Q&A column published each week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. This week’s answer is from the Rev. Mark Sandlin, who currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and is a co-founder of The Christian Left. I believe the question gets at the heart of our current Christian identity crisis. As one who thinks we should balance both our inner spiritual life and our outer social activism, I appreciate the insight and challenge raised by both questioner and answerer. Undoubtedly, the subject needs further discussion. 

Kay from Florida, writes:
I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?

Dear Kay,
Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart.” It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.

Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic of contemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”

When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. (Note from me: I’ve changed the version of the texts to those from The Inclusive Bible.)

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for one another.

I’m much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do. In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.

Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together.

Somehow, we don’t realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.

The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward.

 

 

When It’s Just Too Hard to Talk to the Other Side

she likes itI know. I know I know. I’m the cheerleader for conversation among people who have differences of opinion. Mostly I talk about religion – how Christians of various stripes can come together and learn to respect one another’s differences. Lately I’ve been convinced that this is the same process that can help us bridge out political divides as well.   

But I’ll be honest. Right now it’s just too hard. These past six months have been so wearing, so discouraging, so maddening. Yes, this week I’m encouraged by the defeat of the latest version of “get rid of Obamacare.” But oh what it took to get there. Only three brave Republicans stood up for what I am sure many more knew what was right. The whining of Mitch McConnell after the vote only served to highlight the lunacy of what politics has become. No, it didn’t start with #45. But we have certainly sunk to unprecedented depths since he took office. Add to this dis-ease the ranks of evangelical Christians who have bought into this madness. 

So no, I’m not inclined to talk with “the other side.” I’m too angry. I know there are good people over there, but I’m afraid I just can’t listen to them right now with any kind of charity. This may be an indictment of my own spiritual malaise,  but I believe in full disclosure. For me, the primary goal of life right now is spiritual. 

Every day I get a thought for the Day based on my Enneagram type from the Enneagram Institute. Here’s yesterday’s:
What would happen if you expressed your Virtue of Serenity today?

How would you think, feel, and behave?

So here’s my answer:

  1. I will acknowledge my anger. Too many people have told me throughout my life, “Now, Susan, don’t be angry.” I refuse to “eat” my anger and silently accept bad behavior. It’s not good for my emotional or physical health. Having said that, I will also try not to act on that anger inappropriately. When I am with someone with whom I disagree, I will be respectful while speaking my own truth.
  2. I will cut myself some slack. If I’m not ready to dialogue, then I’m not ready. This is an important learning for me as I seek to encourage others. I remain committed to dialogue when I am ready, however I acknowledge that we all may need to take a break at one time or another.
  3. I will keep up the Resistance. This is a great channeler of righteous anger. And I’m overjoyed to hear of the impact that grassroots organizing and protesting is having.
  4. I will limit my exposure to the unending news cycle. I read and watch enough to know what’s happening from trusted sources and stay away from endless commentary. And I will look for and celebrate good news. It is out there. Good people doing good things. This makes me happy.
  5. And the most important thing of all: I will continue to maintain and nourish my spiritual practice. It may seem counter-intuitive that deep breathing and silent meditation can inform how I respond to the dysfunctionality all around me. It may seem to be an escape from it all, but it is not. It’s the ground from which my way of being in the world springs. When I realize that my anger is getting the best of me, when I’m  not able to feel charitable toward those with whom I disagree, I know it’s time to retreat for a while into sacred space. I discovered the week after the election that the peace I found in my practice was what gave me the ability to face the new reality that had been unleashed. So I must contiunue to seek the serenity that I can find there.

Now I know that I have the luxury of serving a congregation that is deep blue. I have friends and colleagues who are in what are now called “purple churches” and they have to remain in relationship with people of varying opinions and beliefs. But I think my advice would be the same. 

The time will come when we’re able to talk. If that time is not today, that’s OK, too.

Historic vs Progressive Christianity: Can We Talk?

she likes itI just read a blog post which warns me what to look for if I suspect my church is heading down the heresy path to progressive Christianity. Since my congregation has long resided on that path, I was curious to see what these warning signs might be and if I’d agree with them. You can read the “5 danger signs” for yourself here.

Right off the bat, I did agree with one of the author’s opening comments: “it is difficult to pin down what actually qualifies someone as a Progressive Christian, due to the diversity of beliefs that fall under that designation.” This is most certainly true! The intrafaith conversation has to happen within all the strands of Christianity.

Now clearly this blogger is coming from a particular theological standpoint (she uses the term “historic Christianity”). There’s no doubt that she’s out to expose those who embrace a progressive Christian theology as “false prophets” infiltrating our churches. However – I think she’s done us a service. Take away the pejorative nature of the “5 danger signs” and you have a pretty good outline of some of the big differences within Christianity today. 

