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The Holy City Sermons presented by Richard L. Tafel - Washington DC

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Happy Pentecost. This is the Sunday in the Christian calendar that celebrates the birthday of the church: that story that took place with the tongues of fire, that’s why I’m wearing red today representing the red tongues of fire Pentecost, is the begging of the Christian church as we know it. So it’s an important day to pay attention. What were they trying to do? What did they learn? They learned to speak in tongues. You may have heard that expression before and so I think that’s something that the Christian church should be learning to do. We should all be learning to speak in tongues. And probably not the way you’ve heard it referred to before but there has never been a more important time in the history of the world that we can speak in different languages. I would argue that the role of Christians seeking to follow Christ- our primary role in the world today as peacemakers, is the ability to translate across different cultures, languages and understandings. 

Now in this story today I told two stories: one is Bible, which is the famous myth of the Tower of Babel where it’s said:  that’s where language came from; everybody ends up going in different directions. And then we come full to the book mark of Pentecost which is actually people are able to translate again so we have the division and the division is being overcome by the ability for the disciples to speak in all of these different languages to everyone about the good news of Jesus. And the good news of Jesus is that God loves us and we’re to love one another. That’s the message they’re trying to communicate to all these people in this very crowded city of Jerusalem at that time. So that’s the context. How are we doing in that today? Well today we around the world, we’re facing one of the most difficult periods of speaking to each other. And it’s not just linguistic; language is where we’re getting good at overcoming. I know that when I travel I can push an app on my phone and I can say “I need you to take me to my hotel,” and I can play the app for the cab driver and I can get to my hotel. Technology is overcoming the challenge that many of us had including me of speaking different languages. So it’s not just the literal languages that I’m talking about but I’m really wanting to focus on today is the differences in values that we have around the world and our inability to hear each other with these different values. We have such a vast world and we are so communicative but we have some people who are operating at a value system of the world. We have some people who are operating at the world level: you want a conquest, you want a strong man and you want to defeat the enemy and it’s not about rules or laws it’s whoever’s strongest. That’s a value system in our world today that has existed back to the time of Genesis. 

Then we have a value system in the world today of people who are operating at a traditional level. They have rules, they put faith in family and religion and that’s a different value system. And in the last century or so we’ve come to really develop another value system called ‘Modern,’ where people are more secular, they’re more  scientific-focused, they believe in the marketplace and that’s a whole different value system. And then we’re developing other ones like ‘Postmodern’ who are critical of ‘Modern.”  We have all these different value systems going on in the world right now and it’s really hard when you have a value system, to hear what others believe. In our country today we’re facing a really- I think- a crisis. In our own political system where people can simply not hear each other and they almost want to go to [00:04:21] to solve things because they’re having such a hard time hearing each other. I think that the role of the church at this time is absolutely crucial that we become better translators, translating across all these sectors. If we’re going to be peacemakers we have to learn to speak the languages of those we’re working with and the languages we’re trying to communicate. What are the skills of translators in this world that we’re in right now? What can we develop?

In my world, my life I’ve spent a lot of my time doing translation and I’ve done it good and I’ve done it bad and I’ve learned lessons. I do a lot work and have a company in Mexico and it wasn’t too long ago I was speaking there and I had a speech on leadership and I went in and I just couldn’t wait to speak. In fact there was someone speaking ahead of me and I kept thinking wait till they hear what I have to say cause I got this great speech on leadership and they’re just gonna love it. Now of course, being a typical American I didn’t speak it in Spanish this [00:05:37] speaks fluent English. So that’s not very good and then I gave my speech and it completely flapped and afterwards they said in so many words “You’re just another Yankee trying to sell something to us. This is a marketing plan, what are you trying to push over?” And that wasn’t my gold at all. I had failed the fundamental role of a good translator: I didn’t listen at all to what they were talking about. I came in with my great ideas and they were great ideas but it was such a flap, I mean I’ll never forget it-when you have a presentation like that and it goes so bad.

The ability to listen I think, is the first part of being a great translator. Particularly in the church we tend to think that it’s preaching and the worst are the ministers- we ministers, who are preaching at you: “You just listen to us.” Great translators listen. I ran across this quote this week and you’ve heard me talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, He was my cousin so that’s one reason I pay so much attention to him. And I loved what he said for the church about listening. And if you don’t mind I’m going to read it because it’s so well said. He said “The first service that one owe to others in fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His word, so the beginning of love for one another is learning to listen to them. It is God’ love for us that He not only gives us His word but He lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others. And they have this one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”

I love that quote, we need to first as translators, listen to where people are coming from before we preach. The second skill set that I have experienced and I struggled with, is the ability to empathize. I have trained many non-profit groups on how to go to Capitol Hill to engage them on their policy. And in the training I say “You’re going to this office.” In this office they’re listening for these words. And within thirty seconds, thirty seconds they’re going to decide if they have to keep listening. After that they’ll decide “We don’t need to listen, keep nodding my head, keep smiling until you leave and that you’re not on my team. I don’t, you’re not speaking my language. You’re speaking a different team’s language. I got eight more meetings today. This is one I can check off.” What’s interesting though in the training and coaching of the non-profits is they often say “I don’t wanna think like they think. They’re wrong. I don’t want to be in there shoes. They need to change and be more like me.” Not a very successful strategy for translation. The third that I discovered in translating is we need to be quicker to forgive others’ mistakes. The most difficult conversations we have in our country right now are on political parties or topics like abortion, transgender rights most recently, the battle over prayer in schools and where the secular roles are all dividing out. We got very divisive things going on,

I’ve discovered that as a translator we got to be a lot more forgiving of people when they get it wrong. Very often when people are trying to share something, they’re not, they don’t have the right words and they can insult us. Great translators have to allow them to make mistakes. Consider the motivation of the person talking instead of saying “Boy you just offended me stop, you just offended me.” I can almost promise you the translation will stop too. People [00:10:01], I offended you, let’s not talk anymore. So I think we have to develop these skills and we need to listen better, we need to become more empathetic and we also have to thicken our skin a little bit and not be so sensitive to the mistakes, genuine mistake people make because when we engage in difficult conversations with different values, we’re going to accidentally offend each other. We’ve got to forgive. And so with that, let us learn as Christians and lead the way in speaking in the tongues of the world so we can become peacemakers for God. Here ends the sermon.  Download Sermon

Thank you for reading that Anthony. It’s a beautiful story and even more beautiful with a wonderful reader as yourself. Well it is Easter and Easter is the good time. This is the time of joy, Jesus is resurrected, the tomb is empty; everybody’s happy; Easter’s the good day on the Christian calendar. We had some bad days this last week but this is the good day on the Christian calendar. This is all about joy or at least that’s the way it’s often told. I’m going to argue today that the text is a little bit more complicated. There’s a lot more going on here in the Easter story. You really can’t have the Easter Story without the Passion of Christ and the struggles and the weeping of Mary, which is why that song was so beautiful about crying out to the Lord today. So let’s get a little context here for where Easter is. A lot has been happening in the last few weeks but I want you to experience a story that you’ve already heard so many times probably, but it’s like watching a movie that you’ve seen and you know the ending, guess what, spoiler alert: He rises from the dead. So it’s sort of like “I know where this is going.” But I want you to experience the story emotionally through the eyes of the disciples and kind of living it more in your heart than in your head, the way you’ve memorized it. And in that context it’s a very different story. So the disciples have been following Jesus and they’ve all had absolutely transformative experiences. And that’s the key. They’re not intellectual followers of Jesus, they’ve experienced personal transformation. If you’re Matthew, you used to be a tax collector now you’re following Jesus. If you’re Peter you were a fishermen and now you’re called the leader of the group. If you’re Mary the mother, you heard a secret when you were a baby and you’ve watched this boy grow up and watched the amazing miracles and the great deeds He’s done. If you’re Lazarus you were raised from the dead not too long ago. If you’re Judas, you probably are thinking “finally we’re going to get a political leader that’s going to lead us out of this situation. It’s going to crush the Romans and we’re going to get the temple back.” Everybody has had a transformative experience and everybody has an expectation of what’s next right? They’re all like “this is where I think this is going. I think it’s going to go here.” And what they’re probably thinking: “Things are pretty good.” They come into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and they’re treated like a rock star; people are throwing their robes down, they’re cheered and the disciples must be thinking “finally we’re getting the recognition and Jesus is getting the recognition he deserves. People are really excited about Jesus.” And they come into this week and Jesus keeps giving them hints that He’s coming to Jerusalem for his death and nobody seems to get it. If you remember back, weeks ago in scripture and months ago in time, Mary washes His feet with an expensive ointment and He says “That’s preparing me for my burial.” And people are like “What is he talking about; His burial? It doesn’t make any sense.” So the last supper they were all eating together in the room, things are going well, there’s a discussion with Judas but nobody really is able to figure out what’s going on. For those who came Thursday we had communion and we celebrated it here which was very moving and powerful. And it’s the night of Jesus’ betrayal. One of his own turns against him, turns him over to the authorities and all the disciples flee in panic, and they all deny any connection with Him and that’s Thursday. Friday of course is the torture, humiliation, mockery and execution of Good Friday and it’s obviously a very sad day, not just for the physical pain involved but also for the humiliation, for the death of a dream. If you’re a disciple, you’re thinking “my Gosh, I thought this was the God who was going to make things happen. I thought he had super powers of some kind, some mystical powers. If he’s dead, we’re all dead. This is not looking good.” And almost all the male disciples leave the women to stay with Jesus at the Cross and they find a tomb and they bury Him in the garden. And at this point they’ve gone from fully “Isn’t this great to be a follower of Jesus.” Palm Sunday to their hiding in their houses because whoever killed Jesus is probably going to kill them, so they’re terrified, a lot of fear a lot of hopelessness. And these are emotions we can relate to today. The fear, hopelessness, probably the biggest emotion they’re feeling at this point is disappointment. “This isn’t working out the way we all planned it. And psychologists today will say that most of our anxiety or stress or depression is a product of unattained vision of what’s going to happen; we’re disappointed. We think one thing is going to happen and something else happens and frankly we’re disappointed every day. I know in my own coaching practice I help people do time management and I say just pick one day and plot it out- hour by hour, exactly what you’re going to do: When you’re going to eat lunch, when you’re going to go to the gym, when you’re going to work, whatever you’re going to do; put it all in one day. Invariably they come back and say “It didn’t work. I couldn’t even plan one day. I was disappointed.” So, that’s just one day, imagine a life.

So we’re often very disappointed with our life and many of the Eastern religions, particular Buddhism, talk a lot about detaching from expectation to relieve disappointment. But that has to be one of the overriding emotions of the disciples’ disappointment. Second emotion that I think would be rampant among the disciples would be anxiety. And I just read something this last week that I never thought about before. It said “human beings have this gift of self-awareness and the curse of self-awareness is that we are anxious because we remember the past and we anticipate a future and we worry about both: “Why didn’t I do that? Why did I miss that opportunity? Why didn’t that happen? “We go back into the past in our mind with regret- things we can’t change. And then we look at the future right? And we say “Oh my gosh, am I going to have enough money to retire? Am I going to get into that school? Am I going to get that job? Am I? Am I? Am I?” And we’re living today but we’re living in a anxious future and in our world today, our news media and our entertainment industry has really tapped into this anxiety that we have and they play on it because we are addicted to it. So the terrorists know that in the Middle East. They know that when they do their terror attacks, our anxiety will Skyrocket and they’ll get a reaction. Our politicians very often don’t talk about their vision anymore. “This is where I’m leading you and it’s a good place.” It’s more about “Don’t have that other person elected. If you elect that other person, the country is going to hell in a handbag. So anxiety in our news reports in our updating news and we’re constantly filled with stories that increase our anxiety. I was just reading recently that it says 70 billion dollar industry in the United States medication for anxiety. So it’s something we can imagine the disciples lived with then right, in this story? And something we certainly live with now right? So you take the disappointment of the disciples, you take the anxiety of the disciples that week, you put them together and you get a real sense of hopelessness. This thing has completely failed. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and there’s only one disciple who goes out in the darkness and she Mary Magdalene, goes out into the darkness not guided by intellect because it doesn’t make sense. He’s dead. We saw him murdered. She goes out of love, compassion. She goes to the grave. She’s doing the only thing she can do just probably to bring perfume to the tomb. It’s not logical, it’s not rational; its compassion. And again and again in the scriptures and if you’ve heard my sermons you’ll find, I keep  emphasizing this that women, throughout the gospel, always lead with compassion; Men follow but women lead. It’s always the women. It’s important to say, particularly for groups that say “women can’t have authority in the faith. The first witness to the resurrection is Mary Magdalene and she’s guided by compassion so we can get into the male and female but it’s that compassion and that nurturing that leads us when logic doesn’t make sense and can lead us to places we don’t know. She didn’t know where she was going that day but she changed the history of the world forever by getting up in the morning and trying to do something.

So we see here, she gets there and she’s hopeless and her hopelessness gets worse not better because what does she see? The tomb is empty so clearly what any of us would have concluded right; someone had stolen the body. “Oh my God after everything else we’ve been through this week, even the body they’ve stolen? ” And so she is just feeling extremely hopeless and then she runs to get the disciples. No one’s quite sure what happened. The men come in, Peter and John and they peak in and they see that the linen is still in the Tomb and then they leave and Mary is in this utter state of hopelessness, sitting there and she’s just burst into tears and in that moment she burst into tears, she sees two men sitting on the slab of concrete rock where the body had been laying and those of us in the Swedenborgian tradition, we’re very familiar with who those angels were because in our teachings everybody is guided to the next World with two angels, one at our head and one at our feet so that’s part of our own teaching. So we’re familiar; we know who these people are. She doesn’t and she assumes logically you must be the guys who took the body so give it back or tell me where it is and they asked her “Why do you weep;” which is kind of an insulting question I think. She must know why she’s weeping . She’s still in a fog, she’s crying, she walks out of the tomb where she saw these angels and there she is still crying and she sees what she thinks is a gardener and he asks the same question “Why are you weeping?” And she basically just says to him “Look, if you’ve taken him away, tell me where His body is, I want to take care of the body.” And then through those tears she looked again; the Bible says she turns again toward the figure and He says “Mary.” And in that moment of recognition, God calls her voice and she can see through the tears and experience that connection that had been lost, the hope when there is no hope, the end of the anxiety and, for that moment and depression and hopelessness is all gone in that moment. She is thrilled and Mary becomes the first disciple. She’s called the Apostle of the Apostles because she then goes to the apostles and tells them I saw the resemblance to the first Christian evangelist for the resurrection. And I think there’s a lot to learn from Mary in this text but I’m primarily impressed with the courage that it takes when the men stay behind and she went out in the morning in the dark guided by compassion. I’m also moved by the fact that in her weeping and her sadness, she doesn’t recognize God. All of us have been there. There’s times when we’ve really been lost in the weeping and the sadness. And it’s part of the Easter Story and we feel somewhat helpless and we can’t recognize Angels around us who are trying to help us, we can’t recognize Christ who’s trying to help us and if you’re wondering about the gardener, why the gardener, I thought that was an interesting twist in the story-this is just my theory for whatever it’s worth, that the more I thought about it, God comes to us first in the garden of Eden, Jesus is betrayed in a garden, His body is laid in a garden and we know in Revelations that it says that in the holy city, and this church is named after it, there will be the tree of life again in the city in a garden. So god as gardener, it’s a pretty good image. And then through that she experiences the connection with Christ. And then faith and love it’s not enough just to believe, it’s not an individual experience; she then goes into action. Faith and action have to be together or they don’t exist. You can’t live in a connection with God by yourself. And then she goes and then now maybe close to 25-33 percent of the world are of a faith because Mary went and proclaimed it that day. She couldn’t see the plan. That’s not her idea. She couldn’t see it. We can’t often see it and so I think Mary’s teaching in this weeping is that when we are in those moments when things don’t seem to be going our way, when we can’t seem to break through in our life, we have to remember that Easter is about dying to an old self and rising to a new self and we have to keep doing it again and again and again and Christ is with us in that Resurrection; that’s our hope; we can move through it but to say that there’s going to be a world where they will not be weeping, there will not be terror attack, there will not be disease, there will not be sadness, that is not the story of Easter. It’s in the midst of that, in the midst of our weeping, it’s in the midst of our pain, it’s in the midst of the suffering of the world that Christ comes to us and calls s by our name to say “I’m risen tell the others.” Amen    Download Sermon here

We’re now reading from the New Testament from the gospel of St. John, beginning at the second chapter beginning at the first verse:

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him,” They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish right of purification; each holding 20 or 30 gallons. And Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” They filled them up to the brim.  And He said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it and when the steward tasted the water, it had become wine and he did not know where it came from, but the servants who had drawn the water knew. The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ”Everyone serves the good wine first, and the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk, but you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of His signs in Cana of Galilee, and revealed His glory and His disciples believed in Him.” 

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning it is now and will be forever, amen.

The gospel today takes place at this very famous story: the Wedding at Cana, in John’s gospel. It’s a very well-known story, but not a very well understood story. It’s really a rather odd story for Jesus to launch his whole Ministry from. There’s confusion and there’s tension; there’s His mother asking Him to do something and He’s not really interested; there’s this mother-son tension.  And what’s the point? The first miracle of Jesus is at a festival for wine; of all the things that Jesus could do. Why this?  Well to understand this text, I believe we have to look not just at the literal level of the story that is taking place, but at a deeper spiritual level.

You probably know that there are four gospels; the first three Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ life from a very similar perspective; they’re called the synoptic gospels; but John is different. John is known as the spiritual gospel; the mystics love John. Some have said that John is the Swedenborgian gospel, because his stories are always told with a deeper meaning; an allegory, a metaphor. You have to go deeper than the literal story to understand what is happening. So what are the symbols that are taking place at the wedding?

When we look a little bit deeper; the symbols of a wedding are, traditionally: a man and a woman coming together to create something new in the world. Spiritually, this has the meaning of the masculine and the feminine.  Now don’t get it hung up on male and female, stick with me on masculine and feminine and think of those in terms of types of spirituality. Masculine spirituality, is more the truth and feminine spirituality, is more of compassion. It’s bringing truth and compassion together, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and this is the new message that he’s bringing into the world.  These two polarities; seemingly, completely different things, that come together and produce something new and something great.

Through this bringing together at a wedding, we see transformations, in this case the water into wine. Now the tension between masculine energy and feminine energy is with us everywhere in this story.  It is everywhere in our life as well.

We see it in our politics, we see a tension between the compassionate, feminine side of an issue and the more legalistic, masculine, the truth side of an issue. We have this masculine/feminine tension within ourselves. There are times, when we are almost magical in our compassionate thinking, When we don’t consider the rules. We just want to love. The flipside is, sometimes we are so rule based, that we take no risks and we show no love and no compassion, but we do follow rules.

Most recently in our public debate, we see the debate about the refugee crisis from Syria. And it is aligned very closely along these tensions of compassion versus the rules.  The compassionate feminine side says “My gosh they’re in a living hell, we have so much we can give. Our country for example, was created for refugees. It’s simple bring them in.

The rules, the truth, the more masculine energy says “This is really dangerous, we cannot trust these people.  There will be terrorist there, they will try to destroy Western Civilization as we know it and possibly destroy us.”

These two tensions play out every day in our faith. Which side is right, love or truth?  The marriage at Cana, the marriage of these two masculine and feminine energies, the love and the truth coming together is the better answer. Too often we side with one or the other without the balance of the other. We prefer staking out our comfortable corner and feeling very safe and secure in our own side of the debate.

Jesus challenges this by offering a new balance of the masculine and feminine—the love ant the truth. He is coming in the world saying, that God is bringing compassion to the laws that you lived under Israel. He brings a new compassion, transforming water, which are the old rules, to the joy of the compassion married to that truth, through Jesus Christ.

The big lesson here for us is that there is an evolution of spirituality.  Jesus is creating something new. Spirituality is not stagnant, it is dynamic. There is something transforming here, Jesus is coming to the world to transform it. Something new is happening, there’s new wine. Too often we in the church today, we lock in like that water into the truth as we know it. We refuse to be moved by transforming love from water to the wine that is potentially there for us through the spiritual evolution.

No where is this evolution of values more clear than in the actual ways we see the masculine and feminine in our world today. That has evolved, right? We’ve all seen what it is to be masculine and what it is to be feminine; evolve through history. This last week, a friend of mine from Marketplace, Sabri Ben-Achour, reported on a story; about the growth of the men’s skincare market, saying that over the last decade, in several years men’s skin-care purchases have out-paced and sometimes doubled the growth of women’s skincare.  That is not something we think about for men, buying skincare or trying to smell better or worrying about their hair. These are feminine concerns, or, at least they used to be. There’s something more feminine that is coming into the masculine culture.

On the flip side we once looked at a woman who was self confident, and could be by herself and was independent in her thinking and we had horrible words for such women. Today, we would look at that as a good thing that women are strong.

I happened to recently come across this amazing article, for me, which was my grandmother being interviewed in 1919 in Baltimore, in a German paper; because she had married an American Soldier- my grandfather- in Germany, and she explains why she married this American soldier.  And to quote her, she said “I came from a village outside of Kolbenze, I didn’t know the meaning of freedom.  Since the war there have been many changes.  In Germany, we have no knowledge of these recent reforms around suffrage for women. These remain unknown.” She talks about the American soldiers as being very fond of children; they were playing with them, carrying them on their backs.  “A German husband would never think of such an undignified thing, he would dare not push a baby carriage, for his tired wife, always being afraid of the ridicule of his friends. When my husband and I went out in the avenue with the baby, everyone would stare at us, because he would be so strange as to be carrying a child, while I walked alone, free at his side.”

Men couldn’t even carry children in recent times because it wasn’t masculine, but today if you told me your husband couldn’t carry children I’d think something is wrong. Men have become more feminine, compassionate and nurturing. That was a radical transformation that she’s describing; that women can play this independent role and a man could actually carry a baby. The masculine and feminine have come to complement each other, each taking from the other. We’re not looking for an androgyny where we’re mixing it into one; we’re looking at these as complimenting each other; this is how compassion and the truth work.

We look now to the future where is this evolution taking place?  So many times in the church we think that the truth is here, it’s done, or it’s in the gospel. All we need to do is study it better, but there’s no evolution, there’s no transformation.

Yet the reality the world is constantly changing. We have seen evolution on the role of women. We see an evolution on how we have treated people of color in this country.  There has been an evolution and it’s for the better, more compassion comes in and the rules changed.

In this last week, the Anglican Church basically silenced the American branch of the Episcopal Church, over its position on gay marriage and the bishop said It was “to guard and proclaim the unchanging transforming gospel through biblically faithful preaching.”  I disagree, I think that the story of the Gospel is constantly evolving and transforming. The truth doesn’t change, but our understanding will.  What’s ironic is these same Bishops, mainly from Africa, years ago would have been discriminated against by white Christian churches, who would have seen them as less than; and yet now that they are in positions of leadership they are discriminating themselves.  It is not unusual within immigrant groups that the group that fights to be treated fairly then becomes the group that turns against the next group of immigrants.

But looking at the big picture through spiritual evolution, the world is, I believe becoming a better place; through this compassion coming into our truth and it’s challenging the status quo. It is turning water into wine again and again. In the story, I said it was very tense with Jesus and his mother. It is worth noting that it’s the feminine, the mother that comes in to Jesus and leads with compassion telling him there’s no wine here for the people. She is caring about the situation and he’s basically saying this isn’t the right time, but He follows the compassion of the feminine and provides the wine and His first miracle.

In the 90’s I engaged in a series of debates on the topic of gay marriage, which we talked about with the Anglican Communion. Within the beginning of every debate, the opponent would always say “listen marriage is from the Bible, it has always been the same, it will never change that’s the fact. We must hold on to that.”  So knowing scripture I would quickly asked what about First Kings chapter 11 verses one, through three. King Solomon had over seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, that’s the Biblical example of marriage; but it’s changed. My opponent would say that the Old Testament didn’t represent scripture; only the New Testament represents scripture.  But the reality is we see an evolution in the Bible, we see an evolution in our lives, we see an evolution on all of these topics and so now the issue is marrying of gay couples and soon that evolution will come forward as well; the masculine and the feminine complementing each other as we have our truth and we’re informed by our compassion.  I believe gay people have a unique marriage within themselves of the masculine and feminine energies.

Transformation of the world doesn’t happen without tension, it is awkward. And if you feel awkward at times in your life where a truth that you know is giving you way, relax go with it, pay attention to it. It won’t change in any other way. The church has to be a place where this new wine is created.

My great role model,  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, was also my cousin and he was affected by the teaching of Swedenborg, went to a Swedenborgian Church in Philadelphia and the story that was passed on to us, is after hearing the Swedenborgian sermon he turned his family members, his cousins and said “not much new in the new church.”  He felt in the Swedenborgian churches he hard the same story being preached everywhere, there’s nothing new.

Now this is a guy who created a brand new church, the Confessing Church of Germany knows what transformation is about. His church was created in opposition to the Lutheran Church that had joined forces to support Hitler.  So he knew something about the new church, the churches in every generation called to become new.  In the Swedenborgian church we do have examples of new teachings leading to new actions.  Swedenborg’s view that Black people were more spiritually evolved, emboldened some of the earliest abolitionist to end the practice of slavery—compassion married to truth.

Today we have to ask ourselves, what is new about us today?  Where is that new energy? Where is the church on the cutting edge? It’s Martin Luther King Day Weekend; we celebrate someone who brought something new to the way things were; through God’s love and compassion.  The tension in the gospel story within our society, within ourselves, between God’s truth and compassion; is part of the creative force of creation.  It’s no accident that Jesus first miracle point to this unity in God, in our own lives.  We can seek more compassion, when we think we have all the answers and when we’re just being guided simply by our compassion, we can bring more truth and together we can celebrate with that wine a more joyous world. Amen.  Download Here

 So this Gospel story of Jesus today is one of those that, when I started reading it, I actually was a little confused myself; what was the point? Jesus tells the story about a tower collapsing, blood in the temple and a fig tree and it doesn’t really seem to all flow together. And one of the advantages for me in this preaching role each week is I get to study the text a little deeper and as I did I found out that in this text Jesus is answering maybe one of the greatest questions that all of us ask. So let’s find out what He has to say. Just quickly to recap the story because it is a bit odd: People are coming to Jesus and they are referring to an execution that took place among people who are visiting the Holy Temple. People had come on a pilgrimage from a long distance to worship at the temple and the Romans for whatever reasons, we don’t know, kill them and actually use their blood on the altar the sort of defame the sanctity of the temple and to send a message. So the crowd comes to Jesus and says “Look what happened to those people the pilgrims they were killed by Rome. Were they bad people? Why were they punished so brutally? What did they do wrong?” That’s what they’re getting at with Jesus. “Was their sin the reason that they were punished?” And Jesus turns back to them and says “No, but you need to either repent or perish,” kind of an odd phrase, something we’re not really used to. And then Jesus points out another current event that must have just happened He said “you know that tower that just fell and killed eighteen people that you heard about, do you think they deserved it and that you’re better than them that were killed?” And Jesus says “No, you’re no better and it’s not a punishment but you should repent or perish,” and He says it twice to this group asking the question.

And then He tells this story of the fig tree, this parable of the fig tree and what I take as interesting in the story is that that’s the question that we would ask today. If you’ve ever asked yourself “Why did that bad thing happen to me? Was I being punished? Did I do something wrong?” If you’ve ever asked “Why did that awful thing happen to those people? What did they do wrong?” It’s a question we have with us today. “Why is there evil? Why do bad things happen to good people? Human beings, it’s our nature to try to make sense of what we can’t control and we put narratives or stories on to everything that happens in our lives. The Narratives give us, often an illusion that we’re in control, that we understand it. And the narratives are very combative. Here in Washington, when I’m dealing with public policy issues, very often you’ll see Narratives that explain very complex thing that people really dig in on a narrative because they like the control and the posturing it gives them. A quick example: if tomorrow we had a horrific massacre at the school somewhere I can almost tell you, without knowing the players, that a  meme or a story would emerge. That killing took place because we have too many guns, the NRA is too powerful, we’ve got to go after guns and within seconds, another meme would come up “What a decrepit world we live in it’s so immoral people would use guns or swords or anything but what a terrible fallen world we’re in. And these two stories would be two groups explaining.

A few weeks ago, in February, we had a big snowstorm here in Washington and within minutes I noticed in my Facebook feed, the memes were at war. My friends who think that climate change is the greatest danger facing the world right now said “look at this; this snowstorm has never happened like this before, very erratic behavior in the weather wow this is just another example that climate change is dangerous and we’re going to suffer if we don’t deal with it.” But just as quickly, another story came out explaining the same thing and said “you call it global warming, 30 feet of snow, ha ha your theory is wrong, the big snowstorm proves it.  We’re always looking to try to explain what’s going on and we really like comfortable stories and generally those stories put us in the position of being right and it’s sort of what is happening today in the story with Jesus; they’re saying “look at those people, they had thus bad thing happen to them, aren’t we better? Aren’t they worse?” Now this concept has been perpetrated very much by religion. Religion has perpetrated a lot of these stories and I remember as a kid in college I was a Campground Minister, if you can believe it, and I would knock on people’s camp doors to invite them to church on Sunday, something you can only do when you’re, you know nineteen. And the last thing they wanted to see was a kid coming to invite them to church when they’re at the Pocono Mountains for a retreat. And I’d say “please come to church,” and they said “no, we’re not going to come to church, but come in, [00:05:45] let me tell you why we’re not  going to go to church and everybody had a pretty horrible story about how the church had done something to them. “My wife was dying, the priest wouldn’t come to the hospital because she wasn’t of the faith or this person wasn’t baptized or some story where religion reinforced to them that they were bad  because of something they had done and they were being punished through illness, through early death, some story and they were really horrific stories that I kept hearing, it was a real education and even in our modern culture, even in recent times, you may remember that when Haiti had an earthquake, Pat Robertson who runs the Seven Hundred Club who raised millions of followers on television said “Haiti created a pact with the devil and that pact with the devil is the reason why they’re having an earthquake and they’re suffering. You may remember also he said the same thing about Katrina and then also when Disney World had Gay Disney they had a hurricane right after and he said “you see what happens? God is punishing you.” So religions have shared that and not just traditional religions even New Age religions. There’s the book ‘The Secret,’ that you’re probably all familiar with, it’s a number one best seller [00:07:07] new age and it talks about the law of attraction your energy attracts what you have in your life. If you’re poor you’ve attractive that energy; if you’re ill you’ve attracted that energy but you can attract different energy.

Now interestingly, the people who lead this group actually look at their ancestry spiritually to Swedenborgism but it’s very different than the theology that we believe because it literally says your beliefs affect your health and to the point where you bring on horrible things in your life for your own Law of Attraction. So another Tower story right 9/11 the Tower comes down and one of the leaders of this group is asked “the people in the tower, did they attract that energy; and is that why they died?” And the leader said “Yes; they attracted that energy they brought that on and it’s not a bad thing but here’s the reasons why.” So it’s this belief that punishment from God comes from our behavior and we’re punished is with us to this day in many, many faiths.

Now what’s interesting in the story with Jesus is that’s not Jesus said, He says “no and don’t think you’re better than anyone else, random acts  are going to happen,  things are going to happen, bad things happen to good people. Don’t ever think that because they happen to them that you’re somehow better or if bad things happen to you, don’t think you’re worse.” But He flips it on the listener and basically says “but there is a cause and effect that you can control; there is a narrative that you can be responsible for and that narrative is your own salvation.” And that’s a loaded word today, we’re not really used to it but what he means when he says repent or perish, pretty dire words from our loving Jesus, basically He’s saying “transform yourself, grow, evolve spiritually or your spirit will die.” And He’s saying “that you do control.” And how do you control that; through the thousands of actions every day every decision. Are you more loving or more on the hate side? Are you doing more with compassion or more on selfishness? Are you doing more to help the least of these or are you more doing your best to get away from the least of these? Thousands of decisions every day over a whole lifetime and Jesus says “you are responsible for that path and you do have control over it.” Much of Christianity actually looks at death as a moment where you transition into another world and a judge, God on a throne, condemns people right and left. It’s the teachings in our church that are very different and basically says “God condemns no one to hell but that we choose it. We choose it with a thousand actions in our life and we’re eventually gravitating to a spiritual community that is most like us. If our deepest love is compassion and caring for others, we’ll be forever with that group; if not, we will choose a hellish community.

Swedenborg is a mystic and one of his shocking stories was when he said “I went to heaven, I went to hell; I was really surprised in hell there were a lot of Christian leaders and I was really surprised that Africans had the greatest spirituality and I saw other faiths in heaven. It is no wonder that he was tried for heresy and his books were burned and he barely avoided prison and had to live in England at the end of his life because he basically said “it is not what you say, it is not getting the right doctrine, it is not saying the right creed; it’s what you do. Your life is the accumulation of your actions: do you love others or do you not? It sounds simple but it’s a life’s work and we’re gravitating in one direction or the other but God does not punish, so what’s the fig tree; there’s a fig tree in the story. The fig tree is we stay to ourselves “well this loving God we have forever to get our act together; God will always eternally forgive us there’s not going to be any downside to that. It’s a little frightening in a way, the fig tree story is saying “God is fighting for you to give you that chance but if you’re not bearing fruit eventually you perish through your own sin, not through punishment. But there isn’t forever to get your act together. Many times in my coaching practice clients say to me “look I’m going to make a lot of money now, I’m going to retire and in my retirement I will be philanthropic. I’m going to be successful in my political career now, I’m going to do whatever it takes to be powerful and in my retirement I’m going to make it all right but you’ve got to give me now to do what I need to do and I’ve got to behave however I have to behave to accumulate that success and then I can deal with it later. The gospel story would say “unlikely; you’re really building a path your whole life, a trajectory, that’s very hard to change. In this life it can certainly happen but we’re pretty much building a path and we don’t have forever.

There is a time when we will eventually pass into the next world into those communities that we’re most aligned to. So in every action we’re making a decision and this life is very important. So in this little story it’s confusing at first but when we go deeper there’s some very powerful teachings; that God is love, God never punishes, there will be random acts of evil that take place in the world, God can work with us through them, we do have the free will to transform and grow spiritually, our daily choices have eternal consequences, repent or perish, transform or die, in loving others we love God and we don’t have forever to get this right. So in closing let us love more, let us forgive more, let us grow more, let us transform more to live a life that is of loving of the neighbor and that is a path to heaven. Amen.  Download Sermon

The scripture lesson today is taken from the gospel of Luke, the fourth chapter beginning at the fourteenth verse. It will be a bit longer today because I am reading the text from last week and this week which actually are a complete story.

“Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure. He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written, God’s Spirit is on me; He’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is the year of the Lord!” He rolled up the scroll, He handed it back to His assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place. All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well He spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son, the one who we’ve known since he was a youngster?” He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, ‘Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon? And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.” That set everyone in the meeting seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village. They took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way.”

Here ends the lesson.

So the story of Jesus giving what I would say is His inaugural Sermon. I like to think of it as Jesus’ manifesto, the first time He’s preached. He’s been travelling around the countryside, He’s been doing miracles which is referenced in the story and He’s kind of gotten a name for Himself. So people are excited that He’s come back and He comes back and He says a couple things that really piss off people. First He walks in and He says “You’ve heard this prophecy that this person is going to help the poor, free the captive but you’re seeing it in me” It’s a really dramatic moment. You might see in some of these pop/rock stars today-they do this moment where they’ll do a song and they’ll just drop the mike you know, and it’s this dramatic moment. They call it ‘drop the mike moment’ well that was a drop the mike. Jesus sort of says “You like this text? Well, boom! It’s me.” So first of all the arrogance that He’s claiming that He is the one that can deliver it-that gets them upset. But also they wanted Him to do some miracles. They wanted Him to do a show. We know you did this stuff in other towns do it here and He says “I’m not going to do it here. I don’t do these just for show. It’s not a magician act. I’m not here performing.” And in fact, His references to Elijah and Elisha, what He’s talking about there is He’s saying “It is not unusual in the story of the Bible that God’s unchosen people are picked first. I’m speaking to the unchosen people. You’re the chosen people, you’re the synagogue, you’re in the synagogue community but I’m actually going to the unchosen people and they are more receptive to my message. So that’s underlining what  the anger is and the anger is so dramatic  that they actually tried to kill Him right away, while He was ministering; They walked Him to the edge of town and tried to literally throw Him off the cliff for fear of what He said.

So, that’s actually a lot to unpack in a text and it has that famous text that we’re all really familiar with throughout common English language: “A prophet is never welcomed in their home town,” and I’m sure we’ve all kind of experienced that-that expression ‘You can never go home.’ You kind of go, I don’t know if you’re like me but even at my age with my parents  who are still alive, I’m still their kid when I go back home. And you can’t sort of be who you are in a way. You’re their kid and Jesus is saying that but He’s also saying that it’s very hard for people who know you very well to appreciate you; maybe your development and your growth and your change in your life and so very profound, we get that. Now, what I’d like to focus on are two things: one, what does He say in this manifesto? What’s really the first thing He wants to tell us and I think I want to also take a lesson from the response that it gets.

So what does He say in His first manifesto? He talks about the poor. That’s the first thing He talks about. So what’s interesting about this is He will talk about the poor in His first sermon, He will talk about the poor in most of His preaching and Jesus, in the New Testament is so much about the poor that it’s kind of amazing that we as Christians don’t [00:05:36]. Christian means people who help the poor. That’s really what Jesus is saying. This is what my new message is. So what has happened is that we often take texts and we make these radical comments of Jesus and we make them comfortable for ourselves, particularly around the poor. So modern scholars today would take that text and say ‘He’s not really talking so much about the poor, poor like you’re thinking, He’s talking about the poor in spirit.’ And that kind of makes it more comfortable. Oh, we’re all poor in spirit so don’t feel so bad, I have to be with the ‘poor’.

Now the funny story in my life that I experienced, almost this exact story through a great preacher friend of mine. My mentor was this guy named Peter Gomes. Peter had a voice like yours. I love your voice when you’re doing these readings and stuff. You should be doing the liturgy. It’s just beautiful. I mean, you know, Americans are sufferers for that English accent and I love it. Peter was African-American, the champ on Harvard and he had a New England Brahmin Accent. He talked like this. Richard I gave my first seminary in morning prayers and I had a thick Philadelphia accent from where I grew up. And he said “Richard, you’re going to have to do something about that Philadelphia accent if you’re going to remain in Memorial Church of Harvard University, it is not going to work.” So I was horrified. I mean, oh my, what accent? I didn’t know I had an accent. Now I hear tapes of myself, Whoo! This really sort of a Baltimore, Philadelphia accent. And so Peter was my mentor and I was doing fundraising after my seminary and I was assistant to the Minister and we were doing fund raising. And a very wealthy Texas Businessman took interest in Peter’s preaching. Peter became quite famous. He had done Reagan and Bush’s inauguration back in the 80’s and at the two inaugurations Peter had preached at them. So he was a world famous preacher and this Texas Businessman said “I’m a Christian, you’re the greatest preacher, we’re going to have you come and speak to my retreat in Texas; in Kerrville, Texas right outside of San Antonio at a lodge.” Christian Businessman. “And you can preach from whatever you want but this is a powerful group and it’s going to be really good for you to get in front of them for your fundraising purposes because there all wealthy.” So we went to Texas and Peter got up and he preached on ‘The Rich Young Man’ as his gospel. And the gospel of course says, the young man says “How do I follow you?” and Jesus says “Give away all your money.” And when Peter was preaching it was very funny to these Businessmen and he said “And so, let’s take the scripture literally. You need to give away your resources.” But this went over like, a loud balloon; our host started literally screaming and yelling at Peter who was in front of a room like this and said “I didn’t bring a communist from Harvard to lecture Texas about the scripture. It means spiritually poor, not about poverty. Jesus wants us to be rich. That’s what the story of Jesus is. Jesus is about prosperity and so you’re misinterpreting it.” So it’s a very funny story. Peter stormed out. This guy was yelling at him. I of course was a Fund Raiser so I saw an opportunity. Later, he apologized because the business people felt bad for their guests. and it was so embarrassing. And I said “Well it would be very helpful if you did give a gift to the church; that might make you mend things out. But what was great about the story is, it was literally like that. I mean they almost walked him out to the edge of town for just saying “This is what the scripture says.”

It makes us very uncomfortable to talk about money or poverty or wealth, and particularly in the United States, and very often, we take the scripture and we make it comfortable for ourselves. When we do that we actually water down the power of Jesus and we take away that impact that Jesus had. Like in the story, my mentor Peter was rejected by the crowd. That’s the other part of the message I think in here. The gospel is calling us to be active in the world. Yes, we’re talking about spiritual poverty but we’re also talking about real poverty. We have to be agents of change in the world for those less fortunate. And the more the church is about that, the better. When I work with young social Entrepreneurs and they don’t change, a lot of them say “Church, you’re involved with Church that is the least relative thing in my life.” I’m helping the poor. They are doing their thing and they’re condemning this, that and the other group but I’m actually helping the poor so they don’t see any positioning. They don’t see a connection at all with spirituality and fighting for justice or fighting for the poor and things like that but the message is very clear-that’s what Jesus is talking about. Now why don’t we want to do that? Because most of us don’t want to be rejected. We very much fear rejection. And Jesus is giving us a second teaching that we spend so much of our lives trying to please other people to be liked, to be nice- I think manners and courtesy is very important but there comes a time when you do have to just stand your truth and stand your ground and risk rejection.

Anybody who has changed the world that we would see as heroes of ours right, positive people; they become beatified, like Martin Luther King Junior. But when you look at their life they were rejected constantly within the groups, outside of the group- it’s just constant. You have to be that kind of fearless person to face rejection. Two messages I think in that Manifesto Sermon of Jesus: One, that it really is about the captives, the poor, prisoners-it’s physical and it’s spiritual. It’s working at both levels. But Jesus has also given us a warning. When we have the courage to live as the gospel calls us to, it has the chance of upsetting the apple cart or the status quo. And with that, we run risks and it’s interesting when I travel around I’ve done a lot of strategy work with churches and non-profits and I meet ministers and they say ” I want to be a prophetic Minister in my community but guess who’s writing my check?” Really, think about it, the people who are writing your check are the people they’re suppose to guide so they said “So I’ve said some things challenging him about how we could spend money or do money and the word was “don’t touch that if you want to stay employed here.” My grandfather was a Minister in the Sweden Board Church in Philadelphia. My dad tells me the story that when he told his Deacons, in those days that church happened to be Republican, but when he told his Deacons that he voted for Frank Delano Roosevelt, they withheld his check and played with his check for months and just said “just so you know, that’s not the way we want you to vote.” So this is not that unusual when I hear from leaders. You have to be willing to risk something, and sometimes rejection and often it hits us where we hurt which is money.

Now where are there examples of what Jesus is kind of calling us to? I’ve seen it in two places, one historic and one recent. Historically, the early Christian church was known for surviving plagues, famine, hunger because it actually took care of each other. They actually shared their burdens and they said “What can we do as a community?” And so through various plagues they were known as the people that actually served the unhealthy, they actually pooled money and resources and with no insurance in those days. They looked after each other. So the early Christian church, before it became a state organization was really very much along these lines. But will we see this today? For me interestingly enough, doing a lot of work around poverty in Detroit, I went up and I met a lot of Black Ministers and the Black church is the place where I’ve seen it the most in my modern day experience, this story. I met with the Ministers and they said “If someone joins my church,” and these are sort of mighty churches in Detroit, “if someone joins my church on a Tuesday, within three weeks somebody in the church will find them a job, we’re committed to it. We’re going to find a way to take care of them. One reason we have big meals on Sunday, and church can go all day, we want to ensure people get fed and we give people food to go out. We know some people are hungry in our church so we have food things.” But the black church, that was the place where I saw this responding to people’s needs and not making our material needs so- something we can’t talk about and instead making spirituality an esoteric experience of just the mind. The truth is, if you can’t meet your material needs it’s very hard to focus on Luke Chapter 4. And so, Jesus is calling us to do both and I bet those churches did a great job of combining both. So I think this is Jesus’ Manifesto. This is His challenge. He wants us to deal with spiritual poverty and literally physical poverty.

I think in this church community with this location where we are and with our hearts, we can be open to what does that mean? What does that look like because it’s not easy, the answer is not straightforward. It’s not simply open the doors and just it will all work out-it has to be well thought out and thought through. But we can really be a beacon for responding to these needs, both within our community and in our service but also for the larger world. And I think that’s the challenge ahead of us and I think we have an amazing opportunity here to do it.

So the questions I have as we leave today this Manifesto. So what are the ways we can both address physical and spiritual poverty? How can we in our own daily lives have the coverage to face rejection or take on the status quo at times? And then, in closing, as we go into prayer, let’s pray for the courage to do that, to step into that.

At this time, if anybody has any questions or comments or disagreements- one thing I noticed last week, or two weeks ago, because we have this now, is that some people had some questions about the Sermon afterwards. I just [00:16:17] because I don’t necessarily have all the answers and you know, I’m just one voice. The idea that the Minister has all the answers, I think is a bygone concept. I think, we as a community can have answers and that was my take on it but I don’t know if anybody had any questions on it or challenges or thoughts and we could take a few minutes if there are and just have a discussion about that.

[COMMENTS:]

CONGREGANT: I admit you’re right but this community needs to serve the larger community out there [00:16:44] their needs and I think that will help us attract members, give us a sense of purpose as a church and you talked about having a retreat, maybe we could have a retreat but [00:16:56]

CONGREGANT: I was thinking of, I don’t know whether it’s something, I’ll just put it out. There are organizations I contribute so I [00:17:06] there’s a number of non-profit groups, I don’t know whether we would want to partner with them or how, you know but I think that might be something that we could think about and how we could help. Especially, not just the homeless but those that are barely clinging on too. I mean, I think about Catholic Charities, it’s just, I don’t know if it’s primarily run, I think about nuns, It’s usually the nuns, I think, when I think about them helping the poor, helping the dispossessed in the world, more so than perhaps any other religious group that I am aware of that at least they’re sort of devoted to the cause. But it doesn’t have to be with another religious group to say we’re all non-profit so I can’t [00:18:06] something to think about.

Well I think to your point, there’s so many people doing so many things and I noticed that Foundry, for example, they do something very specific. They focus on getting people their driver’s license because it’s very hard to get around, so I volunteer there. That’s a Niche. It’s a very specific niche.

CONGREGANT: Foundry has a lot of programs which do other things. For instance [00:18:31] they actually serve dinner to homeless people and then what’s left over, everybody takes home. But they’re also, they’re known for closing. I use to know an Entrepreneur. His name was Tom Stanley and he lives in Seattle now and he has a brother [00:19:00] who was a famous lawyer in Seattle. He thought he was going to die of AIDS. Medication came around and saved him and now he has a radio program which he asked me to talk on a few weeks ago, about the homeless situation. He’s taken this up as a mission for the country.  I’m supposed to write a blog about it. The reason they chose me was that by homeless standards I’m educated and can express the opinions of the people that I listen to. Usually after this I’ve got to go to a [00:19:47]  where I  sit with a group of people [00:19:50]  my first name and I know what their situations are in detail. I’m supposed to come up with some solutions. One of the problems is that being homeless is hard work. You know where to get food but it’s never in the same place. So the Foundry is on one day and up here, St. Matthews, it’s Monday morning to have breakfast and over here on Seventeenth Street, usually on a Friday breakfast and so on. If you want to shower, there’s a place somewhere near [00:20:31] where you can shower. Everything is spread out. A lot of these charitable organizations have good intentions but they certainly want to stay in control. Yet for the homeless themselves, they are wondering Nomads from service to service from food to food. There are churches which specifically offer meals with prayers and things of this nature but I think if we can solve the program in some reasonable fashion, we have to kind of unify this. And it needs a leader, somebody to point this out. I don’t know if we can get a lot of help from the DC Council but we need political input as well as charitable inputs, showing the charities where they can put their money and so that we don’t have to [00:21:32] and we’re centralized in some way. I’m looking at architectural schools to somehow get a program where they design a basic unit that would be cheap to build, that would provide the right amount of space for a homeless person to live in. There are principles in architecture like you can make the room size dependent on the amount of time you spend there. So toilets and bathrooms are small but living rooms are larger and things of this nature. In South America there’s a program like this and everybody has a simple family home of 50 square meters.

Okay well I think what you’re raising is one, maybe there’s a role for us in this local community to help leadership and bring things together and also the politics. And I think we do, we are looking at possibly doing a mini retreat or get together with [00:22:38] but I think we have to look at it in more practical ways and figure out where, there’s so many people doing so many things, what role can we play? It’s not just as easy as like, we’re just going to open the doors.

CONGREGANT: Yeah. Well that’s just it and like you were saying, there’s so many different pieces and they are not blocked together in a cohesive way because various groups, non-profit churches, the city are you know, doing various parts.

CONGREGANT: There’s actually a pamphlet which is twice as big as those four chairs ‘Where to go for different things, which is a good thing. The only question is where can you get the pamphlet?

CONGREGANT: Exactly. Yeah.

The scripture lesson today is taken from the gospel of Luke, the fourth chapter beginning at the fourteenth verse. It will be a bit longer today because I am reading the text from last week and this week which actually are a complete story.

“Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure. He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written, God’s Spirit is on me; He’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is the year of the Lord!” He rolled up the scroll, He handed it back to His assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place. All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well He spoke. But they also said, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son, the one who we’ve known since he was a youngster?” He answered, “I suppose you’re going to quote the proverb, ‘Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what you did in Capernaum.’ Well, let me tell you something: No prophet is ever welcomed in his hometown. Isn’t it a fact that there were many widows in Israel at the time of Elijah during that three and a half years of drought when famine devastated the land, but the only widow to whom Elijah was sent was in Sarepta in Sidon? And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.” That set everyone in the meeting seething with anger. They threw him out, banishing him from the village. They took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way.”

Here ends the lesson.

So the story of Jesus giving what I would say is His inaugural Sermon. I like to think of it as Jesus’ manifesto, the first time He’s preached. He’s been travelling around the countryside, He’s been doing miracles which is referenced in the story and He’s kind of gotten a name for Himself. So people are excited that He’s come back and He comes back and He says a couple things that really piss off people. First He walks in and He says “You’ve heard this prophecy that this person is going to help the poor, free the captive but you’re seeing it in me” It’s a really dramatic moment. You might see in some of these pop/rock stars today-they do this moment where they’ll do a song and they’ll just drop the mike you know, and it’s this dramatic moment. They call it ‘drop the mike moment’ well that was a drop the mike. Jesus sort of says “You like this text? Well, boom! It’s me.” So first of all the arrogance that He’s claiming that He is the one that can deliver it-that gets them upset. But also they wanted Him to do some miracles. They wanted Him to do a show. We know you did this stuff in other towns do it here and He says “I’m not going to do it here. I don’t do these just for show. It’s not a magician act. I’m not here performing.” And in fact, His references to Elijah and Elisha, what He’s talking about there is He’s saying “It is not unusual in the story of the Bible that God’s unchosen people are picked first. I’m speaking to the unchosen people. You’re the chosen people, you’re the synagogue, you’re in the synagogue community but I’m actually going to the unchosen people and they are more receptive to my message. So that’s underlining what  the anger is and the anger is so dramatic  that they actually tried to kill Him right away, while He was ministering; They walked Him to the edge of town and tried to literally throw Him off the cliff for fear of what He said.

So, that’s actually a lot to unpack in a text and it has that famous text that we’re all really familiar with throughout common English language: “A prophet is never welcomed in their home town,” and I’m sure we’ve all kind of experienced that-that expression ‘You can never go home.’ You kind of go, I don’t know if you’re like me but even at my age with my parents  who are still alive, I’m still their kid when I go back home. And you can’t sort of be who you are in a way. You’re their kid and Jesus is saying that but He’s also saying that it’s very hard for people who know you very well to appreciate you; maybe your development and your growth and your change in your life and so very profound, we get that. Now, what I’d like to focus on are two things: one, what does He say in this manifesto? What’s really the first thing He wants to tell us and I think I want to also take a lesson from the response that it gets.

So what does He say in His first manifesto? He talks about the poor. That’s the first thing He talks about. So what’s interesting about this is He will talk about the poor in His first sermon, He will talk about the poor in most of His preaching and Jesus, in the New Testament is so much about the poor that it’s kind of amazing that we as Christians don’t [00:05:36]. Christian means people who help the poor. That’s really what Jesus is saying. This is what my new message is. So what has happened is that we often take texts and we make these radical comments of Jesus and we make them comfortable for ourselves, particularly around the poor. So modern scholars today would take that text and say ‘He’s not really talking so much about the poor, poor like you’re thinking, He’s talking about the poor in spirit.’ And that kind of makes it more comfortable. Oh, we’re all poor in spirit so don’t feel so bad, I have to be with the ‘poor’.

Now the funny story in my life that I experienced, almost this exact story through a great preacher friend of mine. My mentor was this guy named Peter Gomes. Peter had a voice like yours. I love your voice when you’re doing these readings and stuff. You should be doing the liturgy. It’s just beautiful. I mean, you know, Americans are sufferers for that English accent and I love it. Peter was African-American, the champ on Harvard and he had a New England Brahmin Accent. He talked like this. Richard I gave my first seminary in morning prayers and I had a thick Philadelphia accent from where I grew up. And he said “Richard, you’re going to have to do something about that Philadelphia accent if you’re going to remain in Memorial Church of Harvard University, it is not going to work.” So I was horrified. I mean, oh my, what accent? I didn’t know I had an accent. Now I hear tapes of myself, Whoo! This really sort of a Baltimore, Philadelphia accent. And so Peter was my mentor and I was doing fundraising after my seminary and I was assistant to the Minister and we were doing fund raising. And a very wealthy Texas Businessman took interest in Peter’s preaching. Peter became quite famous. He had done Reagan and Bush’s inauguration back in the 80’s and at the two inaugurations Peter had preached at them. So he was a world famous preacher and this Texas Businessman said “I’m a Christian, you’re the greatest preacher, we’re going to have you come and speak to my retreat in Texas; in Kerrville, Texas right outside of San Antonio at a lodge.” Christian Businessman. “And you can preach from whatever you want but this is a powerful group and it’s going to be really good for you to get in front of them for your fundraising purposes because there all wealthy.” So we went to Texas and Peter got up and he preached on ‘The Rich Young Man’ as his gospel. And the gospel of course says, the young man says “How do I follow you?” and Jesus says “Give away all your money.” And when Peter was preaching it was very funny to these Businessmen and he said “And so, let’s take the scripture literally. You need to give away your resources.” But this went over like, a loud balloon; our host started literally screaming and yelling at Peter who was in front of a room like this and said “I didn’t bring a communist from Harvard to lecture Texas about the scripture. It means spiritually poor, not about poverty. Jesus wants us to be rich. That’s what the story of Jesus is. Jesus is about prosperity and so you’re misinterpreting it.” So it’s a very funny story. Peter stormed out. This guy was yelling at him. I of course was a Fund Raiser so I saw an opportunity. Later, he apologized because the business people felt bad for their guests. and it was so embarrassing. And I said “Well it would be very helpful if you did give a gift to the church; that might make you mend things out. But what was great about the story is, it was literally like that. I mean they almost walked him out to the edge of town for just saying “This is what the scripture says.”

It makes us very uncomfortable to talk about money or poverty or wealth, and particularly in the United States, and very often, we take the scripture and we make it comfortable for ourselves. When we do that we actually water down the power of Jesus and we take away that impact that Jesus had. Like in the story, my mentor Peter was rejected by the crowd. That’s the other part of the message I think in here. The gospel is calling us to be active in the world. Yes, we’re talking about spiritual poverty but we’re also talking about real poverty. We have to be agents of change in the world for those less fortunate. And the more the church is about that, the better. When I work with young social Entrepreneurs and they don’t change, a lot of them say “Church, you’re involved with Church that is the least relative thing in my life.” I’m helping the poor. They are doing their thing and they’re condemning this, that and the other group but I’m actually helping the poor so they don’t see any positioning. They don’t see a connection at all with spirituality and fighting for justice or fighting for the poor and things like that but the message is very clear-that’s what Jesus is talking about. Now why don’t we want to do that? Because most of us don’t want to be rejected. We very much fear rejection. And Jesus is giving us a second teaching that we spend so much of our lives trying to please other people to be liked, to be nice- I think manners and courtesy is very important but there comes a time when you do have to just stand your truth and stand your ground and risk rejection.

Anybody who has changed the world that we would see as heroes of ours right, positive people; they become beatified, like Martin Luther King Junior. But when you look at their life they were rejected constantly within the groups, outside of the group- it’s just constant. You have to be that kind of fearless person to face rejection. Two messages I think in that Manifesto Sermon of Jesus: One, that it really is about the captives, the poor, prisoners-it’s physical and it’s spiritual. It’s working at both levels. But Jesus has also given us a warning. When we have the courage to live as the gospel calls us to, it has the chance of upsetting the apple cart or the status quo. And with that, we run risks and it’s interesting when I travel around I’ve done a lot of strategy work with churches and non-profits and I meet ministers and they say ” I want to be a prophetic Minister in my community but guess who’s writing my check?” Really, think about it, the people who are writing your check are the people they’re suppose to guide so they said “So I’ve said some things challenging him about how we could spend money or do money and the word was “don’t touch that if you want to stay employed here.” My grandfather was a Minister in the Sweden Board Church in Philadelphia. My dad tells me the story that when he told his Deacons, in those days that church happened to be Republican, but when he told his Deacons that he voted for Frank Delano Roosevelt, they withheld his check and played with his check for months and just said “just so you know, that’s not the way we want you to vote.” So this is not that unusual when I hear from leaders. You have to be willing to risk something, and sometimes rejection and often it hits us where we hurt which is money.

Now where are there examples of what Jesus is kind of calling us to? I’ve seen it in two places, one historic and one recent. Historically, the early Christian church was known for surviving plagues, famine, hunger because it actually took care of each other. They actually shared their burdens and they said “What can we do as a community?” And so through various plagues they were known as the people that actually served the unhealthy, they actually pooled money and resources and with no insurance in those days. They looked after each other. So the early Christian church, before it became a state organization was really very much along these lines. But will we see this today? For me interestingly enough, doing a lot of work around poverty in Detroit, I went up and I met a lot of Black Ministers and the Black church is the place where I’ve seen it the most in my modern day experience, this story. I met with the Ministers and they said “If someone joins my church,” and these are sort of mighty churches in Detroit, “if someone joins my church on a Tuesday, within three weeks somebody in the church will find them a job, we’re committed to it. We’re going to find a way to take care of them. One reason we have big meals on Sunday, and church can go all day, we want to ensure people get fed and we give people food to go out. We know some people are hungry in our church so we have food things.” But the black church, that was the place where I saw this responding to people’s needs and not making our material needs so- something we can’t talk about and instead making spirituality an esoteric experience of just the mind. The truth is, if you can’t meet your material needs it’s very hard to focus on Luke Chapter 4. And so, Jesus is calling us to do both and I bet those churches did a great job of combining both. So I think this is Jesus’ Manifesto. This is His challenge. He wants us to deal with spiritual poverty and literally physical poverty.

I think in this church community with this location where we are and with our hearts, we can be open to what does that mean? What does that look like because it’s not easy, the answer is not straightforward. It’s not simply open the doors and just it will all work out-it has to be well thought out and thought through. But we can really be a beacon for responding to these needs, both within our community and in our service but also for the larger world. And I think that’s the challenge ahead of us and I think we have an amazing opportunity here to do it.

So the questions I have as we leave today this Manifesto. So what are the ways we can both address physical and spiritual poverty? How can we in our own daily lives have the coverage to face rejection or take on the status quo at times? And then, in closing, as we go into prayer, let’s pray for the courage to do that, to step into that.

At this time, if anybody has any questions or comments or disagreements- one thing I noticed last week, or two weeks ago, because we have this now, is that some people had some questions about the Sermon afterwards. I just [00:16:17] because I don’t necessarily have all the answers and you know, I’m just one voice. The idea that the Minister has all the answers, I think is a bygone concept. I think, we as a community can have answers and that was my take on it but I don’t know if anybody had any questions on it or challenges or thoughts and we could take a few minutes if there are and just have a discussion about that.

[COMMENTS:]

CONGREGANT: I admit you’re right but this community needs to serve the larger community out there [00:16:44] their needs and I think that will help us attract members, give us a sense of purpose as a church and you talked about having a retreat, maybe we could have a retreat but [00:16:56]

CONGREGANT: I was thinking of, I don’t know whether it’s something, I’ll just put it out. There are organizations I contribute so I [00:17:06] there’s a number of non-profit groups, I don’t know whether we would want to partner with them or how, you know but I think that might be something that we could think about and how we could help. Especially, not just the homeless but those that are barely clinging on too. I mean, I think about Catholic Charities, it’s just, I don’t know if it’s primarily run, I think about nuns, It’s usually the nuns, I think, when I think about them helping the poor, helping the dispossessed in the world, more so than perhaps any other religious group that I am aware of that at least they’re sort of devoted to the cause. But it doesn’t have to be with another religious group to say we’re all non-profit so I can’t [00:18:06] something to think about.

Well I think to your point, there’s so many people doing so many things and I noticed that Foundry, for example, they do something very specific. They focus on getting people their driver’s license because it’s very hard to get around, so I volunteer there. That’s a Niche. It’s a very specific niche.

