Unity through Water, Spirit and Fire

blogpic.unityA Sermon preached for Advent 2 on Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

When my son, Jacob was eight years old, he was in the kitchen with me while I was making him a bologna sandwich. He said, If I bought that bologna with my own money, I’d eat it all in one sitting. I responded that this wouldn’t be very good for hi sbody. Without a thought, Jacob quipped, What do I care? The afterlife is right now; the afterlife is the same thing as your first life.
Isaiah says, And a little child shall lead them.

A little child shall lead us because as Jacob demonstrated in that one brief conversation, and as I’m sure you’ve heard from children in your own life, children intuitively understand that all of life is one. They have not yet developed a divided consciousness—an inner self and an outer self, an ego that needs to be defended and preserved, a sense of separation from the physical world and the spiritual world, from this life and eternal life, from us and the “other,” from brown skin and white skin, from humanity and God. The afterlife is right now.

Isaiah holds out for us a vision of complete union in creation—the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls this characteristic of children “unitive consciousness with God”—and it begins to diminish around the first grade as individual awareness increases. This is why in the Catholic tradition, says Rohr, they give them their First Communion in first grade—to repair the breach between them and God, to get them back into the Garden of Eden, into oneness with God, when we all knew and understood that all of life, and creation and all of humanity are One with God.

Isaiah’s vision reveals that the divisions in this world—even in creation—between the predator and the prey, in the earthquake and tsunami, and even in death itself—are a result of the brokenness of sin, a sin and brokenness that permeates and manifests itself in human life through divisions and walls of separation more numerous than we count.

Onto this scene comes John the Baptist in our Gospel reading—he’s as One with Creation as anyone can be who lives in the wilderness of the middle east. He wears and eats and lives wilderness—he’s become one with creation and he sees that the separation and divisions of this world are against God’s purpose and God’s will as does Isaiah.

John’s message of fierce judgment in Matthew calls for humanity to repent of its sin—of its divided state—from God, from each other, and from creation in order to prepare for Jesus’ reign, to prepare for the One who will bring humanity back into unity with God, with each other, and with all of creation.

Perhaps this explains why John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers! For aren’t they the very ones who have structured the divisions and strata of society and claimed it to be by God’s will and design: the clean and the unclean, the Jew and the Gentile, the pure and the impure, those who are righteous and those who are not, those who have made their sacrifices and those who have not.

The religious elites proclaim and enforce the belief that division and separation and oppression and privilege are the very nature of God’s purpose, the very character of holiness, the very order of creation—a structure that always leaves them on top, and so many people divided and oppressed and left out.

Even the apostle Paul in in Romans is struggling against these divisions between Jews and Gentiles in the church in Rome. Paul writes to bring unity in the midst of their cultural, historical, and spiritual differences, Welcome each other as Christ has welcomed you.

John the Baptist gets us ready to welcome Jesus and his kingdom which will bridge the gap between God and us, between us and “them,” between humanity and creation. For Jesus entered the biggest chasm we have—that of death itself and conquered it for all time that we might be made One with God again—that our “unitive consciousness” with God might be restored as our sins and all the divide us are redeemed.

For John, our entrance into this new reality, the unitive reign of God in Jesus Christ, is Baptism. "Repent!” announces John! Change your thinking, let go of your divided mentality, and enter into the unity that Jesus brings—a reign where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the Gentile shall eat with the Jew, the outcast shall worship beside the elite.

Then John lays out a three-fold Baptism to bring us into union with this new reign of Jesus. I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! Why are we baptized with water, the Holy Spirit and fire?

First, we baptize with water as a sign of “cleansing and rebirth” our baptismal service says. This part we get! The waters of baptism wash away our divided thinking, our old ways of doing things—it cleanses, purifies, and scrubs away the old self. Through water, we enter into the whole body of Christ; it’s not just about me, but we’re all together, floating in the same ocean of living water bound together by Christ himself.

But then John says Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit! The very same Holy Spirit Jesus received in his own baptism! Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. As the Holy Spirit alights on him, God’s voice from heaven announces, This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Jesus offers us this same gift at our Baptism which we celebrate with two children today. God says to them and us: you are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God views you with favor and delight. God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance.