For example, #5:
The heart of the gospel message shifts from sin and redemption to
social justice
There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. However, the core message of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed. 
Many Progressive Christians find the concept of God willing His Son to die on the cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. Sometimes referred to as “cosmic child abuse, ” the idea of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether, with social justice and good works enthroned in its place.

There’s a lot to discuss in there. This question of Christology is really at the heart of our intrafaith challenge. I begin to get into it in Chapter Eight in my book with an opening quote from United Lutheran Seminary professor Kristin Johnston Largen: . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously. 

So I’m not dissing the author of this blog because I certainly understand where she’s coming from. It’s what I learned and preached for many, many years. But I would take exception to having my Christology defined as simply “social justice and good works.”

But here – in the willingness to share and to listen, to thoughtfully agree and disagree – is where the intrafaith conversation can happen. I imagine sitting down with the blogger over coffee to share our stories of faith and belief, listening without judging to “her side,” speaking without the need to convince or win her over to “my side.” 

I think we might eventually even be able to come up with a really good study guide. We could change the title to something like “5 Discussion Points Between Historic and Progressive Christianity.” Although that’s definitely not as sexy as “5 Warning Signs.” We’d have to work on that.

 

The Widening Divide Within Christianity

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If you have any doubt that Christianity is in the middle of an identity crisis, take a look at these recent articles that appeared on my Facebook feed:
‘Great spiritual awakening’: Pastors lay hands on Donald Trump in the Oval Office

Then there was Yes, I’m a Christian—But I’m Not With Them From Pastor John Pavlovitz’ blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said.

William Barber,Sheila Jackson Lee

Then this happened . . . Rev. Barber And Other Clergy Arrested On Capitol Hill

And even the Vatican has weighed in.

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I’m all for Christian love and unity. But is it time to ask: which side are you on?

 

 

A New Schism within Christianity?

 

schismWe usually use the word “schism” when talking about the split within Christianity in the 11th century. This was the formal breaking of communion between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which continues to this day – although Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russianimg Orthodox church did meet last year and released a joint statement addressing the problems of the world. It took almost a millennia, but things are looking much friendlier.

Of course there was also the big kerfuffle instigated by Martin Luther in the 16th century which brought about the Protestant split from Rome. We (at least in the Protestant churches) might prefer to call it Reformation and remind ourselves that Luther never wanted to found a new church, but a new church is what we got. And while the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by both  the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, there are still great differences among us. But at least we’re no longer hurling anathemas at one another.

Now we come to the state of Christianity today. There is increasing tension between churches that hold to a more traditional theology, ecclesiology, and those that are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be Christian today. When pathos.com was founded in 2008, they quickly found that having one channel called “Christianity” didn’t  work. There are now channels for both evangelicals and progressives.

Not that the lines can be so easily drawn. Some people are very progressive in their politics and pretty orthodox in their theology and practice and vice versa. What seems to be occurring is a lining up behind either Christianity as a belief system or as a practical way of life. That’s way too simplistic, I know. But I know there are those today who don’t want to be identified as Christian, but as “followers of Jesus. 

This disconnection has been brewing for a while, but it’s really come to a head since the election of He Who Shall Not Be Named. Take for instance a recent blog post by former evangelical, now progressive Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans. You can read about it in an article entitled “Author Calls Out Evangelical Trump Supporters: “You don’t like that I’ve ‘gotten political,’ huh?”

Now I happen to know pastors who have been criticized for “bringing politics into the pulpit,” so this isn’t even just about supporters of HWSNBN. Many people go to church only to be comforted, not to be challenged. But we’re going to have to make some hard decisions about what the church is going to be. Popular author/speaker Brian McLaren recently posted on patheos.com Why Pastors and Priests Are Leaving the Church (Part 1)”

“A sense of mission often draws people to ministry, a desire to be part of God’s healing and transforming mission. But once they get inside, they see behind the curtain and discover a kind of boutique shop keeping a certain finicky clientele satisfied with a steady stream of ‘spiritual goods and services.’ 
The newly ordained often experience a keen sense of disappointment, even disillusionment, as they realize what Clarke (a correspondent with McLaren) now sees, that many of our churches have more to do with subcultural identity preservation than they do with mission. What especially grieves Clarke and many like her is the prime directive to walk on eggshells regarding issues deemed political.”

She wrote:
“As a leader in the church I feel I am expected to be silent and non-opinionated on these issues. Ironic. When I look to the life of Jesus religion seems to have been low on his list of cares other than to challenge the religious elite of the day. Jesus cared about people who were on the margins, He cared about the list of things that I feel I cannot talk about as a leader of the church. So how do I passionately follow Jesus and ignore the very work that defined his ministry?

That is indeed the question. McClaren  calls us to stop walking on eggshells and begin to upset the status quo. But he’s no fool; he recognizes the consequences we face. He advises: ” . . . moving forward will take more than raising our voices. It will also require raising some money. We need church members to approach forward-leaning leaders and say, ‘If some donors get mad and stop giving, we’ll make up the difference. What good does it do to save the church budget and lose our souls?'”

