Monday, October 8, 2012

musings on suffering and redemption, part 1

When many of us think about suffering and God in the same breath we look for explanations that can make some sense of why God permits suffering to exist in the world he made. However, there really isn’t one that satisfies our intellectual appetite for rational answers and puzzle solving. Scripture tells us in Genesis that evil intruded into the goodness of God’s creation through the free cooperation of our first parents, Adam and Eve, with the evil one. But that story begs the question, why couldn’t God have created in such a way as to preclude the possibility of a Lucifer bent on destroying what God made; so, we come back to mystery.

Notwithstanding the intellectual frustration and skepticism that sometimes makes us want to avert our eyes from the mythic portrayal of humanity’s fall from grace, Genesis 3 does give us a story with which we resonate as human beings. Whether its Yo Yo Ma playing Ennio Morricone, U2 singing Where The Streets Have No Name, the feeling you have when you hold a newborn baby, or that joyful feeling when everything comes together just right at your dinner party - there are moments when we taste a bit of God’s beauty and imagine that there can be more of it, that there should be more of it! Moreover, we feel deep in our bones that it is wrong that there is not more of it. But we also all know in our more honest and humble moments that none of us has clean hands when it comes to our own participation in acts that find their root in that first evil temptation that came to Eve that caused her to doubt God’s goodness and love for her. We all know that we have hurt others and done our part to turn towards selfishness and away from God and what makes for human flourishing.

Since the beginning of Christian theology this acknowledgment that we all have participated in acts that resemble Adam’s and Eve’s fall from grace has been referred to as original sin. Rowan WIlliams’ little summary of what we mean by original sin is really quite helpful: “this is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity.... In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way.... Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible.”

The tangle, as Williams calls it, a painful cycle of suffering and longing for redemption, is just what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:18-30. In vs. 19-23, Paul picks up on the theme of the tragedy of the fall (Genesis 3:16-19), as he evokes the metaphors of that story in a new way that transposes them from local events in the distant past to the universal experience of everyone everywhere. The images of Adam’s and Eve’s suffering (frustration with the soil, pain in childbirth, human to human strife) are transposed into language that describes the universal experience of all of humanity and the whole of creation; the creation itself is in labor pains, and it, along with all of humanity, experiences a painful desire for redemption. However, in this retelling of Genesis 3, the theme of hope that is only hinted at in Genesis 3:15, takes on flesh and blood in Romans 8. Creation’s longing is answered by God, as he remakes the human family after the image of the new Adam and Eve, his son. Jesus is the new character on the stage of re-creation, the firstborn in a large family (Romans 8:29). Jesus is the “human word, human act will heal the process of human history.” This must be, in part, what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

So, God’s answer to the problem of evil is a historical one, an existential one. Jesus has come in history to set the human race in a new context, a context of redemption, a large family. In the next of this three part series we will consider what redemptive difference Jesus makes in the here and now.

Questions for reflection:

1.If someone were to ask you how you could possibly believe in the existence of a good God when the world is so messed up how would you respond?

2. Do you resonate with Williams' description of original sin above? Do you think this is a helpful way to talk about the presence of evil and sin in the world?

3. What do we mean when we say that God's response to evil is historical and existential?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Freedom in Philippi Acts 16

Review and Introduction to This Sunday’s Text: Acts 16:16-34

In the history of the liturgy of the church there is a prominent tradition of lingering in the book of Acts for the two months or so of Sundays that separate Easter from Pentecost (Pentecost is next week, by the way). We have talked together a bit about the reasons for our lingering in Acts but maybe we should remind ourselves again. The book of Acts, as many of you know, is a historical account of the growth of the early church. Importantly, among other things, as observed early on in Acts, it is an account of Jesus’ followers growth - their growth from those who deserted him to those who will give their lives preaching about God’s love for all of humankind, the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, in many important ways the book of Acts is a deep reminder to us that God worked through human frailty to build his church, that the growth of the early church is always a matter, to borrow words from Saint Paul in his letter to church in Corinth, a matter of God’s strength working through human weakness and frailty. But there is another important ongoing theme in Luke’s Acts and it is this- Luke wants us to know that God’s love is truly meant to reach all people and all sorts and kinds of people. The gospel is not a message for one religious or ethnic group - it is not meant to be a private religious experience but is supposed to be for the redemption of the entire world and to touch all of humanity. We hear this foreshadowed in Jesus’ words that Luke gives us at the beginning of Acts: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Luke is very eager for us to understand the growth and development of the early church as a missional movement of God - - as God, through his people, makes his love for all of humankind known to all of the peoples of the world, regardless of who they are ethnically, socio-economically, etc.

Homily Recap:

However, in the passage before us this morning we are reminded that not everyone wants to hear the good news about Jesus. The ones in the story who really don’t want to hear about it are the men who have been trafficking this young girl. What a tragic picture, a girl whose life was completely out of her control and under the control of dark forces out to exploit her, whether the forces be supernatural or the flesh and blood men who owned her. When she is healed and her life is given back to her her owners retaliate against Paul and his cohort, bringing them before the authorities and charging them with “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” What is truly disturbing, however, is the fact that this girl’s life is given back to her from the powers of darkness and her owners don’t even stop for one moment to ask themselves whether they ought not to be happy for her? And they certainly don’t pause and ask themselves whether or not exploiting her had been a wicked thing all along! Far from stopping for reflection, they move to retaliate against Paul and Silas.

Remarkable and chilling is the behavior of these men; this is very sobering for those who have ears to hear!!!

Luke gives us a provocative literary clue as to why her owners are unable to see her new freedom as an occasion for their own repentance, In verses 18 and 19 Luke uses the same Greek word, “to leave”, to describe the evil spirit’s leaving the girl and the owners’ hope of money leaving them. He says quite literally, the spirit left or departed and the money left and departed. And so in this little word play we are soberly reminded that one of the most common causes for spiritual blindness is greed. But that is not all that is chilling in this vignette. Next in this little scene we see what we often see in our own day. Those whose motives are to exploit others for their own profit hide their agendas behind any subterfuge available. In this passage the men who own the girl, of course, do not haul Paul and Silas before the magistrate and say, “hey we were making money off of the misfortune of this girl and they healed her and took away our ability to do that!”. No, they appeal to the fear of foreigners and suspicion of Jews. The crowd does the rest of the work for them and very quickly Paul and Silas end up flogged and in jail. It is a commonplace for Luke in his gospel and in the book of Acts, in the words of NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, to.... “connect spiritual dispositions to the disposition of possessions.”

And so all of what has happened so far in this story reminds us that the message of God’s love for the world will often be met with opposition, especially by those who are unwilling to see their spiritual blindness. We are also reminded again of the tragedy that comes from confusing illicit carnal pleasures with human flourishing. The owners’ slave is freed but those men chose to remain slaves to the bondage of their greed. How about you and me this morning? Do we have an attitude or disposition towards money, sex, or power (those are usually the three big idol factories) that keeps us from seeing God’s grace for us? Have we confused illicit carnal pleasures for human flourishing? Sobering thoughts but Luke reminds us here that the gospel is sometimes going to be felt as confrontation, especially when we are suffering from spiritual blindness

And yet God can move us in an instant from blindness to sight as we see in the rest of our story which is saturated with hope.

But paradoxically, our narrative this morning takes a turn towards hope only when Paul and Silas are put into prison. So, we are reminded here that the mission of God goes forward with its greatest power when the servants of God are in situations of powerlessness, following the cruciform God in mission. What is illustrated here in the cruciform pattern of Paul and Silas is put in lovely prose in Paul’s letter to the church which forms in Philippi from this very visit:

2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

It is in his cruciformity that Jesus is exalted and so we expect to see the same pattern in Jesus’ followers. Here are Paul and Silas prisoners in the form of the slave, in stocks and in jail in Philippi - - all because they freed a slave girl from an evil spirit and a life of exploitation. But as I just mentioned, this is where our story takes a turn towards hope. There is an earthquake and all of the prisoners are presented with an opportunity to escape but they don’t take the opportunity!! Somehow, Paul manages to keep everyone from leaving, knowing that the escape would result in the jailer losing his life, either by preemptive suicide, which he is apparently ready to do, or as a result of the capital punishment that would be dealt to him for letting the prisoners escape.

Now, understand, earthquakes were often seen in antiquity as the work of angry deities and that is about all we should take from the jailer’s question: “how can I be saved?” He is frightened by the earthquake and sees Paul and Silas as the ones who are able to tell him how to be saved from the punishment of the gods. The jailer, unlike the human traffickers responsible for putting Paul and Silas in jail, actually sees Paul and Silas as people who can tell him something he needs to know about the supernatural world. Paul sees this as an opportunity to tell the man about the one true God and how salvation is to be found in Jesus.

And so we meet salvation in a prison where those who are freed from their shackles remain in jail in order to save the life of a man who was essentially their enemy. Sounds like the gospel. The cruciform pattern of discipleship comes into clear view. I wonder if the Philippian jailer was in church at Philippi some few years later when Paul wrote that Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be used for his advantage, but took the form of a slave. I wonder if he thought about that night when Paul and Silas did not see their freedom from their shackles as an opportunity to take for their own advantage but remained, so to speak, in chains so that they might speak the truth of salvation to this poor man. And so in all of this we are given the clarion reminder that true freedom comes from following Jesus, not in the avoidance of suffering.

