Are There Exceptions to the Golden Rule?

Are There Exceptions to the Golden Rule?

I began the week knowing that I would be preaching on love your neighbor, love your enemies, and turn the other cheek. Since Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw our Gospel text as a strategy for nonviolent resistance to injustice, I watched for examples. Last Saturday our Church Vision and Organization meeting moved because the Sugar Shack Alliance, an environmental group, was offering nonviolent resistance training, and nearly 50 people, mostly young women, signed up. We have had space requests for more training, and groups like The Worker’s Center have dozens of millennials who are organizing a safe streets program to protect and be in solidarity with immigrants. Young people are rediscovering nonviolent action.

I had coffee with Rabbi Justin David, who was recently arrested with a group of 100 rabbis, protesting the immigration ban by the current US regime. He spoke of nonviolent action as a spiritual practice, staying calm while the group was arrested, their hands bound at the wrist for nearly three hours. Imagine Jewish rabbis getting arrested to protect Muslim immigrants.

Afterwards I went to get a burrito and the sign at Bueno Y Sano said, “We are closed today to observe the national Day Without Immigrants.” Paul and Elizabeth’s, probably our most famous Noho restaurant was closed for lunch, I’m sure that cut into profits. Maybe you are thinking, well that is Northampton, and we live in a bubble, the tofu curtain. It’s not a real trend. Guess what, 200 legislators cancelled town hall meetings this week, in places like South Carolina, Utah and Tennessee. People with no political experience have downloaded a Google Doc called “Indivisible” and are turning things upside down, or perhaps right side up again.

So, I want to talk about Leviticus. I want to show how Jesus’s teachings are deeply grounded in centuries of Jewish moral teaching. Jesus is interpreting Mosaic law within his contemporary situation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. interpreted Jesus teachings for their time. And I am wondering here in 2017 how this Gospel text is still speaking to us in fresh new ways.

The Old Testament reading this week concludes, “Do not hate, do not take vengeance, love your neighbor as yourself.” Just before the birth of Jesus, one of the most famous Rabbis in history, Rabbi Hillel, taught the Golden Rule. One day a Gentile approached him and said that he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the entire Torah standing on one leg. That is a strange request. Perhaps he thought the Torah was very long, and you can only stand on one leg for a few minutes before losing your balance, so it would be a real test. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is commentary.”

There are so many stories and doctrines of Judaism Hillel could have taught, from creation of the world, to Exodus, to the 613 laws to follow, to the preaching of the prophets, and the wonder of the Psalms. Hillel spent years studying and memorizing scriptures, but it all comes down to this simple, clear moral dictum. Treat your neighbor as yourself. Karen Armstrong notes in her book “The Case for God,” every religion- Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism-also teach the Golden Rule. This unites all religion. Transcend the self, recognize the relationship to others, and have compassion for a neighbor, a stranger, even an enemy.

In our Gospel text, Jesus is not inventing something new. Everyone in his audience would know the Golden Rule. Love your neighbor. Everyone agrees it is a noble thing to do. Of course, we make exceptions when they are being jerks. Love your neighbor, if they agree with you, if they speak your language, look like you, or conform to your politics. If they attack you, attack back with the same force, poke their eye out, knock their tooth out if you must do so. Why is Jesus taking away the exceptions, like an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Every rule needs to be interpreted. Surely Jesus meant love your good and decent neighbors, but don’t worry about “those” people, the ones who don’t know how we do things around here, who might take our jobs, or worse. Loving all your neighbors sounds impractical, except for maybe a few saints, and it might just be dangerous.

This is one of the hardest texts in the Bible, one that I have wrestled with my whole life, because it feels impractical, implausible and even dangerous. My default mindset is pragmatism. Will it work? Is this the best prevailing practice? Where has this been successful? Jesus is not a pragmatist. Pragmatists are rarely crucified. Dreamers get crucified. Jesus is a spiritual entrepreneur, seeking to make the Kingdom of God near. Therefore, we may feel like overlooking the passage entirely. Even some of our best theological minds like Reinhold Niebuhr, thought Jesus’s ethic in the Sermon on the Mount was totally impractical, and while it may have some application in individual situations, it was entirely impractical in social and political reality. Then Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. came along and insisted that Jesus really meant it. This is how we are supposed to live. Why was this so attractive to Gandhi and Martin?

Jesus identifies four situations where he applies to the Golden Rule to some thorny, challenging situations where people are being demeaned and oppressed.
“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Striking on the right cheek is what a master does to a slave. To hit my right cheek, you would need to throw a left hook or more likely, you would be slapping me. The law said you can slap your servants to discipline them, but you could not punch them and beat them. Turning your left cheek forces the aggressor to choose between illegal violence or restraining themselves and seeing the human being across from them.

“40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;” In Jesus’s day, if you owed money, someone held what little you might have, like your coat, as collateral on your debt. This is obviously cruel. The modern version is to destroy your credit rating, then you can’t get a bank account, and you must pay 10 percent to cash your check. The cycle of debt increases to you end up in jail for nonpayment. Jesus says just show up in court naked. You want everything I have, there you go.