Have you noticed that the most difficult times we have in living in unity with others, is when we feel unlovable and unworthy and insecure? Have you noticed that the bullies you’ve encountered in life push people away and harm others to hide the truth that they do not feel beloved by God or anyone?

But what happens inside of you when you receive this gift of grace? You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance. It changes everything, doesn’t it? I don’t need to prove myself, to defend my ego, or denigrate others when I receive and accept this gift of grace in my Baptism. It’s why Martin Luther wants us to remind ourselves every day that we’re baptized—that God’s grace and gift of the Holy Spirit is for for me, Linda, by name, and for you Jeff, and for you, Lisa and all of us by name. Such a daily practice can restore that childlike wonder and love, and bring us back to unitive consciousness with God.

Finally, John talks about Baptism by fire! Once we’re cleansed and grasp a new vision, once we’re loved unconditionally, then the real unity comes. Through love, Jesus burns away like chaff that which is not fit for the kingdom of God. And in this Baptism by fire, John foreshadows the risen Lord sending us the fire of Pentecost after the resurrection–remember? Divided tongues as of fire rest on the disciples so that everyone hears the good news being preached in their own language! The baptism by fire at Pentecost burns away divisions and brings all people, all cultures, all nations together hearing the Gospel of Grace in unity with one another. The baptism by fire enables us to see that God creates and loves all people, that Christ came for all nations. Every moment that we live in the union God intends, we are participating in the unitive vision of God spoken by Isaiah and the body of Christ Paul preaches in Romans.

This is the one thing my son Jacob at age 8 didn’t yet understand. When I told him that eating a whole pack of bologna wouldn’t be very good for him, he said, what do I care if this life and the next life are one? He thought that how he behaved now didn’t matter. A little child shall lead us, but it’s our job as the Church, to teach them that how we live now does make a difference—to other people and to God.

In this season of Advent, we prepare not only for the arrival of the babe in Bethlehem, but for Jesus to come again and to bring to fulfilment, our complete union with God, with creation and with all of humanity. And until that day comes, God calls us to be ready when Christ returns, by living in this beloved and baptismal unity here and now. For the afterlife is right now.

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Winning the World with Love

blogpic.KingLoveA Sermon preached on Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016

The difficulty in celebrating Jesus Christ as our King today, and every year, for that matter, is that after 2 millennia, Christians the globe over still find Jesus’ style of leadership nearly impossible to follow.

This passage from Luke offers us two kinds of kingship—two kinds of power and authority, two kinds of kingdoms, and we often find it’s easier to side with the crucifiers rather than the crucified.

The leaders, soldiers, one of the criminals and the standers-by give voice to Herod’s kingdom. In the verses earlier in chapter 23 of Luke, both Herod and Pilate have found that Jesus has done nothing wrong, yet the truth seems irrelevant in a culture where wielding power over others is the ultimate god. “Save yourself!” shouted the soldiers, leaders and on-lookers. “save yourself and us!” implores the criminal hanging beside him. “Look out for #1 and use force, use might, use power over others by any means necessary to win the day!”

Jesus, hanging on the cross, brings us a different kind of kingdom. “Father, forgive them for they do not what they are doing.” Instead of fighting and resisting, Jesus takes on the violence, he absorbs it rather than giving it back. Jesus takes in all the pain and returns love. In Jesus kingdom, he reigns from a cross rather than a palace; he forgives the people who killed him, his only weapon is love rather than might, and he saves criminals and brings them to paradise. Rather than power over others, he embodies an equalizing power beside others—beside all the other innocents who suffer unjustly.

Herod uses violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality. Jesus' sets aside the sword and instead invites all people, even enemies, into a new way of being.

Herod’s authority comes from the will of Caesar, the emperor, and it’s always tenuous. Jesus' authority comes from doing the will of God, which is constant and eternal.

Herod taxes the poor, takes what is not his, oppresses the vulnerable, and demonizes those who threaten his power. Herod has no interest in building community - much less one guided by truth and love, and Herod keeps order through fear--through the threat of death on a cross or otherwise. Again, by contrast, Jesus’ ministry has been a traveling parade of love, healing, renewal, second chances, beatitudes and bread – lots of bread to feed thousands and thousands of people. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers leap for joy, the demon-possessed dance with praise. Jesus enters peoples’ suffering, sees their humanity, empowers those he meets with forgiveness and love.