In commenting on this narrative, Dr William Willimon, preacher and scholar, remarks: “in this story everyone who at first appeared to be free, the girl’s owners, the judges, the jailer, is a slave. And everyone who first appeared to be a slave - the poor girl, Paul and Silas is free.”

What makes for true freedom? Luke reminds us in the way he tells these stories that there are many ways to deceive oneself into thinking that one is flourishing as a human being, but only in following the cruciform Christ in mission can we be truly free.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you have practices in your life that help you detect when you may be suffering from the onset of spiritual blindness?

2. Do you think of yourself as someone who is capable of hiding under subterfuge in order to not name or ignore your real reason for doing something? Why is acting in this way so sinister and life-destroying? Given the fact that people in leadership (e.g. political leaders, captains of industry) do this all of the time, how should the church respond in a non-partisan, yet prophetic way?

3. Can you think of a time when you made a profound sacrifice (cruciform-like) for someone in order to bear witness in words or deeds to the gospel?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

After Easter - Cornelius and Peter

In the passage before us today we meet a fellow named Cornelius. He lives in an important city called Caesarea and he is an official in the Roman army. He is also, like the Ethiopian Eunuch we met last week, drawn to the God of Israel. And so we are reminded this week, as were last week, that Luke is very eager for us to understand the growth and development of the early church as a missional movement of God - - as God, through his people, makes his love for all of humanity known to all of the peoples of the world, regardless of who they are ethnically, socio-economically, etc. Cornelius is an example of that growth and development. While not being fully converted to Judaism he has become a practitioner of the Jewish religion; his worship of Yahweh is replete with daily prayer and the life-giving discipline of the giving of alms to the poor. Luke, the author of the gospel in his name and this book of Acts, thinks that this latter aspect of Cornelius’ worship is very important, for he calls special attention to it using the motif of Old Testament sacrifices (e.g. the alms are a memorial before God as Cornelius will later talk about them when Peter comes to visit him).

The reason why Cornelius’ giving of alms is so important to Luke is because the giving of alms to the poor is a sign that God is at work in the depths of the human heart.

Talented authors often use intertextual echoes to bring points home to their readers. In a novel, for instance, something may happen early on in the story, the importance of which is seen in its fullness only later in the story when something else happens that connects back to the earlier scene.

Here in this story of Cornelius we encounter just such an echo, an echo that comes to us from another story Luke tells us in his gospel, another story that talks about alms and the human heart.

In the gospel of Luke we meet Jesus talking about the importance of giving alms to the poor; this happens in the midst of a confrontation with the corrupt religious leadership of his day Luke (11:33-34). Invited to dinner at the home of one of those leaders, Jesus deliberately skips an important religious rite; he does not ceremoniously wash before the meal. When confronted, he says in so many words, you foolish people; you are dirty on the inside as evidenced by your greed and your obsession over your social status. This is made painfully obvious by your lack of support of the poor people in your midst. Deal with the inside of your heart. Repent of your selfishness and greed and this repentance will be reinforced by your giving alms to the poor.

Jesus is teaching in this passage, as in the whole of the gospel, that it is the cleanness of the heart that counts with God, and the evidence that God is at work in the heart will be in the way people treat the vulnerable in their midst. Fast forward from that encounter, through the cross and the resurrection and into the growth of the gospel in the early church and here in the text before us we have our echo of the importance of alms for the poor in relationship to ritual cleanliness. But this time someone gets it right and the someone is one who is by definition ritually impure - he is a gentile. The one who is counted by the Judaism of that day as unclean and unwashed gives evidence that God is at work in his heart by how he treats the poor.

We will meet Cornelius again in the homily that follows communion and he will teach us a lot about God’s love for all people but as we get ready to receive the sacrament of communion let us remember that at this table each week we are invited to come close to God’s heart; we confess our sins and we are cleansed so that we may love as Jesus loves, and care for others as Jesus cares for us. It is not what is on the outside that counts but that which is on the inside - it is what is on the inside, twisted and broken that we bring to Jesus to be straightened and made whole.

Part Two:

In the time we have remaining this morning I want us to come back to Cornelius. We have already noted that Cornelius is a signpost of what God desires to do with the whole of humanity - to change us from the inside out so that we might participate in Christ’s self giving love. The evidence of God’s work in Cornelius is seen clearly, perhaps most clearly, in the way he treated the vulnerable in his midst, by giving alms to the poor. But Cornelius is a signpost in another important way too. His response, as one outside of Israel to the God of Israel is a signpost (like the Ethiopian Eunuch of last week) that the mission of God is to bring his redemptive love in Christ to the whole of humanity - to every sort and kind of people.

In a conversation this week with a friend who is a New Testament professor, I learned something that I was not aware of: I quote Aaron Kuecker here almost verbatim: “Every time the Spirit speaks directly to a person in Acts, sends them toward a gospelled relationship that crosses a significant social barrier”.

And so last week the Holy Spirit tells Philip to go and talk to the Ethiopian Eunuch and this week, Peter, is told by the Holy Spirit to go to with Cornelius’ people.

We have remarked before that part of following Jesus is learning to see people as God sees them and nowhere is this drilled home more clearly than in what the Spirit teaches Peter in this mysterious vision; but, it is the way Peter applies what he learns in the vision that is most remarkable. Look at the two passages below - one is about food and one is about people.

Acts 10:14 But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

Acts 10:28 You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

In the vision Peter is told to regard foods that he regarded unclean as clean; and yet when he comes into Cornelius’ home he says that God has shown him that he should regard no person as unclean or profane. What is going on here? In the vision, there is pork and shellfish and the like, but in Cornelius’ home there is no mention of food but only of people - ONLY OF PEOPLE.

Well, something very important is going on. In the religious and socio-cultural context in which Peter lived what a person ate and how they were to be regarded as a human being were inseparable..... but here Peter says I have been taught by God to pull those things apart and to see all people as precious and dear to God.... it is what is going on in the inside that counts!!!!

Church, friends, brothers and sisters: we have no right to expect that we can follow the Spirit at work in the world when we regard the other, the one who is different from us as unclean, profane and not loved by God. To put it positively, we follow the Spirit and Jesus in mission when we take as a starting point that all people are loved by God and precious to him even though we struggle to see people that way because of our sinful fear and judgment of the other.

Questions for discussion:

1. I suggested above that the giving of alms, or our modern day equivalent, reinforces the work of God in our hearts? Do you agree with this? If not, explain why not. If you agree, why do you think God works that way?

2. On what grounds does Peter state his desire to baptize Cornelius’ people? Why does he ask if anyone wants to withhold baptism? Is that a rhetorical question?

3. Do you think, as a church, we receive outsiders as enthusiastically as does the early church as exemplified by how eagerly and quickly they assimilate the gentiles?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

after easter again - the Ethiopian eunuch

The book of Acts, as many of you know, is a historical account of the growth of the early church. Importantly, it is among other things, as we have been observing recently, an account of Jesus’ followers growth - their growth from those who deserted him to those who will give their lives preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ: God’s love for all of humankind through Jesus. So, in many important ways the book of Acts is a deep reminder to us that God worked through human frailty to build his church, that the growth of the early church is always a matter, to borrow words from Saint Paul in his letter to church in Corinth, a matter of God’s strength working through human weakness and frailty. But there is another important movement in Luke’s symphony, and this is the movement - that God’s love is truly meant to reach all people and all sorts and kinds of people. The gospel is not a message for one religious or ethnic group - it is not meant to be a private religious experience but is supposed to be for the redemption of the entire world and to touch all of humanity. We hear this foreshadowed in Jesus’ words that Luke gives us at the beginning of Acts: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Now, earlier in Acts Luke has shown us the power of the gospel at work in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and in our text this morning we come to this truly amazing encounter that Philip has with the man from Ethiopia. The thing to note here, in light of Jesus’ words about God’s love coming to the ends of the earth, is that Ethiopians were regarded as living pretty much at the end of the earth. In fact historians note that Homer, in the Odyssey, mentions Ethiopians as those who live on the “Southern edge of the earth”. So, for Luke, in the way that he organizes and emphasizes the preaching of the early church leaders he clearly wants us to understand that a big Ethiopian flag is being raised here on this road from Jerusalem; and God is saying, I love these people as much as my beloved Israel, as much as their half-sisters and brothers in Samaria - go find me some people further away from Ethiopia and guess what, put another flag in the ground because I love those people too. There is always enough of the love of God to go around; human beings are the ones that are stingy with it and that should give us pause to reflect and be sure that we are not stingy with God’s love.

Back to the text: there is something about our Ethiopian man here that is just as important to Luke than where he is from. It is that he is a eunuch. Luke tells us five times that he is a eunuch; five times in a very short story. Luke thinks this is important to know about him. Now, a quick reminder about eunuchs in the ancient world. They were often taken from their families and castrated before puberty - they were people whose bodies were butchered in order to make them a unique kind of slave to the powerful master or mistress they served, for the eunuch had no family and no chance of having a family to get in the way of his singular devotion to the one who had power over him. Also, many times the eunuch-slave was entrusted to be around royal females or harems because he had been castrated. A eunuchs life was cruelly crafted to belong to no one but his master or mistress.