Can we avoid schism? I don’t know. But even if we can’t, maybe we can hope that in another millennia, we’ll start talking to one another again. 

Another Take on “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

Bible text - I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFEThis is a re-blog of a sermon from Pastor Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church near Toronto. It’s entitled “Letting Go of the Words Attributed to Jesus So that We Can Embrace the WORD – Easter 5A – John 14:1-14”

For me, the best part of the sermon is her story of being paired with a Hindu student for an assignment in a Religious Studies program. They were each asked to bring a piece of sacred scripture from their partner’s faith tradition that they found intriguing. To her chagrin, her Hindu friend brought “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me” to the table. And to her surprise, he then launched into – as she says – “an exegesis of the text that put this particular Christian to shame.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Can We Talk About Good Friday?

good-friWhen I was a teenager, I used to go to the community Good Friday service every year. Back then, all the stores downtown were closed from noon until 3:00 and during that time crowds of people would attend this service to hear local pastors preach on the “seven last words of Christ.”

I liked these services. But even though I was a pretty orthodox Christian, I did have questions. The reason for the crucifixion of Jesus – as explained by the church at that time – just didn’t make sense to me. Why would God – who was supposed to be almighty and good – need to send his son (it was all male language back then) to be tortured and killed? It just didn’t seem to be a good use of omnipotent power. But that was the church’s story and it wasn’t prudent to ask questions.

Much later, after years of ministry, the questions came back with a vengeance. When I came to the conclusion that Christianity isn’t the only way of thinking/believing about the Divine, I couldn’t continue to buy (or preach) the party line. If non-Christians weren’t going be rejected by God, then why in heaven’s name did Jesus have to die ? I mean, if I were Jesus, I’d be really pissed.

Thankfully, about the same time I discovered religious pluralism, I also discovered Progressive Christianity. But the way forward was not without bumps in the road. A
common experience of many who begin to explore this way of thinking is to deconstruct the belief system we were taught. And this did happen to me. Rejecting theologies of atonement that explained the crucifixion was liberating, but it left allergic-1me with a vacuum. Now what do I do with Good Friday? This was such a confrontational issue for me that, in the last year at my previous congregation, I broke out in a serious case of hives during Holy Week. The doctor in the ER kept asking what foods I’d eaten recently. When I said I’d had shrimp salad for lunch, his “ah ha!” look said that was the answer. But I knew better. I told him, “I’m not allergic to shellfish; I’m allergic to the church.” I now know I should have said, “I’m allergic to atonement theology.”

Thankfully, along with the deconstruction of Christianity comes the possibility of reconstruction. It doesn’t work that way for everyone; some people stop with deconstruction and abandon Christianity altogether. Others, like me, find ways to stay – rejecting some of the outdated theology, while “redeeming” ideas that still have merit.

So what about Good Friday? Or in other words, what about the cross? If it’s not a reminder that “Jesus died for my sins” or “Jesus paid the price for our redemption with his life” or “God demanded a sacrifice for the sin of Adam” then what is it?

Cosmic-Child-Abuse-BLOG-image-1030x1030-1The first thing I would say is that God did not send Jesus to die; there was no “divine plan” for our salvation. Jesus was killed by the Roman empire because he was a threat to their imperial authority. The Temple authorities – who served as functionaries of the empire – were also threatened. So it was not “the Jews” who killed Jesus, but a collusion of these powers-that-be.

The second thing is that Jesus was not operating out of a mandate from God to be the sacrificial lamb. Rather he willingly pursued his course of teaching and actions, knowing the risk involved. If you’ve seen the movie “Selma,” you might remember the scene in which Martin Luther King wrestles with the decision to go on the march. He and his family had received numerous death threats. Continuing to speak and act on behalf of dignity and liberation for African-Americans under the boot heel of Jim Crow carried a very high risk of death. King was not naive; he knew the risks. But he chose to go the distance for the cause. Just as Jesus had done before him. One does not have to be divine to make the supreme sacrifice.

Third thing is that it’s not all about sin or about the afterlife. Jesus didn’t die to cancel out “the bad marks in God’s little black book (that my mother warned me about) so we could get into heaven. Jesus’ life – his example and his teachings – show us how to live in the kin-dom of God now. His willingness to become empty of ego, completely selfless, fully connected with Divine Presence gives us incentive to strive to do the sashutterstock_88601464me.

So – back to Good Friday. I will remember Jesus’ death on the cross. It was a terrible thing, suffered by many thousands of people in the Roman empire. But I will not glory in his suffering. I will mourn the arrogance of imperial power, the complicity of those who should have known better, and the ignorance of fearful people who went along with the crowd. I’ll mourn the same thing as it’s happening today.