“41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. If a Roman soldier conscripts you to carry his equipment for a mile, willingly carry it a second mile on your own. This happened, in fact when Jesus could not carry his cross, a man identified as Simon the Cyrene was conscripted to carry it. What is the point here? If someone treats you like a pack animal, what options do you have? Show them you have your own will, volunteer and demonstrate your own agency. Win over your oppressor. In their mind, they are just doing their jobs, so surprise them.

42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Are you kidding me Jesus? No way am I doing that! I’ll give, but I want my money to be helpful, not wasted. I will give it to the Survival Center or Friends of the Homeless. Perhaps they did not have social service agencies in Jesus day, and he would approve of organizational charity instead of handing out cash to beggars. But Jesus whole tone in this this passage is to provoke. This is your neighbor. Look them in the eye. Know their story. In what way are we directly in community with people of a different class and circumstance than we are?

How do you feel about these four examples right now? Do they blow your mind? Do you feel empowered or totally inadequate? I feel a bit of both. I hear in the text a call to creative love, to have the courage to act in nonviolent ways when injustice prevails. My pragmatic advice it to be careful, Jesus did get crucified. Nonviolent resistors get training to minimize risk. Likewise, this is not to push you towards toxic people or to stay in abusive situations. But it is a call to creative and courageous in the midst of conflict, without fueling the cycle of violence and hatred.

Bishop Douglas Fisher, the Episcopal Bishop of Western Mass recently shared this on Facebook, and it is my closing prayer for us:

“The Church is made for times like these.” In a troubled time, the Church is made to call people to be our best selves, to live from our God-filled souls, to imagine God’s will which is to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

God bless you all with strength and courage to live out the Beloved Community.Are

“Choosing to Live in Right Relationship”

“Choosing to Live in Right Relationship”

I have found a great appreciation for the book of Deuteronomy this week.  This is a very ancient law book, now nearly three millennia old.  Some of these laws feel strange and dated, such as practices for animal sacrifices, that they like lambs should not have blemishes.  Don’t use mixed fibers and shellfish are an abomination.  Others laws are remarkably relevant.  Don’t eat dead animals you find on the ground.  Appoint judges in every city who are impartial and who don’t take bribes.  Hired workers should be paid fairly.  Debts should be forgiven after seven years.  Parts of the crop should be set aside for poor people.  Here is a good one from Deut. 17:16 in case the people want a king:” He must not acquire many horses for himself, 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also, silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.”  If we keep reading perhaps there is a verse about providing tax returns, but I haven’t read that far yet.


I spent an hour thumbing through Deuteronomy, and it was time well spent.  This should not be surprising, but it was.  I have absorbed a negative bias about laws and lawyers.  Legal-eeze is inscrutable, to many laws and regulations bog things down, lawyers are often described as money hungry advocates for the rich.  I was raised to “Question Authority.”  And to beware of legalism.  Religious legalism is especially pernicious, and often just a cover for nationalism, racism, sexism and other forms of in-group bias and prejudice.  Laws have bias, from Deuteronomy, to the Constitution to current law enforcement practices like racial profiling.


And yet the past week was a reminder to us about why we endeavor to be a nation of laws.  250,000 listened to the live stream of the Federal Appeals Court panel questioning the Presidential Order to ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.  We listened through the arcane discourse, for some hint of hope that we are nation of laws, rather than a country guided by 140-character Twitter fights.  Lawyers are suddenly heroes as they charged to the airports to help foreign travelers, and the ACLU received $24 million in one weekend.  Deuteronomy has swag again.  The only thing worse than being a nation of laws is not being a nation of laws.


We are part of an ancient religious tradition emphasizes covenant.  Covenants need some agreed upon rules.  Ancient law did not get everything right, women were not give equal standing, unforeseen technology presents new challenges, but the truth has not changed-we still need a foundation of fairness, concern for the weak and unfortunate, and justice we can count on.


Today’s reading is a sermon by Moses, near the end of the book urging people to take these laws to heart:

 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[a] that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, blessed. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear … 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish.


This is great preaching.  I made a similar speech right before teaching my son to drive.  I held up the keys and said, “These are the keys that will become your freedom.  Listen to what I teach you and you will live.  But if you fail to take heed, this car is a death machine.  It is the most dangerous thing you will do your entire life and the thing most likely to cut it short, so you shalt use your turn signal and drive more than 5 MPH over the speed limit, and never listen to the radio while driving until you are over 30 years old.”


Learning to drive is like what Moses and Jesus were trying to teach.  If you ignore the rules of the road, there is no longer any covenant and everyone suffers.  What happens when no one uses turn signals, tries to text on their phone, and drives over the speed limit?  (You get Rhode Island.)  You get chaos, and driving becomes dangerous, and everyone is shouting at each other and getting more aggressive.  The covenant is gone, and road rage takes its place.


It is human nature that we start to slide on this covenant.  Let’s be honest.  Do you always use your turn signal?  How fast do you drive on the Mass Pike?  I won’t even ask about reading text messages on your cell phone.  I will not look at people at a stop light any more.  I don’t want to know what they are doing in their car.  (That’s why I just read my phone till the light changes.)  Moses is the guy that keeps reminding us, don’t forget why you have a covenant.  Follow the rules of the road and you will be safe and everyone will eventually find a parking spot.  Likewise, respect free speech, free religion, privacy, treat everyone equally under the law, and guarantee protection for the weak and the stranger.


Jesus knew the challenges of teaching driver’s education.  Jesus knew that even if you memorize the driver’s manual, and know all the laws and regulations, it does not make you a good driver.  Rules of the road can’t give you skill, it can’t teach you judgement, it can’t prepare you for dealing with several things happening quickly, so you react in the right way.  What does it take to be a good driver?  You need practice, you need to mindful of what you are doing and pay attention, sometimes you must protect yourself out there.  You need to have some sense of the value of the other people on the road and what they might do or think. Driving demands a certain amount of caring, empathy and forgiveness.  Jesus knows the law will not make you a good driver by itself, nor will Biblical law by itself make you a good Christian.


It’s not enough to say, I didn’t kill anyone.  Jesus says when you start to harbor anger, exchange harsh words, and curse your sibling, your guilty.  You are developing the very attitudes that lead to violence.  Most violence starts with small actions and decisions.  No one just wakes up and decides one day to kill someone.  Every good detective knows a murder starts with a motive.  Most of us never venture into that much evil and violence, but Jesus challenges us to not even start down the path of allowing our relationships to get out of hand.


You make think Jesus gets a little harsh in Matt. 5:22 when he says you may be guilty of Hellfire.  Our modern translations miss something important.  Jesus says, you might end up in Gahanna, which was a real place just outside of Jerusalem.  There are several references to Gahanna in the book of Jeremiah, who says that it was where child sacrifice was practiced in ancient days.  Therefore, it was a cursed place.  In Jesus day, it was where the trash was dumped and burned, and was probably about as foul a place as people could imagine.  I don’t think Jesus was warning us that our sins were going to land us in eternal damnation. Rather when we forget our covenant to one another, and don’t seek to love, we start to trash our relationships and our community.  Don’t litter, because it adds up to a big dump.  Likewise, take care of the small mishaps, indignities and injustices before they become a deep and painful wound, or rupture our relationship.  When Jesus said, don’t create Gahanna by your actions, we should hear, don’t create Love Canal, or Flint, Michigan, or Nagasaki, or Auswitz, and for the love of God, don’t melt the ice caps while you are at it.


Take care to nurture the bonds of covenant, because things can fall apart.  That is Gahanna.  There is a tipping point where evil and injustice take over and it will create much suffering before things are made right again.


Here is my takeaway analogy from wrestling with these two texts.  Good drivers respect the rules of the road, but they don’t fall in love with the driver’s manual.  People become good drivers because they love the journey, they love to travel, to see the sights and take in the world.  And they love it so much that they share the road because they want everyone to enjoy it.  Good Christians should not get too far from the manual, but the point is to love this journey of life, to do the work of building community and living in right relationship.






Matthew 5:13-20  “Life Outside the Salt Shaker”

Matthew 5:13-20 “Life Outside the Salt Shaker”

Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth.  Salt is one of the essential things for life that is often taken for granted and forgotten.  You probably did not think much about salt this week, but consider how often you unknowingly use and need it.  Salt is more than a condiment to make our food taste better.  Our body needs a certain amount for good health.  The chemical compound for salt, sodium chloride, is essential for many chemical reactions which take place in the body.  When deprived of it we become dehydrated, our blood pressure will drop and we would eventually slip into a coma and die without salt.  Of course, this must be regulated because too much salt will raise blood pressure and is unhealthy.  We have found other uses for salt, from melting ice on our sidewalks, curing animal hides, it is used in water softening equipment and has many industrial uses for manufacturing chemicals.  The need for salt is so great that the world produces 187 million tons each year.  The United States produces more salt than steel.


To call someone the salt of the earth, as Jesus did in Matthew’s Gospel, speaks of their importance, yet the clique has lost its savor.  Jesus was a master of the metaphor, and I think he chose this image of salt carefully.  By comparing a person to the salt of the earth, he meant much more than complimenting a person for their good works.  If we probe the uses and meaning of salt in ancient times, I think we will find a metaphor for what a disciple of Jesus should do in the world.


Salt was greatly prized in the ancient world.  Roman soldiers were paid with salt.  The Latin word for “salt money” was salarium, from which our English word “salary” comes.  Salt was a principle commodity of commerce and made up the bulk of the caravan trade across the Sahara.  One of the oldest roads in Italy was called the Via Salaria (Salt Road).


Salt also had a social and religious significance.  In Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Persian texts there is a connection of salt and the idea of a covenant or binding relationship. To “eat salt” with another person was to create a bond of friendship.  Therefore, the task of a disciple who is to be the salt of the earth is to bind people together, to strengthen the bonds of one person to another, to expand the human covenant and create a broader sense of human solidarity.  In Jesus’ day, they did not know how salt helps create and sustain chemical reactions, but this knowledge fits the metaphor.  The church is to be like salt, which enables people to react together in a way that brings about something new and good.  As disciples we are to be the catalysts and the bonding agents that bind people together.  We salt our food, it takes the bitterness out.  Disciples of Jesus are to be like that.  We are to transform the bitter taste that the world leaves in our mouths.


Discord, divisiveness and derision are not to be in the spice rack of the church.  Too often the public face of Christianity in our nation is like salt that has lost its savor.  We are not called to scold the world into being good.  We are not told to look at the evil of the world and then proclaim that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.  There is a movement to stoke the fires of outrage about the evil and immorality of the world.


Being the salt of the earth is a way of compassion and reconciliation.  We are to get into the mix of the world, bind it together and remove the bitterness and discord.  This interpretation fits the context of the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus has just given the Beatitudes.  He has said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  He also blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn (which I would translate “those who are willing to let their hearts be broken by the world), blessed are the meek (or those who are humble, not selfish and self-centered.)   Jesus says that these are the virtues for disciples.  These are the people who are going to inherit the earth, who will be filled, who will receive mercy, who will be called the children of God.  These are unlikely virtues that exhibit and different kind of power than most worldly power.  These are the attributes that will bind humanity together, that will cure the nation’s warring madness, bend our pride to God’s control, save of from weak resignation to the evils we deplore, lest we miss thy Kingdom’s goal.


This week I looked for examples of people acting like the salt of the earth, and it was a good week for salty saints, ordinary people doing good things for others.  This has been a great week for the refusal to let bigotry win.  In Victoria, TX, the Islamic Center was burned to the ground.  Striking at the religious centers of marginalized people is a major strategy of white supremacy groups in this country.  On Tuesday, 17 Jewish centers, from pre-schools to synagogues, were closed due to bomb threats.  Meanwhile, the current regime eliminated all references to Jews from its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.


Here is the good news.  People are not going to accept that as the new normal.  The Rabbi in Victoria, Texas showed up with a spare key to the synagogue and told the Islamic Center they had plenty of room for prayer.  Someone started a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild, and the goal of $850,000 was surpassed in two days.  20,000 contributed to make sure this act of hate cannot stand.


Here is another great story from Texas last Tuesday.  Every year the Texas legislature has a Muslim Day, where people of Islamic faith come and learn about the legislative process and the freedom of religion.  Last year, alt-Christians demonstrated against Islam, condemned the gathering in the name of Jesus, turning his name into a curse, and changed in the face of Muslim children, “Mohammed is dead, Jesus is alive.”  This year they did not get the chance because 2000 people showed up to protect the gathering, and formed a human chain four rows deep around the protestors, and drowned their shouts with singing.


Jesus could have used any number of other metaphors to describe the role of the church in the world.  He could have said, you are like a mighty army that will achieve victory, or you are like the tide that shall overcome the earth, an earthquake that will shake the foundations of the status quo.  But instead, Jesus said that we are like salt.  We are like those little crystals you put in a shaker on your table.  It helps the food taste better and it quietly and unnoticeably keeps the body alive.  Without it, you die.


You are the salt of the earth.  You don’t need massive amounts of salt to accomplish a great deal.  A few sprinkles go a long way on your plate.  The waters of the ocean have an overpowering saltiness, yet contain only about three percent salt.  Just 3 percent can be overwhelming.  You may wonder, “What can just 3 percent of people do against all the evil and injustice of the world.”  Here is what they can do.  Recent research on nonviolent action campaigns in the 20th century; an international study of labor movements, the civil rights movement, anti-apartheid protestors, Yugoslavia at the Fall of the Iron Curtain; asked the question, how much of the population must be engaged to be successful in their aims.  You want to guess the number?  3.5 percent.  Just over 3 percent of the people persistently standing as a sign for justice and truth can over power even a dictatorship.  Why?  Because their moral witness is like salt, and it permeates the whole stew of society, takes out the bitterness and brings in the flavors of all good things, even those who are afraid to stand out.


Your activities, great and small, help bring about the world God intends, a world where there is hope and dignity, faith and liberty, love and equality.  To carry out this activity, we do not have to be numerous, wealthy or powerful, just willing to get out of the salt shaker and into the world.



Matthew 4:12-23  “What is a Disciple to do?”

Matthew 4:12-23 “What is a Disciple to do?”

What would Jesus do?  WWJD?  I never bought the bracelet, but I do think this is a foundational moral question. If we want to be followers of Jesus.  So, how do you think Jesus would have spent this inauguration weekend?  Would Jesus have attended worship at the National Cathedral on Friday, proclaiming with Franklin Graham that the rain is a sign of God’s blessing?  Robert Jeffress, pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas, preaching from the Prophet Nehemiah, famous for building a wall around Jerusalem to keep the city safe.1 Would Jesus bless Trump or any President, saying that God had called them to be president?  Or would Jesus have been hanging around with Congressman John Lewis, or wearing a pink hat with kitten ears on Saturday?  Maybe Jesus would have avoided Washington DC altogether, with all the crowds and traffic, and gone to a retreat center in the Shenandoah Valley to pray for civility, peace and harmony.


Or maybe Jesus would just go fishing for the weekend.  Apparently, Jesus liked to fish. He was good at it too, once telling the disciples who were catching nothing, to try to the other side of the boat and they almost sank they had so many fish.  So maybe he got a few of his clergy friends together and they rented a cabin on a lake and spent the weekend fishing and swapping good ideas for church growth strategies.  What is the best use of resources, a snappy social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, or a good old-fashioned direct mail campaign?  T-shirts, refrigerator magnets.


If you read most of the sermons online about this Gospel lesson, the primary emphasis is on Jesus calling his first four disciples to be fishers of men.  The assumption is Jesus was calling together a team of evangelists who would spread the message, and as the risen Christ commanded his disciples at the end of Matthew, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”


Growing up I even learned the song, “I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.”  It was a lot of fun because we could add the motions and pretend to be casting our rod and reel and catching each other.  In third grade, I raised the exegetical point that the disciples used nets and it was more of a group process to pull the nets up out of the water.  But the fishing pole gesture had already been established at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century, and the net casters were declared heretics who would be burned at the stake if they changed the gestures to the song.  Throughout history this is how the church treats biblical scholars.  I stuck to my nets interpretation, encouraging Dennis and Steve to join me in catching the rest of the class in a big net, but they refused.  I suspected their reasons had nothing to do with biblical scholarship, but rather they enjoyed casting at the girls and pretending to catch them.  In seminary, I learned the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” which means beware of how the needs of the status quo effect your interpretation.  Mary and Mindy liked my interpretation, and joined me in wrapping up Dennis and Steve in a big net.  The Bible often has a preferential option for the marginalized, and a more receptive hearing.  In the end, the end the Children’s Music Director, playing the role of Caesar, stepped in and banned the song altogether.  My whole theory of how biblical interpretation happens is based on this experience.


Maybe this is why literalism annoys me to this day.  Jesus is using a metaphor to simply say he will teach them how to understand people and influence them with a message of good news.  Jesus never intended for the church literally swoop down on people minding their own business and capture them, take them hostage to our way of thinking.  Remember that fishing is not good news to the fish, so beware of reading too much into a metaphor.  The point of church is to teach people to act like Jesus, not to fill the boat by any means necessary.  What would Jesus do?


What was Jesus doing in Capernaum?  It is important to read the text in its original context, not just ours.  As the text begins, John the Baptist was arrested, and it is suddenly dangerous to follow John.  He has challenged Herod Antipas, a narcissistic despot, who does not just tweet, “John the Baptist is an overrated preacher.  He also smells bad.  Failing big league.  Sad.”  Herod goes straight to “look him up.”   Jesus withdraws to Galilee, doesn’t go to his last known address in Nazareth, but instead a remote fishing village on the sea of Galilee known as Capernaum, which roughly translates “Bathwater, Pennsylvania.”


This is where it all begins, Jesus begins to preach, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is near!”  What exactly does that mean?  Are the end times coming soon, and people need to cleanse their spirits so they won’t be left behind?  If so, Jesus really blew it, since we are way past the soon part.  Is the Kingdom of Heaven a separate spiritual reality, apart from this physical reality, where only souls can enter upon death?  What did Jesus really mean?  What does this Kingdom mean in terms of time and space?  When?  Where?


Here are a few clues from earlier in the text.  This is the second time we hear the phrase, “the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.”  The first time, in Matthew 3:2, it is John the Baptist saying it.  So Jesus is saying the same thing as John, word for word, and John is now in jail.  So when Jesus says to Peter, Andrew, James and John, to come and follow me; they had some idea even in Bathwater, Pennsylvania that they were joining something not popular with their Roman overlords.  And yet they dropped their nets and immediately followed him.  Maybe it was the high taxes on their catch when they went to market.  Maybe the Roman “stop and frisk” policy, or they just didn’t think you should lock up people like John the Baptist for speaking his mind.


When someone talks about a new Kingdom being near, look out.  What do we know about kingdoms in Matthew Gospel?  Jesus learned about kingdoms in this chapter, just 4 verses before in Matt. 4:8.  He was out in the wilderness just before calling his new disciples, and here is what the devil said to him,


Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”


To be clear, the kingdoms of the world belong to the devil, they were his to give, within his power to offer Jesus.  Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”


What would Jesus do?  He kept to the message.  “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  Then he gathered disciples whom he would train to make this message possible.  We are still left with the questions of the ages – where is this Kingdom, how near is it, and when is it coming?  Don’t worry, Matthew’s Gospel is going to spend a great deal of time  (how many times will the Gospel us the term) including the texts for the next few weeks which will be from the sermon on the Mount.  Next Sunday, Sarah will preach from the Beatitudes, with all the blessings for the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the meek and the mourning.  Then we will hear about the moral imperative for neighbor love, even the love of enemies, the neceisty of grace and forgiveness.  Then Matthew will move on to parables like the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, Matthew is going to talk about the Kingdom of Heaven 31 times in his Gospel.  The nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven is clearly his point.


Here is my bottom line translation to carry into the next week.  I prefer to translate Kingdom of Heaven as Martin Luther King, Jr. did-it is the Beloved Community, the place of love and radical welcome that exists concretely wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus name.  The Beloved Community exists as an ideal, a summons, a possibility, a hope that calls to us to come and follow.  And it is made real whenever love wins, justice triumphs, healing mends what is broken, grace breaks the chains that bind us.  The Kingdom of Heaven exists right here at First Churches as we listen and pray to the Still Speaking God and live into our vision of joyful Christian community, and it calls to us from the future “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  My agenda this morning is no different this morning than it was in October.  My job is to help us all to wrestle with these sacred texts, so that we may be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Beloved Community, drawing near, as we do our best to live as Jesus showed us.




  1. Retrieved from:
Isaiah 49:1-7  “More Light and Truth to Come”

Isaiah 49:1-7 “More Light and Truth to Come”

Preaching this weekend in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. always fills me with a mix of hope and of fear.  Dr. King was the complete package; a gifted theologian whose thoughts and writings inspired; a second-generation black preacher formed in the passion and rythyms of the Gospel tradition, a person of immense courage speaking in the face of death threats, and a leader and strategist who could not only say, “Let justice roll down like waters,” but also build the irrigation system.  The man, the moment and the movement came together and made Martin.


I am inspired and challenged, not simply because his light shines so brightly compared to mine, but something deeper.  He had the courage to rise to the moment that God and history put before him.  It was not his plan to lead the Civil Right movement, it was a movement of God’s spirit that pulled him in.  It was not Moses ‘s plan to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves, it was an encounter with the voice of God and burning bush.  Jesus did not celebrate the moment for which he is most famous, he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but Thine.”  Great spiritual leaders are not made by reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”  It takes more than the power of positive thinking and embodying the seven habits of highly effective people.  If you could become a saint by having the best personal organizational system and reading inspirational quotes, I’d be well on my way.


Being a truly spiritual person is not simply about the gifts and abilities we develop and our time and commitment to doing good things; it is about rising to our moment, our thing to do, our burning bush.  So when I look at the life of Dr. King, I try to avoid the trap of measuring my life against his.  That just fuels my sense of inadequacy.  Instead, I try to understand how he faced his moment, so I can face mine, and as your pastor and teacher, help all of us face together the blazing bushes around us.


Today’s text from the prophet Isaiah is an excellent scripture lesson to help us reflect on the prophetic ministry of Dr. King.  Martin must have read Isaiah a great deal, because his approach and imagery is similar.  They both soar into poetic prose about the world God is bringing into being.  Isaiah said the lion and the lamb will lie down together and God would bring peace, and our swords and shields would be beaten back into plowshares and pruning hooks.  If you get discouraged, God will raise you up on Eagles’ wings.


Martin said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


What makes a prophet?  It is holding the tension together between critique and hope is what makes someone a prophet.  Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, an important figure in the liberation theology movement when I was in seminary, said that a prophet must both denounce the source of injustice and announce the possibilities of God’s hopeful future.  If we only rant and rail against injustice, we risk becoming bitter cynics who leave only despair in our wake.  If we choose to be hopeful and optimistic about God’s future yet fail to challenge what is wrong, then we are aiding and abetting injustice and evil.  We can’t just say God is going to make everything OK.


Isaiah 49 is a great example of his style.  “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!”  Isaiah often opens with an imperative to listen.  When people must say “Listen!” what is usually going on?  It is a time to focus, because this really matters., Isaiah implores his words be heard all the way from exile in Babylon, far from the ocean, for people on the coasts to hear him.  He is calling out around the world.


The Lord called me before I was born, so I’ve been at this a very long time, speaking my mind right out of the womb.  I am a sharpened sword, an arrow in the quiver ready to be fired.  This is a man who really likes to preach.  Now he has a  complaint, and it is addressed to God.  “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.   Isn’t my cause just?”  In other words, what is going on out there God?  I’m doing my best, I don’t know if anyone is listening to me, or if you are paying attention.  Am I doing this wrong, did I fail to understand, am I crazy to think I am a prophet, or are you not the God whom I thought you were?


It is very human when we are disillusioned to wonder if we have the whole “God thing” wrong.  When we look at the world through our idealism, we must need some new glasses.  The ones I have must be out of date.  What I see is a world in the midst of a five alarm fire-a world that is hot, wired and crowded.  Climate change is emerging as a threat to life on this planet, and we may get a Secretary of State who would rather make a trillion dollars for big oil than save the future of humanity.  Just when we need more human cooperation, to pull together to save ourselves and our posterity, the nations are building battleships and walls.  Much of humanity is in collective denial that we are all in this together.  If Isaiah were here, would he being saying, “God, we need a savior and we get Trump?”  I’m not speaking as a Democrat, because I don’t think everything would be OK if Hillary or Bernie were elected.  I would sleep better, but maybe the goal right now isn’t to sleep better.


“It is too small a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  Isaiah 49:6


It is not just about raising up one tribe, Isaiah.  It in not just about restoring your political party to power, Isaiah.  It is not just finding a safe place amidst the challenges of life Isaiah.  Something bigger than our geo-political hopes, bigger than elections, more critical than policy positions and party platforms.  God is at work in you in ways that you cannot see.  Keep on and be a light to the nations.


Dr. King once described his most important spiritual moment came when he felt the Montgomery bus boycott was failing after weeks and weeks, and he was receiving regular threats, threats against his children and family.  He describes what is often called his “kitchen experience”:


“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”


“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.'”


“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”


Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”


Here is my takeaway for the days ahead of us. Keep up the good work.  But win or lose, what I desire from you is to be my light.  Even if God is completely with us, we will not right every wrong.  Even Jesus, Martin and Isaiah could not do that.  So my personal challenge is to not be overwhelmed by either anger or apathy God’s hope is bigger than my politics and disappointments.  My chief concern is “did I shine the light of God today, or did I hide it under a bushel?   I pray for each of you and myself, for courage in the midst of struggles, as we seek to make God’s love and justice real.





Matthew 3:13-17  “From Resolution to Revolution

Matthew 3:13-17 “From Resolution to Revolution

It’s time to write some New Years’ resolutions.  (Get out a pen.)  Where do I start?  How about some exercise?  I make that resolution every year.  (Write down “Exercise four times a week.”)  That should do it.   I think it is good to start with the body, if we can’t tend the body, how will we ever tend the soul?  The body is the Temple, and without being well, I can’t get other stuff done.


I have two more stand-by resolutions.  Write in my daily journal.  This is my primary spiritual practice.  Things get clear to me, as I think and feel on paper.  This is the one thing I still do with pen and ink in the digital age.  And resolution number three is always read 24 books a year.  2 books a month seems reasonable, and necessary, if I am going to stay fresh in theology and culture.  So, I do those three; exercise, writing and reading; every year.  I set lots of other goals throughout the year, but those are my self-maintenance resolutions.  Now you are probably wondering if I achieve these resolutions.  No I do not.  However, I think I do more good things for my body and soul by making resolutions than I would without doing them.  Good resolutions help make good habits.


But here is what I ask myself every year.  Are good habits enough?  Even if I managed to generate 100 percent follow through this year, what would really change?  Paul said things like, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Will my heart be enlarged with love?  Will I be any bolder?  Will I be transformed into something or someone who is recognizably Christian?  Or am I just plugging away, a little healthier, less stressed, and better informed, but not transformed?


Maybe I need another resolution.  What is a resolution anyway?  A solution.  A re-solution.  Solving again.  Our yearly solving the same thing over again?  Ugh!  Maybe resolutions aren’t what I’m I need; I’m looking for something more like a revolution.  I need a New Years’ Revolution!  Whoever has been in charge of my life, throw that bum out, and let a newcomer take charge, someone not so beholden to all my special interests.  That is the guy I want in charge-a revolutionary!  Let me look that up-“Revolutionary, adjective,           Marked by or resulting in radical change.”  Do revolutionaries look up words?  I don’t think so, they give words meaning, make they up if necessary, they are not bound by grammar or syntax.


Reflecting on the value of resolutions is a doorway for me to enter this story about the Jesus’s baptism.  If Jesus were a 21st century figure, we would know much more about his decision to be baptized.  We would have his Twitter account tweets leading up to the event; “On my way 2 C @RealJBaptist.”  We would have the pre-baptism selfie on Facebook, the video feed from Periscope, and an e-book memoir with at least 200 pages explaining his thoughts and feelings leading up to this baptism, with the Vanity Fair follow up piece, where we could ask all our questions.


I would love to interview Jesus.  “Today we have Jesus of Nazareth, who has burst on the scene with his new book, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Among You.”  Jesus, we don’t know much about you, how you were educated, what you have done prior to the book, tell us more about what brought you to write this book.  Who has been a major influence on your life?  We have heard some interesting stories about your birth, what is the real story?  Some people say your book is too political for church, and others say you are the messiah, would you like to make an announcement here on my show today?


Instead we have just a few verses about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Matthew 3-4, less information than I will give in this sermon.  There are things inquiring minds never get to know.  We don’t know if Jesus was conscious of God’s call on his life, if Mary and Joseph ever sat down and had the talk with him about his birth, or any of his thinking about -why now, why John, why baptism?  There is a great mysterious void.


Here is Matthew’s point of view, who is writing two generations later, sharing what is emerging as a theology about Jesus.  Everything leading up to today’s reading is telling us who Jesus is.  His family tree puts him in the noble lineage of David. God’s spirit is upon his very conception in his mother’s womb.  His life will fulfill prophecy of a great leader who will raise Israel from despair.  His life also parallels Moses as his family flees from the murder of first-born children, with Herod standing in for Pharaoh.  This is God’s chosen one to heal and transform the world.


We the reader get to know all this about Jesus in advance.  But the BIG unanswered question is-what does Jesus know about who he is?  Has he been groomed for this work by the best teachers, how much time has he spent with cousin John, is he aware of all the information Matthew tells us?  From Matthew’s perspective, he must be aware of a high calling at some level, for John says, “I should be baptized by you.”  Here is my informed guesswork about Jesus heading into his baptism.  No matter what he does know, he does not really know his future, he does not know if he is God’s anointed or delusional, if he will be cheered or laughed off, or perhaps most terrifying, what happens if it is all TRUE and people follow him and believe in his teaching?  You can’t transform the world without making a few enemies, because some people are benefiting from the status quo, and don’t want anyone mucking around.


Much is at stake in this baptism.  Remember John’s baptism is not a standard Jewish ritual.  You become a Jew at birth and circumcision.  Baptism is a rare act designed for Gentile converts.  It is a symbolic re-entering of the Promised Land, crossing the Jordan after the years in the wilderness.  John’s baptism aligns the receiver with a radical reform of how things are, personally and socially.  It is such a huge moment that Jesus is prepared to go into the wilderness and test himself in spiritual practice, to be tempted and be ready for what lies ahead.  Everything will begin to change for Jesus as he engages in this public ritual of baptism.  it will set things in motion, and he must live with the consequences of his choice.


Jesus is human, and part of the human condition is that we do not know what living into the future will be.  Even if you are the chosen one of God, you don’t know.  Even if your mother told you wondrous stories of your birth, you do not know your future.  Even if you are born in a great family and have John as your cousin and right hand man, you do not know your destiny.  You must decide for yourself what to do, with fear and trembling.  Even if you arise from the waters of baptism, and you see a dove fluttering down to you, and you hear the voice of God, “You are my child, and in you I am well pleased,” you still must choose how to live into that promise.  No matter how closely you walk with God, even if you daily hear the still, small voice of the still speaking God, you still have to choose your life and face your fears and live fully into the journey, in ways great and small.


But as we face the great unknown, it sure helps to know that you are loved by your creator God-loved beyond measure, forgiven with grace upon grace, with wisdom of the ages ready to be poured out, so you may fully live into your bold life-calling, and face fears and challenges.  In Jesus, we are all beloved by God.  Whatever choices you face this day or this week, whatever fears and challenges 2017 puts before you, move forward in the love of God.  Whatever we as a world face, with challenges of climate change, bigotry, and society divided and aimless, how shall we face it differently knowing the love of God?  As we face into the future as a church, how will we be shaped by still speaking God, to be a joyful Christian community, making God’s love and justice real?


Let us be resolved, to live each day open to the power of God, building the beloved community, playing our part.  I cannot say where this will lead you.  I can only say what the spirit said to Jesus, “You are a child of God, you are loved, and God is well-pleased with your courage and your efforts.  Embrace these words, and just maybe the revolution will come.

Babies Born in Strange Places

Tomorrow, on Christmas Day, approximately 353,000 babies will be born worldwide, at the rate of one baby every 4.3 second. In one hour of a Christmas Eve service, 15,300 babies will be born while we sing about good news of great joy. Much like our Christmas story, babies come into the world in some of the strangest places. Many women will give birth in transit to the hospital, doing something they had to do in normal life, like Mary and Joseph going to register for the census. Several dozen babies will be born in cars, with taxi drivers as midwives, and someone who gives birth in a Volkswagen will name their baby girl “Jetta.” If you really hate holiday flights, just remember that somewhere out there a woman is going into labor on Jet Blue, wishing she had the roomy comfort of a manger. I can imagine the flight attendant shouting out “Be not afraid. Any business class passenger willing to give up their seat will receive 1000 frequent flyer miles and a complimentary Jet Blue gift bag.”

Sonia Marino stopped by a post office in England to buy a mobile phone credit – She went into labor and gave birth to a baby girl right there. The post-master, who acted as midwife, put the baby on the scales and declared she weighed 8 pounds and 2 ounces, then put an Express Mail sticker on the baby’s forehead and said, “That will be five quid, and 50 pence please.” Some births are truly harrowing. Sofia Pedro climbed a tree to escape the floodwaters in Mozambique, Africa. The brave mom held onto branches as she delivered her baby Rosita. A few minutes later, they were rescued by a South African helicopter crew, umbilical cord still attached.

Every family likes to tell birth stories, whether it is a common story or a great adventure, looking for signs of meaning and hope for the future, things to pass along the child as they grow up so they know where they came from. Something I like about these stories is the ordinary heroes who are unexpectedly midwives, having neither the training or resources to help, but manage to step up anyway. When these little angels are ready to burst forth into the world with their shouts of good news and great joy, most of us are like the shepherds, doing are job, and suddenly called to witness a miracle. It is part of being a decent human being, you can’t just walk away and say, I’m not competent, I’m not trained, I don’t like the site of blood, or I’m really busy today, I have presents to buy. You stop, grab a hand and say, “Be not afraid, and push.”

It may be a cliché to say, “It takes a village.” I have a good birth story from our neighborhood. Our neighbor, a single woman who is 38 years-old, decided about a year ago it was her time to have a baby. Just because the timing of a husband was not working, she was not going to miss the opportunity. We are a neighborhood with front porches and lots of dog owners who walk twice a day, and lots of gardeners, so we know each other and talk a lot. Our neighborhood is full of empty nesters who are not yet grandparents, and have eagerly offered support. I also realized we have 4 sets of adoptive parents on the block, who couldn’t have biological children. One family offered to take her dog for a week while she gave birth, and the family across the street organized a “gender-reveal” party. Have you been to one of those yet? The doctor puts the gender of the child in an envelope, and the party sponsor then orders a cake, pink for girls and blue for boys, I know a little traditional and gender specific, and the whole neighborhood finds out whether the baby is a boy or a girl when we cut the cake. A generation ago, this might have been discouraged, how could she do this without a husband, but it restores my faith that a neighborhood is rallying around her, and most of us are putting down roots in this neighborhood and will likely watch this child grow up. And he will have a great story to tell his whole life.

All of the 353,000 babies born tomorrow deserve a good story. Whether they are born in a hospital or refugee camp on the Syrian border, whether they have health insurance or not, whether they are born among Christians, Jews, Muslims or fill in the blank; Red State babies, Blue State babies all need the same things. We have a common hope for all them, for babies in Flint, Michigan and rural West Virginia, we hope they will have clean drinking water when they are weaned from their mother’s breast, we hope all babies will have a sustainable planet to live on. Unto all of us are these children born. You are the shepherds and taxi drivers, the innkeepers and flight attendants, the wise men and the post masters, who are called to be midwives, so the babies born on this night will have great stories to tell. Be not afraid.