This particular eunuch had, apparently, come into contact with the God of Israel through Jews living in Ethiopia and his interest in the God of Abraham had drawn him to Jerusalem on what seems to have beeem a pilgrimage of sorts. He was apparently interested in becoming a follower of Yahweh and because of his position as treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia, he actually has the means to make this trip.

Now, the first thing that comes to my mind about a long trip like that is that the one who takes it is being a bit, or maybe a lot, vulnerable. The Ethiopian was coming into Jerusalem to the temple as an extreme and exotic foreigner, a curiosity even among the Romans and Greeks, not to mention the people of Israel. The eunuch may have felt the same way some of you have felt when you have extended yourself to go to church for the first time or a first time in a long time; or maybe it is how you have felt when you have decided to draw closer to people within the church community - it feels risky - you can feel vulnerable and a bit nervous. What if my good faith efforts are rejected? Well, the thing you need to know about what would have happened to the eunuch in Jerusalem is that by and large his good faith efforts would have been in a very real sense rejected. The thing to know about what would have happened to him when he reached the temple is this: he would have been denied entrance. This is because according to Levitical law, no eunuchs (regarded as ritually impure due to their castration) were allowed in the temple. Their worship would always be, at best, at the margins of the community. After being reminded - and reminded when he is already in a vulnerable spot - of the multi-faceted scars that come with being a eunuch he gets in his chariot to head home.

Whatever happened in Jerusalem, however, was not enough to deter this man’s interest in Yahweh, for we meet him reading from the prophet Isaiah. And the text he is reading, well, let’s say that it is really catching his interest -
“ In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’”

In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.

Who is this about, the prophet or someone else, the eunuch asks? This was not a casual question for the eunuch, for like so many who have suffered under the powerful, the eunuch knew about people who had been humiliated, who had justice denied to them. Like millions of others who suffer injustices on this earth the eunuch knew that the person he was reading about in this messianic Psalm was someone with whom he could identify. There is something else about this passage that is especially poignant and another translation really brings it home.... the NIV renders the phrase about his generation, “who can speak of his descendants”.

The eunuch knew also of those whose lives were taken away from the earth, and whose descendants would never be spoken of, namely, eunuchs, namely him.

Who is being spoken of in this passage?! Who is the prophet talking about?! These were not casual or abstract questions. There was something about this Holy Book that spoke to his story, to his life. The answer that Philip gave no doubt invited the eunuch to see the story of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation in redemptive solidarity with his own (Philip begins preaching the gospel at that very passage from Isaiah). The eunuch in that moment came to know that God, in Christ, shares in our suffering so that he might claim our scars as his own, so that he might give us newness of life beyond the scars. There is a very important principle here in this and please don’t miss it: the story of God’s love in Scripture is always about you and Christ’s sharing in your suffering and pain to draw you into his redemptive love.

The eunuch was one who was forced to be without a family, but in this picture before us he is brought into the family of God. Philip’ solidarity with the eunuch is a picture of Christ’s solidarity with him and of the enfolding love of a new family, the family of God consisting of all of Christ’s younger brothers and sisters. Remarkably there is a passage that comes later in that scroll of Isaiah - just three chapters later in our version of the OT.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

I wonder if Philip showed this to him? I bet he did.

A New Testament professor friend of mine reminded me the other day that eunuchs were really segregated in a cruel way in the ancient world: “eunuchs are a stock figure in antiquity for the 'grotesque other' - neither male nor female (A. Kuecker)”. Grace Chicago Church, we know we are following Jesus when we are known to be a community that boldly embraces those who society has put at the margins and declared to be outsiders, those who are made to be the butt of jokes. May God pour out his love on us so that we may pour it out on everyone else.

Questions for discussion:
1. As mentioned above, Philip began with the text the eunuch was reading and used it as the door through which to walk to tell the rest of the story of the gospel. Does this approach stimulate your thinking about how you might talk about the gospel to those who have not heard or understood it? If so, how so?

2. Can you give two or three examples of kinds of people who are contemporary equivalents to eunuchs in the ancient world (stock figures of the grotesque other).

3. How do you think our church is doing at welcoming the examples you offered in answer to the above question?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

After Easter 3

In the text before us this morning we have before us another passage of scripture that is familiar to many of us (Acts 4: 5-12). The passage often comes up this time of year, as the lectionary reminds us that we need to take time to ponder together the remarkable events that follow quite closely on the heels of the resurrection of the Son of God. The rhythm of the lectionary, so to speak, is inviting us to linger for a while on the impact of Easter. And so for the past few Sundays we have been taking note of several of Jesus’ post-Easter visits with his disciples. DON’T FORGET that the one common theme to all of these visits was Jesus’ desire to help his followers face their failures and weaknesses and restore them them to their vocation of following him in mission. As someone has put it, “On the far side of the resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur together....”.

In the passage before us this morning we meet Peter, recently forgiven and restored by Jesus, now proclaiming boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ in the very city where Jesus was crucified, in the very city where Peter had denied him three times. Stop there for just a moment. Isn’t it amazing how powerful a hold geography can have on us?! I think all of us can relate to being back in familiar surroundings - even literally geographical surroundings (for Peter, Jerusalem) - where our past actions in those surroundings confronts us with our failure. In those moments it can at first feel like nothing has changed. You look up and you see a park bench or a cafe and you think unpleasant thoughts. Yet because of God’s forgiveness and acceptance in Christ the landscape of our pasts can become places of hope instead of a reminder of our failures. I am not suggesting that this happens lightly or automatically but if we learn to practice seeing ourselves as those who have been forgiven by God in Christ slowly but surely even the most haunting of landscapes can become vistas of God’s grace and love for us. It is because this stuff doesn’t come easily or automatically that some spiritual traditions with our faith have emphasized joining confession and acceptance of God’s love with physical practices like breathing, praying with icons in hand, getting on one’s knees, coming forward to receive communion each week, etc. This is because leaving the difficult practice of accepting God’s love and forgiveness simply to a cerebral exercise is too tall an order for our feeble minds.

Back to the Scripture text at hand: so, here is Peter proclaiming the gospel to the very religious leadership who had conspired to have Jesus murdered by the Roman government. Specifically, Peter and John are being detained and threatened for preaching and healing in Jesus’ name and so Peter takes the opportunity to appeal to the religious leadership to recognize the horror of what they have done. He says to them, in so many words, the one whom you crucified is now the one in whom you need to find salvation. Your victim has been raised from the dead; your victim is your judge; your judge forgives you. Repent and accept his forgiveness because there will be no other way of dealing with your sin if you refuse God’s love for you in the very one you crucified.

The language that Peter uses here to confront the authorities is strong and courageous, to be sure. But what is easy for us to miss is how much this tells us about the persistence that God has with regard to his passion to forgive people - even specifically those who conspired to murder the innocent Son of God. The proclamation to them from the OT, a text with which they would have familiarity, the stone the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone, is said to them to jar them out of their blindness and to beckon them to see that it is in Jesus that God is at work in the world to bring forgiveness, healing, and newness of life. He does not say to them, you had your chance - now you may as well go hang yourselves because God is never going to accept you. No, just the opposite: and one thinks here of the powerful words of the theologian, M Volf: "If God does not find what is pleasing in an object - if human beings have become ungodly - God does not abandon the object in disgust until it changes its character. Instead, God seeks to re-create it to become lovable again... God is not just generous even to the unrighteous; God also forgives their unrighteousness so as to lead them through repentance back to the good they have abandoned."
Sadly, in today’s religious climate, there are a great many Christian people (and to my dismay it seems like theirs are the voices most often heard in the media) who talk as if God somehow delights at the prospect of condemning the unbeliever. In this sort of climate it becomes even more important that we take great care in how we present the uniqueness of Jesus that is portrayed in this passage. When we talk about “salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”, we must make sure that people don’t imagine us to be saying that we know the end game between God and any individual person. What we are saying positively is that we, as followers of Jesus, believe that we have found our life in God to be in Jesus Christ and that the forgiveness, newness of life, wisdom, and life-giving community we have found in him can be found in no one else. This approach to dealing with the uniqueness of Jesus - this positive approach (which I think is the approach taken even in this bracing mini-sermon of Peter’s when you really think of it in its context) - is really very important. It is important because in this approach to the teaching in this text we are reminded of something very important that we need to come to terms with: God wants us to experience forgiveness and life in Jesus in such a genuine and palpable way that we are always at the ready to say to anyone and everyone that what we experience of human flourishing comes to us by no other name than Jesus. We should live our lives so that we are able to say to anyone and everyone that it is by no other name than Jesus that we have been drawn out of our selfishness in order to love others with the same love that God has loved us; that it is by no other name than Jesus that I have found the humility and impetus to ask my spouse to forgive me for the way I spoke to her. We should be able to confess that it is by no other name than Jesus that I am put in a space where I remember how much I am loved by God, in turn giving me a proper love of self that can enable me to turn from self-destructive patterns of sin that are appealing only in moments when I forget how much I am loved by God. It is by no other name than Jesus that the landscapes of my life become transformed from fields of despair and selfish wandering into places of hope where I can find my life in Christ and in loving my neighbor as myself. You get the picture.

Questions for discussion:

1. If someone who is not a Christian were to ask you to explain what Peter means when he says there is salvation in no one else what would you say? Would you draw a distinction between uniqueness and finality on the one hand and narrowness on the other?

2. As we noted above, Peter confronts the religious leadership with their sin and says to them, in so many words, there is no way out of the trap you have made for yourself regarding Jesus other than repenting and being reconciled to him. This is shocking in at least two way: (a) his appeal to them is to be forgiven when he is probably angry with them and afraid of them (b) they are given only one route to move forward and it is through the risen Jesus. Does this part of the passage make you think of people from whom you need forgiveness?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

After Easter (John 21)

The text before us this morning is another text about forgiveness and reconciliation. That is a common, if not predominant, theme in Jesus’ post-resurrection, post-Easter visits with his disciples. We have already called attention to this in last week’s homily where we noted that Jesus’ restoration of the disciples after they had deserted and denied him would assure that the church in its formative years, in the power of the Holy Spirit, would be formed into a community that, when it is true to its calling, will be easily recognizable as a place where people know by experience the radical importance of God’s forgiveness. The church, when it is true to its formative moment, is easily recognizable as a community that cherishes and lives by the truth that “God does not forgive us because we are good but makes us good by forgiving us”. And again this morning, here in this text (John 21), everything has to do with Jesus’ desire to help Peter face himself, his shame over his denial of Jesus, and his fears and uncertainty that led him to desert and deny. Peter had denied Jesus three times by a charcoal fire, as John has recorded it for us earlier in this gospel. Here, Jesus, also with a charcoal fire nearby, a literary nuance that John would not want us to miss, creates three exchanges with Peter that allows Peter to affirm three times his commitment to follow Jesus in mission, to care for God’s flock as a young leader in what will become Christ’s church - three affirmations, one for each of his earlier denials. I want to note two things about all of this that I hope will help us get our heads and hearts around what this passage might be saying to us this morning. First, Jesus suggests that Peter’s way forward to flourishing will be by taking responsibility to serve others in the way that Jesus has served him. Three times Peter says I love you, and three times Jesus says in so many words: “then love and care for my flock”. This is Jesus, in other words, reminding Peter of what he said to the disciples as he turned to face Jerusalem and the cross: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. What will hold Peter’s confession of love for Jesus in the future is not his will-power or his inherent goodness. What will hold Peter fast is his experience of Jesus’ restoration of him, reinforced and made solid through the discipline of pouring that same love into the lives of others. Peter, waking up each morning with a concern for the well being of God’s people and his neighbors, whoever they may be, will create the foundation from which he will not fall. So many times people will say to me, I don’t know how to deal with my doubts about my faith. I just feel like I can’t really commit to my faith because of all of these doubts I have. While it is important to face doubts genuinely and not feel ashamed or weak for having them, it is also important to not allow doubts to paralyze us from living in the flow of God’s love. In other words, what I think Jesus is saying to us, through Peter, is something like this: if you want to experience the authenticity of God’s love for you, then take responsibility for loving others as God has loved the world in Christ. Or, as the Carmelite Nun, Ruth Burrows puts it in an interview about her book, Love Unknown, “Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven't. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being "authentic" we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.” One thinks here of John’s words in 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” It would do us well as a church community, as we ponder this deep truth together, to note that there is very little in our socio-cultural setting to reinforce the truth that an authentic experience of God comes in a life of serving and loving others. There is so much in our advertising, in our consumerist mentalities, and in the spirit of free-wheeling hedonism that tempt us to think that a life well lived is a life where the bucket list is checked off - and the bucket list doesn’t seem to include a great deal of occasions of sacrifice for others. Contrary to our zeitgeist, the gospel says that a life well lived will conform to Jesus’ pattern of self-giving love. Interestingly, speaking of bucket lists, there is also here in this passage a remarkable reference to Peter’s death. Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” The tradition of the early church, going back to the early church historian, Eusebius, tells us that Peter was martyred (as also was Paul) in the persecution of the church at the hands of the Roman emperor, Nero, in about 62 AD. There is also a tradition of the early church going back to Origen that Peter insisted on being crucified upside, declaring that he was not worthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus. What is most significant, though, about Peter’s death is not that he was a heroic martyr but that the life that took him to martyrdom was a life poured out in love for others. The Peter who denied Jesus three times became the leader of the early church who, Luke tells us in Acts, when the governing authorities forbade him from preaching the gospel said to them: ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.* Finally, Peter tells us in his own words in the first of two epistles bearing his name what sort of life he found to be worth living. It was not a life of religious self-confidence, or intellectual certainty but a life marked by living in the flow of God’s love for people. For Peter, the purification of the soul came through obedience to Jesus’ self-giving love and produces a community known by that love. In Peter’s own words: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth* so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply* from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) May God enlarge our faith and expand our imaginations so that we might understand how to order our lives so that we might live for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ and for the neighbor. 1. Do you find that sometimes you are guilty of the condition Burrows speaks to above? (i.e. “under cover of being authentic”, spending our lives waiting for a kind of certainty we cannot have. 2. What do you do when you struggle with doubt? Have you ever considered facing your doubts with action (e.g. taking responsibility to pour God’s love into others)? Assuming that most of us could be doing better with all manner of disciplines, what it would like for you to take a greater responsibility for pouring God’s love into others? 3. Does the exercise Jesus went through with Peter (three opportunities to affirm, one for each of the denials) make you think more deeply and imaginatively about the practice of confession of sin and affirmation/absolution? What comes to mind?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter 2012: Creation and New Creation

the recap below is in two parts, marked accordingly - the texts for Easter were Revelation 21:1-4; Romans 8:18-26; John 20:1-18

Part One: Before Communion

Our text before us from Romans 8 is a resurrection text that pictures the hope of the entire cosmos bound up in what God has promised to do for a new humanity destined to be raised in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Romans 8:19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”
pairs with verse 23, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Also, the same rich theology is found in the passage which serves as our regular assurance of forgiveness during preparation for communion: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17”).

We explored this passage at greater depth during the homily but before we received communion we took note that Paul gives us some important teaching regarding what one of our postures should be towards this great hope of cosmic redemption and our resurrection. The posture? Patience! This may seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, didn’t we just read that “the whole creation”, as one translation renders it, “stands on tiptoes” awaiting the resurrection of human beings? And what are we supposed to be in response to that mind-blowing news!? Patient?!

Why would Paul stop at that point to exhort us to patience? Because he wants Christians to be real about what it is like to experience the promise of redemption in the midst of the messiness of a world that is not yet fully redeemed; he wants us to be real about what it is like for us to experience God’s grace and then fall back into faithlessness; and there is a certain way that he wants us to wear this realism - and the way is patience.

I recently saw at a local coffee shop an ad for a math tutor In addition to listing his credentials as a mathematician and math educator he also included this line: I am patient. I thought that was genius marketing, for everyone who struggles with math anxiety needs a patient tutor.

What Paul is saying here is that we are to have a big-picture patience towards our fellow human beings, with a fallen world, and with ourselves. We need to have patience while we await in faith and hope the promise of the resurrection.

When you sin; when you become furiously frustrated with the seeming futility of your endeavors; or, when you feel paralyzed by doubt - St Paul exhorts you to be patient. He does not say pretend everything is OK or better than it actually is; he does not say become a hedonist or nihilist in the face of your angst; he does not say ignore your sins or your frustration. Instead, he says, in so many words, “be patient with them and with all else”. The question is begged at this point. Why should you be patient? Our answer is in two parts. (1) God is patient with us (2) you have an anchor that holds you to the promise of the world to come - the resurrected Jesus. So, in the meanwhile you can be patient with yourself and others, even if it is a restless patience - and it often is.

But you say you don’t my failure - how can God be patient with me? How can I be patient with myself in light of what I know about myself? Well, here is where it is important to remember that Good Friday and Easter are joined inextricably together. So, when we take a glance back at Good Friday we remember that it is precisely in what is perceived by human judgment to be failure that God heals the world. Jesus went to the cross a failure, a human failure; he disappointed all of the human expectations of who Messiah should be and what Messiah should don. So, he died alone! He was in the minds of even his followers, a failed Messiah.

Even though Jesus’ perceived human failure on the cross is not due to any defect on his part, it is vitally important that we comprehend the ramifications of the fact that he willingly put himself in the place of human shame and failure in order to identify with our shame so that we might be embraced by the Father’s love. In that moment of separation from God the Father, when Jesus had all of the evil and sin of the world taken into himself, that is the same moment that he claimed our failures, in order to take them through the purging fires of death and into the promise of resurrection. As St. Paul puts it in the 6th chapter of Romans, “if you have been united with him in a death like his you shall surely be united in a resurrection like his.”

Discussion Questions:

1. Can you think of occasions when you should have been more patient with the frailties and failures of those around you? What was going on in your mind and heart when you did not exercise patience?

