Thoughts on Fasting…

An Abundant Lent

“Holy Fasting”

Mark 2: 18-22

John 6: 25-29

John 10: 7-10

 

As someone who has endured an eating-disorder, who still often obsesses about food portions and the cold, hard pounds on the scale, I hesitate to preach a sermon on the holiness of fasting. The Spirit leads where it will, though, to paraphrase a certain Someone.

It seems odd to begin a sermon about fasting with Gospel scripture where Jesus: a) explains why his disciples don’t need to fast, and b) describes his work as giving abundance to his followers.

Jesus tells the Pharisees his disciples don’t need to do it. Jesus says he has come to give abundant life to all who believe in him. Here we are, talking about the need to fast, audaciously calling it “holy,” determined, as a church, to reclaim it as a spiritual exercise.

Though it seems counterintuitive, Jesus’ words from Mark, and John, are the perfect places to start within a conversation about Christian fasting. At its heart, fasting is all about experiencing Jesus, abundantly. Fasting isn’t about doing without. Fasting is about doing with more.  Fasting is about feasting on the abundant presence of Christ.

Before we get to the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, in Mark, we need to have a better understanding about where the Pharisees are coming from when they confront Jesus. We need to understand a little bit about what fasting means in the Old Testament, the religious worldview of the Pharisees, and most of Jesus’ contemporaries.

The Jewish folks of Jesus’ day embraced two reasons for fasting: atonement, and supplication. They believed that fasting was for both the individual, and the community. Individuals fasted because they recognized that they had sinned, and fasting was an act of atonement for their moral failings.  The community itself also fasted as an act of penance for national sin. For instance, Joel chapters one and two call for a fast because the people of Judah collectively were guilty of not being faithful to God’s covenant love. Individuals fasted as an act of supplication. When someone had an urgent need in their life, either on behalf of themselves or for a loved one, they often fasted as part of their journey of prayer. We see this periodically in some of the Psalms, for instance. Prophets—like the aforementioned Joel—also called for national fasts, either on the eve of a disaster, or in its’ aftermath. As a contemporary corollary, think about how “religious” America became in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks.

When John the Baptist preached his call for repentance, of course, his followers would have coupled repentance with fasting. It was part of their religious custom. With Israel under Roman rule, and folks looking for God’s deliverance, the Pharisees and other religious leaders would, of course, encourage all the people to fast, as both an act of atonement and supplication.

Jesus and his disciples, and their affinity for eating dinner in the homes of various and sundry people, coupled with their lack of fasting, raises eyebrows, and concerns. In the context of the religious worldview of the day, it is counter-cultural, to the extreme. For astute, dedicated scholars of the law like the Pharisees, and for righteous, earnest searchers like John the Baptist’s disciples, Jesus’ negligence to fast, or his failure to teach the practice of fasting, is downright dangerous, and heretical.

Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “abundant” in his conversation with the Pharisees in Mark, he could have. It is implied, for sure. With him and his disciples, it’s one long wedding party. He’s the bridegroom. The disciples are the bride.  The bride shouldn’t fast during the wedding party—that would be so inappropriate. The bride should enjoy the loving presence of the bridegroom, grow in that love, and let the relationship blossom. Fasting will come later for the bride, Jesus says, but not now. Now, the bridegroom is here, and the bride should find her best self in her reflection within  her bridegroom’s eyes.

The bride doesn’t fast. She feasts on the abundance of love as she bridegroom whisks her onto the dance floor.

As long as Jesus is with them, eye-to-eye, face-to-face, the disciples must worship, adore, and learn. Fasting comes later.  Now they should dedicate themselves to the enthralling abundance of Emmanuel—God with us.

And Emmanuel gives the hungry bread. Emmanuel breaks the bread and multiples it. Emmanuel shares the fish, and creates manifold nourishment.

When the crowds want more, Jesus tells them that the bread he gives to the world is like the manna God gave to the children of Israel: it’s soul food; it’s grub that saves, not just sustains, life.  Just a few words, just a handful of sentences later, Jesus reveals to them, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus not only blesses, breaks, and shares the bread that sustains and saves. Jesus is that bread. This is an abundant feast. This is abundant love.

Not long afterward, Jesus adds layers to his teaching, expressing more of his divine being. He begins by repeating the Father’s words to Moses: I Am.

            I am the gate for the sheep.

I am the door.

Thieves break in to steal, to kill, and to destroy. I Am enters the door giving life, and giving it abundantly. Think about the racism; think about the prejudice; think about the wars and the violence; think about the addiction and the economic scarcity of our society today.  These are the thieves which break in to steal, to kill, and to destroy, life. I Am, Jesus, enters the world to give life: dignified, whole, holy, abundant life.

I do encourage you to fast this Lent.  I believe that when we fast, we are not merely fasting from something; we are not embracing scarcity in some masochistic way. I believe that when we fast, we are surrendering ourselves, allowing ourselves to experience the abundance of Christ’s presence, to be transformed by the abundance of  God’s love.

The Early Church fasted for much the same reason the Jewish folks did: they fasted as an expression of atonement, as a ritual of supplication.  They also fasted as a means—as a means to feel more fully the self-giving love of Jesus, by giving the Lord something of themselves. They fasted, and they gave the food they ordinarily would have eaten to the poor. They fasted, and they spent the time they would have spent eating, in prayer and meditation, instead.

