Well, welcome everybody to the season of Lent, the journey of Lent. As you all remember, the season of Lent is a special one in the Christian tradition where more than in any other season of the Christian calendar, we're asked to live differently, to bracket out these six weeks of our lives as a sacred time through fasting, self-denial, prayer, and spiritual struggle and transformation. Lent is a spiritual journey that each one of us is asked to undertake with God.
Now, every first Sunday of Lent the lectionary turns us towards the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, which appropriately is also the story of fasting, self-denial, prayer, and spiritual struggle and transformation. Now, it is very tempting to think that the specific details of Jesus' struggle out there in the desert don't really have anything to do with you or with me with our spiritual journeys—this seems like a cosmic battle between the Son of God and the devil, it has nothing to do with us mere mortals. Could it? We're just spectators here. We should watch in reverent awe. But that ignores the fact that Jesus uses Satan's three temptations as an opportunity to offer us three little teachings. And I think that these teachings are not just rebuttals to Satan in these specific circumstances, they’re universal guideposts that apply to every person's spiritual journey. So we're going to take a look at these three teachings from Jesus and see if they have anything to offer our spiritual journeys over the next six weeks.
Now, as it all starts off, Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and he's very, very hungry. And Satan says, oh, perfect opportunity. And Satan shows up and he says, well, there's nothing to eat around here. But man, there sure are a lot of rocks. So why don't you go ahead and turn some of those rocks into bread and then you can finally have something to eat. Now I understand, I think a little bit of what Jesus was going through there, because every time I walk into my own kitchen, there's a little devil that appears on this shoulder and just starts saying, eat the bread. Go for the bread. It's the bread you want. Don't worry, you'll find time to work out later. It's gonna be fine. When the kids are taking a nap, you'll go for a jog, eat the bread, <laugh>. But this is not actually really about eating bread. Now, this is actually about Jesus finding an opportunity to offer us the most fundamental teaching to any spiritual journey. And until you've had this realization, I think it's actually really difficult to even be aware that you're on a spiritual journey at all, and that teaching is just simply this: Human beings do not live by bread alone.
In other words, you are a really weird contradiction, human being. You're this physical being living in a material world, and yet you are called to have a spiritual orientation to this life. Well, that's a difficult thing to do. Another way of saying it would be to say that you've got a soul locked away inside all that flesh. And that soul needs to be acknowledged, that soul needs to be cared for, that soul needs to be expressed. Now, there are some people, and maybe some of us, some of you sitting in this room who don't really believe in the soul. You know, some folks truly believe that this is just a physical universe and that we are just, you know, made up of atoms and chemistry and cells and neurons and everything that's happening inside of us is explicable by mathematics and physics and chemistry and biology and science, and that there is no supernatural soul that comes into the mix of anything at all. And sometimes we come to believe that this is the sort of antithetical position to the Christian position. It's certainly different than the Christian position. It's certainly a position to dialogue with and maybe to disagree with. But it is actually not the antithetical position to the Christian position.
The antithetical position is another one that's becoming very, very familiar in this world, in this culture of ours. And it's not that we don't have a soul. It's that the universe and the life that we are leading have no meaning. It doesn't mean anything at all. That is the antithetical position to Jesus saying that we do not live by bread alone. When he says that Jesus means that our deepest hunger, our deepest hunger in this life will never be a physical hunger. It's always going to be the hunger for meaning, the hunger to express our soul, to care for our soul, to understand our relationship to this world as one of a relationship, not of body to body, material to material, but a relationship of soul to soul, of I, to thou not I to it, to believe that it really matters how we behave, how we live, and how we treat one another. I believe that the need for meaning is so fundamental to being a human being, that it really can't be escaped at all. To the extent that I believe that people who believe that there is no meaning in life find meaning in their nihilism, right? They begin to orient their lives to this position. “Well, I don't believe in anything has any meaning.” They orient their lives to that position, and then they try to behave in accordance to that belief that everything is just chaos and it doesn't mean anything. Well, guess what that is called? That's called meaning making. You can't escape from your human need to be a spiritual being who connects to the deepest meaning (or non-meaning) of life. I contend that it's far better to make meaning out of the certainty that meaning itself is the most important factor in life. And that's where God comes into our lives.
Now, when you believe that material wellbeing (bread alone) is the most important factor in your life, you lose your freedom. You're not free anymore. Once you believe that the physical world and your physical comfort is the most important thing, you lose your spirit. You lose everything that makes you interesting as a human being. So much so that this is even true, I think, in capitalism. Now, you'd think that capitalism is only supposed to be about the bottom line, about the profit, about the material world, but no, no, because capitalism is a human enterprise. So even economics cannot live by bread alone because it's really about people. Anything we touch becomes infused with spirit. And in business, if you spend all your time and energy limiting your liabilities, you end up losing your entrepreneurial spirit. Safety is very important. But safety that limits progress and freedom instead of enhancing progress and freedom is a bread alone existence that can never satisfy our deepest hunger.
