The Reason vs. the Way
Well, I thought that I knew that I would be preaching on one of my favorite topics this morning. Jesus' love of disrupting the status quo for the gospel and the difficulties that we have with feeling good about the results of these disruptions to our world. But then on Tuesday night, here at the church, thanks to Tatsuo and Emiko Homa, we had a showing of the powerful documentary, The Vow from Hiroshima, the story of the life and work of Setsuko Thurlow who survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima at 13-years old. Listening to Setsuko's story and the horrors of what happened to her, an innocent 13-year-old girl, to her friends and her teachers, to her neighbors and her family when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, shifted my thinking this week. The disciples’ opening question to Jesus at the beginning of our scripture reading this morning, it began to stand out to me: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
And I began to hear it, not just as a judgmental question about sin, not just as a question biased against disability, but as a version of one of the human race's oldest questions. Why do bad things happen? You know, if God is an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving God, what is the justification for disaster and suffering and evil? How can an innocent baby be born blind if God is good? How could innocent babies be incinerated at Hiroshima? If God is good, why the Holocaust? Why 9/11? Why COVID-19? Why the earthquake in Turkey and Syria?
Scripture has a number of different perspectives on this question. And all of them, I think, ultimately leave us a little dissatisfied. Perhaps, back in the furthest reaches of human history, the gods were seen as a bit capricious. So the gods would do all kinds of strange and unexpected things, and sometimes it was good for us and sometimes it was bad for us. That was just the way things worked. The gods were chaos, and sometimes terrible things happened, and sometimes good things happened. When we get into the oldest layers of Hebrew scripture, we have a slightly different perspective. In that perspective, God is the one who rewards the good, and God is the one who punishes the bad. And by extension, if you are suffering, if something horrible has happened to you, you must be being punished for something. You've caused it in some way. You've brought it upon yourself. You might not know what it is, but you can be sure that you have offended God in some way. But then in those same Hebrew scriptures, there is the story of Job. And Job's story, and is a direct repudiation of this whole way of seeing things. Job is a blameless person who suffers more than anyone could ever be expected to suffer. Everyone tells him, Well, you must have done something wrong! And he is sure that he did not. And he holds the line and says, I did not sin. I didn't do anything to deserve this. I don't know why I am suffering. And in the end, after all that enduring of suffering, he calls God down and says, God, you are going to make an explanation to me of why there is suffering. And God comes out of the whirlwind and God says, Look, I could explain it to you, but you wouldn't be able to understand it. So just be quiet and endure. That is your job. It’s not my job to explain things to you that are beyond your capacity. It is your job to be mortal, to endure, to do your best to survive. So it is no longer the case, according to Job, that if you suffer, it's because of sin, but it also doesn't provide an ultimate answer for why there is suffering and evil and pain in the world, which is very dissatisfying in some ways, isn't it? So, there are further developments and explanations. One of the developments (it's also there in Job) is that, well, there must be a good God and a bad God, right? And they're in a battle, a cosmic battle for the world. And there's good and evil because of this battle, and we have to choose sides. But as you get into the theology of the Hebrew scriptures in the New Testament, well, God is all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, there is only one God. And so, even though we have a character in Christianity called Satan, who we like to blame a lot of the bad things in the world on, ultimately, since God is all-powerful and all-good, God could presumably stop Satan from doing the bad things. God could stop an Satan-inspired earthquake the same way God could stop a purely tectonic earthquake. And so when God becomes omnipotent, it becomes very difficult to understand how bad things are allowed to happen, especially to the most innocent of people.
And in our culture and in our day and age, we understand deeply that terrible things happen to people who do not deserve it. There have been so many cultural moments through the 20th century and into the 21st century of just horrible, terrible suffering that has rocked the foundations of our entire culture's belief in goodness and belief in meaning and belief in God—the Holocaust, as one example of the kinds of events that have rocked us culturally and spiritually so that we can't get around them. We can't avoid them. We can't stop looking at them.
In Setsuko's story from the Vow from Hiroshima, most of the children and teachers at her Christian girls school in Hiroshima were buried in rubble. They were at school when the atomic bomb went off and they were buried in rubble. Then the rubble began to burn. Setsuko made it out just by chance—somebody was able to free her from the rubble—and she stood outside her school listening to her friends and classmates buried in the rubble crying out to God for help and calling to their mothers to save them while they burned alive.
And she had a nephew, a four-year-old nephew who was with his mother near the city center when the atomic bomb went off. And this four-year-old boy and his mother were so disfigured by burns and radiation, and their flesh was so swollen and sort of melting off of them, that the family could not recognize them except by the sound of their voices and the clothing and jewelry that they were wearing. Both mother and child spent days in agony begging for water, unable to see or hear or understand what had happened to them—days in agony before dying horrific deaths.
And we understand that this is just a drop in the bucket of what happened at Hiroshima. And what happened at Hiroshima is just a drop in the bucket of the pain and the suffering that we can see experienced in this world, right? And so for many kind, loving, and reasonable people, this reality undermines their faith in God. How can I believe in an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving God who allows such things to happen? At the very least, it would seem like maybe a good reason not to want to get very close to a God like that, a God who can allow something like that to happen when we ourselves can't understand it morally. We can't understand it in terms of the compassion and the love that we feel.