And I will hold out the same hope symbolized by the cross – that there is nothing an imperial power can do that will defeat the power of life, love, and liberation. We can look at the cross, Good Friday, and Christianity itself in a new way. And find hope – even in the midst of our own imperial empire.

 

 

Contradicting the Contradict Movement

Banner A LentI’m feeling extremely honored to have been invited to be interviewed for a website called Pastor2Pew. See that line in the banner to the left that says “video interviews with prominent pastors/theologians?
Honored indeed – also terrified!

Steve Kindle, founder and interviewer, emailed to say he’d seen my book and blog posts about the INTRAfaith Conversation and thought his viewers would be interested in what I had to say. Then he left it up to me to figure out what text in the lectionary would lend itself best to my field of interest.

So off to the lectionary I went and discovered that the gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14) includes the well-known verse 6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The perfect text for my interview!

This is the verse that fuels much of resistance to interfaith engagement. Take, for instance, the argument of the Contradict Movement. In opposition to the image of

coexistthey’ve created . . .

cropped-contradict01. . . it proclaims “They can’t all be true.”

Here we have the crux of the Christian dilemma. What do we do with verses like this?images

I actually have a collection of ways that various theologians and biblical scholars have answered the John 14:6 dilemma. And I address it in my book, giving an example of an encounter between two people – one from each of the above camps. The book was written to help members of congregations wrestle in the space in-between.

Evangelical Christian Andy Wrasman has also written a book: Contradict – They Can’t All be True. It’s actually a pretty good book. I agree with his argument that we need to be informed about other religions and how each is different from our own before we make blanket statements about all of them being the same. Wrasman ends up at a different place than I do, but he lays out his rationale for his Christology and I respect him for that.

I was all prepared to criticize the book and the movement. But in reality I respect its openness to conversation. I can’t go as far as appreciating the next steps of evangelizing and convincing others that Christianity is the only “true” religion. But it works well as an example of a thoughtful exclusivism that respects other religious traditions.

I’d bet there are members of our mainline congregations who would agree with Wrasman’s exclusivism. And others who’d agree with my pluralism. And a whole bunch in a continuum between the two.

All the more proof, in my mind, of the need for the intrafaith conversation.

Now – how to distill my interpretation of John 14:6 into to a half-hour interview? Thus comes the terrified part!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Lent 3: Radical Welcome vs. Empire

8f8568b69829d70122434ea48fb56d48We’re going to watch another clip from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan or you have no idea what’s going on. Just know that there is an organized resistance to the evil Galactic Empire. Our heroine, Rey, is doing battle against the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, who’s gone over to the Dark Side. And there’s all kinds of mayhem and stuff blowing up. But what I really want you to watch for is the first time Rey, who has lost family and friends in the resistance, meets Princess (now General) Leia Organa, who has lost both her husband and son.    watch clip

Now, I wonder if you can think of a time when have you felt welcomed in such a way, when it was totally unexpected or at least unknown what the reception might be, when you have experienced an extravagant act of welcome, acceptance, and kindness.

What came to my mind when I asked myself this question was my meeting with the church council of North Park Lutheran Church in Buffalo in October 1993. I had just accepted the call to North Park in September. Now, a month later, my marriage, which had been crumbling almost since the beginning, finally toppled. One of the bishop’s assistants was assigned to go with me as I met with the council to see how they would react. This was a former congregation of the Missouri Synod. I would be their first woman pastor, which was risky enough. Would they be able to also accept a divorced pastor? They’d have every right to rescind the call. The silence after the announcement was palpable, but then they began to speak in turn – some about their own divorces, about their sadness of what I was going through, about their support for my continuing ministry with them. There weren’t any hugs – at least not right then – but there were tears. I felt not just welcomed, but radically welcomed.

And that’s our theme for today: Radical Welcome, especially as it relates to our over-arching theme of “Ways of Resistance for Lent and Easter.” You may have noticed that today is supposed to be about “Redemption.” But I’d like to suggest that experiencing radical welcome is indeed an experience of redemption – one that then extends out to others in ways of redemption for the world.

The story of the immigrant Ruth being welcomed into a new community, the story of the religious outsider at the well being welcomed by Jesus, the story of Rey being welcomed by General Organa, my story, your stories of unexpected welcome and acceptance are examples of radical welcome. It’s not just about being nice. It’s a spiritual practice through which we live into the compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God. This vision includes the voices, presence and power of all people — especially those who have been defined as “other,” pushed to the margins, cast out, silenced and closeted — so they can help to shape our common life and fulfill this reconciling dream. It is a form of resistance against the forces of empire, which seeks to exclude and disempower.

I was at Pacific School of Religion this weekend for their annual Earl Lectures. This year’s theme was “Borders and Identity.” I don’t know how far in advance they planned, but the topic is certainly timely now with #45’s desire to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more ICE officers and his threats to target sanctuary cities. All the speakers were excellent. But it was something that Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ (one of the founding congregations of the Sanctuary Movement), said that really stuck with me. She said the most important thing about the movement is stories. And she showed photographs and told stories of people who had been welcomed into sanctuary.

It might seem that our Bible stories and our own stories don’t have the power to go up against the forces of empire. But in fact they do. And telling them is not without risk. Pastor Harrington commented that if you become a sanctuary church you can expect to get phone calls and hate mail. Of course that’s AZ. But radical welcome isn’t just about immigrants. At a church in Portland, OR last month, the pastor’s sermon about “loving otherness” was interrupted by a protestor who began shouting homophobic comments.

In the coming days, as we live further into this recent manifestation of empire, we may be10625088_10152384825811801_5282550587956105542_n called upon to live even more openly and explicitly into the words on our banner: “All Are Welcome.” But we know that the call to extravagant welcome isn’t new. The Bible tells us so. Our own stories tell us so. Even Star Wars tells us so.

When we feel radically welcomed and accepted as beloved people of God, when we feel radically welcomed and accepted by another person or group against all of our hopes or expectations, when we are radically welcoming and accepting of ourselves – we are able to enter into the spiritual practice that allows us to live into that compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God.

We have been redeemed. And we have joined the age-old resistance against the forces of empire.    Amen

 

Ruth 1-4
adapted from http://www.welcomingresources.org/1-HeartsUnbound-Ruth.pdf

With the pain of Exile fresh in their hearts, the Israelites wrestle with how to share their land and their faith with foreigners. Ezra and Nehemiah call for divorce from all foreign wives, specifically naming Moabite women as among those needing to be expelled. In the middle of this wrestling is the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman, whose intermarriage with Boaz keeps alive a bloodline that would otherwise have died out — a bloodline that in just two more generations will produce David, the shepherd-king.

NARRATOR: Long ago, during a famine, Naomi, a Hebrew widow, journeyed with her husband from the land of Israel to the land of Moab, only to have him die there, leaving her alone with two sons. The boys grew up and both of them married Moabite women. But soon both of Naomi’s sons died as well, and she was left only with two foreign daughters-in-law, in a foreign land. Now, to be a widow in your own land in the ancient world was bad enough; to be a widow in a foreign land, tied only to other widowed women – and foreign women, at that – Naomi was truly out of place.

When Naomi learns that there was food again in Israel, she decides to return to her  people. Although her two daughters-in-law initially set out with her, Naomi doesn’t wish them to now be out of place in her land. She urges them to stay in Moab and expresses her hope that they may find security among their own people.

AUTHOR: Wait! You can’t sum it up and leave out the best parts. Think about this: in an almost exclusively patriarchal society I dared to write a short story … featuring women. I dared to think that their feelings and their words might be … memorable. In fact, at least a few scholars wonder whether I might have been a woman storyteller myself to craft such lines for women. This is what Ruth said when Naomi encouraged her to go back to Moab:

RUTH: “Please don’t ask me to leave you and turn away from your company. I swear: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I’ll die there too and I will be buried there beside you. I swear – may YHWH be my witness and judge – not even death will keep us apart.”

AUTHOR: No wonder Naomi relented and welcomed Ruth’s company. These words have been echoed as expressions of fierce friendship – even borrowed for use in weddings – for thousands of years. But remember this too, that Ruth, who makes this stunning pledge of loyalty, is a Moabite. Her people are cursed in the Book of Deuteronomy, which says that no Moabite shall be allowed to join the “assembly of YHWH” not even after ten genera-tions — which is a fancy way of saying “not ever!” And after the Exile both Ezra and Nehemiah insist on breaking up all intermarriages between Hebrew men and Moabite women. Ruth carries some pretty significant ethnic baggage with her, but her loyalty to a Hebrew widow is given an eloquence that makes it a fitting metaphor even for God’s loyalty to us. This is what Naomi had to say . . .

NAOMI: I was blessed by Ruth’s companionship. I knew she’d be an outsider among my people, but as a widow myself, I’d also be an outsider even in my own land. Who can explain the depth of Ruth’s loyalty to me? But who can question such loyalty either? Hers was a gift of grace to me. In a world where widowed women had nothing, we chose to have each other.

NARRATOR: So the two women arrive in Bethlehem, where the relatives of Naomi’s husband lived. The townspeople were abuzz at their arrival. Naomi has been gone for more than a decade – and she had left with a husband and two sons. Now here she is: a widow without children, in the company of a foreign woman. Her fortunes have changed, to say the least. They arrive in town just as the barley is being harvested. Ruth, showing compassion for her mother-in-law, offers to go into the fields to glean barley for them to eat. By chance – or by Providence – she gleans in the fields of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s husband.