Traditionally, the Church has always seen fasting as a way to enter into abundance: the abundant present of Christ, the abundant light of God’s love. Fasting isn’t dieting. Fasting isn’t embracing anorexia. Fasting isn’t insane twenty-four hour periods of malnourishment, and not taking care of ourselves.  We can fast from food, for portions of the day. For instance, we can fast at lunch, and spend that time in Bible study, and prayer.  Fasting isn’t just about food.

We can fast from whatever keeps us from fully experiencing God. We can fast from our I-phone and Androids. We can fast from the narcissistic or voyeuristic nature of social media, particularly the Facebook newsfeed.We can fast from television. We can fast from gossip. We can fast from negative thinking. We can fast from anything and everything that stands in the way of us giving ourselves over to God, and to God’s love.

Such a spiritual exercise isn’t an embrace of scarcity or austerity.

Such a spiritual exercise is just that—it’s spiritual. It’s a spiritual leap of faith, a joyful jump into the abundance of Christ’s presence, the richness of God’s love.

It’s holy fasting.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

What I am Giving Up For Lent, 2017

It’s Lent, Again…

 

I have always loved Ash Wednesday, and for years I have been willing to happily embrace what some may describe as this morbidity in my theology.  Maybe it’s the writer in me—I am drawn to metaphor and narrative that creates vivid portraits of life, words which capture the sacred and the absurd; words which describe the dramatic and the mundane; words which make human the sinner and the saint. Ash Wednesday is the one holy day which captures all of it.

The ashes are holy and they are a bit absurd.

Some folks come up for the imposition of ashes, and life has been dramatic for them—the dark cross represents the need for repentance and reconciliation after some profound pain. Others come forward as another in a series of mundane act in a steady, ordinary period of life. Maybe they have known the dramatic; perhaps they will experience the dramatic again—and as life goes, chances are, they will—but for now, for this moment of time, life is mundane; this Ash Wednesday ritual is mundane.  That’s okay.

Sinners, myself included, will receive the ashes. Somewhere, among all of us sinners, God’s love will compel some to strive for the self-giving love of the saint.  From the cross-crafted ashes, reflections of death, doves of resurrected hope and humanity will rise.  I pray to be one of those.

While I have always loved Ash Wednesday so dearly, and the entirety of Lent, as well, I am feeling just a little shy around them this year. I have struggled with wanting, and being willing to bear those dark ashes again this year. I think I carry the ashes around too much, as it is. I think I have carried and made visible my own sense of shame and worthlessness enough, already in life.

I write, and I speak for myself, but I believe I am writing and speaking words felt with tears, by many others.

On this Ash Wednesday, I am trying to see Ash Wednesday anew. I am trying to re-imagine Ash Wednesday, and Lent, generally, in a new, different, but still orthodox way, for myself, and for the church folk I pastor. The weather has been crazy today in the Huntington area of West Virginia, where I live. Actually, today’s weather is really a microcosm of the weather for this entire winter. This morning, we experienced thunder, harsh winds, hard rains, and this afternoon…calm sunshine, a reassuring breeze with a hint of spring.

I want my perception of Ash Wednesday and Lent to move from reflecting  the morning, to embodying  the afternoon. I want the experience of Ash Wednesday that I offer my church to be  calm, reassuring, hinting of spring and resurrection. We bear our ashes; we embody a sense of worthlessness; now it is time to move on to wholeness and holiness that a loving, resurrected Lord Jesus gives us.

Two teachers of mine, one past, and one present; two gifted souls of word and wisdom, have brought me to this crossroads in my journey of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

One is Dr. Amy Laura Hall. I was blessed to be one of her students at Duke, and in her new book Writing Home, With Love, Dr. Hall offers up poetic protest to Christian teaching and preaching which promotes austerity, and impoverishment of spirit and body, as good, holy things. They are not. God wants God’s children well-fed, well-clothed, with not only a sense, not only an awareness, but an absolute transformative way of being, embodying, love.  This isn’t the Gospel of Prosperity Dr. Hall calls for. It’s The Gospel, of Christ’s love, which God means to be lived, and given, by us all.

The other teacher who points me in new directions this Ash Wednesday and Lent is Sr. Ginny Yeager, a Catholic nun from the Order of St. Joseph. I am her pupil in Clinical Pastoral Education. In a recent class, Sr. Ginny said to me, so simply: “Jeff, just stop. Stop haunting yourself with the past. You have atoned. You’ve learned from the past. Now walk in the present.

I am grateful for the lessons of both of these teachers.

Now, I am stretching out in heart, soul, and mind,  to apply these lessons to Ash Wednesday, and Lent. As the good liturgical Methodist that I am, I use Joel and Matthew, the lections for Ash Wednesday, as my guide.

From Joel, I learn that all the people—all the children of God in Judah needed to take part in the worship and rituals of atonement—even the children, the infants, and the aged. This teaches me that human sin is both universal and collective, and the ashes I bear this night can represent the collected sin of a nation, a church, a world where people are abused, misused, and dehumanized. I will carry the stain of that sin because I do not carry it alone, and I must accept my part, as a human being, as a member of communities, and the community of humanity.

From Matthew,  I learn that Jesus wants piety to truly be a holy act with a  human being reaching up to God, to make right again, this most private and most basic of relationships. I need to say “I am sorry.” I need to accept forgiveness.  With grace, I may then come out of my closet, and having been reconciled with God, I can seek reconciliation with my fellow human beings.

“From dust you were created, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

This year for Lent, I am giving up my too-long held habit of self-loathing and self-hatred.

This year for Lent,   I am giving up wearing my ashes twenty-four/seven, three hundred sixty-five days year.

This year for Lent,  I am taking up actually experiencing what those ashes, what this day, and what this season actually means: Christ’s love takes the ashes of human decay and death, and makes something beautiful: the cross. The cross points forever towards a tomb that is empty. I need to receive the cross of ashes today, and then wipe those ashes away, knowing that the Risen Christ has done, is doing, his work of love.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mary’s Song

“The Eternal Beauty of Mary’s Song”

                  Luke 1: 47-5

 

I love to read biographies and autobiographies, memoirs. Here lately, I have been trying to read these books written by or about  a more diverse group of people—not just the politicians and writers I love reading about.  In all of the biographical books and memoirs I have read, I’ve noticed something.  I don’t know how it escaped my attention for so long—it is so profound.

Memoirists write a great deal about their mommas.

Biographers write a great amount about the mommas of their subjects.

Franklin Roosevelt had such a close relationship with his momma, Sarah, it was almost impossible for any woman—Eleanor or Lucy Mercer included—to occupy the same sacred emotional space for FDR that his mother did.

George Washington’s mother was a highly critical woman. The Father of His Country had to work extremely hard to earn his mother’s praise, or fend off her scorn.

Abraham Lincoln’s mother died when he was so young, she almost took on a mythic, godlike status in his heart. His stepmother, who raised him and did so much to lead Lincoln towards the importance of education and self-education, was also a saint to Lincoln. In all his life, Lincoln spoke in personal terms most tenderly about his stepmother.

I offer all three of these examples to say this: Clearly, the relationship between a human being and her or his mother is a basic, foundational, critical relationship. Historians and psychologists seem to agree that to understand a person—their actions, their motivations, the way life turned out for them—that person’s relationship with their mother represents an important piece of the puzzle of understanding.

For those of us who are blessed with loving, present mothers, we have the wonder of looking to our own mothers for such love, guidance, security and nurturing. For folks who haven’t had the experience of having a mother loving, or present with them, other folks can serve as surrogates, and stand-ins for that holy, godly motherly love.

We can understand so much about Jesus by looking at his mother.

Mary was lowly in economic and social stature. She was part of that great mass of humanity Sly and The Family Stone wrote and sang about in the 1960s: “I love every day people.” Like mother, like son. Though all the world would come to know who Jesus Christ was by the recorded deeds of his life, and by the faith claims of his followers, before those deeds were lived, before those stories were told and written, and before those faith claims about him came to be articulated, no one outside of a small group of people in the hinterlands of Palestine knew who Jesus of Nazareth was.

While Mary had little in worldly treasure and lived an anonymous life in worldly status, Mary heart beat strong, stronger than the rest when it came to believing God, and obeying God.  Gabriel told Mary an unbelievable statement: You are going to have God’s son. Faced with the choice between cynical incredulity and hopeful belief, Mary chose faith. Mary’s faith fueled her decision to obey God. Mary chose obedience, because to her, obedience was the only faithful response to belief, and Mary believed in God.  Like mother, like son. As God-in-humanity, but still himself fully human, Jesus had free-choice, and decisions to make, like any human does.  Jesus chose to accept his God-given identity, and obey the love flowing through the Trinity.  From the wilderness of temptation to his prayer of agony at Gethsemane to the cross, Jesus, Mary’s son, chose belief in his own identity, and obedience to the plan of God.

“Let it be. Let what you have said come to pass,” Mary told Gabriel that day long ago, in her parents home one dark Galilean night.

“Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” Jesus told God the Father as drops of blood dripped as perspiration off of his furrowed, troubled brow one dark Jerusalem night.

Mary was humble. Even as her cousin Elizabeth addressed her as “the mother of my Lord,” and Elizabeth reported that her own baby leapt in her womb at the sight of Mary, with Jesus in her womb, Mary still addressed herself as a servant, a servant clothed in lowliness. Like mother, like son. Jesus, as God’s lamb said nothing to those who abused and scourged him.

We can truly understand a person by understanding their relationship with their mother.  We know no keen insight, no clear vignette from the Gospels about detailed interaction between Mary and Joseph. What we do have, though, is golden. John’s Gospel reports that at the time of his own death, Jesus commanded John to take care of his mother, and love her like she was his own mother.

We can truly understand Jesus by understanding his momma, Mary.

All of these attributes of Mary and Jesus— a lowly state in the world; belief in, and obedience to God, and humility, can all be found in Mary’s gorgeous song of praise that we read this morning, The Magnificat.

Magnificat is Latin. It means, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” That’s what Mary said to Elizabeth. Through Luke’s writing, that’s what Mary says to the world. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Indeed it does.

Mary’s song begins with an admission of her own lowliness. Mary’s song quickly moves, though, to an acknowledgement of God’s plan, and God’s power. “Surely, from now on all generations will call be blessed,” Mary proclaimed, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

In essence, Mary says, “In and of myself, I am little. I am unimportant to the world. But I am important to God. God has chosen to live out God’s love through, and within me.”

The rest of Mary’s Song is a love song to God—a lovely, poetic lovesong of all that God will do through the life of Jesus Christ, God-in-humanity, Mary’s son.

Mary’s song then, like Mary’s life moves from the smallness of self, to the largeness of God. Mary’s song begins within herself, as all our songs must do.  Mary’s song ends with God, in all of God’s grandeur and largeness, reaching out to lift up Mary, reaching out to lift up us all.

For Mary, it all starts out with a song, her song.

Mary’s song quickly becomes God’s song.

I think Jesus learned a great deal from his beloved mother.

I think we can learn a great deal from Mary, the mother of God, too.

May my song, and may your song begin within us, and quickly find their heights of melody and harmony within the life and purpose of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

November 6, 2016

“Called To Hope”

 

Primary Text:

Ephesians 1: 11-23

 

Also:

Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18

Luke 6: 20-21

 

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Daily Office Book Year One,  Proper 26

 

We celebrate life on each others’ birthdays. For most of us, the story of our lives is punctuated with birthday cake, candles, and loved ones gathered round. Many families still remember deceased loved ones on their birthdays. Perhaps you put flowers on the grave, and say a special prayer of thanksgiving and memory each year when a beloved one’s birthday rolls around.

The Early Church chose to celebrate the life of a deceased person not on the day of their birth, but instead on the day of their death. The earliest Christian fathers and mothers determined that the day a person found earthly death and eternal resurrection was the day to honor, remember, and uplift that person. Still to this day, we cannot forget the exact day a loved one dies—the exact day of the week, date, month, and year someone we love dies is etched forever in our consciousness. Unlike our Christian forebears, we tend to look at the day of death in grief, not in celebration. That is completely understandable, and appropriate. Still, it behooves us to remember that in the past, the day of a Christian’s death was a sacred date, a day set aside for memory, honor, and yes, celebration.

Christians cherish life. We believe that all life is sacred; we believe that every human being is a child of God, created in God’s love. As a people lifting up the sanctity of life, we do all we can to sustain and nourish life. We love human life becomes life comes from God; our hearts, our bodies, our very beings are molded in God’s creative hands. As we hold life so dear, Christians also have a respect, a reverence, even an awe, for death.

To say that we Christians hold death in respect, reverence, and awe does not mean that we wish to promote death, or hasten it. We do not. Our faith teaches us to take care of each other, and to take care of ourselves. We want to help each other be healthy and whole, in body, in spirit, and in mind. Because Jesus Christ the Son came to humanity as a human, we believe this humanity has been redeemed; we believe this human race is worthy of life and worthy of respect. We also embrace the full narrative of Christ’s story, of Christ’s saving work. That narrative, that work, includes death. We believe that when a Christian dies, they, like Jesus, journey from the pain and fear; from the tears and blood of earthly suffering and human death, into the peace and beauty of resurrection.

Therefore, death–while never to be promoted or hastened by our own selfish acts—is holy, and like every moment of life, an experience of grace, a walk with Christ.

For the Early Church, a saint’s day of death became a day of thanksgiving and celebration— thanksgiving and celebration for that person’s life, for their dedication to Christ, for the resurrection into new life which that departed soul receives now by Christ’s self giving love.  When the roll of the saints became too long; when too many Christians had been murdered by a treacherous state or violent neighbors, the Church simply created one day, All Saints, to give thanks, to celebrate lives given for Christ, souls saved by Christ.

All Saints began as a day to remember the literal saints—Christians murdered because of their faith and service to Jesus. Today it has evolved into being a day to remember all the saints of the church who have died, folks who maybe the world doesn’t know or recognize, but sacred lives who had a positive, godly impact on us.

Every death encapsulates sadness, and tragedy. Is anyone ever really ready to die? Is anyone ever really ready for someone they love to suddenly not be here today and tomorrow? Often we think that when someone young dies, when someone very few in years dies, it’s a real tragedy…but when the person who journeys into death has some miles, has some age on them, well then, it’s less tragic, not as sad. I admit I felt that way for a long time until an elderly man in a church I served told me, “Jeff, someday when you are in your eighties and nineties, you’ll see that even then is too young to die.” I’ll never forget that.

With our vibrant faith in resurrection: life forgiven, life eternal, we Christians dare not ever try to diminish the human sadness and very real tragedy that is human death. One thing we pastors are taught along the way is to never try to “talk someone out” of the grief and the sadness that they feel upon the death of a loved one. Don’t try to rationalize it or God-speak it—you know, “Now, she’s with Jesus,” kind of talk. No. We learn to just be there with the person within their grief, embodying the hope of resurrection immediately, but waiting for the words of that hope to naturally sprout up and blossom when their time is right.

As Paul teaches us in Ephesians, not just our death, not just our life even, but the sum total of our all—past, present, and future—can be expressed in one word: hope. Hope.  The Christian hope is a hope founded in calling. We are all called to believe in, to love, to follow, and to serve Jesus, as Jesus reveals to us the full reality of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The hope, and the calling exists in three realms of reality.  I hope as I describe this, you hear some echoes of what we believe about Communion, too. Life, death; ending, resurrection; All Saints, the Sacraments—they are all connected, all bound together with love, and hope.

First, our hope, or to use Paul’s specific language, “the hope to which [God] has called you,” is wrapped up, safe and secure within the threads of the past. GK Chesterson said, “If you want to know the size of the church, you have to count the tombstones.” The hope of our calling exists in the past. It exists within our memories of those lives of our saints, those folks who loved Christ and gave that love to us as ministry, as legacy. Along with our memories of beloved ones now gone, we also know, deep in our hearts that Christ has been with us. If Jesus hadn’t been with us yesterday, we wouldn’t have survived yesterday.  The hope of our calling being rooted in the past goes even deeper than that.  As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139, verse thirteen:

You formed me in my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me…My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you…

 

Just as our hope, our calling, exists in the past, so too its heartbeat goes on today. That twelfth verse of Ephesians chapter one says that we Christians are to “live for the praise of his glory.” The very purpose of our lives is to live for Christ.  Beyond following Jesus, a huge part of “the hope to which God has called us” is to be together as the Church. Again, Paul reminds us that the Church is Jesus’ body, and the Church is the fullness, or the completion, of Jesus “who fills all in all.” We cannot follow and love Jesus fully unless we are faithful, active members of His body, the Church.  A huge part, a major part of how we experience Christ, Christ’s hope and Christ’s love right here, right now, is by being alive together in a living church—a church whose life comes from Christ and the Holy Spirit; a church whose life comes from the sum total of all of our loves being lovingly, gently lived together.

Finally, we will experience the hope of our calling in the future. The Holy Spirit will compel you to do something for Christ’s kingdom tomorrow. God still has work for you to do tomorrow, and for every tomorrow. God still has work for us, the church, Bethesda to do, tomorrow, and for every tomorrow. In a larger sense, the hope of our calling existing in the future is far bigger than even the work God still has left for us to do. It extends…into…forever.

In a time of fear, in a time when a hateful power, an abusive power ruled over Israel, Daniel prophesied about a time when abuse would end. Daniels saw a day when hate would cease and love would  reign:

But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and posses the kingdom forever—forever and ever.

Jesus echoes the words of the prophet—The kingdom really belongs to the poor, and God will give it to them. The hungry will be fed and God will feed them. The ones who weep need to know joy and laugh again, and they will. As Sam Cooke sang so long ago, as a black man facing the racism of pre- Civil Rights America: “A change is going to come.”

It’s All Saints Sunday. All Saints reminds us that we as Christians embrace hope, and we embrace more deeply, a specific kind of hope: a hope of selfless love, the love of a cross becoming Easter resurrection; the hope of a calling—that those who receive such love are called to believe, to love, and to serve.  This hope, this calling, exists past, present, and especially, future. Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have knit together your family in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so as to follow your blessed saints in virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Daily Office Book Year One,  Proper 26

October 16 Sermon

A Sermon Series based on Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living by Reuben Job

 

“Do No Harm”

Mark 12: 28-31

Colossians 3

 

John Wesley began the first three simple rules for the people called Methodist in the same place Hippocrates began his ancient oath for doctors: Do no harm. I have often wondered why Wesley began with a “no” instead of a “yes;” why our founder started with a “don’t” instead of a “do.”

And then I think about myself.

And then I think about the way we humans are, generally speaking.

When a child is very small, she has to be told some very basic “no’s.”

Don’t touch the hot stove.

Don’t talk to strangers.

Don’t walk out in traffic.

Parents have to teach their child a series of very specific “do not’s,” because their child doesn’t no any better.  Those parents’ first obligation is to keep that child safe.  Keeping the child safe means teaching her a few basic “do not’s” to remember.

As Christians, we are commanded to love, and to follow Jesus. Loving Jesus, following Jesus, means we serve Jesus. Serving Jesus means we say “yes” to doing many things; serving Jesus means we agree to do many things, many of them humbling; many of them requiring emptying and sacrifice.  Still, even before we reach out to do all the humane, servant hood work Jesus asks us to do, we have to do that first very basic deed: Do no harm.

            Like a parent has to tell a child those very basic series of “do not” rules, I believe Wesley lifted up “Do no harm’ to us as the first general rule, because Wesley knew human nature very well. Wesley knew all about us people, and he knew how hard it is for us to not hurt each other.

Wesley knew how hard it is for us to not hurt each other. I know that sentence sounds pretty harsh, and cynical. I believe it to be true, though. Consider all the ways in which I can hurt you, or you can hurt me.

Moses said, “Don’t kill.” Okay, that is easy enough.

Moses said, “Don’t commit adultery.” Okay, that is easy enough.

Then Jesus comes to the earth, and he says, “That’s right. No. I don’t want you to kill each other. That’s right. Oh, but one more thing. I don’t want you to be angry with each other, either. It’s not enough to not physically kill. Your anger can destroy someone’s humanity. You are angry with someone, and the next thing you know, you stop regarding them as a human being anymore.   True, that. No adultery, either. I agree with Moses on that one. Oh but…um…Yeah, I don’t want you to look at someone else lustfully, either.  It’s not enough to not do the deed. I don’t want you objectifying or sexualizing each other, either.

In other words, Jesus reminds us, it isn’t just our actions. It is our thoughts.  It is our words.

I can hurt you with my words and not even mean to.

I can scalp you with my words and mean every hateful breath.

In Three Simple Rules, Reuben Job talks about the ways in which often we escalate situations, especially with our words.  If I’m right, then I must prove you wrong.  If in the process of proving you wrong, I demean you, oh well. So be it. Sometimes in my pursuit of my way, you become collateral damage.

Sometimes, I believe what I believe, and I feel that you must believe exactly like I do.  I pick a fight with you, then. I want to debate you. I want to argue with you. Do no harm means that I reach a place in maturity where I realize that my beliefs are my beliefs; they are no more true to me, or less true to me than whether you believe like me or not. Do no harm means I respect you as a human being, and your feelings, your thoughts, your emotions, your health, your body, are as important to me to protect and to take care of as my very own.  Job poses some very challenging questions:

If we choose to follow this way, will we be seen as weak and at the mercy of others rather than as powerful and in control of every situation? If we choose this way, will our position be eroded and our point lost? Is it possible to live in this complex and violent world without doing harm?

 

And then Job answers his own question. He writes, “It is a very challenging path to walk. Yet, even a casual reading of the gospel suggests that Jesus taught and practiced a way of living that did no harm.”

In Colossians, chapter three, Paul teaches us to “let the word of Christ dwell in[us] richly.’  Christ’s word dwelling within us; Christ himself living within us is the only way we can truly ever do no harm.

 

            Doing no harm and being Christian are inextricably linked.  Both require something often we struggle with—at least I know I do—and that is surrender.  Surrendering, by turn implies a do dedication to that which we are surrendering too.

For example, after the American Civil War, it wasn’t enough that the Confederate armies surrendered—Lee to Grant at Appomattox, Johnston to Sherman in Durham. For Confederate soldiers to be returned to full status as American citizens, they had to take a loyalty oath to the Union. In other words, upon their surrender, they were asked to dedicate.  They surrendered to the armies of the Union; they were asked to dedicate themselves back to the Union.

God asks us to surrender ourselves to Christ’s love. Surrendering ourselves to Jesus means dedicating ourselves to him, too.  That leads us to today’s reading from Mark.

A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks Jesus what the greatest law is. We must remember that scribes were experts at the law, so more than likely, the question was meant to entrap Jesus, the carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth. Perhaps not—the scribe could have been engaging Jesus in genuine conversation, but most scholars opt for the former interpretation.  If the scribe meant to foul Jesus up, he didn’t succeed. And yet he did.  Jesus lifted up the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4:

 

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

To the Shema, Jesus added mind. I don’t think this is a mistake. As we have already explored this morning, for our Lord, it isn’t just our actions, our deeds, but the thoughts, the words, the imagination, the mind, behind them.  Jesus recognized, Jesus recognizes that if we don’t turn our thoughts over to God’s love, for grace and for healing, we will still wind up doing harm, even if we do so unconsciously.

 

In our frailty, in our brokenness, sometimes we say things, sometimes we do things, and we don’t even know where they came from. Psychology uses words like transference, and projection. Theology uses terms like being human, being the descendants of Adam and Eve, and thus having some struggles with being fallen.  That’s where Jesus’ insertion of loving God with all of our mind comes in.  That most personal, intimate part of ourselves, that part of ourselves– our brain, which we know less about than even the far reaches of outer spaces, contains such beauty, and such darkness, neither of which we can understand fully about ourselves.  Jesus wants to save our minds, our brains, too. The hymn has it right:

All to Jesus I surrender.

All to him I freely give.

Even Wesley himself had struggles within his own life he could not understand His ministry in America bombed, in part because he fell in love and it was unrequited. He may have acted interpersonally in ways he wasn’t consciously aware of.  When he returned to England after his disastrous two-year pastorate in Georgia, he even questioned whether or not he was really Christian. And at the time he was already an ordained, educated priest in the Anglican Church!

The heart, and especially the mind, are such mysteries. They are holy, sacred mysteries, and they take the holy, sacred love of God to understand, and save.

 

And Jesus says, after our total love for God, our complete love for others is essential. If we love God, there’s no way we aren’t going to love our fellow human beings.  Filled with Christ’s self-giving love, our broken places being knit back together with the love of the Spirit, that love will simply overflow out of us.  That love will be evident in our thoughts, in our imaginations, and in all the words spoken, in all the deeds done which are products of the mind.  Of course, an astute reader or listener will note: Jesus said to “love our neighbors like ourselves,” implying we have to care about, and care for, the person in the mirror, too.

Christ’s call to us all—a call our founder, Father John picked up on and threading through the most foundational and basic doctrine of Methodism—to Do No Harm is a holistic, holy call, a call to embrace the humanity, and the sacred identity of every person as a child of God.

Matthew 20: 1-16

God Is With Us:

Walking Through The Gospel of Matthew

“Whatever Is Right”

Matthew 20: 1-16

            Can you imagine…

We all enroll in a class in college. It’s a class we all need for our major.  We hear good things about the professor. We all enroll because the professor actually came up to each of us and invited each of us, personally to take her class.

On the first day of the class, the professor handed out the syllabus, and when we all look it over, we can all see, it is quite obviously a difficult class. There’s lots of reading. There are lots of tests. There are lots of daily quizzes. There are lots of papers. It’s a demanding, really hard class.  As we all sit there in a stupor of dread, in a gaze of feeling overwhelmed, the professor started to speak.  In a gentle, peaceful voice she  told us  something that gives us all hope. It made me feel better, anyway; I am sure it made you feel better, too.

She told us, “Everyone in here will earn an A at the end of the class. All you have to do is come, and learn. If you accept my invitation to come to class, and I can tell you have learned something, I will give you an A.”

The professor allowed some students to enroll in her class a few weeks into the semester. We find out that she had gone out to the student union, at lunch time, and invited them to come to the class. You and I had been enrolled in the class since the very beginning of the semester.  We had been working very hard on all of the tests, quizzes, and papers. I can’t speak for you, but I personally was a little bit annoyed at these newcomers in the class. By the time the professor allowed them into the class, we’d already had one paper due, taken a major test, and had several quizzes. But I didn’t complain. It is the professor’s class.

Now this really got my gander up! About halfway through the semester—half way, just a day or two short of midterms—that same professor let another group of new students enroll into her class. She went to a football game, and at halftime, she went up to a huge group of students, and she invited them to enroll in her class.  We were practically at the midterms!  You and I had been in the class from the very beginning. We had worked incredibly hard, and we were all making good grades, well-deserved, good grades.  I almost complained at this one, but I didn’t. It was the professor’s class.

But then…

We were week, one week away from finals.  And were you as shocked as I was? That professor welcomed in another new group of students into our class. She had popped into a fraternity/sorority mixer, and she invited them all into her class, our class! The class was almost done!  I was shocked. I was angry.  I don’t know about you all. You all are better at masking your emotions than I am.  I bit my tongue. Oh, but I did give those new students, and the professor a shot or two of steely blue eyes, you know, the look… but I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t say anything until…

Oh! This angers me just to talk about it. That professor… She gave us all A’s. She gave us all A’s, you and me who had been in the class from the very beginning…But then I found out…She gave everyone A’s, not just us.  The students who came into the class a few weeks into the semester—they got A’s.  The students who came into the class around midterm—they got A’s.  The students who came into the class just a week before finals—they all got A’s, too.

I decided not to be nice. I decided…no, I didn’t decide it. I knew! I knew this wasn’t right. I knew this wasn’t just.  I went to her. I went to that professor, and I complained. I tried my best to use my deep voice, and not my normal squeaky voice.

I told her, I said, “Doctor. This just isn’t right. I respect your decision to give all your students A’s so long as they accepted your invitation, came to class and you could tell they had learned something. I was annoyed when you let students in a few weeks into the semester.  I was annoyed because I had been there from the beginning. I was also annoyed—very annoyed—when they got an A, just like I did.  I was irritated when you still let students into the class midterm. I was irritated because I had been in your class from the very beginning, and I, like all of us students who had been there since day one, have been working so, so hard, from the beginning.  I was incredibly irritated when those students got A’s, too, just like me.  Professor, Doctor—I wasn’t just annoyed. I wasn’t just irritated. I was angry, yes I was angry when you had the audacity to allow new students to come into your class just a week before finals.  Are you kidding me? I have been learning from you, and attending class faithfully all of these weeks. I, and many of us, haven’t missed a single class. But professor….Oh m gosh, professor, I am livid…I am absolutely livid that you gave all of those new students—students who missed fourteen out of fifteen weeks of our class—A’s too.  I, many of us, worked extremely hard. We have never missed a class.  We got A’s. But so did all of these other people who couldn’t have worked a third, or half as hard as I and we did because they just weren’t there. I, many of us, have been here, in this class since the very beginning. We have learned, Professor. We have learned!  These other folks, these folks who haven’t been in class nearly as long as we have—they couldn’t have learned half, or a third of what we who have always been here have learned! It isn’t right, Professor. It isn’t right, and I am upset.”

I told her this! I did.

And don’t you know… That professor, she just smiled at me. She just smiled at me, gave me a light tap on my shoulder, and she said, “Jeff, buddy. You are a good student. You are a good student, and you did work hard in my class. No one can ever take away from you all that you learned from all of your hard work from this class. You knew from the very beginning that  I said that anyone who came to this class would get an A, so long as they accepted my invitation, and learned something.” I was seething, and I am sure she could see it.  She just smiled again, and said very gently, “Jeff, it is my class.  I am allowed to set my grading standards, and my policies. I wanted to give out A’s to anyone who accepted my invitation. It’s my class. It’s my business. I wanted to give you an A. I wanted to give all of them an A. And I did.  The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

My story is different, but in many ways my story is the same as Jesus’ parable of the landowner, the landowner who gives everyone—the workers he hired at sunrise, the workers he hired at nine, the workers he hired at noon, and the workers he hired at five o’clock in the evening—the same daily wage.

It isn’t fair.

It doesn’t make sense.

It isn’t just.

No college dean, and no academic faculty would ever allow the professor in my story to get away with it.

No labor board, no judge would ever allow the landowner in Jesus’ parable to get away with it, either.

It isn’t fair.

It doesn’t make sense.

It isn’t just.

It is grace.

The decisions of the professor, the decisions of the landowner are sacred, and holy decisions, not rational, human decisions.   Thus those decisions are gracious decisions, decisions of heart over head, and decisions of a parent’s love over the children’s judgment.

Jesus invited the thief on the cross to walk with him in paradise.  That means when Peter got there—Peter who dedicated his whole life to Jesus; Peter, who was, like all the apostles, martyred out of their love and service for Jesus—he got to see a thief who followed Jesus for all of five minutes right there, right with the apostles and the mothers and fathers of the Church, with Jesus, in heaven.

Some people spend their lives in love with Jesus. We consider them saints.  Surely they are in heaven.  Some people make deathbed confessions and find deathbed grace leading them to deathbed conversions, and surely they are in heaven, too.

We have to ask about the murderers, the child abusers, the rapists, the molesters. We don’t want them to be in heaven with Mother Teresa, more importantly, with us.

But the professor says, “It’s my class. It’s my decision.”

But the landowner says, “It’s my land. It’s my money. It’s my decision.”

And the Lord Jesus says, “It’s my humanity. It’s my kingdom. It’s my cross. It’s my grace. It’s my decision.”

All I can do, all you can do, is accept the invitation of Lord Jesus. We accept the invitation just like those students invited by the professor with one week to go in the semester; just like those laborers invited to work by the landowner just an hour from quitting time.  All we can do is accept the invitation, and accept the grace so amazingly  offered as a gift of love to us.

 

Knowing our place, we leave the grading policy, the pay scale policy, and the invitation policy to the One the policies, the decisions belong to: the professor whose class it is; the landowner whose farm it is; the Lord whose earth, whose humanity, whose heaven, and whose love, it all is.

Being Human, Following The Divine

God With Us: Journeying Through The Gospel of Matthew

“Being Human, Following The Divine”

Matthew 16: 21-28

 

Simon Peter goes from being hailed as Jesus’ rock to being a mouthpiece of Satan in just a few short words. Poor Peter. Poor Jesus. Poor us. This world is just too hard to understand sometimes. Even Jesus, bringing love, bringing salvation, bringing hope and humanity to all of us, still yet, is just too hard to understand sometimes.

The events of the past week are hard enough to understand, and they happen in our times. Black men shot inhumanely by policemen for no earthly, justifiable reason; policemen executed like dogs when all they had done was give security to a peaceful demonstration. Men who wanted nothing more than to go home to their wives and children—a black man in a car, a policeman on the street—dead, with no earthly tomorrows, no next moment left to behold and cherish.

It is harder still for us to be expected to understand words and events from 2000 years ago, words from a time and a culture not our own.

But they are words from a rabbi, words from a savior, words from a Jesus very much our own.

And they are hard, very hard words to understand. They are harder still to accept.

If we really listen, though, and if we take these sacred words of Jesus to heart, then they will help us find peace, keep our courage, and regain our sense of humanity and love during times which can be oh so dark, and confusing.

First things first, my dear friends: Jesus isn’t calling Peter “Satan” in this scripture, though at first blush it appears so. No. Jesus is however, telling Peter his words remind Jesus of something he has heard Satan saying before. Many folks like to make a link between Peter telling Jesus to abandon his talk of destined suffering and death to the words of Jesus’ tempter many years before in the wilderness. Remember, Satan offered Jesus the world and all Jesus had to do was fall down and worship him.  In both cases, both speakers—Peter and Satan—try to convince Jesus to prove to the world who he is without showing humanity his love with  the essential  act of self- giving love of the cross.

The words Peter say echoes in Jesus’ memory with the same meaning and cadence of those long-ago words from Satan.

What Jesus is telling Peter is that he, Peter is doing something so very human, I do it, and maybe just maybe, you do it, too. “Peter, you are setting your heart, your mind, your imagination on earthly things, and not divine things,” Jesus says.

Jesus wants Peter, and us, to look up, but Peter is too busy looking around.

Jesus’ heart is set on all people—all people of all tribes, orientations, geography, even time—coming to wholeness in humanity and knowing peace in God. Peter’s heart is set on his people—probably Peter’s concern is most real for his immediate family and most friendly neighbors (that’s how most of us are, anyway…not just local but very local in care and concern) finding greater self-rule and autonomy from the Roman Empire.  Jesus’ worldview is cosmic; his concern for humanity universal.  Peter’s worldview is national;—sound familiar?—his concern for his own blood and neighborhood.

Jesus thinks about heaven coming to earth. Jesus thinks about the divine.

Peter thinks about the earth, and very specifically his own home. Peter thinks about the human.

We focus today on the broad expanse of this scripture, more so than the very specific details. I believe that this story captures the essence of the difference between Jesus and us. In our conversation about this story, we aren’t going to demonize Peter. We are Peter. In telling the story of this true, painful story in Peter’s life, Matthew the writer uses Peter as an archetype for me and you.

Jesus thinks holy, sacred thoughts. Jesus’ thoughts are expansive and cosmic.

We think small, sometimes petulant thoughts. Our concerns are often limited to self: self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-gratification. Often our selflessness, unselfish service and compassion is limited to those selves who look and think just like we do.

What we are talking about here, what this scripture addresses for us, is the timeless dance between the human, and the divine. As Christians, we constantly seek a balance between the two. We know we are human.  We celebrate our humanity.  Yet we are forever seeking the divine touch upon our humanness: divine reflection within our humanity; divine forgiveness of our sin; divine healing upon the scar tissue of our brokenness.

Shakespeare was right—we are all angels. Michael Shaara was right too though—if we are angels, then we must be “killer angels.”  Look around at our world.  Look around at our country.

So Christians seeks a balance between our God-created humanness, and the divinity in whose image we were created, and saved by. Actually, our Christian faith begins by seeking balance. When we first believe in Jesus and become Christian, we hold our humanness and Christ’s holiness, God’s divinity, in creative tension. Sometimes we fall back on very human thoughts and ways. Other times, what we think and what we do can be very sacred and divine.

That’s the beginning of our journey with Jesus. In the long journey of our faith, however, the goal isn’t balance. The goal is surrender.  We seek to surrender this very humanness to God in order to become more Christ-like, and indeed, more holy.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this lifelong pilgrimage, this graceful transformation going on to perfection. We Methodists do indeed believe in going on to perfection. Do we believe that we can be perfect this side of heaven? No, of course not, but if you don’t seek, if you don’t stretch, you can never, ever grow.

Peter tries to talk Jesus out of the cross because Peter is just beginning his journey, the eternal journey of being Christian. Jesus understands, and he persists in his teaching of suffering, self-giving love, the cross, death, resurrection, new, healed life.

Jesus Christ, of course doesn’t need balance or surrender when it comes to humanness and divinity. Jesus was, Jesus is, at all times and for all times completely human, and completely divine, all at the same time. Sometimes we forget that, and we fall into a heretical trap which makes Jesus some kind of Clark Kent/Superman dualistic being:

Okay, when he went off in the Temple and cast the money changers out, that was human Jesus.

When he healed the leper outside the city gates, that was divine Jesus.

No. That isn’t Jesus. That’s Hollywood. Scripture and tradition, the 2000 plus years orthodoxy of the Church teaches us that Jesus forever holds his humanity and his divinity in perfect balance. Actually, they aren’t balanced in the sense that they exist half-and half within Jesus’ being. They comingle; they co-exist; they are in perfect harmony within Jesus very blood, within every atom of his sacred being.

It’s a mystery, to be sure, and a very essential, heavenly mystery.

We don’t seek balance so much as we seek surrender.

If we surrender our humanity to Jesus, then we can truly be beautiful, living together in the masterpiece of God’s earth, as God’s humanity.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.