So once you've realized that you do not live by bread alone, no, you are a physical being in a material world on a spiritual journey, that's wonderful you've made that realization. Now, don't let it go to your head, Jesus says. And Jesus in the next lesson, offers us a safety tip, a warning about a very seductive, wrong turn that has derailed many a spiritual journey. The devil brings Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. This was the highest point in Jerusalem, and may well have been the tallest building in the world. It is extremely high up there. And he says, well, you know, you're the son of God and all, and God loves you, and God cares for you. God created you. God has called you. God has blessed you. Isn't all this true? (And isn't it all this true about us? Doesn't God love us? Doesn't God care about us? Isn't God blessing our lives?) And if that's true about you, Jesus, well, why don't you just throw yourself down? Because isn't God watching over you? Isn't God protecting you? Will God ever let anything happen to you? Isn't everything going to be all right for you? And that is, unfortunately, an attitude that can lead to spiritual disaster, as Jesus is quick to point out.
In the Zen tradition, on the road to enlightenment there is a fork that must be passed through which is very seductive. And it can derail the path to enlightenment. And what happens is, after you have sat down in meditation for a long, long time and practiced for many, many years, you may come to a point where you realize that you have supernatural powers, that you are in fact a spiritual being in the physical world, and that you might actually believe that you can jump up and fly through the air and do incredible feats with your body. And there are all kinds of stories in the Zen tradition of monks actually achieving these incredible superhuman feats because of the way that their minds have been transformed. And you would think, well, that's surely a sign. You're on the right path. But if you see a Zen master in art, he's always carrying around a giant stick. That’s because the Zen Master's job, when he sees this happening, is to go up to that monk who's experiencing supernatural powers and to hit him with a stick right in the head, bam! And to say, no! You're off the true path.
Many of us struggle in Christianity with this call to be humble, to be meek, to turn the other cheeks, not to resist evil with evil, to pray for our enemies. It's so difficult. You know, why, why can't we be big? Why can't we be more? Why do we always feel like the tradition is asking us to small ourselves? But context is everything here. When these teachings about self-denial come to us in the belief that we aren't anything, that we're no good, that we're just physical beings, and that we're just totally awful and depraved sinners, it can feel like Christian tradition is just piling it onto us when it's saying, “And you ought to always behave in a humble way. But when these teachings come to us in the proper Christian context of knowing that we are made, called, chosen, saved, and loved by God, that we are good, that we have a mission, that we were made for meaning and making a difference in the world, that each of us is on a spiritual journey of personal sacrifice that will lead to God's glory, then it makes a lot more sense. And when we're at one of those pinnacle moments in life, moments in which we feel full of the Spirit and full of God's blessing and God's movement through our body, and when we are feeling powerful and called and justified and absolutely right, we will not act (hopefully) as if we have supernatural powers. We will not act, hopefully, as if we're infallible or invincible or high and mighty or better than anyone else. We will continue to behave as Jesus always instructed us to behave: as a servant, not as a superhero, not as a pharaoh, not as an angelic being, but as a human being, a mere mortal, a humble, humble human being, a servant to God and to neighbor. That's who we're called to be.
The most shocking version of these pinnacle moments going bad (the Kool-Aid drinking cults, the religious leaders who seduced their followers, or sending your church out to protest some random gay person's funeral just because of the fact that they're gay) these are not temptations that most of us in this room have fallen into. But all of us have had the experience of venturing to believe that we are better than other people, more special than other people, more loved than other people. And we believe that we can see it. We can see it in the things that we have achieved, and we can see it in the things that they have not achieved. That others are suffering is surely a sign that they're bad and being punished. And that I'm not suffering is because I'm good and I'm on a spiritual journey. It goes so far that when a when disaster strikes and the building collapses all around us, and we're pulled from the rubble, and we’re asked, what saved you? We say, well, God saved me. Well, what about the other people who were in the building and who weren’t pulled out alive? Did God just forget about them?
It's very seductive to think this way, very seductive to believe that we're somehow more chosen, better, safer than other people. When we start to think like this and make decisions based on this wrong belief, we're always destined for a fall. It only leads to bad things. And so, Jesus' second lesson to us is to continue to be meek, continue to be mild, and live as though we were human—a physical being with a spiritual orientation to life who serves, rather than thinking that you're a superhero.
And this leads us to our conclusion. So in the first step, we come to realize that there is meaning and purpose in our lives. We do not live by bread alone. In the second step, we stay humble about this calling. We do not lord it over other people. We don't put God to the test by demanding favors from God or special blessings from God. And in the final step, we realize that if there is meaning and purpose in our lives, if that's true, and if we at our very best are (just like Jesus) merely servants to our calling and to our neighbors, then the source of our meaning is the Ultimate Meaning of the universe, and the ground of our being is Being itself. We worship God and we serve God alone. Now, this is far easier said than done. Most of us (the guy standing up here talking included) worship and serve some other part of this world or of our culture or our political system or our own desires, right? We might worship money. We might serve the corporation we work for, even though we don't believe in all of that corporation's values. We might worship the latest political savior to come along on the right or on the left. We might serve our addiction to drugs or to power or to screens, or to a hundred other things. We've all got something. We've all got something that's standing in the way between us and God, something that we orient ourselves to rather than to God. All of us have put something in the way. All of us have let something get in the middle. But the spiritual journey through this life, and through this season of Lent, is to let all of that other stuff go, to have a totally spiritual orientation to this material world and to serve its brokenness without thought to our glorification or our reward. We are here to worship God and (as Jesus teaches us) to serve God by serving our neighbors, and that is all.
May these teachings and this perspective bless our spiritual journey as this Lent.
It is Transfiguration Sunday, this Sunday, and we've read the traditional lectionary reading for the transfiguration. But I decided to add a little bit to the beginning of the reading. I extended the reading backwards into the text. These two readings are not usually read together. They're usually separated. First, you get Peter's denial of the crucifixion and Jesus' rebuke of Peter and his prophecy of the crucifixion. And then months and months later, in a different season, you get the story of the transfiguration. And I think to understand the transfiguration you need to put these two readings together. You begin to see that the transfiguration is a response to what came directly before it when you read it all as one piece of text. There’s a reason that the transfiguration is the thing that follows Jesus' first prediction of his crucifixion. You begin to see that the transfiguration is an answer to a question. And that question (Peter's question) is this: Shouldn't I, Peter, shouldn't we as Christians followers, shouldn't we defend the faith? Shouldn't I protect the holy? Shouldn't I stand up for Jesus?
I think that's all that Peter wants to do. Beneath those questions, beneath Peter’s desire, is an assumption, a worldview. And that assumption is this: that God needs to be protected from the bad things in this world and the bad people in this world. I'll tell you a little bit of a story to explain sometimes how this shows itself in everyday life. I had a good friend who was a counselor and a director at an institution for extraordinarily troubled young girls, teens and young girls. It was a very difficult job, very emotionally demanding. These girls had been institutionalized sometimes by the state, sometimes by their families because they were out of control or traumatized in some way. And there was one particular girl whose story was beyond the average person's ability to comprehend. It was almost unimaginable what had happened and been done to this child. It was the sort of thing—I'm not going to go into the details because that will just distract us—but it's the sort of thing that makes national news, the sort of thing where a child is found after years of neglect in a basement somewhere and is not what they should be anymore because of how they've been treated.
And the suffering that this child went through was very difficult on my friend. She was struggling to understand it and she was telling a small group of close friends about what this child had been through and how this child was healing, but would maybe never fully heal. And one of the people who she was telling the story to was a young woman. She was in her early twenties. She was a southern belle of sorts. She was a Christian from a very evangelical Christian background. And my opinion of her before this conversation happened was that she was a little bit socially and spiritually naïve. But as my friend was explaining to us what had happened to this child, this young woman stopped the conversation and she said, no, no, no, no, no, no. I do not believe it! I cannot believe that God would ever let that happen to a child.
Now in that statement, we begin to see this tendency that we all experience to some extent. The statement, “I do not believe that God would ever let that happen to a child,” was not entirely a defense of that child. It was a defense of what this young woman thought about God, her worldview of God, who God is and what God does. And she could not live in a world where God allowed such things to happen and she could not believe in a God who allowed such things to happen. So her resistance to the truth of the story that my friend was telling was not for the sake of the child alone. It was to protect God. And ultimately it was to protect her own comfort and worldview about who God was.
Peter is struggling with the same exact thing at the beginning of our reading, the same exact thing. Here comes Jesus, the perfect encapsulation of who God is going to be in the world: the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, God's own self come into the world. And Jesus says, I'm going be turned over to worldly authorities, I'm going to be tortured and killed and crucified. And Peter says, “Oh no, you're not! No way, not on my watch!” In part, it's because Jesus is his friend, and he doesn't want it to happen to Jesus. But that's not all it is. It's an inability to believe that this prophecy could be God's way, the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice, the way of suffering. In inability to believe that this would even be allowed, let alone necessary. The idea that God's ultimate act is going to be one of suffering and sacrifice, that's what Peter can't accept. Peter can't accept that if he's going to be a follower of Jesus, he's going to have to accept that his understanding of God is wrong. Jesus's response to Peter is initially a little bit like my response to this young woman when I heard her say, I can't believe that this is a true story because God would never let that happen. I had to kind of bite my tongue to stop from laughing out loud and to then just sort of criticize her because it makes me angry that sometimes that people who believe these things are also people in leadership in churches who make rules about what is and isn't allowed in church. And they begin to defend the faith to protect the holy and to stand up for Jesus, which is not always a bad thing, but it can be a bad thing when you do it with the wrong assumptions about what it is that needs defending and what doesn't need defending. Does God need defending from the world or not? Or is God calling us not to defend the faith, but to take up our cross? It's a very different, very different way of being a person of faith. Am I going to defend the faith or am I going to take up my cross and follow Jesus? Those two things feel like very different ways of being Christian to me.
So, now we have to ask: Why does Jesus bring Peter up the mountain for the transfiguration after his big mistake? Well, after that first, rather mean rebuke, Jesus realizes that he needs to try a different way and be a little bit nicer. As I was lying in bed that night after this incident with my friend’s story, I realized that part of the reason I was so angry at this young woman is because she reflected a part of me that I was angry with, right? That in fact, we all feel this way. We all feel like we need to defend God from the bad things in the world. We all feel like we want to defend our worldview. And we all want to cling to the comfort that God won’t let anything too terrible happen to us or to any of the other good people in the world. And I realized that the reason I was so mad at her is because she was reflecting something inside of me and a tendency inside of all of us.
So Jesus decides he's going to try a different way, a kinder way. He gives Peter more holiness than Peter has ever dreamed of. I mean, this is what Peter really wants—to be up there on the top of the mountain! And Jesus is shining with glory and he's holy and uplifted. And it is happening in a way that no one can deny it and no one can ever touch it or ruin it or deny it or disrespect it. And it's a beautiful scene. And Peter says, oh, if only I could build you a shelter up here, Lord, and we could just stay up here forever! You and me, Moses, Elijah, we’ll never have to go back down the mountain and face those terrible things that you had talked about.
But God adds one additional piece to this mystical experience of holiness: a very practical piece of advice. “This is my son. Listen to him.” That's the most important part of the entire experience—that closing line. “Listen to him.” In other words, there is another way, beyond your imagining, and Jesus is showing you what that way is. It is risky, it is messy, it is a way of sacrifice and loss, but it is the highest way of being. If you try to defend him from it, me from it, yourself from, you will never experience what it can do. So, it’s time to for you to walk back down this mountain, and when you do, know that you are going to follow that way, and you're going to listen to him.
The question for us now is what’s the point of our religion? As we head back down the mountain, what is the way that we follow? Is the point of religion to save ourselves, to get our own way and to win at life? Or is the point of our religion to serve and save others, to give our best to the world, and ultimately to sacrifice everything for what we believe is most important? You cannot protect yourself, you cannot protect your worldview, and you cannot protect God if your call from Jesus Christ is to pick up your cross and to follow him. They don't go together. You cannot have your way and the way of the cross. You can't save yourself and lose yourself for Jesus’ sake. Our calling is the way of the cross. We can't protect Jesus if who Jesus is is someone who has rejected protection—rejected it in order to serve and save the world. And if we believe that God needs to be protected from evil, then we cannot possibly believe that God is greater than evil.
How do we apply this to our own lives and our own spiritual journeys? I think gently and slowly. It is a very difficult teaching, the way of the cross—that we are called to sacrifice our way for the best of others. And I think it is best to practice it in small doses and just to be aware of when we are trying to protect God for our own sakes, even though we believe it's maybe for God's sake. The way that we do this sometimes in church is we get very concerned about the way that the church is going to interact with the outside community. Who do we want to come in and who do we want to be represented here? What sort of events are appropriate or inappropriate for church? You know, these kinds of questions where we begin to think about appropriate and inappropriate. Is it appropriate to rent the church for a wedding or do we need to protect God from wedding rentals? These kinds of questions indicate we are thinking of values, which is good, but that we’re missing the biggest value of all—we’re here to serve a God who isn’t afraid of anything.
So, what do we need to protect God from? The reality is that we don't need to protect God from anything! So, we’re free instead to open the doors wide and to call people into relationship with God. And we can trust that God (who we believe literally died for these all these people) can handle whatever else they're going to bring with them. And the good news for all of us who sometimes feel like Peter felt is that means that God can handle anything that we bring to God. God can handle our pasts, our struggles, our mistakes. God can take us to the mountaintop and show us the way because God is the one who is protecting us.
So frequently when I preach to you especially with from a dense piece of scripture, like the one that we have just been given (there is a lot in there!) I will pick one little tiny thing and I'll try and say a whole lot about one little tiny thing. And this Sunday I'm going to do something different. I'm going to try and say a little bit about a whole lot of different things and do a teaching sermon and attempt to do it quickly so that we can get onto our annual meeting at the end of the service. And this morning, I want to start with divorce.
I don't think this is something that I've preached about before, and it wasn't what I wanted to preach about this Sunday, but there it was in the text, and a number of you have come to me recently to tell me about how much pain and suffering you have been through in the church tradition of your origin in connection with your divorce—that it alienated you from God and from your from your own spiritual life and it drove you from the church because you were just trying to make the very best decision that you could make for yourself, for your children, and for your spouse. And you were rejected and told that you were doing the wrong thing.
This morning you may not have noticed that Jesus was teaching about divorce, and that is because I changed the translation. If you look in your bulletin, next to where it says Matthew chapter five, verses 21 through 37, it says, N R S V U E, new revised standard version, updated edition. And then there's a little “alt.” That's because Pastor Jeff updated the translation. The original translation from the NRSVUE says this:
It was also said, whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorce, woman commits adultery.
This is a terrible translation. It is really just about the worst translation that I could imagine of these words. Now, the NRSV is trying to do something. It's trying to update the language into language that we understand. But when you do that, you miss out on a whole lot of important context. And the important context here is that in Jesus' day and culture, divorce, as we understand it, did not exist.
Divorce as we understand it is that there are two parties who can initiate divorce. Either spouse can initiate it. There is a legal proceeding to make sure that that divorce is fair and equitable to both sides. Now, we can say it's not always fair and equitable to both sides, but that is the intention. And a lot has been put into that. That's not the way it worked in Jesus's day. In Jesus' day, divorce was not an option for women. They could not initiate a divorce. You were in a marriage, you were stuck in it, and divorce was an option for men. This is why divorce isn't even the right word. It was really more about abandoning your wife or dismissing her. There was a very healthy conversation and debate going on about when it was acceptable to dismiss your wife. And there was a position that was, in Jesus' day, a popular position that a man could dismiss his wife—it was like employment at will—for any reason or no reason at all. He could just dismiss her on a whim and then she would be out of the family, out of the household. She wouldn't have a place to live. She would have no money to support her. Culturally, she wasn't allowed to have a job. So she often fell into a life of ill repute as a prostitute. And it was a very difficult life. Jesus is not forbidding divorce as we understand it. He is forbidding the practice of abandoning your wife in order to marry another woman. Frequently, this was because your wife was unable to conceive a child, so you would dismiss her and then you would marry another wife so that you could have children and your abandoned wife lived a very difficult life of poverty at the margins. This is what Jesus is concerned with. It is a social justice issue. He is concerned with women who have been abandoned, and he is forbidding that practice. He is not forbidding divorce as we understand it.
And just imagine the irony here of how many abused women throughout history, Christian history, have been told that they needed to remain in their marriages because it's what Jesus wants them to do—that they need to remain in their marriage and bear their cross in this abusive relationship and pray that their husband can change and try to be a gentling influence on him. And how many women have died and how many children have died because of that advice out of the idea that Jesus cares more about holding a marriage together than about women, when in fact Jesus cares more about abused women than the cultural practices around marriage in his day? I think that's very important to note here.
And you know you may be a divorced person and you're not proud of your divorce and you think it was a mistake, and that's also okay. That is a good sign that God is with you, moving along with you trying to help you to grow, to become a more committed person, to grow past some of the deficiencies that may have caused your marriage to fail. We are all on a journey. We are all growing. I am growing. And that is an okay way to feel about your own divorce. It's not an okay way to think about other people's divorces because God tells us, Jesus tells us we should not judge others. Which brings me to the beginning of our scripture reading in which Jesus says, Hey, you all know you're not supposed to murder, but let me tell you, if you even call somebody a fool, a fool, you are liable to the fires of hell.
Woo. That's a tough one. That is harsh. That's a lot to deal with. And I think here we have to also, again, think about the context. Is the problem that Jesus overheard somebody talking about their idiot neighbor under their breath, oh, that fool. And Jesus came over and said, “Hey, you know, you could go to hell for that. I don't like that kind of thing.” Is it that Jesus is saying that, hey, you know if you're going to be mad at somebody, you might as well just go all the way and murder them because it's basically the same thing, same punishment at the end. Just go ahead and murder them and then try and get rid of the body because it's equivalent. Contextually, that doesn't make sense.
Jesus isn't saying that being angry with someone or calling someone a fool is as bad as murder. That is not the point here. What Jesus is doing (what he always does) is he's arresting us with shocking language and trying to bump our minds out of the way that they're accustomed to thinking. I believe if you look at Jesus' entire corpus of teaching through the gospels, one of the things that he's most concerned with is not being a hypocrite and not judging other people. So Jesus says to us, “Hey, it's easy to think horrible things about murderers, sure, but remember, you're no better than them. They're just a person just like you. You've had the very same thoughts in your heart and your mind, the thoughts that can lead to anger, and the anger which leads to resentment, and the resentment that leads to violence, and the violence that leads to murder. Those seeds are in you too. You're no different than them. Maybe you haven't murdered anyone, and maybe that's because you had advantages that this person didn't have. Maybe it's because you just got lucky. Maybe it's because you didn't go through what they went through. But don't judge other people for the mistakes that they have made. And be honest about the fact that the very seeds of the acts that they committed may also well exist in you. Don't judge other people.”
When we turn to Jesus's teaching on adultery, also a very hard teaching in that it seems to convict all of us, I think that's also about being a hypocrite. But then Jesus moves on to this even more shocking teaching. If your eye offends you cast it out. It's better to throw your eye away than to go into to hell with two eyes. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It's better to have only one hand than to live with two hands and end up in hell.
It's very important that Jesus is not being literal here. And we know that Jesus is not being literal here because Jesus didn't go around plucking out people's eyes and cutting off their hands and feet, which is a very good thing to keep in mind. Jesus went around healing people and never once ever did he ever pluck out anybody's anything or chop off anybody's anything. Throughout history, the church has interpreted this as being symbolic, striking, shocking language to bump us out of the way that we think and to help us to understand that casting sin out of our life can feel as difficult as chopping off a hand or plucking out an eye. And it can feel as hard to do, but that it is very important to do it. Which brings me to the fact that this Sunday is Racial Justice Sunday in the UCC.
And I have two points I'd like to make about Racial Justice Sunday. One is about reconciliation and the other is about representation. And if we look at the first paragraph of our scripture reading this morning, we see that Jesus says, Hey, if you're there at the altar giving your offering to God, and you remember that a neighbor has a good reason to be upset with you, or got something against you, leave the offering, go to your neighbor, reconcile. That is an incredible teaching. And we've heard it so many times, it seems mundane to us, but it is shocking. I have frequently preached from this pulpit that the most important teaching in Christianity is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. I think that this is the primary Christian teaching and the one that should be the focus of our attention as opposed to any other teaching.
For instance, Is Jesus Christ your personal Lord and Savior? I think that is an important question. I don't think it is the central question of Christianity because it puts us in this position where we believe that Jesus is teaching us that to get to God the most important thing is to go through Jesus to get to God. Now, the Gospel of John does teach that, but in the other gospels we see Jesus saying over and over and over again, Do you want to get to God? Go through your neighbor. The way you treat your neighbor and the way you live with your neighbor is how you get to God. And in fact, if you're having a problem with that and you'd prefer to deal with me than to deal with your neighbor, then think of your neighbor as me—to the point that when you say, Jesus, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? When were you in prison and we visited you? Well, when you did it for the very least of these, you did it to me.
There is no way in Christianity to get around living in right relationship with your neighbor and this scripture reading proves it because it tells that before you can be in right relationship with God, you have to be in right relationship to your neighbor. Thinking about this in terms of racial justice, if you love God, you have to love racial justice. And if you want to live in right relationship to God, you have to be working in some way towards racial justice. Now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and our children's book this morning said, Don't worry. This is very easy to do! Sharing and caring and loving and hugging and kissing <laugh> is all it takes. We adults know that it's not that easy, right? Thinking about how we address issues of racial justice in our congregation and in the community surrounding us and in our wider world is very difficult. And I would like to just offer one suggestion to think about in our church, and that's about representation. And I'm, I'm thinking especially about the art in our church.
Two years ago almost exactly, I preached about art in the church, and I specifically focused on the picture of Jesus welcoming in the children over to my left on the left hand side of the chancel and the reasons why I felt like that was a woefully inadequate representation of the Kingdom of God because it shows a white Jesus welcoming only white children. And that does not reflect the demographic realities of our church any longer. Nor has it ever reflected the theological ideals and values of the Christian tradition. And especially thinking about the fact that we have now people of color in our congregation and young children in our congregation who are people of color, let’s about what it says to them when they look at art in the sanctuary, sacred art that seems to only or predominantly depict white people. We do have a number of beautiful images of people of color on the stained glass in the back of the sanctuary over here of the Jesus Christ, Rex Mundi. It's lovely. I wish, I wish, and you don't always get everything you want, but boy, do I wish that Jesus wasn't the whitest person on that piece of stained glass. I wish that they had just gone one or two shades darker to more historically represent the fact that Jesus probably was not the whitest person in the world and probably wouldn't have been considered a white person at all if we were to see him today. And it would also have given the people of color in our congregation an opportunity to see themselves and their own depiction in the image of God, which is very important, rather than, again, seeing whiteness as the only proper image of God.
I was reading an article about transracial adoption this week, and there's a woman named Angela Tucker who was adopted out of foster care. She's a black woman, adopted out of foster care into a white family, and now she's an advocate for adoption. And this is what she said about this topic:
“Similarly Angela Tucker recalls how her mom spent days trying to track down black cabbage patch dolls in the 1980s. Not just for me, but for all of my siblings. She wanted all of her kids to understand that blackness is not like second class citizenry Tucker says. I think that's really deep messaging that gets programmed unless you have parents that are calling out. Tucker says, having black artwork on the walls also matters if your house doesn't feature any art with black or brown people. You're communicating to this child that they don't have a space here. She explains. Burkey grew up in a home where her parents listened to black artists and read children's books written by black authors to her and her siblings. They were, they were signs like, you belong here. She says They didn't go unnoticed.”
And maybe in 2023 and thinking about representation and racial justice in our congregation, I think there is room. I don't think any art has been added to this sanctuary in 50, 60 years, and maybe it's time that we thought of a way of representing in 2023 and the years ahead the changing demographics of our congregation, the way we think about the image of God, and what our values are as a church that wants to live in right relationship to God and to all our neighbors.
It's strange to read about the salt and the light this morning. Jesus tells us you are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its saltiness, what good is it? It's thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world, but no one lights a lamp and hides it under a bushel basket…
Salt losing its saltiness. Well, that just seems impossible. It's never happened to us. We've never gone to put salt on our food and discovered that it wasn't really salt and that it didn't have any flavor left. It seems impossible. And lighting a lamp and putting it under a bushel basket, well, that just seems like a joke as my three-year-old son, Romey, would say, you would have to be a dum-dum to do that. So it's not something we worry about. It just seems comical, improbable. It just seems like it must be easy to be the salt and the light. But I think that misses Jesus' point and his humor.
I think what Jesus wants us to take away from this—and he's poking at us; he's poking us in the ribs—he's saying, you know it's impossible for salt to lose its saltiness, but with human beings, it's a different story. It's ridiculous to light a lamp and to hide it under a bushel basket, but with us, with people, oh, it's all too common. It should be impossible. It should be ridiculous. And yet we still manage to do it, don't we? And we've all seen it, right? Just when moral clarity is most needed in our time and in our culture, that is the moment when we and those we have elected and lifted up to lead us, begin to equivocate, swirly talk, both sides, what about, losing focus. It's just when action is required most in our world, when it's most critical, when those who are oppressed and excluded are feeling the most pain and they need us most, that's when we lose our nerve. We go into hiding. We say, well, of course, I agree on principle, but I don't want to put that sign up on my lawn. I'm not going to wave that flag. I'm not going to go to that protest or to that demonstration. It just doesn't seem safe. It doesn't seem right. It doesn't seem prudent. What would my neighbors think of me? Suddenly, all the justice and the righteousness of the Bible and the values that we uphold gets replaced by these more mundane and very human and very practical concerns (and I don't mean to dismiss them entirely): Finances, safety, unity, politeness, propriety—they take precedence in our minds.
And I think that that is what Jesus is warning us about here in the second half of the Sermon on the Mount. We started on the first half of the Sermon on the Mount last week. And I was speaking to you about the rise of Christian Nationalism in our culture and in our country. And we also spoke about the book challenges at the Glen Ridge Public Library and Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans and becoming vocal supporters of that movement ourselves in town. And we discussed that tolerance is at minimum what is required of our faith because Jesus asks us—commands us—to love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. And that means, at a minimum, at a bare minimum, you have to tolerate people who are different than you, which is pretty much the definition, according to Jesus, of what a neighbor is—somebody who's different than you.
What we didn't know at the time that I was preaching that sermon is that very morning the staff and the congregation of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield had showed up for religious education on Sunday morning and found the remains of a Molotov cocktail smashed on their front door. Someone had tried to fire bomb the synagogue. Surveillance footage showed a man with a mask on and with gloves on, approached the front of the synagogue in the night and light the Molotov cocktail and threw it at the front door of the synagogue in attempt to burn the synagogue down—an antisemitic arson. And then he ran away.
What we didn't know is how would Temple Ner Tamid react to such an act of hatred and antisemitism aimed at them, targeted at them. How would they handle it? What would they do? What we didn't know is the way that Temple Ner Tamid would handle that experience would be, I think, the epitome of what Jesus is asking us to do when Jesus asks us to be salty and bright and bold when it matters most.
First, I just want you to imagine what it must have felt like this week to be a congregant of Temple Ner Tamid, or to be a Jewish person living in Glen Ridge or Montclair or Bloomfield or anywhere in Essex County who are especially feeling this attack on them. Can you imagine how afraid they must have been? Just imagine that somebody tried to commit an arson here at the church.
Imagine what your mind would do. And I know what my mind would do. I would say, well, well, well, what did we do? What did we do wrong? Is it because we made ourselves a target? We stood up too tall? We spoke too loudly? Is it because of that sign we put up on the lawn that says Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans? Is it because of some bold stand that we took on another issue? What was it that we did? How did we make ourselves a target? Are they going to come back? Are they going to get us again? What can we do to protect ourselves?
And I can imagine within myself a desire, and I've been through this before, to withdraw. I remember back in, oh, Lord, it must have been 2015 sometime, I think. We began at the church that I was serving in Somerville to get death threats and arson threats against the church. And I went on to my online presence, and I just started taking things down, taking things down, taking things down. I was terrified that somebody was going to find out where I lived, where Bonnie lived, that she was connected to me. Somehow I started to strip all that stuff away out of a fear that that violence was going to come and get me again.
You can imagine what it would've felt like, the desire that you would've had, that I would've had to roll up the welcome mat, to bolt the doors from the inside to pull down the shades, to turn off the lights and just to lay low. But that's not what Temple Ner Tamid did. Instead, they planned for Thursday night a rally. They knew that lot of people in the area were going to come out to support them, but they decided to double down. Not only were they going to stand up and be loud and visible at a time when their fear and anxiety was telling them to hide, but they were going to be bold about stating who they were, what they stood for, and what they would absolutely not stand for. And they had just a stroke of spiritual genius about how this rally should go. That while they were under attack, an anti-Semitic attack by somebody who hated them, in a time when antisemitic attacks are on the rise in this country, they decided that the issue was bigger than them—that it wasn't just about them, and that they were going to invite their friends and allies who were also feeling under attack in these times. And they said, we've had so many mass shootings lately. There's been Tyre Nichols beating death on the street, that we all saw the video of—police killings. There's been attacks against the LGBTQ community locally and nationally going on. There is so much to mourn and there is so much hate. And we're not going to focus just on the hate that is affecting us. We're going to bring everybody together and we're going to double down, and we're going to say exactly what it is that we stand for at a time when they must have felt that doing that was going to just paint a bigger target on their back. But that is who they are.
And as Jews, as people of faith, that is what they were called to do. And so at the rally that I went to on Thursday night, and this is a beautiful truth, one man decided to throw a Molotov cocktail at Temple Ner Tamid on Thursday night. We had more than a thousand people show up to that rally to show their support. It was standing room only, people were outside on the lawn. There were all kinds of elected officials. And there were Jews, Christians, Muslims, from all over Essex County and beyond. It was a really beautiful show of support. But also there was a speaker, Ruth Roe from Asian American Pacific Islanders, Montclair, speaking about the struggles of their community. There was Roger Terry, who is from the NAACP president of Montclair, speaking about the struggles of Black people and African Americans in this country and beyond. There was Mary Valentine, who is one of the founders of Bloomfield Pride, speaking about how the synagogue had always supported them and the struggles that they are also continuing to go through. And there was Amy Tores from New Jersey Immigrant Justice, speaking about attacks against immigrants and legislation against immigrants and what it means to them.
At a time when they must have been feeling like they had stood up too much, been too bold, and been too bright, and that they just needed to withdraw a little bit, Temple Ner Tamid said, No, we're going to stand up. And while the national spotlight is on us, we are going to declare exactly who it is that we are, exactly what our values are, exactly what we believe, who we stand with and who we are. And we know that there are going to be people out there who don't like it, but we are going to be bright. We're going to let our light shine in front of us in this moment. And it was an absolute triumph, a stroke of spiritual genius in a time when they were under attack. They put their friends and allies ahead of them and said, this is bigger than us.
This is about us too. It can be hard as a Christian sometimes to define exactly what it is that we stand for, and sometimes it can be even harder to say what it is that we won't stand for. It can be intimidating to make bold and public claims about what we believe and what our values are, but that is exactly what Jesus is asking us to do. And he's not asking us to do it only when it's easy. He's asking us to do it even when it feels hard. He's asking us to let our light shine in front of us to be clear—not even bright—clear, unequivocal about who we are, what we believe, what we stand for. We don't have to be the boldest flavor on the block, but when people get a taste of us, they should taste that salt. It's there. You know who we are.
I am deeply concerned by the growing lack of tolerance in American culture. By tolerance, I mean the willingness to accept and respect behaviors, beliefs, and opinions that are different than our own. This sort of liberalism is a virtue in decline on both the right and the left and now more and more social and political capital comes from owning the libs, cancel culture, identity politics, and all kinds of fabricated rage.
Why am I concerned with that? Well, tolerance is essential for a healthy and functioning democracy. Extreme ideologies from the far left and the far right are moving toward the center and taking over our political and cultural dialogue. It’s no good on either side. I happen to personally think the worst of it is on the right. You may disagree. I believe that our democracy can survive the left’s elitism and cancel culture and that eventually we will all get sick of the sanctimony and we’ll correct course. I think the conspiracy theories, the appetite for totalitarianism, and the attacks on institutions, norms, elections, and democracy on the right is a much greater threat. But whoever has the worst of it, I want extreme views and beliefs and lack of tolerance to stay at the margins where they belong.
One of the extreme views that has been with us a long time but is having a resurgence and is creeping more and more into the mainstream is called “Christian Nationalism.” You’ve probably heard it talked about on the news, depending on where you get your news. Christian Nationalism is a distortion of our religion, a modern-day heresy, used to back-up an extremist political agenda which asserts that America is a Christian nation, not just historically, but essentially, and that Christians (especially white, Anglo protestant Christian nationalists) should have a privileged position in defining both America’s heritage and future. Christian Nationalism is not some singular movement, and these folks have all kinds of big ideas, but all of them are terribly bad for our democracy and our nation and our Church.
Christian nationalists believe that the fact that we live in the most racially and religiously diverse nation in the world and that our democracy is a pluralist democracy where all people and all ideas and opinions are allowed to compete for votes is a bad thing. Many of them want a nation that is less diverse and they want a democracy that is less pluralistic, with greater power in their hands.
For those who may be feeling confused at this point, it’s important to remember that none of this political agenda has anything to do with actual Christianity. This is not just un-American, it is anti-Christ. I believe that there could be no greater call for tolerance than Jesus’ command to us that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that we even pray for our enemies. Christian faith has always been about spreading he good news, but it can never be about dominating those who live, think, or believe differently than we do. Domination and oppression is not love. Unfortunately, too often in Christian history we have justified attacking and dominating others with our faith and it is always wrong—from the Crusades, to antisemitism, to slavery in America, to trying to deny LGBTQ people the right to marriages and adoptions—it is always wrong.
Looking at our text for this morning we see even more. There is nothing in the ambitions of Christian Nationalists that is congruent with Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Jesus wants us to be defined by meekness, by mercy, by peacemaking, by poverty of spirit, not by the ambition to dominate our neighbors or the political power of our nation. You cannot make the Christianization of your country through political means your goal and truly be a Christian. This is an essential betrayal of fundamental Christian orthodoxy, not to mention a betrayal of the Constitution of the United States.
But, also, let’s look at how Jesus relates to us. The sermon on the mount is so powerful because in it, Jesus looks into the depths of our humanity, into the depths of our human frailty, vulnerability, and suffering and he says that this is what defines us, this is what connects us, and this is what blesses us. We are not blessed because we are Christians, or right believers, or because we’re saved, we’re blessed because God in God’s goodness loves us all. And God’s compassion for us is so great that God’s blessing comes first to those who are last. Jesus concludes by saying it is his followers who will be persecuted for following his religion of love, not that Christians should try to persecute those they’re in conflict or disagreement with.
Christian nationalism is not Christianity and is not patriotic. Christian faith far from calling us to take power over others, asks us love, serve, and (at a bare minimum) tolerate others and make room for their humanity. The sermon on the mount isn’t a moral scold. It’s a call to human connection through the vulnerabilities that we all share no matter what else may separate us.
You may have heard if you live in Glen Ridge about the “so-called” book ban at the library in which eight individuals representing “Citizens Defending Education” have challenged six books with LGBTQ and sex-ed themes written for children and young adults. They want these books removed from the shelves. After some discussion with church council, we have decided to support the Glen Ridge Public Library through this ordeal and have put up a Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans sign on the church lawn.
Now because we’re a sensitive and loving crowd this may make some of us a little uncomfortable. What about those eight people who want to remove the books from the library? Shouldn’t we be tolerant of them. Yes! Absolutely. More than that we should love them. Tolerance requires us to be tolerant of all people. But tolerance also requires us to stand up against intolerant ideas, words, actions, and agendas. Tolerance cannot be achieved by silence in the face of intolerance. We have to make a stand.
We want all of Glen Ridge to know that we support them as they fight back against this book challenge and we want the town to know what our Church believes—that loving people who think, act, and believe differently than we do (in other words, our neighbors) is our religion. And love requires us, as the sermon on the mount shows us, to prioritize people who are suffering the most. God is not calling us to meddle with LGBTQ books in the library. God is calling us to love our LGBTQ neighbors at all times and especially when they are feeling under attack.
And God is calling us always at a bare minimum to tolerance. And what could be more tolerant than reading a book? Let me close by quoting to you from a paragraph of a letter that I and more than 20 other clergy people from Glen Ridge, Montclair, and Bloomfield sent to our library in support of their decision to keep these books on the shelves:
“Free speech matters to us, in part, because it is the bedrock on which religious freedom is built. Too many of our traditions have faced censorship. Hatred is a habit. The more groups are silenced, the easier it gets to continue to do so. Book banning is a slippery slope. Once any idea is stifled, it becomes more acceptable to attack every idea. And without the understanding that comes with reading, the unfamiliar will always feel other. Enmity blooms in the unknown.”
Beloved, silence is unacceptable. So, let us proclaim our Christian faith: God is calling us to know one another, to love one another, and to serve our community. And that takes, at a minimum, a healthy tolerance for difference and a bold voice of solidarity and support for those experiencing intolerance.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations