Monday, December 14, 2020

Living with Hope

Preached via Zoom 12-13-2020 at Wayside Friends Church

I recently endured a day and a half of significant unhappiness having to do with the COVID plague and its effects on my important relationships. At this time, I thought, I'll have to call my pastors and tell them I'm not qualified to speak about living with hope. Then I went for a walk with my dog up behind a city park where I saw a natural crucifix and looked out over my home town and the surrounding mountains and, when I got home, I felt better.

And I thought, "Going for a walk is an example of living with hope." You see, I know that my chronic tendencies to anxiety, depression, migraine, and fibromyalgia are all lessened by simple exercise. In fact, even "bicycling" on my Wii Fit helps me. I do these things I know to be good for me out of hope, an anticipation of something positive. 

Emily Dickinson, famously reclusive, probably a migraine sufferer, with a distantly polite relationship with God, wrote this about hope:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul - 
And sings the tune without the words - 
And never stops - at all - 

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - 
And sore must be the storm - 
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm - 

I've heard it in the chillest land - 
And on the strangest Sea - 
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

This poem describes hope as a bird within us, constantly singing its tune through storm, cold, isolation--a bird that lives without being fed. Hope is a grace in this picture, a gift. Hope is associated with the human desires for happiness and comfort and security. Any action we take towards those goals for ourselves or others is an action based in hope, including the action of writing a poem.

The author of Hebrews envisioned hope as an anchor, which has become a common Christian symbol for hope (my paraphrase follows):

Because we human beings are flesh and blood, Jesus also himself became flesh an blood; so that by dying himself, he might destroy the accuser who has the power of death, the devil; And thus deliver his human family who through fear of death were all their lifetime living in chains...It was right for him to be made like us, his family, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. Because he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help them that are tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

We have a high priest who can be touched with the feeling of our weaknesses, who has been tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, so that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:15-16)

Though he were a Son, Jesus learned obedience through suffering, and being made complete, became the author of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Heb. 5:8-9)

Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast. (Heb. 6:19)

The Old Testament Hebrew words translated as hope in the King James Version have metaphors in their souls: cord (signifying attachment); pool (signifying gathering together, like raindrops); hurrying toward refuge, running to safety; waiting; and even digging out or exploring. Hope is both steady and active.

It is meaningful to me that a word search for hope in the Old Testament shows clusters in the Book of Job, in Psalms, and in Lamentations.  Hope's song, as Emily Dickinsons aid, is sweetest in the storm. In the book of Job, we often see Job's comforters assert that we get to hope for good when we have been good, quid pro quo.  Job's suffering gives the lie to this idea (which he may himself have shared when things were good). He lies on his ash heap, scraping his skin with shards of pottery, and says what he thinks is true instead, that God has mysteriously abandoned him despite his being a good man, and that even so, "Though God slay me, yet will I trust him." This is a statement of Job's faith, and his ongoing argument with God is a sign of his stubborn hope.

I had a serious bout of depression in my mid-30s, and during that time was asked to share from the pulpit at my church a passage of scripture I found meaningful.  I read the following: "Cursed be the day I was born, and cursed be the person who brought the news of my birth to my father..why did I ever leave the womb to see misery and woe, to spend my days in shame!" (Jer. 20:14, 15, 18). Suffice it to say I was not invited to share for quite a while after that. But a student of mine who also knew depression expressed to me that it gave her comfort to hear those words. For those who don't know, Jeremiah had many reasons for his dismay: he lived as a prophet among people who insisted on ignoring his words, even throwing him into a dry well to die.  He saw his country and city conquered by the armies of Babylon, and he himself was an unwilling immigrant to Egypt with the refugees, even though he told them that emigrating would end in disaster.  His words were written on a scroll that the king read and burned. No wonder he wished he had not been born. But even so, he acted with hope. He bought land he would never live on, he and his scribe rewrote his scroll, he continued talking with God about his life. And he wrote these famous words, more famous than his words of dismay: "But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope; the kindness of the Lord has not ended, God's mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning--ample is your grace! 'The Lord is my portion,' I say with full heart; therefore will I hope in God." (Lamentations 3:21-24)

Living with hope includes speaking honestly to God and about our experiences. We do this, even when we are angry or despondent, because we have hope that God will show up. And God does show up, not to answer our existential questions, but to be present, as in the last chapters of Job.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, wrote many celebratory poems about the beauty in nature and his faith in God; he also wrote this poem, found among his Terrible Sonnets, written from a place of severe depression:

"Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist--slack they may be--these last strands of man
In me, or, most weary, cry, I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be."

Hopkins describes himself as a rope he is thinking about destroying, but he chooses not to do so. The repeated word "not" becomes his act of hope--not despair, not untwist, not choose not to be. For some, waking up still alive is living with hope.  And Hopkins points out to himself that he can make choices that derive from hope. A schizophrenic acquaintance of mine learned to talk back to his destructive voices, an act of hope: "Barry don't want to do that," he would say about some act of self-harm.  When I was on my walk (see opening story), I said to myself, "Your feelings are not despair, but self-pity." Thinking that through was an act of hope. And even self-pity is somewhat hopeful, though neither comfortable nor attractive. One hopes that there will be some improvement, that a better moment will arrive. Meanwhile, as Hopkins wrote, "Let me be to my sad self hereafter kind."

St. Paul writes that faith, hope and love abide, endure. Love hopes all things--hoping for the best for our world; hoping for the best for our enemies.  Hope is not just a feeling, but it also inspires and requires actions. Planting a seed is hopeful--watering and weeding and fertilizing and bracing and protecting--all necessary acts of hope. Reconciling is an act of hope--forgiving and compromising and empathizing--all necessary components for reconciliation. These are hopeful action we can move towards.

Despair is corrosive, like pouring acid on the soul. Contempt is also corrosive, like pouring acid on someone else's soul. Both attitudes reject hope; hope for oneself and hope for others. I recently wrote a protest letter to the members of the Supreme Court, and as an act of hopefulness, sent it to all of them, not just the ones I think are sympathetic. Who am I to limit the possibility of change for even those I see as foreclosed to necessary mercies for human beings? I don't see everything.

T.S. Eliot write in "East Coker," one of The Four Quartets: The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."

Humility makes it possible to live with hope.

And I would be wrong to ignore the teaching of the resurrection of the dead as our basis for hope. When St. Paul writes of hope, it is most often in the context of the hope of the resurrection. He grounds his whole experience of Jesus on his encounter with the resurrected Christ.

"We do not mourn," he writes, "as do those who have no hope." Our notions of what the resurrection of the dead entails are often sentimental and perhaps inaccurate, but the fact remains that when Jesus was about to die, he told his followers, "I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again to receive you unto myself" (John 14:2-3).  Believing this makes it possible to work towards loving our neighbors in the here and now. The resurrected Christ was happy to fix breakfast for his frightened followers. 

Whatever scarcities surround us presently, whatever weaknesses or sorrows inhabit our souls, we have a future hope that all tears will be dried and all wounds healed. Let us live with this hope.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Shalom and Division

Preached at Tigard Community Friends Church
January 5, 2020

Picture it: England 1650. King Charles 1 has recently been beheaded by the Parliamentary army under Oliver Cromwell, bringing the divine right of kings to govern to an abrupt end. A war is raging between Protestants and  Catholics over who will rule England. Bear-baiting is a sport, and hangings are a family outing. The Church seemed to be splintering a hundred ways as Ranters say God permits them to do whatever they want in their wild parties, Adamites say God wants them to return to Eden and walk around naked, and Quakers…Quakers stand up and argue with Anglican priests during church, keep their hats on in the presence of the upper class, and refuse to swear loyalty oaths—to pledge allegiance—to the government. The mid-1600s, when young George Fox began preaching and the Quaker movement began, were a wild, violent, chaotic time. And out of that context came the  Quaker “peace testimony.” Several who had served the Parliamentary Army under Oliver Cromwell, fighting for English Protestantism against Roman Catholicism, followed their experience of personal revelation of God out of the army and into preaching. Their testimony was not so much against the military as for their experience of being restored to the innocence of the garden of Eden by the indwelling Spirit of Jesus Christ, and that innocence took away all cause for war.

This testimony also derived from the Quaker commitment to equality of all persons and the determination to swear not at all. This refusal to take the oath of loyalty was frequently used by hostile persons to put Quakers in jail because they refused to swear allegiance to the government and its head. They committed their bodies and souls to be loyal to no political regime, but only to Jesus Christ, despite their natural preference for the Protestant side of the English Civil War. Thus, when the nation returned to King Charles II, they attempted to use their refusal to swear allegiance to Oliver Cromwell to prove to King Charles II that they were called to a different kind of kingdom and were no more or less loyal to King Charles than they had been to Oliver Cromwell. They still went to jail, because political systems demand body and soul loyalty.

The actual lives of Quakers in the beginnings were fraught with persecution from the established Church of England, hostilities from other sects like the early Baptists, and conflicts among the faithful themselves. And those latter conflicts, while they may make us skeptical of their entire restoration to innocence, often came directly from what made their contribution to the whole of Christianity important and worthwhile, namely, their insistence on personal experience of the Spirit of God and personal accountability to obey what the Spirit of God told them to do. This practical mysticism derived from their belief that within every person is a seed of Truth that God’s Spirit speaks to and causes to grow. And though they went on to be separatist and self-preserving, the truth that inspired the first generation ran like an undercurrent into the mainstreams of Christianity and changed how we understand God and our relationship to God through Christ. A soul at peace, in shalom, with God is a soul nothing can ultimately trouble.

At the time just before Jesus was born, the nation of Israel was occupied by a foreign power, Rome, and ruled locally by hereditary enemies represented in the various Herods. The Jews were split internally among collaborators with Rome and religious purists and purifiers, and zealots dedicated to overthrowing Rome. The temple system exploited worshipers for money, particularly the poor or foreign-born. But there were still faithful Jews hoping for the coming of Messiah who would bring Shalom.

Luke 1 tells about the birth of John who became known as the Baptizer. His birth was foretold to his father Zechariah, who just mentioned to God’s messenger that he and his wife were old and she was past child-bearing age and could he please have a sign so that his wife would believe him, and the sign was that he could not talk for the duration of the pregnancy. When John was born, Zechariah’s speech came back, and he prophesied:

“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, because God has looked on God’s people and ransomed them, and raised a mighty helper for us in the house of David…God will deliver us safely out of the hands of our enemies and of all who hate us, will perform the mercy shown to our fathers and will remember God’s holy covenant, the oath God swore to Abraham our father, to grant that we, having been rescued from our enemies, might worship and serve God without fear, in holiness and right living before God’s presence for all our days. And now you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you go forth before the face of the Master to prepare his ways, to give to his people a knowledge of salvation in release from the bondage of their sins, through our God’s inmost mercy, whereby a dawn from above will visit us, to shine upon those sitting in darkness and death’s shadow, in order to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:67-79)

So let’s see what Zechariah thought would lead to peace, to shalom.

Liberation from oppression
Salvation from enemies
Restoration of the covenant with God through God’s mercy
Freedom to worship without fear, in holiness and justice before his presence, which was understood to be in the Temple

John was to be the prophetic voice that taught Israel to understand their sinfulness, their need for forgiveness, so that their lives would not be characterized by darkness and the fear of death but by light and peace.

And that is what John set out to do. He lived a life of abstinence and purity, spent time in the desert with only God, and then returned to preach. His message was about being washed in living water in the Jordan River to show repentance, the commitment to changing mind and behavior, and to confer release and forgiveness from sins. He told the crowds to share their clothing and food with the impoverished; he told tax-collectors to collect no more than was due; he told men in the army not to extort or falsely accuse anyone and to be content with their wages. His message was right in line with all the prophets before him: be generous, have integrity, tell the truth, be content.

But most importantly, he told them that his baptism was water, but that one was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, who carried a threshing flail to beat the chaff away from the grain, saving the grain into a storehouse and burning away the chaff “with inextinguishable fire.”

So there’s that to look forward to in an encounter with the Chosen and Sent One of God, the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.

I was asked to talk about Shalom. Because Shalom is a Hebrew word, it is found only in the Old Testament in that form. However, it is very likely that when the New Testament portrays Jesus speaking the Greek word for peace that what he actually said was some version of Shalom. For example, when Jesus said, “Peace be unto you,” he was using a familiar greeting that included the word Shalom. When Jesus talks about peace, the Old Testament Shalom inhabits and fills up the meaning of the word in the New Testament.

The history of how the word is used in the Old Testament is more complex than a notion of peace as tranquility or even the absence of conflict. The root of the word is a verb and these are some of the ways to translate it:

restore, recompense, reward, repay, requite, make restitution, make amends, complete, finish

be at peace, make peace with, make safe, make whole, make good

You can see that inherent in these words is an idea of justice. It is unsurprising that the word Shalom in various forms permeates the books of the Law—Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy. Shalom is about making things right, about fairness, about justice, about adjudicating who owes whom what and defining how to pay it. The word is used to describe the offering of an animal to God to acknowledge sin and make peace with God. The prophets weigh in against deceptive weights and measures because Shalom relates to providing full value, and they assert that God hates it when people cheat each other in business transactions, noting that they most often cheat the poor.

In other words, the concept of Shalom presupposes that things have gone wrong, and acknowledges our deep desire that things go right, that our lives be characterized by completeness, soundness, safety, health, prosperity, quiet, contentment, friendship.

Even the Greek word for peace, eirene, has a probable root that means “to join”, suggesting the prerequisite of something divided prior to the coming of peace.

So Zechariah’s prophecy is a prayer for Shalom.

I want to suggest to you two things. Zechariah’s prophecy as he understood it was too small. When he referred to God’s people, he understood it entirely as referring to the nation of Israel. But we know from the rest of the story of Jesus that the circle widened to include those outside almost immediately, both while Jesus ministered and after the Holy Spirit took over the disciples’ lives and moved them outside Jerusalem, Judea, and to the farthest reaches of the world they knew.

And the process of understanding that all peoples are God’s people has been fraught with division and pain, from the actual Messiah, Jesus, on down to today. In other words, Shalom is not simple, and the enemies of peace are within ourselves and the systems like families, religions, and politics that shape our fears, our shames, and our areas of ignorance. Further, being moved by God’s Spirit from a life of fear and shame and unknowing to a life of faith and acceptance and increasing understanding is painful and requires quite often a kind of divine surgery.

That is why John warns his hearers that the Messiah will come as a reaper, not grim, but determined. The one God sends to save God’s people will not necessarily be experienced as a gentle restorer of balance. In point of fact, Jesus himself makes this point by word and deed.

In Luke 12 and Matthew 10 Jesus describes his mission:

 “I came to set a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled….Do you think I came to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on there will be five in one house divided three against two…; father against son, son against father, mother and daughter divided against each other…Why do you not judge what is right even for yourselves? For as you are going out with your adversary to a judge, make an effort to settle your debt with your adversary on the spot, so that he does not drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you most surely will not come out from there until you pay the very last cent.” (Luke 12:49 ff)

I have to say that I was startled to find my thoughts directed (I hope by the Spirit of Truth) toward these passages when I signed on to speak about Shalom. Yet I think we can see our understanding of Shalom informs this passage. If Shalom is about making things right, about making things whole that have been broken, the first great brokenness of humanity is the willingness to be parted from God. This willingness shows up in every action that goes against what God’s Spirit has told us is right and good to do, in every evasion in our own spirits against absolutely trusting in the goodness and love and faithfulness of God and the claims that God has on us because of them. We owe God everything, starting with the breath of life itself, and we will be imprisoned within ourselves by law and justice until we admit what we owe to God, and admit our own inability to pay, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court where Jesus is our advocate as well as our judge. And then we have to stand naked and unashamed in God’s presence, hiding nothing, allowing God to bring what has been hidden out of the corners where we buried it, running toward God rather than away when we realize we’re not ready to meet God’s eyes. The Old Testament writers called this open stance toward God “a perfect heart”—“perfect” being derived from Shalom, meaning at peace with God, in friendship with God, rather than a heart without flaws. See the relationship between David and God if you want to understand the term.

And this version: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace upon the earth; I came to bring not peace but a sword. For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cherishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up their cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever gains their soul will lose it, and whoever loses their soul for my sake will gain it. Whoever accepts you accepts me, and whoever accepts me, accepts the One who sent me.” (Matthew 10:34 ff)

This speech occurs in a context of sending disciples out to preach in Judea to Jews. In commissioning them, Jesus warns them of resistance, rejection, and violence in response to the message to repent because God’s kingdom is here. This message of God’s kingdom exposes inmost allegiances, which remain to family, race, religion, not to God.  As long as this is true, God is their adversary, who is contending with them for what they, what we, owe to God—our undivided loyalty, our faith, our faithfulness.

We are so often prone to put loyalty to God in storage while we sign on to our family heritage, our religious tradition, our political party, our national identity. We need, like early Quakers saw, to be restored to the innocence of personal relationship with God Almighty, to walk daily with God, to hide nothing from God. We need to make all other loyalties secondary to this primary one. If we are participating in any system that splits the world into us vs. them, we have been drawn away from our loyalty to God, who has no favorites in the world, who even told the nation of Israel prior to the coming of Jesus, “are you not as children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel? Saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? And the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). In other words, all the peoples are God’s. God’s care is for all the peoples of the world. And don’t forget the story of Jonah, whom God sent to preach to the political and national enemies of Israel, the Assyrians, and Jonah’s complaint to God when God forgives and does not rain judgment on the Assyrians: “Isn’t this just what I predicted?   I knew that You are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and that You will choose not to inflict misery.” To which God (eventually) responds: “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, wherein there are more than 120,000 persons that cannot tell their right hand from their left hand; and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:2,11). Jesus tweaks the religious leaders of his day by referencing this specific story and saying it will be easier for Nineveh in the day of judgment than for Israel because the Assyrians repented when the prophet preached (Matthew 12:41).

Both of these challenging passages are preceded by the following encouragement given by Jesus himself, and I can think of no better way for us to prepare within ourselves the way of the Lord as best we can:

“Guard yourselves from the yeast of the Pharisees, which is pretending to be good. There is nothing thoroughly veiled that will not be unveiled, or hidden that will not be known. Thus the things you said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you whisper in private rooms will be proclaimed on the rooftops. And I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those killing the body and thereafter having nothing more that they can do…Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Rather, even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:1-7). “What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:27-31)

Jesus says that when we say by word and deed, “I’m with God. I have pledged my loyalty to God” that he, Jesus, will say in front of God’s angels, “I’m with that person; I have pledged loyalty to her, to him, to them.” And nothing can separate us from God’s faithful love. God’s love is committed to our Shalom, to our well-being, to our wholeness, which we cannot have without relationship, friendship—Shalom—with God.  And God will work to burn away the chaff or the nonsense in how we understand ourselves and our relationships in order to leave behind the true grain of our personhood which God will never let go to waste.

 The following helped me write this sermon:
The Jewish Study Bible, eds. Adele Berlin and Mark Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004)
The New Testament, trans. David Bentley Hart (New Haven: Yale UP, 2017)
George MacDonald's writings in general

Monday, October 7, 2019

Running Ahead of God

Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 20:1-13; Matthew 17:1-8
Preached at Tigard Community Friends Church
Oct. 6, 2019

            I mentioned last week that we have dug 80+ holes for trees, shrubs and plants, and some of those holes were into rocks. We did have enough sense to wait until rain softened the top 4 inches of soil, but nothing softened the rocks.
            I really enjoyed the work, to be honest. I watched my spouse use the 26-pound prybar to evict sizable rocks and break up the hard clay, and I used it myself (though I thought I might lose my balance on the sloping surface, fall on prybar and break out my front teeth). One day, I felt a decided burning in my tricep and thought, “Well, that’s enough for the day.” So I waited a day or two before using that prybar again. And I congratulated myself on paying attention to my body.
            A couple of weeks into heavy digging, I noticed my hands were really sore in the morning. They got better as I used them during the day, and when I really got going, endorphins took all the pain away. Then my middle fingers on both sides started catching in the phenomenon known as trigger finger. Now I get them caught in the shape of claws and they stick there for a bit until I can pry them open. They wake me up in the night to complain. So I warm them up, massage them with various liniments, and continue digging. 
            The amount of work I did made me proud of myself, and I wanted to impress my spouse when he got home each day. Also, I just love planting things. So I pressed on, until a little voice whispered, “You might want to get those hands looked at.” I made an appointment and got referred to physical therapy. Where my therapist “congratulated” me on doing so much hard work as a happy way to transition into telling me I’d better take it easy if I want my hands to improve. This is annoying. I could, of course, ignore her warning and persist with my shoveling and raking and digging. But I’m going to try to listen and obey.
            The significance of my story is that all the work I was doing was positive, and I enjoyed doing it despite all the aches and pains that ensued from it. But I didn’t quickly listen to when to ease up, and now I owe my body some rest. I pressed on when I should have put my feet up. Maybe some of you can relate. 
            On a day off from work at the yearly meeting (denominational) office, I thought about what things I should get done, and I asked God, “What do you want me to do today?” And, to my surprise, God said, in my inner self, “It’s a nice sunny day; get outside and enjoy it.” So I went and sat in my swing. Another time, after the career disappointment I mentioned, I said, probably angrily, to God, “Now what? What am I supposed to do now?” And God said, “You don’t have to achieve another thing in your whole remaining life. I’m fine with that.” Notice God didn’t say, “I forbid you to achieve” or “you better not try another job.” Just that God didn’t require me to continue to be ambitious and aspirational, God isn’t pushing me to fulfill my potential, God is just happy for me to be.
            I’ll add, right up front, that my whole spiritual life took a turn for the better when, as a young adult, I heard Bill Vaswig at Newberg Friends Church say, “Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide us into truth, so why not ask what the Spirit of truth would have you do, take some time and space to listen, and then do what you hear.” St. Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will, acting always out of love.” (No law but the law of love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.) This sounds enormously free and a little scary if we aren’t accustomed to working without a net of rules and guidelines, without expectations we are trying to meet.
            (Just a word about what I “hear” when I say I hear God. Some of what I hear are mental impressions, metaphors, ideas about things I’m turning over in my mind. George MacDonald said that God sits in the darkness where the light of our consciousness goes out and sends us up beautiful things. Sometimes also, when I’m working on a course of action, I receive in my mind a simply factual statement about what I need to do next, such as “take the day off,” or “take the next step in forgiveness,” or, in the middle of an argument with my spouse, “you know you’re going to have to get over this, so watch what you say.” God’s word doesn’t come clad in shaming, guilt-producing, manipulative language. I’ve never had God thunder at me, despite my various wayward tendencies.)
            And look at the arrangement in the garden, before humans took their fate into their own hands. Every evening, after the humans doing anything they wanted to (except that one thing of eating the fruit of the Tree of Death), God showed up to walk and talk with them. This sounds like a golden age to me, and we do keep trying, on our own steam, to get back to the garden.
Last week I mentioned the problem of running ahead of God. God wants humans to live in ongoing conversation and responsiveness to God’s leading. The temptation in the garden speaks to us of human beings running ahead of where God leads, putting our own ideas of how we want things to be in the place of listening to God, pushing forward because that’s what we know how to do.
            So today, I want us to look at the story of Moses, who led the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery to the edge of the promised land. I am going to simplify the story, leaving out huge portions to focus on three incidents in Moses’s life.
            To recap, for those who are unfamiliar. Moses was born a Hebrew in Egypt at a time when all Hebrew boy babies were supposed to be killed at birth. His midwives disobeyed this law, and his mother nursed him up until she felt he could survive, then put him into a little boat on the river, where he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. She brought him up as a prince in Egypt, and she employed his mother to be his nanny.
            One day Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and he flew into a rage and killed the Egyptian. (This is Moses acting on his own, by the way.) He fled the country and went to work as a shepherd at the back of beyond. After decades, God got in touch with Moses via a miraculous burning bush, and God told Moses to  use what was in his hand, which was his shepherd’s rod. This rod became imbued with powers that looked magical: it could turn into a snake and then back, for instance. God sent Moses back to Egypt, saying, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” So Moses went.
 After a lengthy negotiation period between Moses, Pharaoh and God, Pharaoh let the Hebrews go into the wilderness to worship God. When Pharaoh saw that they had escaped, he and his army pursued them, thinking them trapped by the Red Sea. But God told Moses to lift up his shepherd’s rod over the water, and it parted so that the Hebrews could escape.
Now I’m going to take you to three times when the Hebrews murmured against God and complained to Moses about having no water. The first time was not long after their escape across the bed of the Red Sea. Three days into the wilderness they ran out of water.  The only water was a stream called “Bitter” (Hebrew: Marah) because of its nasty taste. They couldn’t drink the water. And God said to Moses, “Take the tree I’m pointing out and throw it into the stream.” Moses did exactly that, and the water became sweet and drinkable. Moses took the opportunity to point out to the Hebrews how important it was to listen to God and do what God says.
Some time later, the people arrived in another place in the wilderness where there was no water. Keep in mind that they had livestock as well as families along, so there was a lot at stake in having an adequate source of water. Moses asked God for help, saying “Help! They are about to stone me to death!” and God replied, “Take the elders of the people with you, and bring your shepherd’s rod that struck the sea. I will go with you to the rock, and you will smite the rock with your shepherd’s rod, and water will come out of it.” So Moses obeyed God’s word, and indeed, water flowed out of the rock.
Much later, after the Hebrews have reached the promised land and denied themselves entrance by their cowardice and then disobedience, they arrive again at the place in the wilderness where there is no water. They complain against Moses and God, saying, “Why have you brought us up into the wilderness to die of thirst? Why have you taken us out of Egypt, a place of figs and pomegranates, to this evil place?”
So Moses went to seek God’s face and will. And the Lord spoke to Moses, and said, “Take your shepherd’s rod, bring your brother Aaron along, and gather the people together. Then speak to the rock, and water will gush out of it right before their eyes.” Moses got Aaron, picked up his shepherd’s rod, and gathered the people together.
And he said to them, “Listen up, you rebels! Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Then he smote the rock with his shepherd’s rod. Nothing happened. So he struck it again. Uh-oh.
Moses does not follow God’s leading. Moses takes the rod into his own hands and does what worked in the past, rather than trusting that this time, it will be enough to be simply obedient and speak to the rock. Now, God is kind and the people are thirsty, and God still provides water gushing from the rock. But there will be consequences for Moses.
Some here may have a hard time believing the miraculous parts of this story, thinking of wizard’s wands, and magic spells, and so on. And certainly, in Egypt Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to match Moses miracle for miracle up to a point (which, somewhat amusingly, was the plague of lice. They could make frogs but not lice. Perhaps once you’ve hidden a louse up your sleeve, it sticks around.) And I don’t want to worry about defending whether these things did or did not happen exactly as written in the Bible. What is written is for our correction, encouragement and instruction in right living, so that’s how we’ll use it.
What I want us to focus on is that the Bible faithfully recounts both Moses’s obedience and Moses’s disobedience. The Bible tells that this man, who talked “mouth to mouth” with God, chose, after decades of obedience, to take matters into his own hands and do what worked in the past.  And God took note of this break in relationship. Moses did not live to enter the promised land after all his wandering through the wilderness with the wayward Hebrews. Instead, God took Moses up on a mountain to see the promised land, and said, “Because you rebelled (the Hebrew word is Marah, like the bitter stream) against my commandment in the strife of the congregation and did not honor my name and word as holy at the water before the congregation, you may not enter the promised land.”
This is instructive to us. The life of the Christian is a life lived in obedience to the living Word, God’s Holy Spirit, a daily and ordinary obedience. We are always likely to let the clatter and conflict around us rattle us so that we can’t trust what God is saying to us. We are likely instead to do what worked before. When we disobey, our actions have consequences. Otherwise, our actions do not have any meaning. But God is not harsh with us. I notice that God allowed Moses to draw water from the rock because God is kind and gracious. And as an important side note, God promises Moses that he will be gathered unto his people, which seems positive, perhaps even more positive than entering the physical promised land. So though Moses didn’t get to fulfill his hope of entering the promised land, he moved on into a dimension of unbroken and unbreakable conversation and relationship with God.
Jesus showed us what it looks like to be a human being in living, continual, responsive conversation with God. He said that he did nothing but what his Father told him to do, and that we could see God by looking at Jesus. If you have questions about why Jesus did one thing with a particular person and something else with another, perhaps here is your answer. He was and is responding to the guidance of his Father in his responses to individual human beings.
One day toward the end of the three years Jesus ministered publicly, he took Peter, James and John up a mountain (reminding us of all those mountains Moses climbed to be with God). On that mountain, Jesus was transfigured: he lit up from within and his clothing glowed with light (reminding us of how Moses’s face glowed with light). He looked for once like the Son of God might be expected to look.  And importantly, Jesus had visitors on the mount where he was transfigured. Here is Moses, along with the prophet Elijah, signifying that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets.
And because humans want to memorialize big events like this one, Peter says, “Let us build three tabernacles here for you, Moses, and Elijah.” You see, if there are tabernacles there, people can make pilgrimages, people can hope to capture some of that experience again. People like to have a place of worship that holds still so they can find it whenever they want.
But God says in response to Peter’s suggestion: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” And isn’t that the way of following Jesus? We tend to pray at Jesus, telling Jesus what should happen next. Like Peter, we find it challenging to be quiet so we can hear Jesus, so we know what our next act of worshipful obedience will be. God doesn’t give us a nice shrine we can revisit every year or every week. We get an ongoing, intimate, personal, instructive, loving relationship with the Son of God.
Jesus promised us a relationship to God like his Father/Son relationship. Like Moses, like Jesus, we too can have an intimate (if usually invisible) mouth to mouth conversation with God, and our part in life is to enjoy that relationship and do what God tells us.

Not Being like God

Genesis 3, John 1, Genesis 1, Acts 5, assorted verses from the Gospels, Psalm 23
Preached at Tigard Community Friends Church
September 29, 2019

            Since I retired from paid employment, people have asked me how I’m spending my time. This is an embarrassing question to answer, since, after 37 years of grad school and working, I’m doing just whatever I feel like doing each day. I don’t usually feel very productive, though recently my spouse and I dug around 80 holes in order to plant shrubs, trees, roses, perennials. We unearthed rocks that were a foot across, and left some buried that were larger. Sometimes it’s easier to rethink where the plant goes.  Some of the holes were nearly pure gravelly rock. So it’s been fun. I could say I’m productively working to help stabilize the climate, if I wanted to try to impress myself, but really I just wanted plants around me to make me happy.
This relates to what I’m learning about my relationship with God in these days of unpaidness. I’m learning what it means to simply be human with God and with other people. I’m learning that my being human is enough for God. And I’m recognizing that a lot of what drove me through my working life as a university professor and administrator was the desire to be a little more than simply human.
For one thing, I wanted to be tougher than the rest. So I went back to teach an hour after a root canal. I taught on crutches two days after knee surgery. I attended a facilities committee meeting the afternoon of the day my dad died.  I wanted to be and to be seen as ultra committed, reliable, and tough.
I also wanted to be in charge. I liked the classroom where I wrote the syllabus and ran the agenda for each day. I also liked the challenge of managing the human beings in my classes toward learning and growing. I created open space for my students in the classes, but it was my open space. I didn’t relish the idea of co-teaching a class, with the constant negotiation of what to do each day.
I wanted to be recognized as a leader by my peers and my boss. I could be bought with promises of access to leadership opportunities. I was successful in getting the leadership openings I wanted until one time when I was spectacularly unsuccessful and some of my colleagues thought I should leave and go work elsewhere. I was devastated and resentful and angry. It was the death of a dream, only I went on living.
Now, when I look back, I still feel the sting, and I know it was an actual death for me. I did go on to be general superintendent of NWYM, but I think I would have found the job of general superintendent unbearable if I hadn’t already had my ambition and some of my need for approval snuffed out. Since leaving that superintendent work, I am finding that my spiritual task now is to learn how to be simply human.
I recently read Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity and William Stringfellow’s Instead of Death, both books from decades ago that I find enormously relevant to where I see myself and where I see my co-travelers in our local and global cultures. I just mention these, not because I will be quoting them a lot, but because their analyses underlie my thinking to some extent, so if you’re interested, you can read them for yourselves.
I want to take us back to the Garden of Eden, and the temptation scene (Genesis 3). The setup is this: God has created the whole earth and set the father and mother of humanity in a garden where all their needs are met. There are also two miraculous trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or, as it turns out, the Tree of Death.  God sets them free to eat anything in the garden EXCEPT the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God says, “In the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” So, the tempter says to the woman, “You won’t die. The truth is that God knows that in the day you eat from that tree, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” The woman looks at the tree again and thinks to herself, I want to become wise. This is a temptation to which I am vulnerable. I want to be wise, to be discerning, to judge what is good and what is evil. In the terms of this story, I want to be like a god. So what might be the downside?
The downside is fear. When she and the man eat the fruit, the result is that for the first time, they fear meeting God face to face, they hide from God, God exposes them as having disobeyed, they are ashamed of who they are, human beings naked before God, and they leave the garden to enter a world of toil and shame, a world, as Stringfellow says, enslaved to death and the fear of death.
There is so much to explore in the temptation story that I will leave aside to focus on this. The woman was tempted to become like God, to be one who decides what is good and what is evil, to judge as God does. But when God judges, God knows all there is to know. Humans don’t. We are always judging from a basis of incomplete knowledge. In fact, we tend to identify the unknown as evil, and we learn to fear and even hate it. Thus the natural darkness of night becomes a place of terror because we don’t know what’s hidden by the dark; we become afraid that evil hides in dark places. We start identifying darkness with evil when, in fact, it is a part of God’s good creation.
We don’t even know everything about ourselves. Some aspects we aren’t even aware of until anger, stress or danger (names for fear) bring them to the surface. And some of what we know we don’t want to embrace as part of ourselves. It isn’t long before we are afraid to look inside ourselves; we start hating parts of ourselves that we don’t understand and we judge to be evil, and then start projecting that self-hatred onto other humans or the creation. 
As human cultures, we make systems to protect ourselves from the unknown, and these systems end up enslaving us. So we cannot stop stockpiling retirement resources, we cannot stop building more efficient ways to kill our enemies, we cannot risk losing the opportunities that higher education opens up, we cannot run up outrageous medical costs without insurance, we cannot admit that other persons or nations have the same rights we do. We are in bondage to all the ways we protect ourselves from what we fear. And we turn what we fear into an evil, whether God considers it thus or not. This is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And ultimately, the fear of the unknown is the fear of death, the great unknown.
We humans are already like God in one way: we bear God’s image, as the earlier creation narrative says. “Let us make humans in our image,” say the Trinity to each other, “male and female.” So in a fundamental sense, to be human is to be made in God’s image.  All humans, everywhere. As the gospel of John says, nothing was made without God’s Word, which lights up every person who comes into the world. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of God’s only begotten Son, full of grace and truth.
So the riddle is, why do humans, who are from the start made in God’s image, feel the need to become like God, judging and separating good from evil? Why do humans not just live in close relationship with God and let God judge and guide? Why do humans want to prove they are tough, in control, and able to lead? Why not pay attention to the one who is full of grace and truth? Why would any of us, when facing the choice, prefer to decide good and evil ourselves rather than to live receiving God’s judgment of good and evil? I think it is because we have a hard time with how God judges. We judge God’s judging, and God is either too harsh or too lenient.
As a child, I always liked the Bible stories where God wipes the floor with those who sin. I used to ask my sister to read me about Ananias and Sapphira when I was under 7 years old. For those who don’t remember, they lied to Peter the apostle and to the Holy Spirit of God about how much of their money they were giving to the gathered church, and they fell down dead. I think this must have operated like a horror movie for me, because I was always afraid of God’s judgment, based partly on that story and others like it and on my own tendency to run into trouble with my parents or other adults.
But now, as I am gradually learning in fits and starts how to be human in relationship to God, I am grateful for the patience of God, God’s long-suffering, and the mercy of God, God’s loving-kindness, and the grace of God that puts all of God’s resources on my side.
Jesus shows us how God judges when he says, “He causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” When he says, “You work so hard to have your outside self appear right and perfect, but God sees the dead bones and rotting flesh in your hidden life.” When he says, “O Jerusalem, how I long to gather you to myself like a hen with chicks, but you do not want that.” When he said, “You will deny knowing me. The accuser has desired to grind you up like wheat, but I have prayed for you, and when you return to knowing me, strengthen your fellow travelers.” When he said, “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you. Go and don’t do this again.” When he said, “I came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through me might be saved.” When he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (I suspect Jesus prays this for us every moment of every day.)
I remember reading a poem by Robert Browning where an outsider to Jewish society meets the resurrected Lazarus and is astonished at his mixed up priorities. The traveling doctor cannot understand why Lazarus has no interest in the coming confrontation with Roman armies but concerns himself about trivial actions of his child. For those who don’t know, Lazarus has died and been brought back to life. The most feared unknown of all, death, has conquered him and then been conquered, and nothing is the same for Lazarus after. Browning imagines him observing the world with the eyes of a child, full of wonder and awareness of glory. He imagines him as especially characterized by “prone submission to the will of God, seeing it, what it is, and why it is.” Lazarus seeks, as the outsider puts it, not to please God more than as God pleases. In other words, his zeal to obey doesn’t outrun God’s word to him.  He does no more and no less than God asks of him.

[Lazarus] loves both old and young,
Able and weak, affects the very brutes [animals]
And birds—how say I? flowers of the field—
As a wise workman recognizes tools
In a master's workshop, loving what they make.
Thus is the man as harmless as a lamb:
Only impatient, let him do his best,
At ignorance and carelessness and sin—
An indignation which is promptly curbed…
Robert Browning, “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician”
This is a picture of how we can be human in relationship with God. Loving God’s creation, including ourselves; loving other humans, no barriers; living as obediently as we can in response to God’s conversation with us; resisting the urge to judge; seeing clearly and without fear; being “pleased to live just as long as God pleases, and living just as God pleases.” Jesus showed us how to live with absolute trust in God, and when we know that the great, glorious God has given us the gift of love and God’s self to love, we can also trust God with our days and our nights, we can trust God when we can see and when we are in the dark. God will lead us in right paths for God’s own sake. Let’s be who we are and let God be who God is.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Losing Faith, Faithlessness, and Keeping Faith: Jesus and Peter

I have fallen in love with really only one car in my lifetime, a 1975 Alfa Romeo Spyder, lemon yellow with a black rag top. I knew it was old when I bought it, and I could see that the top was rag in more than just the name, but I had such loving expectations of driving with the top down, my senses fully engaged, the pleasure of feeling close to the road. I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it.

Some 10 or more years later I sold it, glad to get out of it most of my initial payment for it. I had put perhaps 3000 miles on it, and I don’t want to remember how much in repairs and tune-ups. The nice Bulgarian man on SE Foster in Portland who repaired it for me raced Alfas and told me they ran best on half jet fuel. Maybe so. But I now am driving a 2018 Honda CR-V with an extended warranty because I lost faith in old cars as transportation and I don’t have the patience to make them work as investments. I want a car I can rely on to get me where I want to go without letting me down.

Losing faith in a car that I loved was sad, but it does not compare with losing faith in people, in churches, perhaps even in God. When something or someone disappoints us deeply, abandons us, or rejects us, or just quits returning our calls, our souls are wounded and we lose faith.

I want to approach the topic of losing faith in God as gently and carefully as possible. I highly value honesty, and I believe with all my heart that God does, too. So the best first step when we lose faith in God is to say so to God. “I have lost faith in you.” And then to explain to ourselves and God what that means.

It might mean that we don’t feel emotionally connected to God. We are numb. Perhaps we see that others do express a strong sense of emotional connection to God, and we come to church and the songs are all about strong emotions with regard to God, and we can’t in honesty join in. “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.” Or “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul, rejoice.”  Or people share how God has lifted their hearts into joy or how a deep sense of peace has flooded their anxious spirits, and we just can’t relate. Our souls are troubled, our souls are exhausted, and our souls are numb. We feel so alone.

As anyone will tell you, this is a normal stage of life, one in which it is wise to sit quietly in your soul until it lifts, and if it does not lift, to seek professional help from a doctor or a counselor. Take care of yourself as if you were someone you love. See that you get good food, enough sleep, some outdoor time each day, moderate exercise. Do something you like to do. Keep yourself alive. These are acts of kindness that count as acts of faith. And, every now and then, write a letter to God.  There are Psalms and other passages of the Bible that are just this kind of letter to God.

Disappointed Expectations
Losing faith may mean that we become afraid that God is not who or what we wanted God to be.  Perhaps we expected God to be our loving and protective Father, and we experienced abuse and abandonment. What good Father would let those things happen? Perhaps we expected God to execute justice on evildoers, and instead we watched them prosper and ascend to power and prestige. What just judge allows the wicked to win? Perhaps we expected the compassionate Savior of the world to alleviate suffering and we watched horrific news stories of famine and disease or the illness of someone we love. In the book of Job, Job himself says to God, “I am a good person, and you’ve treated me worse than you treat the truly evil. What’s wrong with you?” Job teaches us that God welcomes honesty from humans. Job is angry for pages and pages, and God, while never settling Job’s questions, does show up and tell Job’s preachy friends to be quiet and listen to Job.

I myself have said to God, “If I claimed to be someone’s father, I’d never let this kind of stuff happen…” I had a friend tell me at a crucial period of my own life that I needed to forgive God for not measuring up to my expectations. I did come to a place of accepting that in a universe where God accepts human free will, a lot of suffering will ensue, and that God suffers with us and may in fact, through the work of Jesus, bear some of that suffering for us. This does not answer all my objections to the way the universe runs, but I can remain on speaking terms with God.

When we are fearful and angry about the way God runs the universe, we can still choose to do our best to make this world as livable as possible. In other words, we can still work at loving our neighbors, and these acts of love are acts of faith. 

Projected Faithlessness
Finally, I want to talk about when we are ourselves faithless, when we betray our relationship with God. There are some spectacular examples of this in the Bible, of course, in Judas and Peter, but I think we fall in and out of faithfulness every day. Indeed, there are times when we oppose God’s way of being in the world because it is so counter to our ideas of what will actually work to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.  And I think, when we are faithless, we tend to project that onto God and consider that God has broken faith with us as well.

It is common for us, looking back, to think that we would not have been as dull and dense as the disciples and the other followers of Jesus. We think we would have understood more of what Jesus was saying and been in greater sympathy with what Jesus revealed about God and how God works with humans and in human history.  

Jesus, the beloved Son of God, said, “I do nothing on my own, only what I hear from my Father. So you can know that when you see me, you’ve seen God. This is how God is and what God does and how God does it.” Right away, we can see from the life of Jesus that God doesn’t deliver by some sort of formula. It’s not a matter of us “getting it right” or “doing enough” or “following the rules” and then God comes through predictably. Jesus did miracles, yes, but not all the miracles possible to do on earth. He brought some dead people back to life, but not all the dead people who died while he was here. He stilled one storm. He fed two crowds of hungry people and provided wine for one wedding. Yes, these were amazing acts, and they were not enough to set the entire world at ease and at peace. And Jesus said, “I am not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Well, you know the disciples immediately thought that meant he would free them from Rome but instead he freed them from the law, from sin, from judgment. He set them free to love God and to love their neighbors, and that really wasn’t what they’d wanted.

As soon as Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, or the one sent by God to be the king, Jesus turned right around and started talking about how he was going to be arrested and crucified. (Matthew 16, Mark 8) Peter took him aside and rebuked him for talking like that.  And Jesus turned around and looked at the followers, and then rebuked Peter right back, calling him his adversary. “You strive for the things all humans strive for, not what God strives for. You could trip me up.” I’m guessing that Jesus could turn to me every day of my life and say this to me at least once.

Later, on the final evening before his crucifixion, Jesus told his followers that he was about to be betrayed by one of them, and that he would be tortured and killed. (Luke 22) And they went right on to argue about who would have the highest position in the new kingdom Jesus would be setting up. They could not even hear what Jesus was telling them. It did not compute that the one God sent to save them would do so by dying rather than by killing their enemies.  I don’t think we are different from them. Jesus tells us that whoever would be greatest needs to serve all the rest, and we go on worrying about who is eligible to be on elders or chair a committee. Jesus tells us that no one can bear fruit who doesn’t die first, and we just do not hear him.

Jesus Prays for Us
So, in our faithlessness, where is the hope?  I find it in what Jesus says to Peter. I’ll paraphrase a bit, the way I hear it, “My dear friend Peter, you have no idea of how shallow your faith is, how quickly you will let fear overrule your brave intentions. In fact, in the next few hours, you will publicly say you don’t know me 3 times. You have been my adversary in the past, and you will be again. This adversarial spirit will sift you like wheat. You will see how much of your professed faithfulness is worthless. But I have prayed for you that the light of your faith will not be completely put out.”

See this? Jesus has prayed for Peter. Jesus has prayed for me. Jesus has prayed for you. In all our small and large betrayals of faith, all the ways we have proven that God cannot trust us to see rightly and do the right thing, Jesus has prayed for us. Jesus is praying for us right now. Each time I betray the first commandment to love God wholeheartedly, Jesus is praying for me. Each time I violate the commandment to love my neighbor as I love myself, Jesus is praying for me. Each time I treat myself worse than dirt, Jesus is praying for me.

St. Paul says, “Who is it that judges us? It is even Christ who died, who is now risen, and is at the right hand of God, It is Christ who intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).  Jesus Christ is judge and advocate.

“If anyone sin, we have an advocate, an intercessor, with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” writes St John in 1John 2:1. This is an intercessor who prays entirely according to the will of the Father. They are on the same page with regard to us. Jesus is praying that the light of our faith will not go completely out and his Father is on board with granting that prayer.

Keeping Faith
And then Jesus says to Peter and us, “And when you have turned back toward me again, strengthen your brothers and sisters. That’s what you’re here for.”

If we judge God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, by our own, we will find it very hard to trust in God.  If we judge God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, by the actions of Jesus Christ on our behalf and his continual prayers for us in our weakness, we have the space to pause and turn again to strengthen our brothers and sisters, to love our neighbors. 

It’s not every day I can end a sermon with a slightly modified quotation from Neil Diamond ("Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"):

Brothers and sisters
Now you got yourself two good hands
And when your brother or sister is troubled,
You gotta reach out your one hand for them
'Cause that's what it's there for
And when your heart is troubled,
You gotta reach out your other hand
Reach it out to Jesus up there
'Cause that's what he's there for
Take my hand in yours Walk with me this day
In my heart I know We will never stray

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Approval vs. Obedience

John 15:18-27
Preached at North Valley Friends Church
March 31, 2019

I was out walking the other day, thinking semi-random thoughts, and this one came to me: “Give us this day our daily bread” does not refer to my daily need for approval. In point of fact, needing approval has been a weakness of mine that has given others the opening to manipulate me, even into doing things I disapprove of.  I would give examples but they are too embarrassing. 

I remember when I had just gone through an involuntary detox from approval seeking, and found myself in contention for the job of yearly meeting superintendent, and getting that job required the APPROVAL of the YM.  Quakers call for “approval” in our non-voting decision-making. It sets some of us up for pathology.

So it comes as an unpleasant shock to hear Jesus say as reported in Luke in the anti-beatitudes: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that’s how their ancestors spoke of false prophets” (Luke 6:36). 

And here, in this passage from John, Jesus says, “I chose you from this world, and you do not belong to it; that is why the world hates you.” That’s even worse than having a few detractors, even worse than failing to win universal approval.

So I have some questions. Who is this “world” character, anyway? The Gospel of John has at least 58 verses with Kosmos (the Greek for “world”) in it, sometimes twice, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined have around 16. The world is a constant presence in John’s Gospel, and it is almost always what we might term the human world—the world of crowds, of politics, of religion, of nations, of money, of education, of culture. It is the world humans always build around them—all the ways humans find to organize themselves and set up expectations with rewards and punishments. We can hardly move in a day without encountering systems, and we violate their norms at our peril.

And this world is hostile to Jesus and to Jesus’s followers.


When Jesus came into his calling and mission, he was not the first Messenger from God, the first wonder-worker his people had seen. He was not the first charismatic leader that crowds followed around. But he was the first one to do so with the public designation from God, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It isn’t clear how much of the crowd heard this as Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan. His cousin John, who was baptizing, witnessed it. “I have seen it,” he said, “and I tell you that he is the Son of God.” Taken up in his spirit by God’s Spirit, John said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But some time later, from a jail cell, John sent messengers to Jesus and asked, “Are you the one? I thought you were, but now, you’re not what I was looking for.”

Jesus answered, “The blind can see, the lame can walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the good news is preached to the poor. Happy are those who have no doubts about me!” (Luke 7:22-23, Good News Bible)

We think from our vantage point, how sad that John couldn’t continue believing in Jesus as the chosen and sent one, the Son of God. If we saw a guy with these abilities, we think, we wouldn’t doubt that God had sent him. But just like then, today Jesus would act or refuse to act in ways that raised questions. I think we too would wonder.

In this gospel of John, Jesus frequently confronts expectations from his followers and pours cold water on the fire of their enthusiasms.

His mother asks him to do a little miracle regarding wine at a wedding to spare the hosts embarrassment. (This reminds me of a lot of my own prayers for Jesus to intervene in my life.) Jesus tells her, “You must not tell me what to do. It isn’t the right time.” The most baffling part of this story is that Jesus does do the miracle, and his mother appears never to doubt that he would do what she said. But even in the doing of the miracle, Jesus upends religious practice by using water containers set aside for ritual washings, which were so important to observant Jews. Suddenly, these are full of great wine (John 2). Christianity as it could be is, to quote Jacques Ellul, “an explosive ferment calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ, in the name of the incarnation.” (39) Note that phrase, “calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ.” Might that make anyone you know uncomfortable?

Jesus visits Jerusalem at Passover. When he comes to the outer courts of the Temple, he drives out the animals brought there to sell for sacrifices, and he turns over the tables of those who exchange money so that worshipers had the right coinage for religious purposes.  The marriage here of commerce and religion is one we can recognize when we look around our Christian subculture. Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2). The authorities said, “What miracle are you going to do to show you have the authority to reorganize the Temple?” And Jesus was right back at them, “Tear down this Temple and I will raise it up in three days.” He baffled the authorities rather than complying with their demand. Later, his followers realized he was talking about his body and the resurrection, but at the time, how preposterous! And notice how in identifying his body with the Temple of God, Jesus overturns the tables of religion as well.

Nicodemus visits Jesus at night to ask some questions quite respectfully. But Jesus says to him, “You have to start over, you have to be born all over spiritually. You can’t bring all this religion and whatnot with you if you want to follow me.  Just like the wind blows without your input or expertise, God’s Spirit moves me, and will move you too if you are reborn in your spirit” (John 3).

So we can see some reasons why following Jesus might be dangerous. First, Jesus undermines the power of religion. He violates the norms, he disrespects the system, and he asserts that he is as holy as the center of worship itself, and that God’s spirit tells him what to do and when. He is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and righteous.  People who are reborn and free from the rules of morality, religion, and hierarchy, but instead are obeying the whimsical Spirit of God rip the fabric of the human Kosmos. They are new wine in old bottles and the bottles burst. They are new cloth on old clothing and they tear holes rather than mend them.  The systems of the Kosmos, of the world, see them rightly as destroyers, and they hate, persecute, and kill them.

And it isn’t just religious leaders who recognize the threat that God’s Holy Spirit poses to the systems in place. The masses have their own systems that they want Jesus to fit himself into. They want a wonder-worker, and when Jesus makes wine out of water and feeds crowds of more than 5000 using some kid’s lunch, they know they’ve found their man. They like the healings and the resurrections. But Jesus refuses to let their desires be his guide. He calls them petulant children in the marketplace, complaining because they piped and he didn’t dance.

He tells them that he knows why they are following him—bread and miracles—and that unless they eat his body and drink his blood they have no part in him. He offers them springs of living water in themselves, the Spirit of God. He says he is the bread of life, he says he is the light that God sends into the world, and he says he is their only help and hope for freedom.

They shocked and appalled—they deny needing help—we have never been slaves—this saying is too hard—God is our father, too—come on, just tell us if you are the Messiah.

Jesus does not offend for his own ego reasons, his need to look special and chosen. He’s not speaking truth to power because he likes to annoy people. He says, and we can believe him, that everything he does and says is in obedience to what his Father tells him to do and say. His radical obedience to God is what is so upsetting to the systems he finds himself in conflict with.

And this passage we have before us from John 15 tells us that Jesus is sending the Spirit to fill us, the Spirit who reveals the truth about God and comes from God. This is the Spirit who moved Jesus through his days, from whom Jesus heard what to say and do and when to say and do it. No system in the world is going to welcome a person or group that bases their lives not on what the powers-that-be want or expect but on a relationship with the living and present God. 

I want us to keep two verses in mind as we listen today. “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls.”
And, from the same Jesus: “You who want to be my disciples will take up your cross daily and follow me.”

Jesus says, Put down your heavy loads and all the expectations of your country, your religion, your family, your followers, and just follow me. Listen to and obey God’s Spirit. This is your freedom and your daily cross.

I was pushed to read portions of Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity as I thought about this passage in John 15. Ellul challenges us with the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus has set us absolutely free. Both Jesus and Paul teach that those led by the Spirit are free in every respect. As Ellul phrases it, “a risk with no cover, a joyful and perilous acrobatic feat with no net!” (43)

He goes on to say that this radical freedom is not what humans are looking for. Freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from war, freedom from conflict, sure, but radical freedom? Not so much. Here’s how Ellul describes it:

[Radical freedom] carries frightening social risks and is politically insulting to every form of power. …On every social level and in every culture, people have found it impossible to take up this freedom and accept its implications. (43)

The freedom acquired in Christ presupposes perfect self-control, wisdom, communion with God, and love. It is an absolutely superhuman risk. It devastates us by demanding the utmost in consecration. Free, we are totally responsible. We constantly have to choose. (42)

For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor. (167)

I agree with Ellul that absolute freedom is hard to embrace. I want habits, norms, guardrails, laws, insurance, peace treaties, and so on. But it is clear that Jesus was working without a net, living each act in obedience to God, finding himself not satisfying anyone and not being understood or approved of by anyone, even his mom. Now who wants to follow Jesus?

Well, a small determined part of many people does in fact want to follow Jesus, to be set free by the his life, death, and resurrection. For instance, I want to live in contact with God, I want to do what God tells me, I want this relationship to be alive, not static. Maybe you want that, too. 

My good dead friend, George MacDonald, challenges me every day with his insistence on charismatic obedience.

“Do you ask, “What is faith in [God]?” I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of [God’s way and God’s self]; the leaving of your trust in [humans], in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as [God] tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this obedience.” 

“Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because [God] said, Do it, or once abstained because [God] said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in [God], if you do not do anything [God’s Spirit] tells you.” 

So let me end by asking myself and you as well to consider that Jesus wants to partner with us in our daily lives and to lift from us the burden laid on us by human systems. Jesus wants us to be free. And as we learn to live in freedom, we ask God’s Spirit for help, we listen, and when we hear, we obey.