Going back to Setsuko's story, Setsuko, I think, became a deep mourner of the loss and the pain that happened at Hiroshima to all those people that she loved. She is a Christian, and she told us in the film that it was her Christian faith that really became the guidepost to her, the way to understand how she would become the person that she would become. And the person she became was not just a survivor, but a lifelong, totally committed and dedicated activist and reformer against nuclear war, nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, and the Cold War. Her tendency, no, her spiritual instinct was not to look backward at the tragedy and to get stuck there and to ask why, and to become mired in anger, not that, that we could blame her if she did do that. This is not a, this is not judgment against anyone who is mourning, right, but Setsuko allowed herself not to lose faith, but to move forward in service. She never let go of what happened. She carried that mourning with her all through her life, but that mourning did not become the question WHY? It became a response. What must I do now?
And maybe at this point, thinking about her life, we're ready to hear Jesus' answer to the disciples’ question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind, so that God's works might be revealed in him.” At one level, we can see obviously here that Jesus is agreeing with the Book of Job: It is not your sin or your offense that is causing you your suffering. You are not being punished. Let's not look that way. But even more than that, it seems to be (and I got at this through Setsuko's story) that Jesus' major answer to the question of who sinned was to say, let's not look back to the original sin that caused all this. Let's not look back towards the answer for why things are the way that they are. Instead, let's look forward, let's move forward. And I'll just rephrase these words a little bit and maybe let you hear them in a different way, thinking about Setsuko’s story: Neither Setsuko Thurlow nor her nation sinned that the atomic bomb was dropped on her. She suffered so that God's works might be revealed in her.
And in fact, God's works were revealed in Setsuko and her lifelong advocacy and work to stop nuclear weapons. In 2017, she was there and a major part of the organization, ICAN who lobbied in the UN to make sure that the UN's ban on nuclear weapons was passed in 2017, so that in international law, now nuclear weapons are illegal. We know that that has not made a big change in the world that we live in, but it is a major step for us as a world that nations around the world have said that these weapons are not acceptable to us. And also then in 2017, when ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize, she was one of the people who accepted that prize, and she stood on stage and told her life story again and accepted the prize because ICAN recognized that she was the driving force of this. And she recognized that it was her Christian faith that was the driving force of the work that she had done for her people, for her family, and for everyone she had lost.
God will never be revealed, God will never be revealed by trying to defend God or to blame God for the brokenness in this world, looking back and trying to find explanations is not the right direction. God is revealed when we respond to the brokenness of this world with deep mourning, and from that mourning, with service, with love, and with compassion for all of God's people, then God's works are revealed. Jesus said, blessed are those who mourn because I think that they, the mourners, are the only ones who truly know, truly understand the work that must be revealed, the work that must be done, how big it is, how important it is, and how devastatingly real the consequences of getting stuck and not acting for the betterment of this world truly are.
So if you are a person who is filled with doubts about God, because you can't stop mourning for all of the souls that God didn't save, perhaps you too are blessed. I believe that you are almost certainly on the right path, and I encourage you to keep going. You know, one answer on this path is that there is no God. There is no ultimate good. There is no greatest love. There is no spirit that transforms lives. But I believe that that answer, that answer will never satisfy you, move you, inspire you as deeply as becoming an instrument of God's peace, and God's healing, and God's love.
In a world that is broken beyond our comprehension or understanding, suffering cannot be explained away. It can only be responded to. There is no answer to the question of why the Holocaust, or why the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, why suffering because, perhaps, it is in wrestling with those very questions that God transforms us into the people who can feel the world's deep pain and who can respond with love.
Last week as we were speaking about what it means to be born again, we started talking a little bit about what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I want to explore that question with you all this morning a little bit more using Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well as an illustration of the kind of relationship that I believe Jesus is looking for with us.
The first thing, and the most obvious thing that we can say about Jesus's interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well is that Jesus initiates relationships with people that even his closest followers don't understand or approve of. Jesus initiates relationships with people that even—or maybe we might want to say, especially his closest followers—do not understand or approve of. Jesus was interacting with a woman who was a Samaritan. She can't believe it herself that this guy wants to talk to her. She corrects him. She says, don't you know this is socially unacceptable? I'm a woman by myself at a well at about noon. You're a man sitting all by yourself. And let's not even talk about the fact that you're a Jew and I'm a Samaritan. And what would a Jew want with a Samaritan? Jesus is crossing boundaries here, social and religious boundaries, gender boundaries that make his culture (and maybe even to a certain extent our culture and maybe even the Samaritan woman herself) a little bit uncomfortable. Now, we live in a very different world than Jesus lived in and I'm assuming most likely (though this isn't true in all places in the world, but of those of us here in this sanctuary) you probably don't have a problem with men speaking to women in public places alone, unaccompanied. You probably don't have a problem with that. You probably don't have any strong feelings one way or the other about Samaritans because there are not very many of them left. You've probably never even met one.
So, I think it's important for us to question for ourselves, what is our version of Jesus's interaction with the Samaritan woman? What is your version of this? Who is the person that you feel like, oh Jesus, no, no, no, no, no. Not my Jesus. Not my Jesus. My Jesus would not go there. My Jesus would not talk to that person. My Jesus has nothing but condemnation and judgment for a person like that. Or my Jesus would stay as far away from someone like that as possible. It just wouldn't be appropriate. It wouldn't be religiously appropriate. It wouldn't be socially appropriate. It's just not right.
Now, we can imagine all kinds of people who this might be for ourselves or for others. We can imagine it might be somebody who's way, way out on the left. It might be someone who's way, way out on the right. It might be someone who is very, very different from us. They may come from a different culture, a different country, they may have a different color skin. Or it may be someone who is exactly like us, and that's what we can't stand. But whoever it is, we all have our version of somebody that we believe that Jesus would want nothing to do with because of who they are or because of the inappropriateness of the situation. And so I want you to, just for a moment, imagine that person for yourself. The person that you believe should be the person that Jesus is the furthest away from in this world because of who they are, because of what they do or do not believe, because of the ways in which they behave. The person that you believe is the furthest away from Jesus.
And I think that Jesus's interaction with the woman at the well tells us that that person who we believe in our hearts must be the furthest from Jesus, who knows nothing of Jesus, who Jesus wouldn't want anything to do with, somewhere, somehow Jesus is at the well with that person trying to build a relationship based in spirit and truth. Jesus builds relationships with people that even, or maybe especially his closest followers, do not understand or approve of. And so when we find ourselves not understanding, not approving, it's best to remember that that's Jesus's way.
It's also important to remember that as Jesus is building this relationship with the woman at the well, he's not berating her for some sort of sin or some sort of shortcoming. Because when we think about Jesus actually hanging out with someone we don't like, we might start to think, well, maybe that would be good because Jesus could tell them all the things that he doesn't like about them. And that would be the same things that I don’t like about them. And Jesus could tell them all the ways that they're wrong and Jesus could tell them to straighten up. But when we look at the Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, we don't see that at all. Jesus isn't talking to her about her sins or her shortcomings. We have a Christian interpretation has frequently tried to make it about that. So one of the ways that Jesus's interaction with this woman is explained is that she is some sort of a fallen woman. She's a prostitute. And the evidence for this, and that Jesus is talking to her about not being a prostitute anymore and coming away from a life of sin is that she's had five husbands and the one she's with now is not her husband. And Jesus tells her about this even though she's hiding it from Jesus. But that is not a strong indication of a life of prostitution. We talked about this a few weeks ago when we talked about divorce in Jesus's cultural context. Leaving your husband was not something that was socially or legally possible or religiously possible for women in Jesus' day. You could not just run through husbands and then leave a guy and just go find another husband because maybe he was better. In fact, what divorce looked like, if you want to call it divorce, was frequently the abandonment of women. And for a woman to have gone through five husbands—that would not have been her doing; it would've been an exceptional run of bad luck. Perhaps she was married to an older man at a young age. She was bereaved. Perhaps she became a widow, then she had to maybe move on to that man's brother or another man in the family. Perhaps she was found to be infertile. She couldn't produce children. And so that meant that a husband or two decided to abandon her, dismiss her, and leave her without any sort of support. And now word has gotten around perhaps that she's bad luck or that she's infertile. So she has no means to support herself. And she's forced to live with a man who will not offer her the protection of marriage, but is willing to support her as long as she lives with him. This is not something that she has done wrong, and it's not a sign of prostitution. Jesus is telling her, I understand what you have been through. I know what's going on. I understand your pain. I feel your pain. I recognize it. Jesus wants a full and personal relationship with the woman at the well. He doesn't want her to feel like she has to hide anything. And so he lets her know you can't hide anything. So, there's no reason to try. And there's not going to be any judgment from me (the way you have perhaps been judged by the rest of the world.)
Which leads us to living water—what is it? Jesus offers the woman at the well living water. Living water, which Jesus says will gush up to eternal life. This living water is an inner transformation. There is nothing that can be hidden. Everything is known because the process of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is taking place within you, not outside of you, where we have all of our other relationships with people and we can put on a mask and we can hide lots of things that we don't like about ourselves, right? We don't share that. We don't talk about that. We don't reveal that. We might be very, very close to somebody, but there is nobody who knows everything about you. There is nobody who knows everything about me. I have one or two little secrets, things that I'm ashamed of, things that bother me, things that I don't want to face, and I hide them. You cannot hide them from God.
Last week we talked about the process of being born again or born from above. The Holy Spirit comes and gets ya from the top to the bottom. And now Jesus makes a move here with the Samaritan woman. To Nicodemus he says, you have to be born from above—from the outside. And now Jesus is saying, you've looked to the spirit on the outside, and that's the way you've related to God. Now there's going to be living water on the inside flowing up, gushing up to eternal life. And so the way that we look to a relationship with God, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, is not a relationship on the outside. We don't look for God outside anymore. We don't look for God outside. We begin to turn within, not turning into myself, but turning into the gift that the Spirit has given me—that living water, which is gushing up to eternal life. In Protestantism, we have often thought about salvation as a prayer that I say, and then I get saved. Or it's a confession that I make, a confession of belief. Or maybe I get baptized. And then—skip to the very end—when I die, I go to heaven. That's salvation. But a relationship with Jesus cannot be reduced down to a particular prayer that is said at one particular time. A relationship with Jesus is not a set of beliefs that you have acquiesced to or are making a confession to. It's not even a sacrament. A relationship with Jesus is a total transformation of your life from the inside out. It's a transformation of your will, your purpose, your perspective, your identity. You are being transformed. There is living water inside of you. You don't drink from the outside anymore. And that spring that is in you is gushing up to eternal life. In other words, it is the process of transformation with the spirit, the process of transformation that starts right now, that is leading you to eternal life. It is not that you say the prayer, you get the eternal life, and then hey, maybe, hopefully there's a little bit of a change along the way. In the intervening decades, hopefully you begin to think of yourself a little bit differently, you give yourself to God and to your neighbors and love more deeply and fully. No, it is the transformation that leads to eternal life. That is the process. That's what's happening within us with the spirit.
So imagine that person who you think Jesus should be the furthest from. And think about the fact that when Jesus is in a relationship with them, it is not an external relationship of bringing them in line with what we believe they should be brought in line with. It is a relationship of Jesus flowing within them, knowing them, becoming a part of them, bubbling up in them, producing eternal life that can be shared and spread. It's on the inside.
And so that brings me to my final point of this week with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Samaritan woman's relationship with Jesus is not founded upon her knowledge of God. It is not founded upon her knowledge of God. She doesn't know anything. She doesn't know who Jesus is. She has no idea. She eventually comes around to realize that he's a prophet, maybe even the Messiah, but she doesn't know anything about him. And you know, Jesus seems to think that, as a Samaritan, she doesn't really know much about the right way of being properly religious towards God, which is the Jewish way of being religious towards God. But Jesus says, don't worry because we're coming to a new phase. We're coming to a phase where it's not your mountain and my mountain, and my way is right and your way is wrong. We're coming to a new phase where we will worship in spirit and in truth together.
And the Samaritan woman runs out to tell everyone back at home that she has maybe met the Messiah. And her evidence for this is not that she really knows anything about him. Her evidence of this and the foundation of her relationship is the fact that he told her everything about her. Her relationship with Jesus is not founded on what she knows about Jesus. It is founded on the fact that she is known by God. And now she knows that she is known by God. But so often in churches and especially in Protestant life (I know I've been dragging on Protestants lately, but it’s just the tradition I’m closest to and wrestling with most deeply) where it is that we get stuck is we think, well, I need to know something about God. I'm going to read my Bible. I'm going to go to Bible study. I'm going to listen very carefully to Pastor Jeff's sermon. I'm going to get books on theology and devotional books. And the point of these books is to get me knowledge of God. And as I know more about God, my relationship with God will grow. But Jesus flips this on its head with the Samaritan woman at the well. He says, it is not what you know about me. It is not what you know about God. It is not about having the correct dogma. It is not about worshiping on the right mountain. You could be a complete stranger to me. You might have never even heard my name before. But once you realize that I know you fully, the spring begins to bubble up.
There's nothing wrong with knowing a lot about God. And if we were to raise hands and to talk about who knows the most about God, I would certainly be near the top of the list. I've spent a lot of time reading books about God. A lot of time. There's nothing wrong with that. But if I spend all my time reading books about God and no time in the practice of remembering that I am known, then I'm going to be lost. I need to come back to prayer and meditation. I need to come back to a little bit of fasting maybe, and ritual, and spending time in God's presence, letting myself remember that God knows me, and then going out and telling people (in a sermon!) it's not what I know about God. It's what God knows about me. And God knows everything about me, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the painful. And God has redeemed it all. And there is a fountain, a spring of life coming alive within me and within you through the Holy Spirit that Christ has given us. So please spend a little time this lent turning within to the place that you find God in the midst of your life and beauty and pain. God is within you bubbling up to eternal life.
How many of you have ever heard of being born again? Show of hands. You've heard of being born again. Okay, most everybody has heard of being born again, and I'm going to be talking to you this morning about being born again. Now, you might be wondering why, and there is a little bit of an issue of a translation here, which I will briefly explain to you in our reading this morning. You hear Jesus and Nicodemus talking about being born from above. Well, there's a little bit of a trick to the Greek here that in Greek the way you said, “born again,” and the way you say “born from above” are the same way. You can say the same thing both ways. And so Jesus says, you need to be born from above. And Nicodemus hears him as saying, you need to be born again. And it's been translated both ways. Born again and born from above are both equally legitimate ways to translate this. And you can see in the text there's a little bit of confusion. Which do you mean from above? Or again?
Now you've all heard about being born again. How many people here have known somebody who was a born again Christian? Known somebody who's a born-again Christian? Okay, again, the majority of the room. How many people here consider themselves to be a born-again Christian? Show of hands. A smaller number of us. Now, here's a good question. If you do not consider yourself to be a born-again Christian, how many of you, even though you don't use that label, have felt like you have had a born again experience in your life? Is that a little bit different? Well, that's very interesting. So some more people are feeling like they can raise their hands for the born-again experience, but maybe not for the born again identity. And that's a little bit of what I want to get into you with this morning.
My thesis this morning is that perhaps the born-again identifier has become a little too strict and narrow in what it means in religion and politics since the 1960s and 1970s. And it's possible that some of us have been turned off by the idea of a born-again experience or of being born again from above, being born of the spirit because that identifier has become so narrow to mean only a certain kind of person, spiritually, religiously, and politically. And we don't feel like we identify with that. And so we say, well, then that whole experience is maybe not for me. And what I'd like to do this morning is maybe just begin to make a little bit more elbow room in what the born-again experience might be, so that we might be able to experience it for ourselves more comfortably without feeling like we necessarily need to be also adhering to a certain set of theological or political beliefs.
I should tell you my story, first of all to get us started. I grew up in a church that was similar to Glen Ridge Congregational Church in many ways. It was a non-denominational Union church that had people from all different backgrounds and nobody was particularly pious at the church I grew up in. It sort of had that mainline feeling to it. But the youth group that I went to growing up was a much more conservative youth group, an evangelical youth group. And it was a wonderful group of people, amazing leaders who really helped me develop my spirituality and understand what it meant to be a Christian and what it meant to have a Christian identity in ways that I didn't always get at my home church—although I got a lot of wonderful things from my home church as well.
And so one of the things that my youth group leaders really wanted for me when I was about the age of 15 or 16, is that they wanted me to have the born again experience because they wanted me to be saved. They cared about me so much they wanted to spend eternity with me, and they did not want me to get left behind. They wanted me up there when God came and took everyone off in the rapture. That is what they believed. They wanted me there. They cared about me that much. And they respected my process, my spiritual process. I was different in my questioning and my thinking than a lot of kids in the youth group. They respected that. They regarded me as an adult in a way, a young adult who could make his own decisions. But they really recommended this experience to me. And there was a good balance in it of guidance and personal choice.
But ultimately what they wanted me to do was to take about 15 minutes and sit down in one of the church's Sunday school classrooms by myself. And they wanted me to pray a particular prayer. And I remember what the prayer was because it was a prayer that was written by Billy Graham and it's the salvation prayer. And this is the prayer that I prayed: Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner and I ask your forgiveness. I believe you died from my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior in your name. Amen. And when I came out after praying that prayer, I felt different. I felt like I had been given a choice, and I had been allowed to make a commitment to something that was deeply important to me. It felt like a rite of passage in a culture where we don't have many rites of passage anymore. It felt like I walked out of that room a little bit more myself and a little bit more of an adult, someone who was on a path who had made a commitment. I knew now where I was and that I was choosing to make God a part of my life. And that was a very important thing for me. And it's something that I would recommend to anyone.
And I walked out of that room (I was told) saved! You did it. You are saved. And that is the point, I was told of what I did. You are now a saved person. So you're going up in the rapture. If you die, you're going to heaven. You are saved and everything’s taken care of. And the story that I was told is that most Protestants, Protestant Christians in mainline denominations who don't pray this prayer or a prayer similar to it, are not saved. And the vast, vast majority of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians are also not saved. Let's not even talk about people beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith, but they're not saved because they do not have this born again experience, this personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And that's where I've diverged in my thinking about what it means to be born again. Because you know, Nicodemus, when he goes to meet with Jesus, Jesus isn't asking him to get saved, right? Nicodemus said, “Hey, Jesus I'm getting a good vibe from you here. Everybody knows you're from God. We're seeing what you're doing. We see the signs. This is great.” And Jesus didn't say, “Well, don't worry, this is easy. Don't worry. You just say you're going to follow me, and then you're going to be saved forever, and that's all you need to worry about.” Instead, Jesus gives him all this mystery, not about praying a specific prayer to get saved, but about being born from above, being reborn in the Spirit. This is not as simple as a prayer. This is a total transformation. If Jesus had said to Nicodemus, “Well, pray this prayer. Go spend 15 minutes downstairs in the Sunday school room and pray this prayer and you're set,” I think Nicodemus probably would've done it and not had too many questions.
But that's not what Jesus tells Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “This is big. This is going to be a struggle. This is a transformation. This is about more than salvation.” I think that the born again experience, as many Protestants have interpreted it, it's very typically Protestant in that it takes something like salvation, which Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and much of the Christian tradition would explain through mystery and miracle. and makes it very digestible and transactional. You pray this prayer and you're saved. That's all you need to know. And you don't need to worry about anything in between. That's it. And that is also I think, where I've diverged a little bit in thinking about what it means to be born again. I don't think that Jesus was asking Nicodemus in this passage for some sort of intellectual consent or just a mere commitment to receive a label: You're a Christian now or you're saved now. You know, Nicodemus isn't stupid. If Jesus had just said, look if you want to be saved, you just have to pray this prayer, then Nicodemus would've done that! Nicodemus struggles so much with what Jesus is asking him because Jesus is asking Nicodemus to transform his life right here, right now! His whole life has got to change. Starting now, from above, top to bottom, you will be transformed! Not pray this prayer and in 20 years, when you die, you go off to heaven. “This is the total reordering of your life from top to bottom. You come to me and you say, you have seen? You do not know anything! You have seen nothing! You must be transformed before you can even say that you see. The utter and total transformation of our lives for Jesus Christ—that is what he is asking for.
Now, I think praying this prayer when I was 15 or 16 years old helped me with that. But I don't think it was the whole enchilada. I don't think that it was everything. And I think that this has become one of my core theological beliefs, which I will share with you now, is that in Christianity, salvation is relatively easy because it's about God's grace. And God is so ready to give everything to save us. But God is asking for more from us than to receive salvation. God is asking us for something very, very hard—the total transformation of our lives here and now, and to be ready for it, to be ready for it. And that is a mystery. And if we're going to do that, it's going to take a miracle way bigger than my commitment can sustain. It's a miracle.
I think that what Jesus is asking us here, and this wonderful phrase, “The wind blows where it chooses <laugh> and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Jesus is saying, if you want to be born again from the Spirit, you are no longer in charge. I think a good word to describe this would be the word inspiration. Jesus is asking us to lead an inspired life. Now, the word inspiration has perhaps become a little bit too spiritual and a little bit, you know, too much all over everybody's Pinterest boards and like hanging up in every yoga studio and “hashtag inspired.” But what inspiration really means—fundamentally means—is that I am not in charge. It is the wind that blows through me, the thing that is greater than I, that I am going to put first and that is going to lead my life. And for Christians, that's the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.
And I'll say one last thing because inspiration, if we're being pessimistic, we could say, well, you're just talking about hedonism. Just follow any old whim that comes along. Whatever feels good, whatever feels right to you is what must be right. And just do whatever feels good, and it doesn't matter about the consequences. But I think inspiration for a Christian means following in the way of Jesus Christ who came into this world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. And as we move through life, if we want to be born again, and we want to transform our lives, we want to allow that spirit to get us head to toe, we need to be motivated, not by our own desires, by our own strength, by our own thinking about what is right and what is wrong—what I want and what I'm gonna go get, what my desires are. We need to be motivated by the spirit that moves through us, that is moving us in the direction to be those who follow Christ by also saving the world, serving the world, becoming disciples of the one who saves, never ever to be disciples of the one who condemns. Because when we become disciples of the one who condemns, we are no longer disciples of Jesus Christ. We have to be disciples of the one who saves. Beloved this Lent, let a little bit more of your own ego go and feel the wind. Not I, as D. H. Lawrence said, but the wind that moves through me. And may that wind be, discern it to be, head to toe, the wind of love and service to this world and not of condemnation.
Temptations & Teachings
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.
Defending God from Other People
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.
Getting Past Failure (and Success)
2022 was the year of my midlife crisis. And it was a really wonderful experience. I wish that I could have done it like 10 years earlier, but I don't think that I could have—all things have to come in their own time. And it was a wonderful experience: I didn't buy a sports car. Not that I would mind having one. I didn't have an affair. No tummy tuck or other kind of plastic surgery or any kind of improvements like that. I made it through intact, which is a good thing. I think midlife crises get poked fun at a lot for being, you know, men trying to hold onto their masculinity and virility and deny the fact that they're going bald, and you know, dealing with the fact that they don't feel as cool and relevant as they used to.
But I don't think that's what a midlife crisis is about at all. One of my companions through this crisis was the poet Rilke who once wrote, you must not understand life. “You must not understand life, and then it will become a celebration.” Now, midlife crisis, I think, is about a shift in perspective: letting go of everything that you think you were supposed to know about life and letting life be just what it's supposed to be. There were a lot of lessons that I learned over the course of this experience, but the one I want to share with you this morning is that my midlife crisis helped me realize that I will no longer put all of my effort and energy into being a successful person. Instead, I'm just going to do my very best to be myself in whatever circumstances I happen to find myself in. Charles de Foucault (who was canonized as a saint last year in the midst of my midlife crisis) once said, “I want to preach the gospel with my life.” At the end of my midlife crisis, I hope that I can do something similar.
And we can't preach the gospel with our lives if we're expending all our resources on trying to be some sort of a big success. Because the experience of midlife, I am finding through work and through family commitments and through aging and through the disillusionment of our youth, it shows us definitively that life is not success. That's not what life is. Life is limitation. And that's okay. We cannot do it all. We cannot have it all. We must make choices. And success itself can be sort of like a drug or like an evil charm, right? It makes us feel really good temporarily, but it never really deeply satisfies us. It makes us seem cool and enviable to others. But beneath all that fame and esteem, there is often a spiritually ravaged soul, desperate for something more real. But whatever road you take to get there to that something more real, you are going to have to pass through the reality of failure.
And so, I guess I'm hoping that a little bit of my acceptance of myself as I am, the reality of failure, is going to rub off on other people, the people I pastor to, and the people I love. You do not need to be a success to be a part of this church. You do not need to be a success to be loved. You do not need to be a success to be called and loved by God. In fact, sometimes success just gets in the way with all of its competition and all of its pretensions. Far better than success, for the deep fulfillment of your soul, are things like honesty, right? Openness, vulnerability, availability to other people, and compassion. And these are traits and virtues that are best forged when we stumble, when we fall down, when we fail. That is when we deepen as human beings. When we succeed, we build walls around ourselves, narrow walls. But when we fail, we go deep. Why are we so afraid of failure? Why are we so turned off by limitation?
I think it's the fear of failure that causes us to define success so narrowly and so claustrophobically that success, even when we experience it, doesn't satisfy us. We're all convinced that we'll be happy once we're truly successful, instead of simply realizing just this basic and intuitive truth: Being happy in and of itself is a success! We've got it all backwards. And so we hold ourselves back from ourselves. We hold ourselves back from the world, and instead we try to project success. We want to look good. And we're not just trying to fool others. We're not just trying to fool ourselves. We're trying to fool life itself. And it never works. So, eventually, there's a crisis.
And with that, I turn to our text this morning. This is the second servant song from the prophet Isaiah. Traditionally, we Christians interpret this as being a prophecy of Christ. And as you read it, I think it's obvious why our Jewish friends and neighbors and loved ones continue to interpret the suffering servant to be Israel itself. And that's clear in the text. “And he said to me, you are my servant, Israel.” And the biblical scholars go even further back than that. And they say even “Israel” is added to the text later. And that this prophecy goes way back and was probably originally about some historical king or other personage that's sort of lost to us. And there's all these theories about who it is. None of that really matters, who specifically it is about, because it illustrates a theme within scripture—something that I think God is trying to highlight for us: This idea of somebody being called from the very beginning of their life. It's throughout the prophets. It's in the Psalms. “The Lord called me before I was born while I was in my mother's womb. He named me.” Right? This sense of destiny that we sometimes feel when we are young and energetic, that we have been called for great things. And we go out there and we try to seize it, make it all happen, make it all work. But then comes the crisis. “But I said, I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Spinning wheels. It's not working out. The great dreams that I had aren't all coming together in exactly the way that I thought they would.
But the servant allows himself to have the crisis and to turn to God and to say, “Hey, what is going on here? Why am I suffering? Why isn't this working?” And in that moment, that moment of crisis, God chooses to reframe the whole calling. And now listen to what God says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The original calling was too small, it was too focused on myself, on yourself, on what we wanted. And in the crisis, God shifts the perspective. Stop trying to understand life. Let life be a celebration. It's not just for you, it's for everyone. This is how God comes into the text to expand its boundaries in that moment of crisis.
So in my midlife crisis, I don't want, anymore, to succeed for myself. I don't want to succeed for my dreams, for my family, for my profession, or for my church. I do not want to succeed with or for anybody or anything. I do not want to succeed. I want to be myself and give of myself to everybody. I want to preach the gospel with my life to everyone I meet and interact with. I don't want to be a success. I just want to be somebody in your life. That's a bigger dream than I ever had before—to just be somebody who makes a difference in your life.
Holy Macaroni (and Other Mistakes)
In the early fourth century, the Roman Empire transitioned from being a pagan empire to being a Christian empire. And it did that mostly through the leadership of Emperor Constantine. He became the emperor of Rome very early on in the fourth century. I think it was like 304 CE, and then he converted to Christianity in 312 CE. And this is one of the biggest milestones in all of Christian religion. Our history after this point is completely different than it would've been if Constantine hadn't converted and if he hadn't transitioned the Roman Empire into being a Christian empire.
Even though he converted in 312 CE, Constantine was not baptized until 337 CE while he was lying on his deathbed. Isn't, that's strange? Why would he do that? Well, it seems that Emperor Constantine was under the impression that if baptism was for the washing away of sins, and you could only do it once, he had better save it for the very last possible moment in order that nothing might be missed. His fear was that if he did it too early, and then he committed some sins along the way (as we're all bound to do) that he might not properly repent for them. And after all his efforts of transitioning the whole empire to Christianity, he still may find himself in hell.
That's a pretty interesting perspective. Why then did I baptize my son, Felix, this morning at the opposite end of life, right there at the very beginning? If Constantine was right, why would we baptize babies? I remember very distinctly as a child, one of my best friend's fathers, my best friend asked him, “Dad, why did we go to church and why was I baptized and why do we do all this stuff?” And my friend's father said to him, “Well, I don't know if I really believe it all, but, you know, just in case, just in case!” And that is sometimes the answer we get when we ask, well, why do we baptize children as babies? Well, just in case, in case anything happens, we don't want them to be unbaptized and then be stuck in some sort of limbo or purgatory, or not be able to go onto heaven. So, just in case we'll do it nice and early.
I think that Constantine was wrong, and I think my friend's dad was wrong. I don't think that baptism is about how you die, the state you're in when you die. I think baptism is all about the way you live your life. And that's why I baptized my son right here at the very beginning of his life. Baptism, I don't think, is a ticket to heaven. I don't think everybody who's ever been baptized is going to make it all the way. And I don't think that those who haven't been baptized are hopelessly doomed. I believe that baptism is one specific form of God's amazing grace to imperfect people living imperfect lives in an imperfect world. And thank God for that.
I believe that being spiritually healthy means living a life where you are able to reflect on your own foibles and shortcomings and imperfections and mistakes, and to own them and to move forward and to try and do better. Yeah? At the same time, I believe that being spiritually healthy means not getting stuck or mired in guilt and shame that strangles your heart, that doesn't let you go and doesn't let you progress in this life. How do we do that? How do we raise children who will be compassionate, and reflective, and kind, and own their mistakes, and do better, and yet, who will not be overwhelmed with shame and guilt?
I believe that one of the answers to that is baptism. It's interesting. When we look at Jesus' baptism from our scripture reading this morning, why was Jesus baptized? This is a question that has plagued theologians for a long time because Jesus was fully human, but he was fully God. And traditionally the answer is that Jesus was perfect. He was sinless. He never sinned. He never did anything wrong. So then why was he baptized? And the answer has kind of been, well, he did it just to be a good example for all of us, all of us sinners. And I'm not going to, I'm not going to challenge whether or not Jesus was completely sinless if he never did anything wrong in his entire life. Let's just accept that. Let's grant it that the Orthodox view is a hundred percent correct and Jesus never did a thing wrong because he was fully God.
But Jesus was also fully human. And I know, I know. And you know, too, that being fully human means living a life where sometimes you just feel rotten about stuff. You don't feel like you're good enough. You make little mistakes, you stub your toe. People get mad at you, even though it's not your fault, right? You feel bad about yourself, you feel inadequate, you have regrets. You become a perfectionist and you say, “Ah! I didn't do it perfectly! I didn't do it exactly the right way.” And I think that Jesus, even though he was without sin, because he was fully human, experienced that same range of emotions that all of us feel around mistakes and regrets and worries about our adequacy and how good we are. And I believe that's why he chose baptism for himself. Not because baptism washes away the sin. It does. But because baptism is also meant to wash away the guilt and to readjust us spiritually to live in relationship to our frailty, to our humanity, in a positive and healthy way.
Maybe we've got it all wrong. You know, often we believe that our humanity is what separates us from God. All this human stuff, all this frailty, all this imperfection. Well, that's one perspective. But the other perspective, the perspective of Christmas and Epiphany is that God meets us here in our humanity. God meets us in our brokenness. You know, as a minister, I've of often asked people, you know, when did you feel God most strongly in your life? It's one of those questions I like to ask people to elicit a response. Oh, and how many answers I have heard to that question! And I can tell you that none of them sounded like this: “Well, everything was going great. I was on top of the world, man. I was successful and I was healthy. And boy, what a life I was leading. And while I was there just swimming at the top of the world, having a ball, I just suddenly felt like, yeah, God. And that's how I found God.” That's just never the story. When you ask people, “When did you feel God most strongly in your life? When did you first connect with God?” it's usually a story somewhere down near rock bottom. It's about a loss. It's about an addiction. It's about human pain and suffering and frailty and brokenness. And in that moment, that's when God showed up to show us the power of the Spirit. And maybe if we don't have that experience, it's hard to really know who God is or how God intersects with our lives.
I'll tell you a short story. Back in 2011, I was working as a labor organizer in New York City. And I was wanting to move, transition out of labor organizing and the work I was doing as a faith organizer and get a job as a minister. The first sort of real job as a minister, I'd worked as a part-time as a minister, but a full-time job as a minister in a church. And I wanted to transition my career. And so I was applying to a lot of churches and trying to figure out where I was going to go.
And I kept getting rejections and not a lot of interest. And man, I was feeling really bad about myself. But there was this one church that I was really excited about, and a friend of mine had said to me, “Hey, you know what? I think that church up in Boston is gonna be the one for you. I think they're really gonna be interested in you.” And I was feeling really depressed that night, and I said, “I don't know.” I was working late. It was something like 11 o'clock at night. And just as I was walking out of the office, I checked my Blackberry—it was 2011—and I had an email from the search committee of this church, and it was this amazing email. We're so interested in you. Thank you so much for applying. We really want to interview you. If you're about to take a job anywhere else, let us know because we want to speed up the process so that we can talk to you.
I mean, it was the most amazing, glowing, interested email you could ever get. And I remembered just that very night my friend had said, that's gonna be the church. And so I forwarded her the email message, and I was very excited. So you'll have to forgive my language. I just sent it with three words. The first word was “Holy,” and the other two words were anything but holy. And I will let you use your imagination. Holy Macaroni, let's say. And I sent that off to her to show her how excited I was. And I remember the little hourglass spinning on my blackberry. And as I watched it spin, I realized I was so excited that I hadn't hit forward and put in her email address. I had hit respond. And so I sent Holy Macaroni to the search committee of the one place I was most excited about.
And so I immediately sent a follow up response. I'm so sorry. Tried to explain what I did, but man, what a mistake. What an idiot, right? And I will tell you that night was the dark night of my soul. I said, and I did things to myself that night that I would never, ever do to any other person. I was cruel, I was hateful, and I hurt myself. Why? I made a mistake. I probably blew it, but life would go on. I just felt like I was no good to anyone.
Well, the search committee was awfully surprised by my response, and it was a bit of a kerfuffle, but by a slim margin they voted to continue to interview with me, and they did interview with me. And when I finally walked in for my in-person interview, I sat down in a room with the search committee and the chair of the search committee turned to me and said, “So, Holy Macaroni!” And it broke the ice. And it turned out that that mistake that I made helped me to stand out to everyone on that search committee. They saw that I was a human being. They saw that I was not your traditional, no-fun minister. They saw that I was really excited about working with them. And all of a sudden, I was a standout candidate in their mind because of that stupid moronic mistake that I was beating myself up over. And I got the job because of that mistake. I am convinced of it.
And it was like God was saying to me, “Yeah, you're not perfect. You make mistakes. That's the way you are. That doesn't mean that you don't deserve good things. That doesn't mean I'm not going to put you to work. Forgive yourself. Let's go. I show up in the broken places.” So beloved, to all of you, when you're feeling guilty or shameful, remember the promise of your baptism: Your mistakes do not define you. The God who enters your life through the cracks, that God, that loving God is the one who defines you.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations