Tag Archives: Lent

Who WOULD Want to Be a Disciple?

6a00d8341cbf9a53ef015435d666c8970c-350wiA Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Mark 8:31-38

Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe you’ve seen the game show that asks contestants that question. It’s rather a silly question; who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? Well, I guess billionaires, who don’t want to be downsized. But for most folks, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Unlike the question: who wants to be a disciple?

Maybe those of us who grew up in the church or have heard the gospel message so often have grown inured to what is really being asked of those who agree to be a follower of Jesus. “If you want to follow me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” If that’s the job description, who would want to be a disciple?

And it is the job description. Jesus says it quite plainly: “if you want to follow me . . .”
He surely knew what the outcome would be if he kept on speaking and teaching a way of life that did not accommodate itself to the ways of the Empire. He wasn’t a zealot. He didn’t encourage violence. His way was much more subversive and much more effective. His was a way of inner transformation. And as hearts and minds were changed, people were moved to act in outer ways also, bringing about transformation of their society.

And that was as threatening to the powers that be as an armed rebellion – as Jesus well knew as he began to teach his disciples that he would suffer at the hands of the authorities. You didn’t have to be God to figure that out. It was obvious to Jesus. So he didn’t have any patience with Peter, who didn’t want to hear about suffering and death. No wonder: the Romans killed tens of thousands of people by crucifixion. Stephen Mansfield, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, described crucifixion as “an act of state terror.” Who wouldn’t take issue with a beloved teacher who seemed hell-bent on becoming one more of Rome’s victims, aided by the religious authorities?

This word “rebuke” is not a mere matter of a friendly discussion. It’s a severe censure of what Jesus is saying. We might imagine Peter screaming, “Shut up!” as Jesus described what he saw coming in his near future. And his language as he lashes back at Peter is just as harsh. “Get behind me, Satan.”

Angry-Jesus-crop-546x500This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus use such heated language. And how odd that the recipient of this anger is Peter: one of the first disciples, the first one to call Jesus “Messiah,” the “rock” on whom the church would be built. This clash is no mild disagreement. It’s the moment of truth for all who would be disciples of Jesus: “If you want to follow me, you have to deny your very self and take up your cross. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t want to hear those words any more than Peter did. If we really get the horror of crucifixion, we’ll wonder why we choose to have such an ugly thing, this instrument of torture in our churches, around our necks, in our ears. And we’ll recoil from the reminder that being a follower of Jesus is not without its risks. It’s not an easy ticket to heaven. It’s not a guarantee of prosperity. It’s not a bypass around the hardships of life. Who would want to be a disciple?

Yet here we are. Moving together a little further into Lent, toward the story of the crucifix-ion. Knowing that it’s important not to get to Easter too quickly, that we need to let these words soak into us once again because they are so counter-intuitive. Sacrifice for others? Deny myself? Take up a cross? Suffer? Who wants that?

Who wants that indeed? Yet the undeniable fact is that suffering is already part of our lives in this broken world. The last time I stood here in this space was Ash Wednesday – the day that 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, FL. Perhaps you saw the photo of a woman, presumably the mother of a student, waiting for news outside the school. On her forehead was the sign of a cross, marked in ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Since that terrible day, a lot of words have been spoken and printed, hours of discussion and commentary on news programs, extensive coverage of the movement begun by young people determined to see that it never happens again. Will this attack be the tipping point that finally brings some resolution to the problem of gun violence? We already know that these students are experiencing harassment and pushback. Standing up to the powers that be is not without its risks.

And what should our response be as followers of Jesus? Thoughts and prayers? Well, yes. That is certainly part of who we are and what we do – we reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. However, that’s not what Jesus is suggesting here as an answer. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”

Sad to say, the problem of school shootings is not the only intractable and divisive issue confronting us these days. Also sad to say is that we as a society have become so unable or unwilling to have civil conversations across our divides. The church is not immune to this phenomenon. I know several pastors who have been warned to “keep politics out if the pulpit” for even mentioning an issue. But I believe that the Jesus who blew up at Peter would take exception to those warnings.

Untitled-design-49In a recent article entitled “Silencing Jesus with Politics: From a Subversive to a Submis-sive Jesus,” the author suggests that the Jesus who preached and taught that the realm of God had come near and showed us how to live within that realm was transformed into Jesus meek and mild. According to Howard Thurman, African-American author, educator, philosopher, theologian, civil rights leader, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the week and oppressed – this despite the gospel.”

I’ve been disturbed lately by the attitudes and opinions expressed by some who would call themselves followers of Jesus. So-called Evangelical Christians are under heavy scrutiny these days for their unwavering support of leaders, despite disturbing revelations of abusive behavior. And like it or not, as Christians, we all get lumped into the same category by many who cannot or will not distinguish between us.

This is disturbing on many levels. One is the fact that, as we know, the Church is under-going a massive re-formation. It’s certainly shrinking. Anxiety in congregations is rising. The future is uncertain for the institution that has been the church, at least within our life-time. We can’t afford to be painted with the same brush used to condemn the actions of other Christians. We have enough troubles of our own.

For example, it’s obvious that many younger people are not interested in what we have to offer, at least not in the form that we offer it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about things. You may know that there is a mission outreach program in San Francisco called Middle Circle that has been gathering together young people and listening to their thoughts, ideas, and needs. One thing I’ve learned in getting to know many of them is that they care about the world and they want to take action. They are keenly interested in matters of social justice and want to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it; action will. Just look at the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If the church is to be relevant and vibrant into the future – in whatever form it may take – it has to be true to the Jesus who spoke openly about what it would take to make a difference in the world. We have to be true to the message of the gospel – even when it’s hard. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s definitely one of those hard parts.

So who wants to be a disciple? Who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about the sins of our society, about the sins of our communal, national, and global world?

Who is willing to take the risk of speaking up, even when it means being in disagreement with family members, friends, neighbors? Who’s willing to call out racist speech and behavior? Homophobic, misogynistic Islamaphobic, any kind of hate language? Who is willing to take up a cross and work for a cause for justice? Don’t worry; there are plenty to choose from.

And who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about a different way of living in God’s realm right here and right now? Who’s willing to learn how to do so without descending into bad behavior ourselves, by practicing what one activist described as “calling someone in while calling them out.” Who’s willing to learn non-violent ways of responding to violence, of how to always “go high” when others are “going low?” Who’s willing to show up at a rally or demonstration – visibly as a Christian – to show that we are on the side of love and justice?

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That is what happens when we’re willing to take on the powers of the world. That’s what happens when we’re determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “The realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” -and then live as if we believe it.

Who wants to be a disciple? Today – how do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up a cross and follow?

Amen

 

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly.

Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s.”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you want to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process?

What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and of my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”

 

 

 

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Who WOULD Want to Be a Disciple?

6a00d8341cbf9a53ef015435d666c8970c-350wiA Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Mark 8:31-38

Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe you’ve seen the game show that asks contestants that question. It’s rather a silly question; who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? Well, I guess billionaires, who don’t want to be downsized. But for most folks, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Unlike the question: who wants to be a disciple?

Maybe those of us who grew up in the church or have heard the gospel message so often have grown inured to what is really being asked of those who agree to be a follower of Jesus. “If you want to follow me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” If that’s the job description, who would want to be a disciple?

And it is the job description. Jesus says it quite plainly: “if you want to follow me . . .”
He surely knew what the outcome would be if he kept on speaking and teaching a way of life that did not accommodate itself to the ways of the Empire. He wasn’t a zealot. He didn’t encourage violence. His way was much more subversive and much more effective. His was a way of inner transformation. And as hearts and minds were changed, people were moved to act in outer ways also, bringing about transformation of their society.

And that was as threatening to the powers that be as an armed rebellion – as Jesus well knew as he began to teach his disciples that he would suffer at the hands of the authorities. You didn’t have to be God to figure that out. It was obvious to Jesus. So he didn’t have any patience with Peter, who didn’t want to hear about suffering and death. No wonder: the Romans killed tens of thousands of people by crucifixion. Stephen Mansfield, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, described crucifixion as “an act of state terror.” Who wouldn’t take issue with a beloved teacher who seemed hell-bent on becoming one more of Rome’s victims, aided by the religious authorities?

This word “rebuke” is not a mere matter of a friendly discussion. It’s a severe censure of what Jesus is saying. We might imagine Peter screaming, “Shut up!” as Jesus described what he saw coming in his near future. And his language as he lashes back at Peter is just as harsh. “Get behind me, Satan.”

Angry-Jesus-crop-546x500This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus use such heated language. And how odd that the recipient of this anger is Peter: one of the first disciples, the first one to call Jesus “Messiah,” the “rock” on whom the church would be built. This clash is no mild disagreement. It’s the moment of truth for all who would be disciples of Jesus: “If you want to follow me, you have to deny your very self and take up your cross. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t want to hear those words any more than Peter did. If we really get the horror of crucifixion, we’ll wonder why we choose to have such an ugly thing, this instrument of torture in our churches, around our necks, in our ears. And we’ll recoil from the reminder that being a follower of Jesus is not without its risks. It’s not an easy ticket to heaven. It’s not a guarantee of prosperity. It’s not a bypass around the hardships of life. Who would want to be a disciple?

Yet here we are. Moving together a little further into Lent, toward the story of the crucifix-ion. Knowing that it’s important not to get to Easter too quickly, that we need to let these words soak into us once again because they are so counter-intuitive. Sacrifice for others? Deny myself? Take up a cross? Suffer? Who wants that?

Who wants that indeed? Yet the undeniable fact is that suffering is already part of our lives in this broken world. The last time I stood here in this space was Ash Wednesday – the day that 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, FL. Perhaps you saw the photo of a woman, presumably the mother of a student, waiting for news outside the school. On her forehead was the sign of a cross, marked in ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Since that terrible day, a lot of words have been spoken and printed, hours of discussion and commentary on news programs, extensive coverage of the movement begun by young people determined to see that it never happens again. Will this attack be the tipping point that finally brings some resolution to the problem of gun violence? We already know that these students are experiencing harassment and pushback. Standing up to the powers that be is not without its risks.

And what should our response be as followers of Jesus? Thoughts and prayers? Well, yes. That is certainly part of who we are and what we do – we reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. However, that’s not what Jesus is suggesting here as an answer. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”

Sad to say, the problem of school shootings is not the only intractable and divisive issue confronting us these days. Also sad to say is that we as a society have become so unable or unwilling to have civil conversations across our divides. The church is not immune to this phenomenon. I know several pastors who have been warned to “keep politics out if the pulpit” for even mentioning an issue. But I believe that the Jesus who blew up at Peter would take exception to those warnings.

Untitled-design-49In a recent article entitled “Silencing Jesus with Politics: From a Subversive to a Submis-sive Jesus,” the author suggests that the Jesus who preached and taught that the realm of God had come near and showed us how to live within that realm was transformed into Jesus meek and mild. According to Howard Thurman, African-American author, educator, philosopher, theologian, civil rights leader, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the week and oppressed – this despite the gospel.”

I’ve been disturbed lately by the attitudes and opinions expressed by some who would call themselves followers of Jesus. So-called Evangelical Christians are under heavy scrutiny these days for their unwavering support of leaders, despite disturbing revelations of abusive behavior. And like it or not, as Christians, we all get lumped into the same category by many who cannot or will not distinguish between us.

This is disturbing on many levels. One is the fact that, as we know, the Church is under-going a massive re-formation. It’s certainly shrinking. Anxiety in congregations is rising. The future is uncertain for the institution that has been the church, at least within our life-time. We can’t afford to be painted with the same brush used to condemn the actions of other Christians. We have enough troubles of our own.

For example, it’s obvious that many younger people are not interested in what we have to offer, at least not in the form that we offer it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about things. You may know that there is a mission outreach program in San Francisco called Middle Circle that has been gathering together young people and listening to their thoughts, ideas, and needs. One thing I’ve learned in getting to know many of them is that they care about the world and they want to take action. They are keenly interested in matters of social justice and want to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it; action will. Just look at the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If the church is to be relevant and vibrant into the future – in whatever form it may take – it has to be true to the Jesus who spoke openly about what it would take to make a difference in the world. We have to be true to the message of the gospel – even when it’s hard. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s definitely one of those hard parts.

So who wants to be a disciple? Who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about the sins of our society, about the sins of our communal, national, and global world?

Who is willing to take the risk of speaking up, even when it means being in disagreement with family members, friends, neighbors? Who’s willing to call out racist speech and behavior? Homophobic, misogynistic Islamaphobic, any kind of hate language? Who is willing to take up a cross and work for a cause for justice? Don’t worry; there are plenty to choose from.

And who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about a different way of living in God’s realm right here and right now? Who’s willing to learn how to do so without descending into bad behavior ourselves, by practicing what one activist described as “calling someone in while calling them out.” Who’s willing to learn non-violent ways of responding to violence, of how to always “go high” when others are “going low?” Who’s willing to show up at a rally or demonstration – visibly as a Christian – to show that we are on the side of love and justice?

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That is what happens when we’re willing to take on the powers of the world. That’s what happens when we’re determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “The realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” -and then live as if we believe it.

Who wants to be a disciple? Today – how do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up a cross and follow?

Amen

 

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly.

Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s.”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you want to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process?

What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and of my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday: Called into the Fullness of Our Humanity

soil in potThere is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”

Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).

Ash-Wednesday-cross2Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.

So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.

Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.

But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.

universe-1044106_640The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.

And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”

In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.

And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.

So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.

You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Sin Our Problem – or Is It Shame?

images

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. For many people – myself included – shame is a much more insidious problem than our guilt over our sins. Make no mistake – I’m not denying the reality of sin or of our need to confess and repent. Though I would like to see us pay at least as much attention to our systemic sins (such as racism) as we do to our individual wrong-doings.

As Lent approaches, I’m wondering if the attention we give to sin is the best way to go. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg asks whether ‘sin’ is the best way to name what is wrong and why we are lost. Not that he denies the reality of sin either. Borg doesn’t dispute that sin is a primary image within the Bible. But there are other images of our human predicament as well, each requiring a kind of healing. He writes:

To list some but not all of them: we are blind, in exile or in bondage; we have closed hearts; we hunger and first; we are lost. Each of these images for our problem has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution.  If we are blind, we need to see. If we are in exile, we need to return. If we are in bondage, we need liberation. If we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened. If we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink. If we are lost, we need to be found.

But what do we need to help us heal when we feel shame? And just to be clear: I’m not equating shame with guilt. Guilt is about what we ‘ve done; shame is about who we are. Some use the phrase “toxic shame” to describe the feeling that we are somehow inherently defective, that something is wrong with our very being. Toxic shame can come about for all kinds of reasons: being bullied as a child, being sexually assaulted, for example. Veterans diagnosed with PTSD often experience shame. Unhealthy family dynamics can bring about shame in children.

Unfortunately, the church has often been guilty of shaming its members – usually for sexual “sins”. And while the church does offer a path to confession and forgiveness for our actions, it’s much less equipped to offer healing for the shame that affects our being.

So how can we in the church promote this kind healing?  As Borg would put it: If we have been shamed, then we need . . . what?

I suggest that the first step is acknowledging this as a human condition from which many of us suffer. Maybe instead of focusing exclusively on our sinfulness this Lent, we lift up all the ways we can be broken and out of sync with our true humanity. And instead of offering only confession and forgiveness, we also offer a listening ear and compassion.

For some, especially those who have suffered severe trauma, psychological therapy is also needed. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could also participate in what author John Bradshaw called Healing the Shame that Binds You?

Marcus Borg used to tell of  the Buddhist who once said , “You Christians must be very bad people—you’re always confessing your sins.” Maybe we could learn from that critique.

Lent from an INTRAfaith Perspective

she likes itWe’re going to use my book, The  INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Mattersfor our mid-week Lent discussion group this year. You might be thinking that it’s an odd choice for a Lent study.

I agree that some seasons of the church year lend themselves better than others to delving into interfaith education/discussion/relationship-building. Epiphany, for instance, with its Zoroastrian Magi crossing over into Judaism to pay homage to Jesus, then going back to their own country and religion “by another way,” is a wonderful example of what John S. Dunne calls “passing over and coming back” in his book, The Way of All the Earth.

Lent, however, might seem to be more problematic. The cross looms over us, and questions about the identity, mission, purpose of Jesus also loom large. But I suggest that it is, in fact, the perfect time for intrafaith education and discussion. At the very least, worship planners can take a new look at some of the anti-Semitic texts that will come up. I address this in more detail in Chapter 23 of my book, but here are a few examples.

The Gospel of John especially gets into rants against “the Jews.” While some people know that this reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context. In The Passion According to John, which is often read on Good Friday, the phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.

In The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.

And another: changing John 20:19 from “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews . . .” (NRSV) to “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .” (TIB)

A helpful resource here is Sermons without Prejudice. Its stated purpose is “to counter this anti-Semitism by addressing the anti-Judaism that some New Testament readings may convey.” Another is Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary by Ronald J Allen and Clark M. Williamson. These would be excellent places to start.

But the questions do go much deeper and raise issues within Christianity and among members of our churches. In Chapter 8 of my book I ask: “Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?” What do we mean by salvation? What do we believe about Jesus that effects this salvation?

If you read Chapter 8, you’ll discover – as I did –  that things start to get complicated and scholars debate this from every which way. But as a parish pastor, I wanted to know how to bring these issues to bear on the beliefs and questions of our church members and the educational and liturgical practices of our congregation.

So we’ll be delving into topics, such as:

  • The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation
  • New Voices: Spiritual Independents and Hybrid Spirituality
  • Faces of God and Jesus: “Who Do You Say I Am?”
  • Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
  • Heresy, Syncretism and Relativism – Oh, My!
  • The Mystic Heart
  • Evolutionary Christianity

It will be a mix of intra and inter faith work. Once you begin, there’s no way to separate them. Shameless promotion alert: there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter and suggestions for further reading. So  if you haven’t chosen your Lent study book yet, might I suggest . . .

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