NAOMI: Why didn’t I go myself? Why didn’t I accompany Ruth into the fields? The story doesn’t say, perhaps I was simply too old. Or perhaps the sorrows of my years had left me too frail to be much help. In any case, Ruth’s gleaning – this care shown to me by a foreigner, my daughter-in-law – is what kept both of us alive.

NARRATOR: When Boaz comes to the field where his workers were reaping, he notices Ruth following behind his workers and asks about her. The servant in charge tells him she’s “the Moabite” who came back with Naomi, and adds that Ruth has gleaned in the field tirelessly all day. In response, Boaz tells her that she’s welcome to glean in his fields — indeed he urges her to glean only in his fields and invites her to share the water he provides for his workers. At the midday break he invites her to sit with the reapers and share their meal. Afterwards, he instructs his servants to allow Ruth to glean even where they have not yet harvested and to toss some extra barley on the ground for her to collect.

RUTH: I was quite overwhelmed by his generosity, and I told him so — while bowing low to the ground in front of him. That’s how we showed deep respect and honor to those whose place in life was far above our own. It wasn’t just that he took his duty to the poor so seriously, but that he offered it so willingly to me, a foreigner. I had expected to be invisible, but he saw me.

BOAZ: Word travels quickly in a small town. Although I didn’t recognize her in the field, I’d already heard about this foreign woman, Ruth, and her faithful companionship to Naomi, the widow of my kinsman. So I was sincere when I said to her, “May YHWH pay you in full for your loyalty! May you be richly rewarded by the Most High God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to find shelter!” In fact, as soon as I spoke my blessing, I was strangely aware it was she who had spread her wings of refuge over Naomi … and that it was I, through the barley in my fields, who was now spreading my wings of refuge around them both.

NARRATOR: Later, Boaz took Ruth as his wife. Naomi was made safe as a member of their household. And in time God blessed Boaz and Ruth with a son.

John 4: 3-30; 39-42
Jesus breaks down the barriers – such as gender, ethnicity, ethics, and religion – that imprison persons and communities. Grace is insidious in its challenge of our prejudice and privilege. Grace overcomes our ethical and religious distinctions of clean and unclean, pure and impure, in and out. The Spirit goes where it will – it can’t be contained by religious orthodoxy, ritual, nationality, or ethical qualification. We can’t wall the Spirit in or out. It is not our possession or ours to control. God’s living waters are for all.

NARRATOR: Jesus and his disciples left Judea and returned to Galilee. The trip took them through Samaria. After a time, they came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat down beside the well for a rest. The disciples ventured off to look for provisions. It was about noon, and before long a Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her,

JESUS: Would you please draw some water for me, and give me a drink?

NARRATOR: The woman was surprised, for Jews usually refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans.

WOMAN: I can’t believe that you, a Jew, would even speak to me, much less ask me for a drink of water!

JESUS: If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to! Because if you did, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.

WOMAN: Sir, you sit by this deep well, a thirsty man without a bucket in sight. Where would you get this living water? Do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who labored long and hard to dig and maintain this well so that he would have clean water to share with his sons and daughters, his grandchildren, and his livestock? How can you offer better water than he and his family enjoyed?

JESUS: Drink this water, and your thirst is quenched only for a moment. You must return to this well again and again. But the water I offer you is different. I offer water that quenches thirst forever. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within you, giving life throughout eternity. You would never be thirsty again.

WOMAN: Please, give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to keep coming here to get water.

JESUS: Go call your husband, and then come back.”

WOMAN: I don’t have a husband.

JESUS: “You’re right – you don’t have a husband. The fact is you’ve had five, and the one you have now is not your husband. So what you have said is quite true.”

WOMAN: Sir, it is obvious to me that you are a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”

JESUS: “Believe me, the time is coming when you’ll worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you don’t understand; we worship what we do understand – after all, salvation is from the Jewish people. Yet the hour is coming – and is already here – when true worshipers will worship God in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshippers whom God seeks. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”

WOMAN: “I know that Messiah – the Anointed One – is coming and will tell us everything.”

JESUS: I am the Messiah!

NARRATOR: The disciples, returning at this point, were shocked to find Jesus speaking with a woman. But no one dared to ask, “What do you want of him?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” The woman went back to the town, leaving her water jar behind. She stopped men and women on the streets and told them about what had happened. And because of her testimony, the village of Sychar was transformed— many Samaritans heard and believed. The result was that, when these Samaritans came to Jesus, they begged him to stay with them awhile. So Jesus stayed there two days, and through his own spoken word many more came to faith. They told the woman,

SAMARITANS: “No longer does our faith depend on your story. We’ve heard for ourselves, and we know that this really is truly the Savior of the world.”

 

Sermon for Lent 2: The Belonging You Seek Is Not Behind You – It Is Ahead

Maz_Kanata-Force_AwakensIt would appear that the quote from biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan didn’t apply to Nicodemus. Crossan famously said, “My point . . . is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Nicodemus took Jesus literally. When Jesus said, “No one can see the kindom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus is stunned. He thinks Jesus means he has to somehow get back into his mother’s womb. Imagine what he must have been thinking. Here was this teacher everyone was raving about, the one he – a Pharisee – had sneaked out to see. It was no small risk; as a member of the religious establishment, being affiliated with this rabble-rouser could have been seen as an act of rebellion against the empire.

So he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. And what does he get? This guy Jesus spouting some nonsense about being born again. We’re used to hearing that phrase; we have our own reactions when we hear it. We have to put ourselves in Nicodemus’ sandals to hear his bewilderment. Nicodemus thought that Jesus was telling him that in order to be part of the realm of God he needed to go back to the beginning, back to where he had come from. But that’s not what Jesus meant. Let’s watch a clip from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Listen for what Rey thinks she needs to do and for the advice given to her by the ancient, wise Maz Kanata.   Watch clip

Jesus couldn’t have said it better himself: “The belonging you seek is not behind you – it is ahead.” Not that we don’t remember and honor the past. Knowing from whence we’ve come is an important part of understanding ourselves. But we can’t stay or go back there, as much as we might be tempted or as much as we long for a time gone by.

In his classic book, Stages of Faith, James Fowler identified seven stages of development in our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, it’s been widely accepted that one of these stages is where many people remain their entire lives. See if you can guess which one.

Stage 1 (birth-2) is characterized by learning the safety of our environment. If we experience consistent nurture, we develop a sense of trust about the universe and the divine. Conversely, if we don’t receive consistent nurturing, the opposite will be true.

The next stage is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. Our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society. Then, when we become school age, we start understanding the world in more logical ways. We generally accept the stories told by our faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. We have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and our images of God are almost always anthropomorphic (with human form and/or human qualities).

Then comes adolescence, characterized by conformity to authority and the development of our religious identity. At this stage, we tend to have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and don’t even recognize that we’re inside a belief system. We rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give us stability. We become attached to the forms of our religion and get extremely upset when these are called into question.

The next stage, often begun in young adulthood, is a time of angst and struggle. We start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. We begin to critically examine our beliefs and often become disillusioned with our faith. Ironically, people in the stage before this one usually think that those in this stage have become “backsliders” when actually they’ve moved forward. This stage can end up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently.

It’s rare for people to reach this next stage before mid-life. This is when we begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. We begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.

The last stage is often called a “universalizing” or “mystical” faith. Few of us ever get there. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts. People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns. It’s pretty easy to see Jesus as an exemplar of this stage of human spiritual development.

Can you guess the stage in which many people remain? It’s the teenage stage, where we have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and rely on the institution to give us stability. I’d definitely put Nicodemus in that category. And Jesus was challenging him to grow in spiritual maturity, to move forward into a new way of belonging, to re-formation.

This is the same challenge before us today. Unless you’re one of the few enlightened ones, we’re all being called to move forward into a spirituality that is both mystical and practical. This is where our resistance to empire can be most effective. Our faith can both comfort and embolden us. When our emphasis is less on matters of personal salvation and more on the well-being of the Beloved Community of all God’s people and creatures, we are living into the reality of the kindom of God. After all, “for God so loved the world.”

Jesus said we are born of water and the Spirit. The water of the womb and the breath of life launched us on our way. The water of our baptism sealed us again with the Spirit and ordained us to our life’s mission as followers of Jesus. As each new age requires disciples to respond to the empire of that age, Jesus calls us forward now. Maz Kanata was right; the belonging we seek is not behind us – it is ahead. The Force Awakens is not just the title of a cool movie; it is our response to the movement of the Spirit in us and in our world.

Amen

 

John 3:1-17
The words of John 3:16 are more than a slogan to be put on signs at sports events; they describe the divine intentionality and universality. God loves the world. Salvation touches all creation, embracing our cells as well as our souls. There are no limits, outsides, or impediments to the ubiquitous and graceful providence of God.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, who came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can perform the signs and wonders you, unless by the power of God.”

Jesus gave Nicodemus this answer, “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.”

Nicodemus said, “How can an adult be born a second time? I can’t go back into my mother’s womb to be born again!”

Jesus replied:
“The truth of the matter is, no one can enter God’s kindom without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh,  and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.
Don’t be astonished when I tell you that  you must be born from above. The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes,  but you don’t know where it comes from  or where it goes.  So it is with everyone  who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How can this be possible?”

Jesus replied, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand these matters?
The truth of the matter is,  we’re talking about what we know; we’re testifying about what we’ve seen – yet you don’t accept our testimony. If you don’t believe when I tell you about earthly things,  how will you believe  when I tell you about heavenly things?

No one has gone up to heaven  except the One who came down from heaven –  the Chosen One. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,  so the Chosen One must be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes the Chosen One might have eternal life.

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his classic book, Stages of Faith, James Fowler identified seven stages of development in our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, it’s been widely accepted that one of these stages is where many people remain their entire lives. See if you can guess which one.

Stage 1 (birth-2) is characterized by learning the safety of our environment. If we experience consistent nurture, we develop a sense of trust about the universe and the divine. Conversely, if we don’t receive consistent nurturing, the opposite will be true.

 

The next stage is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. Our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society. Then, when we become school age, we start understanding the world in more logical ways. We generally accept the stories told by our faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. We have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and our images of God are almost always anthropomorphic (with human form and/or human qualities).

 

Then comes adolescence, characterized by conformity to authority and the development of our religious identity. At this stage, we tend to have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and don’t even recognize that we’re inside a belief system. We rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give us stability. We become attached to the forms of our religion and get extremely upset when these are called into question.

 

The next stage, often begun in young adulthood, is a time of angst and struggle. We start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. We begin to critically examine our beliefs and often become disillusioned with our faith. Ironically, people in the stage before this one usually think that those in this stage have become “backsliders” when actually they’ve moved forward. This stage can end up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s rare for people to reach this next stage before mid-life. This is when we begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. We begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box. The last stage is often called a “universalizing” or “mystical” faith. Few of us ever get there. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts. People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns. It’s pretty easy to see Jesus as an exemplar of this stage of human spiritual development.

 

Can you guess the stage in which many people remain? It’s the teenage stage, where we have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and rely on the institution to give us stability. I’d definitely put Nicodemus in that category. And Jesus was challenging him to grow in spiritual maturity, to move forward into a new way of belonging, to re-formation.

 

This is the same challenge before us today. Unless you’re one of the few enlightened ones, we’re all being called to move forward into a spirituality that is both mystical and practical. This is where our resistance to empire can be most effective. Our faith can both comfort and embolden us. When our emphasis is less on matters of personal salvation and more on the well-being of the Beloved Community of all God’s people and creatures, we are living into the reality of the kin-dom of God. After all, “for God so loved the world.”

 

Jesus said we are born of water and the Spirit. The water of the womb and the breath of life launched us on our way. The water of our baptism sealed us again with the Spirit and ordained us to our life’s mission as followers of Jesus. As each new age requires disciples to respond to the empire of that age, Jesus calls us forward now. Maz Kanata was right; the belonging we seek is not behind us – it is ahead. The Force Awakens is not just the title of a cool movie; it is our response to the movement of the Spirit in us and in our world.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genesis 12:1-4

The call of Abram (or Abraham as he later became known) to leave his homeland and migrate to an unknown country is one of the crucial events of the Old Testament. Despite the brevity of the text and the absence of Sarah as an equal protagonist, the passage points to forward looking spirituality. Whether the stories surrounding this migration are tribal legends or actual events, there is no doubt that they became a formative part of Israel’s faith history.  Later generations would look back to this patriarch and see in Abram’s obedience to the divine summons the initial response to God’s covenant with Israel.

 

It is written . . .

 

YHWH said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people, and the home of your parents, and go to a place I will show you. I will make of you a great people. I will bless you and make your name so great that it will used in blessings. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you. And all the people on the face of the earth will be blessed through you.”
Abram, who was 75 years old when he left Haran, began the journey as YHWH had instructed, and his nephew Lot went with him.

 

John 3:1-17

The words of John 3:16 are more than a slogan to be put on signs at sports events; they describe the divine intentionality and universality. God loves the world. Salvation touches all creation, embracing our cells as well as our souls. There are no limits, outsides, or impediments to the ubiquitous and graceful providence of God.

It is written . . .

 

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, who came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can perform the signs and wonders you, unless by the power of God.”

Jesus gave Nicodemus this answer, “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.”

Nicodemus said, “How can an adult be born a second time? I can’t go back into my mother’s womb to be born again!”

 

Jesus replied:
“The truth of the matter is,
no one can enter God’s kindom

without being born of water and the Spirit.

What is born of the flesh is flesh,
and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.

Don’t be astonished when I tell you that
you must be born from above.

The wind blows where it will.
You hear the sound it makes,
but you don’t know where it comes from
or where it goes.
So it is with everyone
who is born of the Spirit.”

 

Nicodemus said, “How can this be possible?”

Jesus replied, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand these matters?

The truth of the matter is,
we’re talking about what we know;
we’re testifying about what we’ve seen –

yet you don’t accept our testimony.

If you don’t believe

When I tell you about earthly things,
how will you believe
when I tell you about heavenly things?

No one has gone up to heaven
except the One who came down from heaven –
the Chosen One.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so the Chosen One must be lifted up,

so that everyone who believes the Chosen One
might have eternal life.

Yes, God so loved the world

as to give the Only Begotten One,
that whoever believes may not die,

but have eternal life.

God sent the Only Begotten into the world

not to condemn the world,

but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.