Yet when his kingdom leads to the cross—we’re not so sure we want to follow Jesus’ reign as king there. There’s a fearful part of us that wants the same kind of king as the crowds, leaders, and soldiers that believe that Herod’s kingdom is the only way – we want someone who is powerful, who can save himself and us, and who will take vengeance on his and our enemies.

But Christ our King, looks at us from the cross and asks, which kingdom will you follow?
• When white supremacist views regain currency in our national conversation and leadership, who’s kingdom are we listening to—Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we view our political enemies as a “basket of deplorables” who’s kingdom are we voicing —Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we’re tempted to demonize Muslims or immigrants out of our own fear and prejudice, who’s kingdom is gaining power, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we see acts of terrorism that continue around the world, we do want to give into fear, to close our borders, to increase military action abroad, use drones and every kind of fire power against our enemy, but who’s kingdom does such action follow, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?

We bring our cries and prayers before God today and we ask for the power and wisdom of our risen Lord and King to help us tease out the differences between what our fear want us to do and what our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to do.

The great sin of American Christianity has been to merge our patriotism with our Christian calling in the world, but Luke makes clear that these are often not one in the same. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to lift up Jesus Christ as King than after this election. For there is no political party, no candidate, and no government that embodies nor deserves our loyalty above Jesus Christ our Lord.

For all violence, whether wrought by terrorists, nations, or individuals, is the way of Herod which never leads to a crown of righteousness, a kingdom, and a power that is true and everlasting.

All rhetoric that divides and demeans people whether spoken by a political candidate, a family member across the Thanksgiving table, or a social media platform, is the way of Herod and not the way of the cross.

Mahatma Ghandi said it this way: “The enemy of love is not hate, but fear.” In fact, there are 365 “Fear nots” in the Bible – one for every day of the year. Fear is fundamental in our drive to follow Herod’s way and save ourselves, rather than Jesus’s way of forgiveness, transformation through love and care for those on the margins of society.

It does not mean that we don’t need compassionate screening at our borders, or economic policies that produce jobs. But as Christians, we must call to account, manipulation through fear-mongering, demeaning and endangering people by fostering hate, and unethical, inhumane policies that result from fear.

Jesus did not let fear, the threat of violence, or the pain of death put a stop to his love, compassion, and solidarity with God’s people. He transformed fear into love, and death into life, and violence into victory. Through his resurrection from the dead, he slipped the surly bonds of earth so we can all touch the face of God. Jesus’ kingdom is so powerful that it bridges this life and the next life, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, the finitude of this world and the infinity of the next.

We don’t need to save ourselves, because Jesus has already done so! Herod’s kingdom tempts us to seek through violence that which we already have—salvation!

To the criminal hanging next to him, Jesus says: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Today, not tomorrow, not next week, not when the kingdom comes in its fulfillment, not at the apocalypse, not when the Herod’s of the world give up. Today. Today you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus says the same to us--"Today, you’re sins are forgiven. Today, this is my body and this is my blood given for you. Today, I am with you. Today, my love is stronger than death. Today my power is greater than your fear. Today my kingdom is greater than this earthly realm." Today, Jesus calls us to live in this eternal kingdom here and now, as a witness against the “Herods” and “fear-mongers” of this time.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and The Spiritual Exercises, describes Jesus’ call from the cross in this way: It is my will to win over the whole world, to overcome evil with good, to turn hatred aside with love, to conquer all the forces of death—and whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and humankind. Whoever wishes to join me in this mission must be willing to labor with me and so by following me in struggling and suffering, that you may share with me in glory. (A contemporary interpretation by David L. Fleming, S.J. in Draw Me Into Your Friendship, p. 85)

Jesus, risen from the dead calls us to join him in winning over the whole world with love. A friend of mine has a son who works as a high school counselor. The day after election, he texted his mom in the morning to say it was a terrible day already because white students were bullying minority students. He had a Latino student in his office in tears because students were saying he would be deported. At the end of the day, he communicated with her again and said it had turned out to be a good day. He was able to talk with the bullies and the victims and was able to begin to transform hate and pain into respect and healing. In other words, he was working in Jesus’ kingdom to win over the day with love.

So be filled with Jesus love at the Communion table today, and at your own table every day. Embody Jesus’ kingdom in your daily life, your daily conversations, in your daily actions and your daily work by being grounded in Jesus’ love and salvation for you, grounded in God’s love for this whole Creation and for every person it; and trusting that through Christ, all things are possible.

That’s what Jesus, our King desires; and it’s absolutely what our country and world needs.

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We are All Beggars

blogpic.wearebeggarsA Sermon Preached on Luke 18:9-14

Thank God I’m not like other people--thank God I’m not like that junkie, that criminal, that homeless man with the sign at the end of my exit ramp, that ugly, mean, politically misguided, or whatever person.

The distance of 20 centuries melt before our eyes as the Pharisee lays bare our secret thoughts. Thank God I am not like them.

We think it without even noticing sometimes--comparing, appraising, judging-- jockeying for our imagined superiority with practiced mental gymnastics that allow is to feel better about ourselves for one more hour or one more day.

The whole advertising industry feeds on our insecurities born of comparing ourselves to the person next to us or worse, to some artificial ideal--whether of attractiveness, wealth, success, social status, moral superiority or religious devotion. As if on cue, a new movie called “Keeping up with the Joneses” hit theaters just this past Friday.

The Temple rituals and structure in Jesus’ time was also based on the stratification of society. If you could enter the Temple and how far you could go in depended on your religious and social status, and whether or not your were purified through ritual washing. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies--the earthly dwelling place of God’s presence; it was blocked off by a thick curtain and the high priest entered it only once a year to atone for Israel’s sins. Those considered unclean--the poor, the sick, prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners--were not even allowed inside the outermost gate.

As in ancient times, this problem runs much deeper than social status, and acceptability. We ascribe our stratifications to God whom we believe has more love for those who are “better” people and less love for those who are worse. God loves us churchgoers more than those uncommitted spiritual but not religious people out there. God has less to forgive of me, then those in the county jail, and so on.

It’s like we put faith on a bell curve-- the small group at the high achieving end-- like Martin Luther, Mother Theresa, Dr. King, Dorothy Day, or Nelson Mandela. We’re not quite as good as they are, but we’re in that big group in the middle of the bell curve-- we go to church, we volunteer, we help others when we can. Then there’s the miscreants at the other end of the bell curve--those people on the other side of the political spectrum, criminals, addicts, the homeless--whomever we disdain the most.

Verse 9 of Luke 18 says that Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. That’s the poison of our comparison game--we can’t remain self-righteous without developing the accompanying hatred for the other.

We develop the most contempt for those we fear we might become. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, says it this way, You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

We see this so clearly in the Pharisee in this parable-- On the upside, he seems to take great joy in being able to fulfill the religious rules so well, he really is devoted -- I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. It’s the pride that gets him: And look here, I am praying in the inner court of the Temple because I am so awesome. I am so easy to love because I am so pleasing to you.

His arrogance puts a barrier between him and God, --he trusts himself rather than God. He credits himself with his blessings, rather than coming to God with a heart of gratitude, giving thanks to the Source of all of who he is, all of what he possesses, and all of what he can do.

Jesus contrasts him with the tax collector--which actually when we look closely at the Greek, is actually a toll-booth collector. This man is not skimming off the rich, as did Zaccheus in the next chapter of Luke, but rather he’s at the bottom of the economic rung. He’s the person sitting in the toll booth, collecting fees from those who use the roads. His work exploits the poor and benefits the Roman occupiers. He knows his work hurts his people, yet if he were to stop, how would he feed his children?

It’s intriguing that the toll-booth collector offers no promise to change his line of work or his behavior. He doesn't try to bargain with God. He throws himself on the mercy of God, begging for forgiveness and trusting that all good and blessing in his life comes not from his own efforts, but from the God of love, mercy and forgiveness. The toll-booth collector is too desperate to divide people into stratifications for he is too aware of his own great need. His brokenness opens him up to God in inverse proportion to the barrier that the Pharisee erects with his self-congratulations.

Where does this leave us? It might be tempting to leave here and say, Thank God I am not like that self-righteous Pharisee! Thank goodness I’m humble! (my first thought when I read this passage!), but that would be missing the very point. For as soon as we fall prey to dividing humanity into groups, we align ourselves squarely with the Pharisee who trusts himself more than God. And anytime we try to decide who is in and who is out, we will most assuredly, find God on the other side.

Through this parable, Jesus invites us to take our focus off the Joneses, and off our self, and put it back on God--the God who alone is the judge of the human heart; the God who chooses to justify the ungodly and yes, the undeserving, with unmerited love and grace.

For this God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ to offer himself for all of us who sin and fall short of the glory of God. When Jesus died on the cross, that dividing Curtain in the Temple was torn in two-- erasing all divisions of humanity before God. As the curtain tears, the thread that forms our supposed bell curve, pulls loose--the curve collapses and we all land on a level plane before God and beneath the cross.

In those who seem extraordinary like the Pharisee, Martin Luther, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela, God knows brokenness and sin, but instead sees the righteousness of Jesus.
In you and me and the rest of us in the imagined middle, God knows brokenness and sin, but instead sees the righteousness of Jesus.
In the toll-booth collector, the criminal, the junkie, the hateful, the Presidential candidate we’re NOT voting for, God knows brokenness and sin, but instead sees the righteousness of Jesus.

Because it’s not what we do that bring us to God, it’s what God does for us in Jesus Christ that brings us to God.

On his deathbed in 1546, Martin Luther scribbled 6 words on piece of paper: We are beggars, this is true.

With the toll-booth collector and the Pharisee, we are all beggars, freed from worrying about ours or anyone else’s status. We are freed to live by the love and forgiveness of Jesus that embraces and feeds us today, a love that knows no human boundaries and begs to be shared with others.

DT Niles, one of the founders of the World Council of Churches, has been credited with summarizing our -mission as the church with these words, evangelism is one beggar showing another beggar where to find food. People everywhere are hungering for the food of God’s love and that’s our mission as ones who have been loved, freed and forgiven in Jesus Christ.

We are all beggars, that is true, but no one is beyond the beating heart, the pounding feet of a God who searches for the lost. So go, therefore, beggar of God, and share your bounty.

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Body-Love for Women

blogpic BodyLove03I was praying one morning last week about my frustration with my weight. Even though I exercise almost every single day, eat a healthy diet with a glass of wine only once or twice a week, I seem to be on a steady rise in weight. My pants still fit, but now that I’m over 50, it’s the shirts that are getting tighter in the stomach and the sleeves. I do not understand why evolution thinks this is a good plan.

My spiritual director shared that the granddaughter of a friend of hers calls the fat under her upper arms “fluffy angel wings!” While I love the phrase and the image, I still would rather not have fluffy angel wings until I get to heaven. Being on a headache prevention medicine that can cause weight gain is not helping my cause. I’ve lowered my dosage by 15 mg, but still have a ways to go before I wean off of it. 

As I prayed for the grace to have middle-aged body acceptance, I heard the Spirit urging me:

Love your body fiercely!
Like Me, she’s been with you and supported you through all of your life.
   Your body has born the slings and arrows and hurts of this life—
      everything from cutting remarks, tears, pain, and illness
         to your own harsh judgments.

Your body bears the scars and marks of who you are today, how you got here, and how you have become wiser.

She has grown and changed with you and loved you,
   Your body has tolerated bad food and unhealthy choices,
      survived cancer and chronic migraines,
         walked you into foreign lands and new experiences.

Love your body fiercely!
   Love your body as you love Me.
      It’s a sign of My presence with you.

She holds the lessons of the past so you will not forget them.

   She enables you to move through today and offers you tomorrow

      Your body will be your constant companion until you die.

Say thank you!

   Tell her you love her.

      Love your body fiercely!

[I named this piece before I found the photo, but was so excited to happen upon it at: http://www.rebellesociety.com/2016/02/12/tracystamper-bodylove/

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.