Take a Breath

Take a Breath

Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir

May 21, 2017

John 14:15-21

I don’t like notification noises on my phone.  I don’t need a train whistle with every email, or a “ka-ching” sound when someone messages me on Facebook.  I just set my phone of vibrate, and have ringtones for close family.  But this week was different.  Somehow, my “news” notifications were turned on, and my phone blew up every day.  Which raises an important question; What is the appropriate notification ring tone for news that the President has fired the FBI Director who was investigating him?  I have a tone called “update,” I think that works.  If I really were more techie I would download a song for news alerts.  When the NY Times sends out an alert, my phone could play something from the 70s like, “Stop, Hey, what’s that sound?  Everybody look what’s going down!”

 

There was a great deal of big news this week, but there is so much happening I get swamped.  And it doesn’t help that everything is “Breaking News.”  “Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is “breaking” until it is displaced by the next one. We are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean.”

 

You know what I need?  Rather than a better smartphone app to aggregate my content to understand the world, I need an advocate-A comforter, a counselor, a coach-a voice of the spirit of truth who will abide with me.  I need a continuing voice of the work and wisdom of Jesus, so I would not feel alone or orphaned in the changing moral landscape.  I want a voice to keep me on the way, the truth and the life.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that an Advocate will continue to be a presence even after he is gone.  The context of these words is powerful.  Jesus is not speaking to his disciples on a week-long spiritual retreat on the Cape, complete with time for the beach and culinary trained chef.  This is his farewell discourse, and he is not leaving because he got a promotion, but because tyranny is about to have its way with him.  Tyranny is making an example for all who still live and speak the truth, conform or be destroyed.  But the voice of the spirit of God will not be silenced by killing Jesus, for the Advocate will come.

 

Later in John’s Gospel, after the death and resurrection of Christ, he appears to his disciples, and he delivers this Advocate, this Spirit in an interesting and very personal way.  He breaths on them.  At first this sounds a little weird, I would be uncomfortable with anyone breathing on me.  But there is a lot of symbolism in the gesture, like God breathing into the nostrils of Adam to give life.  Life is in the breath, and so many religious cultures incorporate breathing into spiritual practices.  When life gets crazy take a breath.  Lets pause and do that right now.  Get in a good posture and lets take three deep breaths together.  On breath one let it fill your belly, and breath deep here we go…One and out…Two and out…Three and out.  Do you notice a different in your being?  It is so important to breath.

 

While you are finding this comforting, you might be thinking, “Pastor, I appreciate mindfulness and spiritual practices, but that is not going to stop the tyranny of the world and the destruction of the environment and, well I could go on.  We need to breath as a community as well.  Jesus did not deliver this message as a revelation to an individual, he did not just breath on Peter as leader, he meant this for the whole community, the whole church.

 

 

Lets talk for a moment about sustaining community behaviors.  I have found good advice for church life in an unlikely place this week, while reading a hot bestseller entitled “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder.  What could a scholar who researches fascism and authoritarianism tell us about how to be church?  You might think it is all about a call to political action and moral courage, pick a cause and educate yourself.  About half of Snyder’s 20 chapters refer to those type of actions.  It’s the other half that got my attention, because he suggests community-building behavior that create a free, open and sustainable culture.

 

Make eye contact and small talk.

Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy, of Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union during the Great Terror …people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew.  Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (p. 82). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. 

Maybe coffee hour is a part of resisting evil and oppression in the world. Greet everyone who comes in the door warmly.  Say thank you to people. Its why we pay attention to the welcome in church, to let everyone know they are valued and they matter, and this is why we are here.  Hospitality is not simply a church growth strategy, it is a quality of life issue.

 

Establish a Private Life

What Snyder means by this is to have the space for your own thoughts, where you think and feel on your own.  Don’t put everything on Facebook and Instagram, and balance your screen usage with real contact with life.  If the screen mediates everything, then we are more vulnerable to groupthink and normalizing things that we should not.  Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, said that totalitarian regimes try to erase private life, where you do not feel free to express your own thoughts safely for fear of retaliation.  When we say this is a church for believers, questioners and questioning believers; we are sending a message that you can ask questions which are the key to thinking for yourself.

 

Defend institutions.   “It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well….Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So, choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.”  Church is an institution too.  Events – PRIDE prom dance, Standing Rock Dance Fundraiser, First Readings at First Churches (a new partnership with the New Century Theatre, who will do readings from two local play writes.  As forces shut down immigrants space to thrive and build community, we are creating more space for Iglasia Bautista Qechua to grow.  This is why I urge you to choose the First Churches as one of the primary institutions you defend.

 

 

Be Kind to Our Language.  Books that describe authoritarianism like Fahrenheit 451 by Kurt Vonnegut, and 1984 by George Orwell, warn us tyrants degrade language.  Words become meaningless when their standard meanings become ignored and they are overused without context.  If we shout treason about everything we disagree with, or patriotism about everything we like, then the words shrivel.

 

If the range of our emotional language is reduced to “sad, bad, mad or great” there is no nuance and depth to what we might feel and think about the world.  I like Dr. Seuss, but this is a time to read great books.  Snyder recommends we read real books and not stay glued to our screens.

Read “The Brothers Karamazov,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” or the Power of the powerless by Vaclav Havel, and even Harry Potter and the Death Hallows makes Snyder’s list.  Snyder also recommends that Christians read the Bible.  What a shocker!   The entire New Testament was written for a minority community living under the threat of persecution and dominant culture values.  “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  The Kingdom of heaven is among you.  This is my commandment, love one another, love your neighbor as yourself, love God with all your heart soul and mind.

 

I read a lot of liturgy as I search every week for the next Sunday’s Liturgy in church is important.  Sarah and I search for rich language that play with the metaphors of the text and connect them to how we think, feel and pray.

 

Read Synder’s book On Tyranny, it will only take you about 40 minutes.  It mirrors many things that Jesus taught.  Moral behavior and strong community not just a matter of the right beliefs, the right ideology, jor the right strategy. Moral community is only possible when we do the things that make for right relationship to one another.  This is Jesus commandment, that we love one another.

What Makes the Shepherd Good?

What Makes the Shepherd Good?

A shepherd’s job is to care for the sheep.  Psalm 23 gives us a good idea of the job description.  “He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters.”  Sheep need food and a place to graze.  Sheep need plenty of good clean water to survive.  So a shepherd pays attention to the wells and springs, to the land and its greenery.  They would be the first to notice the effects of climate change, because their sheep will suffer.  Job #1 for a good shepherd is to provide for the basics.

 

The basics go beyond food and water, because the flock also needs safety.  “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”  What kind of comfort do you expect from someone brandishing a wooden pole?  You hope they are on your side, because the pole is used to poke and prod and whack whomever and whatever threatens the sheep.  Sometimes it is used to break up fights among the sheep, to keep predators at bay, to even fight off thieves or other shepherds.  When the Psalmist says “Thou preparest a table in the presence of my enemies,” the diners can eat because the shepherd is protecting the feast. The rod is justice, it is the shepherd’s version of the Winchester rifle.

 

Shepherds in the Old Testament, are a metaphor for good governance and leadership.  Kings and priests are called to have the same qualities, to put the flock above themselves, to make sure people have the basics of food, water and justice, so people can live.  We may think of shepherds as a lowly occupation, lonely agriculturalists hanging out with sheep on the fringes of society, but in the Bible shepherds become kings.  David was a shepherd, and he fought off lions and learned to use a sling shot, which came in handy with Goliath, and he was a defender of Israel.  Moses spent some time as a shepherd and when he went before Pharoah, he had his rod in his hand.  The prophet Amos was a shepherd and when the monarch was corrupt and did not establish justice, he came out of the hills and reminded everyone of the covenant of justice.

 

I see Rev. William Barber, the leader of Moral Mondays in North Carolina in this light.  Rev. Barber has been a pastor for many years, and we have all seen what happens when someone does not have health insurance, and what a prolonged illness or unnecessary death does to a family.  We do what churches know how to do, to pray and grieve and bring cassaroles to the house.  But that does not replace a decent health care system for everyone.  When Congress was trying to repeal health care, Barber and many other pastors left Bibles at the office door of the Speaker of the House, with the message that the Christian faith does not caste out people in need.  That is the work of a good shepherd.  Barber said in a recent Esquire article:

 

People who focus their moral energy [against] gay marriage and [for]prayer in schools…are missing what Jesus cared about the most: justice and mercy….They are saying so much about what God says so little, and so little about what God says so much.”

 

I can’t find anything in the book that says your major concern ought to be tax cuts for the wealthy…. But I can find in Deuteronomy that you’re supposed to care for the stranger and the poor.”

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a54573/reverend-william-barber-progressive-christianity/

 

There is one more thing that belongs on a shepherd’s LinkedIn profile.  The Psalm says it in several ways, “He restores my soul…He leadeth me in the paths of righteous for his name’s sake, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  We are now moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from food and safety to relationship, purpose and self-actualization.  I don’t know exactly what sense of purpose sheep need, but I know that people need meaning, purpose and a sense of integrity. As Jesus addresses this in our Gospel reading today, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

 

The past Tuesday, we hosted a tour from the International Language Institute, who come twice a year to learn local history and practice their English.  They read the church’s website and come with great questions, and I always get a sermon story out of the experience.  This class was about half Muslim, from Turkey, Pakistan and several from Saudi Arabia, at least four women with headscarves After we had cleared the standard questions about how old the building is, and does the organ work, and what is the baptism font for, this class really wanted to know about my faith and what I believe.

 

One man said he had stopped going to church at age 15 and lost his faith.  He wanted find his faith again, wishing he could see God and gain some certainty and hope.  There were several nods and “me too’s” and a student from Turkey followed up before I could answer, asking, “Why are so many Americans atheists, 40% don’t believe in God, what is happening in your society, and how do you feel about this, because it worries us a great deal given the power of your country.”  Here is what I think:

 

Atheism often rises when we make our view of God too small.  I asked the group what they thought God was like when they were children.  Most of us see God as a larger version of our parents, a being who will provide for us and who is an absolute authority for right and wrong.  But as we grow up we discover moral questions are hard, that life is not fair and things are not always clear cut.  This is the time where our view of God has to change or our faith will get distorted and shallow.  On the societal level, when we make God into our God, a projection of ourselves, our tribe, our nation, when we see God as white, or male, or American, who only cares about Christians, that is not God. An atheist knows  this is false, and it is sometimes their moral sense drives them from religious institutions who have made God much too small.

 

Many of you read Rob Bell’s book together last year, “What do we mean when we talk about God.”  Who do we think God is?  Throughout my life, my answer keeps changing.  My faith does not always let me have peace, because it pushes me to look more deeply into other points of view and integrate them into my thinking.  I am challenged to open my heart when I would rather look the other way.  I am compelled to do things that make me feel anxious and afraid, because they are the right thing to do.  If our view of God does not grow and change, we are not paying attention to ourselves and our own life experience.

 

So I can’t tell someone, this is God and now you can believe again.  Instead, the starting point is, what God don’t you believe in anymore?  I can’t show anyone God, but I do see glimpses of the divine, especially when people love, when love is not easy.  I see God in the compassion of caregivers, and parents who give of themselves.  I see God when Muslims in Egypt surround the Coptic Church after a bombing, and give them safety to pray and have worship.  I see God when Jews stand up for Muslims right to immigrate to the United States, and when Christians challenge the increasing rise of Holocaust deniers.

 

The genesis of many of these actions of courage and selfless compassion is in the silent chambers of each of our hearts, where we decide how we are going to live.  As important as teach-ins, rallies and marches are to change, so is prayer.  That is why we are here this morning.  You may have gone to the climate rally yesterday, and now today we are here to sing and pray and learn from scripture, and listen for the voice of the still speaking God, the Good Shepherd.

 

As glad as I am about all the events in the Meeting House, and all the ways we seek to make God’s love and justice real, I am equally moved that you are reading spiritual books in each other’s homes, or coming to Bible Study on Monday, the peace prayer vigil every Tuesday, and deepening your spirits in whatever spiritual practices and ways of ministering you chose.  I’m grateful that you are willing to build this community of hope and faith.  We need this place to be a microcosm, where we can at least get a taste of the possibilities of God, a bigger God worth celebrating.  Jesus did not come to judge us, Jesus did not come to give us certainty, he came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Wiping Away Our Tears

Wiping Away Our Tears

I worry that I often treat the Bible like a medical student treats a cadaver.  I imagine interns make incisions with great care, exploring the anatomy, and practicing how to do real surgery, but it is very different working with the body of a living person.  Likewise, we can study the history, translations, and try to form creeds to answer our questions about God.  But will that alone get us any closer to the reality of God, or to relate to God, or deeper still, does it transform us in any way to be a disciple of Jesus?  We can be transfixed by scientific questions and theological doubts about the resurrection of a dead body, and how essential that is to our faith, or not.  The point learning the skills of surgery and medical science; is to learn how to save lives.  The point of the Gospel is the same-to mend our broken hearts, forgive our greatest failings, to bring justice and make it possible for us to live abundant life.

 

John’s Gospel is brilliant in this regard.  His genius is not in science but character development and storytelling.  We are supposed to be looking at the disciples, and especially Mary Magdalene and Peter.  What is happening for them in the story?

 

Mary Magdalene is intriguing, especially after Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code.” Was Mary Jesus’s wife, lover, a repentant prostitute, or a woman disciple pushed aside by men as the tradition developed?    Scriptures say little about Mary, but more books are written about her than all the other disciples of Jesus, except Peter.  She has an astonishing career after her death.  A third century fragmented text called the Gospel of Mary exists.  In it, Peter asks Mary for her wisdom, and wants to know what Jesus said to Mary in private on Easter morning, and then there are six missing pages.  The next words are that the disciples do not believe her.  Don’t you want to know what is in those missing pages?!

 

What about Mary being a prostitute?  This is never said in the Gospels.  She is not a prostitute.  Mark and Luke say Jesus caste seven demons out of her.  I have no idea what that means, except that she must have been a tormented soul before she meant Jesus.  So where does this prostitute stuff enter the story?  The first reference is not until 591, in a sermon by Gregory the Great, and throughout medieval Roman Catholicism, there is a huge following of Mary the repentant prostitute.  It is bad enough that people make up stories about you, but imagine they wait 600 years to start their lies about your character.

 

Mary now is enjoying a resurgence with another persona, and let me read you a few titles from Amazon of recent books:

“Unveiling Mary Magdalene: Discover the Truth about the Bible’s Not so bad girl.”

Sacred Feminine Awakening: Wisdom from Mary Magdalene and the Healing of the Self.”

“Return of the Divine Sophia: Healing the Earth through the Lost Wisdom Teachings of Jesus, Isis, and Mary”

 

It is fascinating to see Mary Magdalene morph from prostitute to feminist wisdom figure, in only 1300 years or so. Mary has singular role in the four Gospels.  She is the soul eyewitness who sees both the crucifixion and resurrection.  Every Gospel places Mary at the cross and the first to witness the Risen Christ.  She has no other reference in the Bible apart from the cross and the resurrection.  It may be true that she was a disciple just as much as Peter.  It may be true that she was loved by Jesus as a companion or even spouse.  But we should not overlook her singular role as the witness to the death of Jesus and resurrection of Christ.

 

Why is this witness role of Mary Magdalene so important to the story in all four Gospels?  This occurred to me on Maundy Thursday as we read from the Gospels.  The point of the crucifixion story is the various ways everyone failed Jesus.  Judas betrayed him, all the disciples fell asleep, Peter, so bold at the Last Supper denied him three times, religious leaders conspire against him, Pilate goes along, the crowd jeers him, and in the reading I had, even the bandits who are being crucified with him start to join in and taunt him.  That is just cold.  You would think they have enough of their own problems.  Only a desolate little cluster remains, Jesus mother, Mary Magdalene, and John remain through this nightmare.

 

Our text today is three days later.  Before sunrise, still dark, when Mary emerges.  The disciples went to bed fearful and hiding.  Were they contemplating how to move on with their lives after their huge defeat and disappointment?  Only Mary has gone to the tomb to grieve.  When she saw the stone removed from the tomb, she does not say, “Alleluia, He is risen!”  She thinks there is no dignity for the dead.  Remember the local stories of funeral homes which did not properly respect and care for the bodies of the dead.  It is a sacrilege that dishonors life itself.  Mary is likely outraged and heartbroken.  She rushes to tell Peter and another disciple.

 

Who knows what Peter thinks at this point.  He carries greif, and the guilt of failure and cowardice.  He is no hero at the tomb either.  He sees the grave clothes neatly folded, but John doesn’t tell us what Peter makes of it all.  Then Peter just goes home.  He doesn’t look for the body, or comfort Mary, he just leaves her in the garden crying.  I can imagine Mary thinking, “Why did I even bother to tell this jerk?  He is absolutely no help-again!”  She has to deal with this by herself.  She investigates the tomb for clues, and now there are two angels there, who ask her, “Woman why are you weeping?”  She is at a tomb!  I love how she is totally unimpressed by the angels.  She is single-minded in her quest for the body of her Jesus.  She turns to the gardener, who also want to know “Woman, why are you weeping?”

 

I have a really hard time with all this crying. Not that I don’t get teary-eyed at funerals and even when I’m preaching.  But I always feel like I’m the one who is supposed to hold it together.  I’m not supposed to cry, there is no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks would say.  But some things can’t be held together.  Sometimes hot tears need to flow down our cheeks, as our anger burns against the injustice of death, the killing of innocent people, against cruel and senseless violence.  We need a good cry, the kind that soaks a box of tissues as we wipe away all the snot from our noses and we taste the salt on our lips. Whether my heart is broken by cancer claiming another person we love, or the crass celebration of “the mother of all bombs” as something good, sometimes we really should not be holding it together.

 

Falling apart and having a good cry can be grounding.  Mary’s weeping is a sign of true discipleship.  She is not the silly woman crying when she should be rejoicing at the resurrection.  She is the one who has had the strength to endure and weep and be fully present for the full catastrophe of evil and injustice.  She has borne witness, she has been present to it all, not flinching at any cruelty.  Who else should be the first to see Jesus on the other side of death and share the news of Christ arisen?

 

I still want to know what is in those lost 6 pages in the Gospel of Mary. The real Mary Magdalene might remind us that wiping away tears is a sign of hope throughout the Bible.  She would quote the prophet Isaiah:

 

God will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.”

 

She would invite us on Easter morning to claim the words of the Psalms, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” 

 

Take heart, people of God, for it is Easter morning. Christ is Risen, Risen even in our world of tears.  Christ rises as we face our fears of death at the tomb as Mary did and find that love wins.  There won’t be a press conference, you won’t get a Facebook event notification, and 10 AM on Sunday may not be the appointed hour.  Jesus found Mary in the garden, and then he went to the disciples and came through a locked door to them.  He came and absolved Peter’s guilt and Paul’s rage, he showed his scars to skeptical Thomas.  He eventually made it around to everyone who needed him, and so he will find you too.

John 11:17-44  “Where Have You Been, Jesus”

John 11:17-44 “Where Have You Been, Jesus”

Two weeks ago, while leading a workshop at Super Saturday, and I noticed someone from my past. “Beverly?” She didn’t recognize me, which is not surprising since I was 26 at the time and looked 18, and she must now be 90. “You taught me how to do funerals,” I plunged ahead. My first funeral, the Senior Minister went on vacation for a month with the assurance that everyone was fine, and four people died in ten days. The daughter of the deceased said to me, “My mother was a difficult person. My siblings and I called her the White Tornado, and I am the only one from the family even coming to the service. I don’t want to hear some kind of eulogy that makes her a saint.”

Beverly was this woman’s pastor, and she had pity on me. She showed up with a black notebook and photocopies of her favorite prayers, and she said to me that no matter what I should always start each and every funeral with the words from John’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life says the Lord and all who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.” She explained that saying this creates sacred space, it affirms the Gospel and the great mystery of our faith. Funerals are not just about how we feel in the presence of death, it is a time to be in God’s presence in the face of the pain and mystery of death. I have never forgotten this lesson, having said these words at over 200 funerals.

We pop this verse out of the bigger story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It is a strange and complicated story, as full of mystery as death itself. I thought about the text from the perspective of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. They are very close to Jesus, he frequently visits their home, and they send word to Jesus that Lazarus is quite ill. Of course, Jesus, the great healer, rushes too their aid, except he doesn’t. He cryptically waits, takes his sweet time getting there. It strikes me as odd even in death, while everyone else is at the wake, Jesus is still at the edge of town. Martha and Mary leave the wake and go to him. What kind of pastoral care is this, Jesus?

No wonder both sisters say to him the same exact accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The Jesus they know healed the blind man, and the lame woman and cured the lepers. If there is one thing that every person knows about Jesus, he is a healer. Why would a healer let someone he cares about die? To emphasize the distress, John’s Gospel has both sisters come to Jesus. The author could have advanced this story line with just one sister coming to Jesus. I imagine if you are writing on a papyrus scroll in ink with limited space to tell your whole Gospel, you don’t waste words or scenes, so having them both come to chastise Jesus matters. It is the Gospel’s way of emphasizing the reality of grief and anger in the face of suffering. Lazarus’s corpse is not the only thing that stinks, the whole situation stinks, and Mary and Martha want to make sure Jesus gets that.

This is the first time I have noticed that Martha and Mary receive different responses from Jesus. Martha hints that maybe there is still something Jesus can do, and he replies, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha has read Theology Today, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” This was popular Jewish theology, something the Pharisees would affirm, and even three centuries later in the final ending of the Nicene Creed reads, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Which then prompts Jesus to make this famous statement “I am the resurrection and the life…” What exactly does that mean, when is the body raised from the dead? Do we not go to heaven until this resurrection? I draw some comfort thinking of my close relatives in heaven, are you telling me they are still asleep in their graves waiting for a general resurrection? Very thick books have been written to parse the answer. A thousand years later people were still debating, what happens if your leg was amputated, or your head cut off? Does God have an adequate tracking system of all your spare parts? Jesus has opened a real can of worms here, and when you are thinking about being buried, the last thing you want is a can of worms around. Jesus then finishes this pastoral conversation asking Martha what she believes, and she affirms that he is the messiah, and then she goes and gets her sister. Jesus makes no promises to her, other than a general hope of resurrection and eternal life.

If you were Martha, would the theological response have been reassuring to you? Is it enough now in the face of our real grief and pain? The NY Times has a great op-ed last Sunday titled, “After Great Pain, Where is God?” The author had just been in touch with several good friends going through terrible things, divorce, death, the loss of a child. He shared,

Another lifelong friend recently died of colon cancer. His wife wrote to me: “I wish I could tell you that we are walking this journey with courage and faith, but that really doesn’t describe our situation at all. The outward courage feels like a ruse to convince ourselves that this immense pain will subside in time, and the weakness of our faith is showing us its shallow limits. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/25/opinion/sunday/after-great-pain-where-is-god.html

No one can teach you ahead of time how to be good at suffering. No theology will immunize you when the time comes. C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century wrote that God allows suffering in the world so we can understand goodness. Pain is often the way God breaks into our lives, and Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: It is (God’s) megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Then his wife died, and everything changed. In his next book, “A Grief Observed,” he wrote: “When your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence…. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’ ”

Which brings me back to Jesus’s encounter with the second sister, Mary. She has a very different conversation with Jesus. Unlike Martha, once she has said her brother would be alive if Jesus hadn’t been out with his merry men, she makes no request of him. She just weeps at his feet. Imagine if Jesus had then said, “Mary, I am the resurrection and the life…” Her response might be bleeped out on network television. Jesus joins her in grief. He is deeply moved. He does not tidy up the death of Lazarus or reassure her that everything will be alright in a few minutes. He asks to go to the tomb, and there he weeps as well.

I learned at a young age that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” He wept after seeing the injustice of the city of Jerusalem, wept at the death of his friend, and on the cross he would shout Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” John shows us a complex Jesus, a rabbi who loved theology, but also a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. The ending of the story is complicated too, for it is not a story of great rejoicing for Lazarus, but rather this is the moment that Jesus’s enemies decide to kill him. This is the act will ultimately lead to his death and great sorrow for Mary and Martha. This is like watching a World War I romance. If you liked “Manchester by the Sea,” then this story is for you.

So let me share a complicated conclusion to an intricate story, by finishing the funeral of the “White Tornado.” I asked the daughter where the nickname came from. She said it was from a 1970s cleaning commercial for Ajax, where they would open the lid and a white tornado came out, which represented the power ammonia rush. I asked if I could mention in the eulogy that the children’s nickname for her mother was the White Tornado and the woman who didn’t want a pretty eulogy looked at me with horror. “Is that appropriate?” Well, its your number one description of her. So she gave me the green light. The deceased woman had been the head of the Brown library, and one of her colleagues stood up after the eulogy, looked right at the daughter and said, “She could be a white tornado because she was a perfectionist, she pushed us hard and pushed herself even harder. She had no idea that her perfection, which was painful to her, was also painful to us. But she loved the library, and she loved truth and she taught me to value that too.” Afterwards the daughter cried and told me how beautiful and healing the service was, and it taught me the power of our sacred moments.

We live in between our pain and our theology. If we ignore the pain of grief and death, our theology cannot save us. If we forget our theology, pain is all there is. Faith embraces both, and so we keep saying in hope, “I am the resurrection and the life, and all who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

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.
https://blog.diocesewma.org/2017/02/17/desiring-a-christ-centered-life-not-a-trump-centered-life/

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.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/thousands-chip-in-to-rebuild-texas-mosque-burned-to-the-ground/

 

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.

http://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas-politics/2017/01/31/texas-muslim-capitol-day-expected-draw-large-crowd-possible-protests

 

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.

https://rationalinsurgent.com/2013/11/04/my-talk-at-tedxboulder-civil-resistance-and-the-3-5-rule/

 

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.