2. Read the part of George Herbert’s poem and Ben Myers’ comment on it below. Then discuss the question that comes at the end of that.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd any thing.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Commenting on this poem, New Testament Prof Ben Myers wrote on his blog recently:

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but shame. "Love bade me welcome yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin" (George Herbert). Divine love is the abolition of shame. It is hospitality, welcome, the healing of the wounded gaze. "Love took my hand and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?" Shame stoops over, looking inward on the self. Quick-eyed love stands up straight, face to face with the beloved.” Ben Myers

In light of what Myers says above, do you think you should ever feel ashamed before God? What should it sound like to preach the gospel to yourself if and when you do feel ashamed before God?

3. In light of what we have talked about above, do you think some of these insights (e.g. Jesus’ deliberately taking a place of shame) might help you tell the gospel story a bit more robustly than you might have some time ago? Explain what you mean with examples.

Part Two: After Communion

When the tomb was discovered to be empty this was a mind-blowing experience for the early disciples; no one expected that Jesus would be raised from the dead. It is not as if his disciples went away from the events surrounding his crucifixion and said, as one theologian has put it: “that’s OK -God will raise him from the dead. No, emphatically no! No one expected a resurrection from the dead in this way (devout Jews expected a resurrection at the end of history but not one person, namely the Messiah, in the middle of history). But very early in the life of the church (and we saw it in our Romans text this morning), within not too many years of the disciples’ first experience of the resurrected Lord, they begin to incorporate the reality of the resurrection into their devotional theology; their theological imaginations are taken over by this staggering event and the resurrection of Jesus becomes another crucial lens through which to understand God’s love for this world.

It is this lens that makes it possible for Paul to say what he does in Romans 8, where he spells out the promises of individual salvation in the broader context of God’s creation and new creation. I submit to you that not enough importance is put on the importance of seeing our salvation as individual people within this broader story of what the creator God has always intended for his fallen creation.

Warp and woof is a lovely phrase that not many people use anymore; it is comes to us from the world of weaving. The warp threads, in a piece of woven fabric, run lengthwise while the woof threads run crosswise. I like to use this phrase when talking about creation and new-creation/redemption because creation and redemption taken together are the warp and the woof of God’s intentions for this world. He who created did not have to be coaxed to redeem; it was the same love that drove him to create a world - a world that would one day be in dire need of redemption - that drew Jesus to the cross to die on our behalf. Jesus Christ holds the weaving of creation and new creation together. The fall of humankind had cosmic ramifications and so the resurrection of humankind in Christ does as well. The same love that drew forth a world of divine image bearers is the same love that redeems the failures of divine image bearers

The English poet, John Donne, captures the important connections between creation, new creation, and resurrection in these lovely verses taken from his poem entitled, Hymn To God, My God, in My Sickness:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

What Donne expresses in this beautiful verse is what Paul implies in Romans 8: God’s intention in creation and redemption springs from the same love. Moreover, when we remember that creation and new creation are the warp and the woof of God’s creation-project, we are also provided with one of the reasons why we can trust the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, God, unlike us, has no other motive than love when he creates and when he redeems. The only motivation for creation was to make something beautiful; God did not need beauty. His desire to make beauty is sheerly gratuitous. Likewise, in his new creation, our redemption and resurrection, we recognize that he is also motivated by sheer generosity. Redemption and creation are gratuitous, free of charge, and both flow from the fount of God’s love.

Expanding on this idea - Rowan Williams in his book Tokens of Trust, in reflecting on the warp and the woof of creation and new creation puts it to us that we can trust God because his only motive is love; he has no private or hidden agenda. His agenda is for the sake of humankind, whom he created in his own image and in whose image, now known to us as the face of Jesus Christ, we are being redeemed. To illustrate his point, he offers this example from the healing of the man born blind in John 9.

“Jesus asks the blind man he’s just cured whether he believes in the Son of Man. He’s certainly not asking whether the man is of the opinion that the Son of Man exists; he wants to know whether the former blind man is ready to trust the Son of Man - that is Jesus in his role as representative of the human race before God. The man - naturally - wants to know who the ‘Son of Man’ is, and Jesus says that it is him; the man responds with the words, ‘I believe’.

He believes; he has confidence. That is, he doesn’t go off wondering whether the Son of Man is out to further his own ends and deceive him. He trusts Jesus to be working for him, not for any selfish goals and he believes that what he sees and hears when Jesus is around is the truth (Williams from Tokens of Trust, p.5)”.

Questions for discussion:

1. Rowan Williams, in the book mentioned above, observes that a great many people nowadays have a profound distrust of authority. Many, many people simply don’t trust that the authorities and institutions that they have dealings with are really are working for them. Do you agree with his suggestion? Give some examples based on whether you agree or disagree.

2. Can you put into your own words why it is important to see creation and new creation as the warp and the woof of God’s “creation-project”?

3. If someone were to ask you why they should believe in God or trust him, would you feel comfortable using the ideas put forward above, especially the thoughts of Williams around the healing of the blind man?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Palm Sunday 2012 - Missional Humility

It is a sobering thing to think that we might be guilty of making God in our image and acting as if we know our needs better than he does. This is of course what many of Jesus’ first century contemporaries had done with regard to the image they had drawn of what messiah should be for them.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries wanted their messiah to come on a war horse and mount a successful revolt against the Romans. Before we think that too incredulous we must admit that such a sentiment would be an understandable desire for any group of people who were under the foot of Roman imperial power. However - and this is what we note each year on Palm Sunday, Jesus did not come on a war horse. He came on a humble beast of burden.

Ben Witherington (some of you have heard this before but it is worth repeating) has a nice summary of what many in the crowds of passover wanted:

“The cry Hosanna (see Ps. 118.25) seems to in fact be a plea in Hebrew meaning “Save Now!”. The crowds were crying out for a particular kind of political liberation it would appear on the spot, but Jesus had another idea in mind entirely of what made for peace, what made for pacification of our warring madness, what made for liberation and redemption. The real enemy was not Romans or Greeks, or foreigners in general. The real enemy lurked within the hearts of every fallen person—it is called sin.”

It should be arresting to realize that each of us is capable of making God in our own image and refusing to recognize him when he comes to us on his terms. It is a temptation that all of us deal with whether we are first century Israel of old wishing for the blood of Roman oppressors to run through the streets, or a nice upper middle class person who refuses to recognize his own sin but desires for God to exact some sort of vengeance on his work colleagues who slighted him at the last team building meeting.

Again, Witherington about Jesus on Palm Sunday: “Jesus did not come to meet either his earliest followers expectations or ours. He came to meet our needs.”

Jesus wants to deal with the deep needs of our heart in spite of our desire to hide them away from him. As we prepared to come to the communion table this past Sunday we encouraged one another to ask God to reveal to each of us the deep needs in our hearts, needs we must ask him to speak to through the Spirit. I remarked that perhaps there is something for which you and I need to ask God’s forgiveness but we have been too preoccupied by everything else to have the spiritual focus to repent. I suggested that perhaps you or I are so deeply angry with a friend or loved one that we have forgotten the basic call to love, forgive and seek to be the agent of reconciliation. We concluded the communion meditation with these words: whatever it is that you bring to God this morning you can rest assured of one thing - the one who came to his throne on a beast of burden comes to you in order to take your burdens and make them his own.

It is a commonplace to talk about Jesus’ humility on Palm Sunday and we have many times at Grace. But for many of us - when we think of humility we just tend to think of it as the opposite of pride. So far so good. Arrogance, self-importance, egoism and pride all come up as antonyms for humility and who wouldn’t rather be with someone who is the opposite of all those things? However, Jesus’ humility is much more than the opposite of pride, arrogance, self-importance and egoism. For Jesus, his humility was joined to his mission of giving his life away for the sake of others (Philippians 2:1-11). So, I submit that this is what is truly important to know about Jesus’ humility: it is not the sort of humility that is simply polite and good manners. You know what I mean - you are at a dinner party and someone compliments you on your accomplishments etc. and you respond by saying that you really can’t take credit for it because you have such good help and a wonderful team and what not. Funny enough..... many people may be impressed by that sort of humility and so impressed that they might tempt you to take pride in it - tricky business talking about humility, right?

Perhaps the best way to talk about Jesus’ humility is to recognize is as a missional humility. God is on a mission to reach all of humanity with his life changing love. Jesus came into the world to live a life of perfect self-giving love for the purpose of helping all people become alive to God’s way of being human. And all of this is so that we may begin to live now in the same way that we will live in God’s new world, the world to come. God’s new world is already alive in this world and becomes transparent to us whenever we respond to God’s love. When we respond to God’s love in Christ we pull back the veil and the world to come is alive in our presence. This is what theologians often refer to as the already and the not yet. In Jesus, human beings can already live by faith and repentance the life that will come in perfection when this world is joined to the world to come. Living like this is sort of like a leaning forward AND into the promises of God. Living like this is about having our life now framed not by the forces and pressures of this world but, instead, framed by the reality of God’s future. To reiterate, it is so that we may begin to live this way that Jesus came; it is his missional humility, the mission of his self-giving love.

So, if Jesus’ humility is a missional humility as we have just talked about it, then it follows pretty quickly that we need to figure out what it looks like to join him on mission.

For Jesus, so much of his mission seemed to boil down to treating people a certain kind of way and about telling them the truth about God’s forgiveness and his love. To build on that thought and what we said just a moment ago let me put it this way: God’s mission in Jesus is about opening people up to God’s future, about teaching people to see their present life circumstances in light of God’s promised world to come - a place where, as the 14th century English Christian mystic Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

In order to think with you a moment or two about following Jesus in mission with regard to treating people a certain kind of way and telling people the truth about God’s forgiveness and his love I read an account from the gospel of Luke, familiar to many of us but perhaps not from the angle I am presently proposing as a vantage point (Luke 7:36-50).

Let’s talk about treating people a certain way. When Jesus came across people who the religious power brokers of his day did not want near them (or him for that matter), Jesus treated them with dignity and respect - he honored them. For instance. the woman who barged in on the dinner party and began to wash Jesus’ feet with ointment - the important people around the room wanted her gone. Jesus honored her and made her act of hospitality an example to be emulated by them.

One way of testing ourselves to see if we are treating people the way Jesus would have us to is to ask ourselves the question: do we see people at the margins of society as people with whom we have a great deal in common? Here, of course, is what we have in common: a radical need for God to love us and supply all of our needs. However, the way the powers of society are set up, we are perpetually tempted to imagine that what is most important to our lives, material possessions, social position etc., gives us nothing of importance in common with the poor. Hence, we don’t see our connection to those at the margins and so we allow ourselves to be blocked from being able to treat them the way Jesus would have us to treat them. We, like the others at the dinner party in the gospel story, do not want the woman there showing her neediness. She makes them feel uncomfortable; she makes us feel uncomfortable.

I love one of the recent Allstate commercials.... a teenage driver driving an old beater rear ends one of his suburbanite neighbors who is older, established, and driving a late model luxury car. The teenager whips out his Allstate card and the older more established authority figure is dumbfounded: and I paraphrase from memory - “I thought you would have one of those cheap discount insurance plans but you have Allstate and we have the same agent” The teenager says, “yeah, we’re connected.” "No we’re not", says the older gentleman.” “Yes we are”, says the smiling teen....”yes we are”.

Well, that is a silly illustration I am leaning on to get you to wrap your imaginations around a very serious aspect of the gospel. I submit that we must see how much we have in common with the poor and those at the margins in order to treat people in the way that Jesus would have us. I would go so far as to say that our capacity to love all people and treat people as Jesus would have us is directly proportional to the degree to which we see how much we have in common with the poor and those at the margins, our mutual and radical need for God’s mercy and love.

So, as we said earlier, following Jesus in mission boils down not just to treating people a certain kind of way but also about telling people the truth about God’s forgiveness and his love. This is, of course, what Jesus does in this story from Luke, as he goes on to tell the woman in the presence of all that her sins are forgiven. What a gift to this woman and to anyone else who had ears to hear and eyes to see. Jesus framed the woman’s life in light of the gospel and the veil between this world and the world come was pulled back. God forgives those who come to him wanting a relationship and it matters not what others may think of them; all that matters is what God thinks of them.

Now, we are not Jesus and we are not about the business of directly announcing to people the forgiveness of their sins in the way Jesus did, For us sinners it is more about finding unique and imaginative ways to tell people the truth of our lives, which is that we depend on God’s forgiveness to keep us moving in the right direction in this fallen world. Much more can be said about that but if we simply ask God to give us the integrity to be honest with people about our need for God’s forgiveness and love so much of the rest just takes care of itself. May God give us the grace to treat people in a certain kind of way and to tell people the truth about our experience of God’s forgiveness in Christ.


1. When you think about “making God in your image” what comes to mind?

2. Do you find that you sometimes are preoccupied with wishing that God would punish people who have wronged you rather than praying for them, as “your enemies”?

3. Do you think that simply being a Christian with some means in the United States offers unique temptations to distort the image of God portrayed in Jesus? If not, why not? If so, how so?

4. Do you think that you should do a better job at seeing that you have a great deal in common with the poor and those who are at the margins of our society? Do you agree with the substance of the argument above? (Maybe think about this question in relationship to this specific teaching: Matthew 25:31-36.)

5. Do you think you share your story of experiencing God’s forgiveness as truly and often with others as you ought to? If not, how might you embark, for the sake of others, on a path of pulling the veil back on your experience of God’s forgiveness, and communicating to more people the story of your life in light of the gospel.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Road To Emmaus: Guest Preacher, Tim Bowyer

Homily Recap:
Isaiah 42, Psalm 42 and 43, Luke 24:13-35

We opened with a question: What story are we telling when we worship on Sundays and when we
celebrate the Eucharist? We remembered that at the table, we tell a story. We all read a creed and
confession, we hear the words of institution and we get up together, share bread and wine, sit down, and
pass the peace. These acts tell a certain story - a story of a God of love who is reconciling the whole
world to himself through Christ - who has given us new life so that we might live in love with each other
and the world. But we reflected on what stories often race through our heads as we perform these actions
together. Depending on the day, and what has happened that week, or that morning, we may be speaking
the words and moving through the performance telling one story, while our minds are racing telling a
completely different one. Which one do we listen to?

The two psalms we read, Psalm 42 and 43, demonstrate a practice of telling a greater story over a lesser
story in the form of prayer. The Psalmist composed what we now call Psalm 42 and 43 originally as one
song with a beautiful refrain: “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” We see this three times in the two
psalms. Throughout a prayer naming to God the depths of his longing from exile, and his deepest desires,
we find the refrain that reincorporates his forsaken despair into hope, into praise, and into a greater truth -
that God, though seemingly far away and indifferent, is yet God and a present help to the psalmist. This
kind of movement is all through the psalms - awful experiences that would otherwise crush the psalmist
do not, because he wraps them up in the praise and hope of God and God’s promise. We find this is
rather hard to practice. How do we allow that greater story to so wrap ours up, that in the midst of the
immediate circumstances, we might see and feel and trust in God promise?

The Director of Swiss Labri, Greg Laughery, comments on this matter in a recent reflection: “Feelings and
experience can often attempt to be our sole sources and criteria for assessing who we are and what the
world is like. Someone says, “I feel like I have to accomplish something in order to be liked.” Why?
“Because this has been my experience.” Another says, “I feel ashamed.” Why? “Because I have to hide
my real self from others and I experience this as my fault.” Both confirm, “This is the way the world
works.” While feelings and experience are valid dimensions of being human, the question of whether or
not we should trust or be suspicious of them cannot be solely based on feelings and experience. Why? In
themselves they offer no valid way to discern if the perceptions of ourselves and the world are accurate.
Unless we’re willing . . . to raise the difficult question of what is true, we will spin around in circles of the
same, never having adequate criteria for being able to evaluate which feelings and experience can be
considered trustworthy and which suspicious. Once we begin to focus on this explosive question and start
to answer it, trust and suspicion will function in better ways that will in turn lead to truer view of ourselves
and the world.”

Most of us have mixed opinions about truth. While we still have ties to Modernist assumptions about truth
- that it can only be discerned by the scientific method or by historical criticism or by objective analysis,
we also are inundated by postmodern voices - that what matters most is what we experience. And being
“true” to that experience is how we find meaning. The modernist arrogance is something that needed to
be called to question. We understand now that stories constitute meaning and truth far more than the
brute facts of life, the raw data. We know that stories are what make up our identity and meaning. But we
get a bit lost, wondering whether to let our experience and our emotion take control of our destiny or to
hold on rigidly to the supposed facts as if they are the lifeline to meaning or salvation.

The Psalmist names the history of God’s promise, his faithfulness, his love and the present-future of his
Kingdom as the story and Truth that frames his otherwise suffocating reality. That great and greater story
of God cannot be reduced into mere historical data, nor will it be itself as a meaningful story for some,
some of the time. It takes the whole of our lives into it, all people are held together in it, any and every
experience gets wrapped up into it, all emotion finds its end in that greater context – of forgiveness, of
hope, and of new life. The practice of faith is one that tells that greater story as a refrain, so that whatever
we are experiencing, be it poverty, injustice, suffering, rejection, failure, confusion, boredom, or struggle in
sin, though it be valid and true, finds itself wrapped up in the greater story of God reconciling the world to
himself through Christ.

For the homily, we reflected on Luke together, having seen and heard it read to us dramatically. We noted
that Luke has a great appreciation for history and for narrative, weaving themes of travel, conversion,
Eucharist, and the fulfillment of scripture into his gospel and the book of Acts. The experience of the
disciples and their sense of disappointment are slowly wrapped up in a greater story that Christ reveals to
them. Luke tells it in this way to reassure his audience that all the promises of God made to his ancient
people - read in Moses, the prophets, and the psalms - about saving the world through them - had come
to fulfillment, but in an unexpected way. It was not through the fury of insurrection, but in the humble life,
in the suffering and death, and now in the resurrection of Jesus. The story of despair the two disciples are
agonizing over is laid down for the shining truth of a larger story they yet had no imagination for.

This is what often happens when we meet Jesus. We have too many expectations to name and most of
them are let down. We are frustrated, tired, and disappointed. Our experiences in this life have
devastated us and on our emotions, whether we show that openly or whether we push it down, retreating
into ourselves. But we meet Jesus because he comes to us on the road. He joins us, lets us hash out our
own stories, gives us time. But he invites us into a greater story and a different way of imagining him, the
world, and ourselves. He is no failed prophet or a stranger, who is out of touch with reality. The world is
not a only a place of splintered stories without meaning. We are not absolutely forsaken. Rather, he is the
one who has gone before us into death and risen before us into life. All stories find their end and center int
that one. We find our experiences and emotions wrapped up in that greater truth. We need not close
ourselves off from others or from God in the story of our own experience or emotion. Our story can be
taken up into his as we participate in following after him. In this, as the disciples along the road too
discover, our hearts may just start to warm, and we may start to live in greater courage.

To help us imagine what this might entail for us, we told two stories: the story of my friend and the story of
the seed. My friend was raising her young children and her husband was suffering in severe depression
and without work. She would sit by herself after dark on the back porch, and through tears name the
things that she was thankful for - a roof, food enough, and friends. In a small way, she was telling a
greater story than her immediate severe pain. She said at this time that she couldnʼt believe in the gospel,
but she continued to be in a church. The people there would say to her, “Thatʼs just fine. Weʼll keep on
telling the story and weʼll stand next to you.” She did not dismiss her story and neither did the church, but
they TOGETHER, slowly, wrapped it up in a larger one. Planting, like theses stories, reminds us that the
veil of the immediate emotion or experience is not the end of the story. The dark soil, at first, would tell a
story of death, of wrapping all that falls to the ground in its arms, engulfing the seeds in a cloak they
cannot see past. Yet water and sun call them upward. By forces unknown to them, they are being drawn
into air and into new being.

Lent is a journey on the way to the passion of Christ. Since it entails self-discipline and identifying with the
suffering messiah, we may feel like we’ve been on a journey that is designed only to wear us down. Or
maybe life is enough to wear down on us and we didnʼt need Lent to remind us. We may have lost a
sense of the greater story. But the end is not suffering, not the cross, but the resurrection. That is why we
speak of resurrection on the 5th Sunday of Lent. We were never meant to journey without the memory and
hope of that future. Jesus is already walking beside. His story goes before us and after. His story
envelops our in grace.


1. Where do we look for and find meaning in our lives? Are experience and emotion valid ways of
determining meaning?

2. If you can share, what are the stories that interrupt, combat, or threaten to overshadow the story of the

3. Do you have a practice, like that of the Psalmist, which weaves any and every experience and emotion
into a greater story through refrain? What might this look like for you?

4. How is the church to practice this kind of reincorporation of the lesser story into the greater? Can you
think of examples where this has been done well or poorly?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

good news for those trapped in slavery

It is common during the season of Lent to read and meditate on the passage before us this morning, of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Clearly, the 40 days in the wilderness is meant to evoke the image of God’s ancient people, Israel, wandering for 40 years in the wilderness - you may remember that those four decades come, remarkably, on the heels of their dramatic exodus from the chains of slavery. Tragically, having been set free from slavery in Egypt, God’s people of old exhibited the oh-so-human tendency to forget about God’s goodness, faithfulness, and love, about his power to redeem and about his concern that we humans live our lives in a certain kind of way that brings God’s goodness, peace, and justice to bear in this fallen world in a pattern that makes for human flourishing, our own and others. But the wilderness generation was just like the rest of us when they were showing what it looks like to be a broken and sinful people. They were demonstrating that the human condition is universally a broken mess; this mess is sometimes given the label, original sin. However, when we hear language like, original sin, it can be tempting to think of it as some sort of abstract concept like, in the words of one theologian, “a great metaphysical curse hanging over humanity”. But it is probably more helpful to talk about it in this way: Rowan Williams goes on to say, “there is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity.... In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way.... Our learning how to exist is mixed in with learning what does not make for our life or our joy. And every failure and wrong turn in the history of a person as in the history of our species locks us more and more firmly into ourselves. No wonder we drift further from peace, become less and less free to give. Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible.”

That human act is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His human success in loving God in the wilderness is the beginning of that reversing of the flow that Williams talks about above. Jesus’ mission can be summarized in many ways but one way of talking about it is to say that he came to pioneer a new humanity, to put human beings in proper relationship with God and with each other by being in proper relationship to God and to his fellow human beings. (Ultimately, this mission would entail his death on the cross, which would also accomplish the forgiveness of ou sins. ) But back to the passage at hand: as a human being, his “saying no” to the devil in the wilderness is the first time a human had said an unmitigated yes to God since Adam’s and Eve’s fall from grace.

As the new Adam, the first representative of the New Exodus, he enters into the darkness of temptation in the wilderness so that we might know that he is near to us in our darkest moments. In our dark moments, he is there to break our cycles of self-destruction, to help us love others as we are meant to, to enable us to forgive those who hurt us, to be peacemakers in our families and communities. How about you and me this morning? Are you in the midst of a cycle that needs to be broken? If so, and we often are, Jesus is near you in your temptation and he is there to break that cycle for you and with you. Is there something in your life that you need to name and of which you need to repent hat is taking away your freedom to love others as you are meant to love them and want to love them? If so, Jesus is near to you and wants to help; will you ask him? Is temptation to bitterness and envy threatening not only to steal every ounce of joy from your life but ruin your friendships and work relationships? Have pride and self-sufficiency kept you from turning to God to ask him to help you grow into the person he wishes you to be? In all of these dark patterns, Jesus is near to you in any and every moment of your struggle to say yes to God; he is there to help you.

When you come to this communion table this morning, remember, “God has heard the cry of his people”. He is drawing near you - not in harsh judgment but in sympathetic love and with the power to redeem.

There are many different ways to summarize the gospel but one way to talk about it is as the response of God to the cries of those who are trapped in slavery. Slavery can take many forms. We talked about spiritual slavery, so to speak, before communion but the spiritual is never sealed off from the physical in scripture and God cares about what we do (and what others do) to our physical bodies.

The form slavery took among God’s ancient people at the time of the great Exodus from Egypt is similar to a great deal of the slavery that still goes on today. As I am sure most of you know, heinously, many millions of people today experience slavery through human trafficking, and various forced labor scenarios. It happens in the United States more than anyone usually wants to talk about; the most terrible and terrifying examples have to do with the trafficking of minors in prostitution - the ads for sex trafficking make media companies wealthy (e.g. lots of classifieds owned by ‘reputable companies’). What an awful situation!

When Jesus announced that he is preaching good news to the poor and to those who are
enslaved he has in mind people suffering at the margins of society and those who cannot really do much if anything to help themselves. He has in mind the people among us in the world today who are radically poor, enslaved, or at the margins of our world. One of the things that I wanted us to think about - and feel - on the way to communion this morning was that the good news of God’s coming kingdom is MEANT to feel liberating and compassionate to you. But how does that work out for those who are modern day slaves, or trapped in deep, multi-generational poverty. With regard to these people, we who have power and wealth have a large measure of responsibility as to whether or not we have made the gospel to be good to news to the poor or the exploited. Those of us with status and power must realize that the reason we have the resources of the world is to share them with those who do not. It is tempting to try to prescribe how to play this out in details but really I think with most of us we need to acquire or reacquire the discipline to realize moment by moment that we are here on this earth to join with Jesus on mission, to help those who have less than we do and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

1. As mentioned above, Jesus’ unmitigated yes was the first in human history since “the fall”. What has Jesus’ yes made possible for us who are united in his life, death and resurrection? Maybe framing your answer in response to this passage would be an interesting exercise. Romans 6:1-7.

2. If we are free to say yes to God in Christ, why don’t we always say yes? Perhaps you might frame your response to this in light of this passage: 1 John 1: 5-10

3. In light of what was drawn out in the two meditations above, why is it important to know that Jesus has given us the power to say yes to God?

4. Can you think of something new you can do that will make the gospel to be good news for the poor and exploited?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

the blind leading the blind

Psalm 100 Call to Worship
Romans 12:9-18 Lesson 1
Luke 6:37-42 Lesson 2

As we mentioned last week, Lent is not so much a season to come up with epiphanies (little liturgical humor there - very little) at least not epiphanies of things we have never thought of before Rather, it is a time to wake up to what we know but what we don’t often apply in our lives. For example, we know that we are meant to be people who are joined to Jesus in his movement to reconcile people to God and to each other but we, ourselves, often prefer to brood over the wrongs we have suffered than desire to be energized to reconcile and see people hopefully. Sometimes we even get addicted to a sort of grinding pathology whereby we only look at peoples faults, rather than the good God is doing in their lives. It is hard to move in the direction to being at peace with people, as our first lesson exhorts us this morning, when you look at people that way. What helps is to remember that if we are to make any progress at all in this regard we must be disciplined to see people the way that God sees them, through the lens of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection - to see them in a new context, the context of his love for them and the future he has promised to them. If you do that you will be more likely to have your default set to desiring to love and forgive others as God has loved and forgiven you.

There may have been a twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he said the proverb about the blind leading the blind, because that little saying, together with the story of the log and the speck, are meant to conjure funny mental images which, in turn, would be easy to remember. The blind leading the blind really is like something out of the British comedy troupe, Monty Python. Think of it like this: a blind person says to the person sitting next to him in the village square, “hey I need to go to my next social appointment, would you guide me?” The fellow says, “yes, certainly”, but the joke is on the first guy - because the guide ends up being blind too and off into the ditch they go.

Now, the first thing to note about this little story is that it is meant to be confrontational to a certain way of approaching life. It is not offered as an abstract principle about how to choose good teachers, though it is adaptable in that way; it is rather a warning to Jesus’ followers that if they continue approaching their life with each other and God according to the way the current religious leadership of the day were teaching them, they were going to end up in the ditch. Jesus was saying that those who opposed his message of God’s grace and love for all people were blind and should not be followed. Follow the Pharisees and you end up not being able to get past their blindness which is what is meant by the comment about a student not being able to get past her teacher.

What follows in our text from Luke is a description of the way in which many of Jesus’ rival teachers were approaching human relationships and, in turn, their relationships with God. What a depressing image of a community we have here: a group of people who are bent on pointing out the faults of others, presumably in order to feel better about their own lives.

(You may remember from last week, the story of the good Samaritan, wherein the religious leader was seeking to justify himself by attempting to gain a definition of who qualified as his neighbor, a definition that would would make being a neighbor manageable, so to speak. However, Jesus disturbs him and his approach by telling the story that makes it plain that the neighbor can be anyone and anywhere. That seems to be a common theme among Jesus’ opponents, a desire to smugly justify themselves through an adherence to a manageable moral code and a manageable approach to ritual purity, all the while ignoring the condition of their hearts. Jesus said elsewhere of that approach that it was like straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.)

Here in our text today Jesus exposes the condition of the human heart by drawing, with his words, a cartoon that describes the way we often are with people. The little picture he draws is potent! I mean it really does look silly, right? Someone is running around with a log jutting out of his eye who, instead of being worried about the log, is more worried about what he perceives to be a bit of sawdust in his neighbors’ eye. What an absurd vision but I bet it describes all of us at one time or another.

When we desire to hold power over others based on our perception of their faults, rather than being so aware of our own sins and of God’s love for us in spite of them, we can become addicted to that way of looking at others. Eventually, having only an interest in appearing to be better than others, we lose sight of the darkness in our own hearts and become numb to God’s love - what a mess!

What is the cure for this? what keeps us from running amok in that way? Well, a bit later in the gospel, Jesus says that we are to build on a firm foundation. That firm foundation includes a daily confession that Jesus was right when he said, in so many words, over and over again, that God “does not forgive us because we are good but he makes us good by forgiving us (Rowan Williams).” May that gospel truth lead us out of the ditch of self-righteousness and into the hospitable path of God’s love for all people. There is your firm foundation!

1. Have there been occasions for you where you realize that you have desired to look at people first and foremost in the context of their faults? What alarm bells go off in your head and heart when you head in that direction? Do you listen to the alarm bells?

2. Should you feel free to point out the sin of someone else? If so.....
Under what circumstances should you do that? What gives you the justification to do that? What should you say? How should it be done?

3. Is it ever right to confront someone else about something they have done wrong without leading off by choosing something appropriate to confess as a weakness or sin of your own?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How Big Is Your Neighborhood?

This morning we come to a story that is familiar to many of us and, indeed, we have looked at this story as recently as last year during one of the homilies. However, looking at familiar truths during the time of Lent is a good practice because Lent is not meant to be a time to think about things we have never thought of before; rather, Lent is a time to think of things we have thought about quite a lot - but perhaps that is where it has stopped for many of us with regard to certain familiar truths of the gospel; we have thought quite a lot, but in many instances have not sought to actively apply the truths to our life-settings. Lent invites us in a focused way to ask of God’s spirit to expand our faith and couple our faith with the courage to act in accordance to the familiar truths we know.

So, a few things about this familiar story.

The lawyer asks the question who is my neighbor, Luke tells us, seeking to justify himself. That might puzzle us at first glance - seeking to justify himself? What is he fishing for here that could help him to justify himself? New Testament scholar GB Caird offers this insight - - and I paraphrase:

“many of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, in a passionate devotion to the OT Law, attempted to make it applicable to every eventuality of daily life - their method? To spell out in detail the exact requirements of the law in such a way as to define the limits of their liability.”

In other words, they worked out a schema for all of life that told them exactly what the limit of their responsibility would be in any given situation - they wanted to define life so that they could always see their responsibility to God and others within the category of limited liability - I have done what I am supposed to do and I have acted for whom I am supposed to perform so now I am done here; I am justified.

The lawyer was fishing for a definition of neighbor that would help him to justify himself.

However, Jesus messes this up by turning the lawyer’s reasoning and question on its head. Iinstead of giving a definition, Jesus tells a story that makes it clear that to represent God’s hospitality in this fallen world we must be preoccupied with a different question: am I a neighbor to whomever needs a neighbor regardless of who this person is and where I find them?

So, back to Caird - “The question, 'who is my neighbor', is a request for definition; and the answer of Jesus frustrates the desire of the lawyer to define his liability. Jesus offers a definition of neighbor that asks the lawyer to embrace an ethic of unlimited liability.”

One of the Lenten actions that some of our families at Grace will be doing with their children this week really drives the message of this parable home in a practical way by asking us to take a look at where our clothes are made. The action simply suggests, look at your stuff and see where it is made - leaves the rest up to you.

For the thoughtful person, finding out, or remembering, that one's clothes are made far away (as they are for many of us), is an immediate reminder to us that our neighborhood is bigger than we initially may have thought. And, in light of our theme today, I suggest that it would require an unimaginative, if not insincere, reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan to not see that, in our contemporary setting, we must have a large enough and holy enough imagination to recognize that our neighbor is someone living across the world and making our clothes and other stuff. What are our responsibilities to these neighbors? The answer will be a bit different for each of us but Jesus’ teaching calls all of us to recognize one thing for sure: they are our neighbors.

But what about our responsibility in situations such as these? I fear that in the United States we are either too distracted to think about this much - which is a whole problem unto itself - or, if we do think about it very much we are too mired in our political opinions about whether US businesses should be taking advantage of cheap labor overseas to think about what our own response as a follower of Jesus ought to be to the neighbor who made our what-nots and thingamabobs.

Some may advocate that our government should do something about all of this - to regulate and legislate in such a way as to end the opportunity for businesses here to make a profit on the backs of those who suffer workplace horrors. Others say, that is not the answer: "do you really want to take away the contribution our economy is making? "Better", these folks say, "for our relationships to continue to allow for slow reform over time, etc." Both of these views can be and are often held by faithful followers of Jesus - neither is un-Chrstian per se - but neither really has much to do with the gospel either.

What I want to suggest is that both of these political positions can end up distracting us from having as deep and meaningful a reaction as we ought to be having to the dire situations we have come to know about some workplace horrors overseas, Each of these political positions can keep the problems overseas distant from our hearts because if, on the one hand, we imagine that it is a problem just for policy people to fix we are tempted to limit our liability by transferring it to the halls of congress; on the other hand, if you want the markets to work it out and leave it at that then you are willing to limit your liability by transferring it to the invisible hand of capitalism to eventually help those who are sometimes working in situations that we would never allow to befall a loved one or friend.

I am not suggesting an easy, one-size fits all action-plan for every Christian regarding this issue. I am simply suggesting that the circle of people who include our neighbors, according to the gospel-logic of Jesus’ story before us this morning, includes many people we may initially be blind to, including those who make our stuff.

At the very least, when we become aware of injustices done to those overseas who are making our stuff (and by the way - I am not suggesting that every company is guilty of this, but some have been) - when we become aware we need to resist the initial impulse to think about the issue as a problem for someone else. We first must realize that it is a problem for us to pray about, and ask God what we are to do.

Perhaps the starting point for each of us after prayer would be to think about and formulate what we might want to say about this issue in the public square and start saying it; but when we do, we must do it humbly, for most of you are more like me than not when it comes to being a consumer - this sermon was typed on a computer made overseas and printed on a printer that was probably made overseas so we are all in this together. The first thing that came to my mind when I prayed about this was to write a letter to several companies I do business with and simply say that I care about this issue and from here on forward I will be giving more careful consideration to my consumption based on what I find out about how that company operates with workers in other countries.

Whatever we do, as Christians, we must be clear that the purpose of the gospel is to say to empire and power, whatever empire and power looks like when and where the gospel is preached, that Jesus is King and that he holds everyone with power accountable for the well-being of their neighbor who lies bleeding on the other side of the road. Specifically, as Christians, we must stand for an ethic that leads us to those who lie bleeding on the other side of the road, because an ethic of limited liability leads us away from the generous love we ourselves have received from God. May God give us wisdom, imagination and courage to work out what it means to be a neighbor to any and all.

1. What do you think God might want you to do differently in the midst of your mundane life in light of you most recent experience (this Sunday past) with this parable in worship?

2. An “ethic of unlimited liability” can sound pretty scary in terms of what it asks.... how do you embrace this sort of approach to the needs of others while maintaining the rest of your life and obligations? Examples would probably be helpful here..... for example, is the best approach to work with the idea of percentages of time and resources, by feel, etc.?

3. Do you think the church allows partisan politics to gag her voice on issues of social justice?