CONGREGANT: Foundry has a lot of programs which do other things. For instance [00:18:31] they actually serve dinner to homeless people and then what’s left over, everybody takes home. But they’re also, they’re known for closing. I use to know an Entrepreneur. His name was Tom Stanley and he lives in Seattle now and he has a brother [00:19:00] who was a famous lawyer in Seattle. He thought he was going to die of AIDS. Medication came around and saved him and now he has a radio program which he asked me to talk on a few weeks ago, about the homeless situation. He’s taken this up as a mission for the country.  I’m supposed to write a blog about it. The reason they chose me was that by homeless standards I’m educated and can express the opinions of the people that I listen to. Usually after this I’ve got to go to a [00:19:47]  where I  sit with a group of people [00:19:50]  my first name and I know what their situations are in detail. I’m supposed to come up with some solutions. One of the problems is that being homeless is hard work. You know where to get food but it’s never in the same place. So the Foundry is on one day and up here, St. Matthews, it’s Monday morning to have breakfast and over here on Seventeenth Street, usually on a Friday breakfast and so on. If you want to shower, there’s a place somewhere near [00:20:31] where you can shower. Everything is spread out. A lot of these charitable organizations have good intentions but they certainly want to stay in control. Yet for the homeless themselves, they are wondering Nomads from service to service from food to food. There are churches which specifically offer meals with prayers and things of this nature but I think if we can solve the program in some reasonable fashion, we have to kind of unify this. And it needs a leader, somebody to point this out. I don’t know if we can get a lot of help from the DC Council but we need political input as well as charitable inputs, showing the charities where they can put their money and so that we don’t have to [00:21:32] and we’re centralized in some way. I’m looking at architectural schools to somehow get a program where they design a basic unit that would be cheap to build, that would provide the right amount of space for a homeless person to live in. There are principles in architecture like you can make the room size dependent on the amount of time you spend there. So toilets and bathrooms are small but living rooms are larger and things of this nature. In South America there’s a program like this and everybody has a simple family home of 50 square meters.

Okay well I think what you’re raising is one, maybe there’s a role for us in this local community to help leadership and bring things together and also the politics. And I think we do, we are looking at possibly doing a mini retreat or get together with [00:22:38] but I think we have to look at it in more practical ways and figure out where, there’s so many people doing so many things, what role can we play? It’s not just as easy as like, we’re just going to open the doors.

CONGREGANT: Yeah. Well that’s just it and like you were saying, there’s so many different pieces and they are not blocked together in a cohesive way because various groups, non-profit churches, the city are you know, doing various parts.

CONGREGANT: There’s actually a pamphlet which is twice as big as those four chairs ‘Where to go for different things, which is a good thing. The only question is where can you get the pamphlet?

CONGREGANT: Exactly. Yeah.      Download Sermon

The gospel lesson today with the story of Thomas, gives us one of the most famous nicknames in all of scripture. It’s such a common nickname that even if you have not attended church any time or read the Bible you’ve heard the expression ‘doubting Thomas’ right? So we’ve all heard it. It comes from this text. And the other disciples get a lot of nicknames too: Peter is called ‘The Rock,’ we know Judas’ nickname- “the traitor.’ But most of the other nicknames are pretty good. Thomas gets the name ‘doubting Thomas’ which I’m going to argue today, I don’t think it’s really very fair. I think Thomas is getting a bad rep and I want to talk about what is the role of doubt in faith? Is there a role of doubt in faith? Doubt can go two ways I think, when it comes to the area of spiritual growth. I think we live in a culture right now that doubts pretty much everything. And that can be good but at some point doubting and doubting and doubting can lean to cynicism. We say our political parties aren’t any good; I’m not going to be involved, our churches aren’t any good; I’m not going to be involved. No institution is really worth me getting involved. I doubt everything. I’m cynical about everything and humor has sort of a [00:01:29] edge it’s sort of a very critical edge. Everything is doubt, doubt. If I can’t experience it I don’t believe it. And what a limiting view of the world; Beauty, is something that we experience but can we prove it through anything else [00:01:49] love? These things are immeasurable. We can’t prove it but we know they’re there. So I think that that doubt, the doubt for believing anything that I can’t see is not real, is a limiting doubt. I know living in Washington DC a very sophisticated town, I go out too dinner parties or events and people say “Hey, you got to meet this guy, he’s a minister.” And it’s sort of like they’re introducing a blacksmith, it’s like, from another time. And they’re like “Really? A minister? They’re still around? They still exist? Oh wow that’s so strange. How could anybody who’s sophisticated, who’s well educated, possibly still be involved in church or faith or spirituality?” Because we doubt that; we doubt that in our culture. And I think that kind of doubt, at some point, can get to be an unhealthy thing. But I don’t think that’s the doubt of Thomas. I think the doubt of Thomas is really very different. Thomas’ doubt, I believe is the doubt of saying “I really don’t understand this. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I haven’t seen Jesus rise yet. I haven’t experienced Jesus and until I do I’m not going to believe.” And I think, from the teachings of this church, that that’s exactly how faith works. We’re supposed to doubt. We have our doubts. Too often the church tells us to be ashamed of our doubts; don’t talk about your doubts. Keep your doubts to yourself. We all have them. In fact, if we imagine how incredible God is, how can we not have doubts? Because there’s no way we can completely understand, and in that gap between understanding and doubt comes belief.  And I think when Thomas says “I want to experience it.” That is a call for all of us to ask the same question. I think we can make that same demand of God: I want to experience God. Like, my experience with people who have a faith background, there are those who end up right where Thomas does when he says “You are the Lord?” And in their teachings they’d say “No that’s all you have to do just say the right words and you’re done; it’s finished.” But when the tough time comes, and there will be tough times, there will be unexpected tragedies in life, I find that faith doesn’t last. It’s almost like the house built on sand because I’m just taking what someone told me. It’s in my head; it’s not in my heart. I’ve not wrestled with it and then I’ve met other people who come up to me and say “I feel so bad. You know I don’t know if I believe Jesus is really God. I don’t know if I really believe in life after death. I don’t know; I’ve got doubts. I don’t know if there’s a loving God.” And when they say that to me I generally experience a response saying “That’s great.” God can handle those doubts. That’s a loving, motivated doubt that can lead you to belief. Be honest about it, wrestle with it, God loves you for that type of doubting. And I believe, in the gospel story today, that’s what Thomas is teaching us, that it’s okay to ask questions; we all have them, it’s okay to doubt; we all do, and it’s okay to build your faith upon experience; that’s great.

Today we’re going to be doing a baptism for Oliver and in our culture today, that makes no sense. Why would we in this old building with these old rights and this old practice go back to something like that? I doubt, if I’m in the secular culture, it really matters very much. But I think it’s one of the most important things you could do as parents, is to say “There’s a more complex world out there and the spiritual world is as real as the physical world and love and beauty and God are going to be important parts of Oliver’s life and so we’re acknowledging that in saying “Yes, society you might have doubts but there is more here than meets the eye.” The other path of baptism is, when we do the baptism, we’re not saying that “Oliver we bless forever.” Oliver in his life will have his doubts. He’s going to have his questions. He’s going to have his struggles and that’s the only way to grow spiritually but he’s going to have the blessing of people around him who love him; the angels in his life who have blessed him; that’s how we get through doubt. It’s through that. It’s knowing that it’s okay to question, it’s okay to struggle in fact you’re faith will be stronger if you have doubts. So let’s hear it for doubting Thomas. I think he’s under appreciated and a great spiritual teacher for all of us so Thomas, thank you for doubting and giving us the benefit of the doubt. Amen.

 

                                                   

The gospel lesson today with the story of Thomas, gives us one of the most famous nicknames in all of scripture. It’s such a common nickname that even if you have not attended church any time or read the Bible you’ve heard the expression ‘doubting Thomas’ right? So we’ve all heard it. It comes from this text. And the other disciples get a lot of nicknames too: Peter is called ‘The Rock,’ we know Judas’ nickname- “the traitor.’ But most of the other nicknames are pretty good. Thomas gets the name ‘doubting Thomas’ which I’m going to argue today, I don’t think it’s really very fair. I think Thomas is getting a bad rep and I want to talk about what is the role of doubt in faith? Is there a role of doubt in faith? Doubt can go two ways I think, when it comes to the area of spiritual growth. I think we live in a culture right now that doubts pretty much everything. And that can be good but at some point doubting and doubting and doubting can lean to cynicism. We say our political parties aren’t any good; I’m not going to be involved, our churches aren’t any good; I’m not going to be involved. No institution is really worth me getting involved. I doubt everything. I’m cynical about everything and humor has sort of a [00:01:29] edge it’s sort of a very critical edge. Everything is doubt, doubt. If I can’t experience it I don’t believe it. And what a limiting view of the world; Beauty, is something that we experience but can we prove it through anything else [00:01:49] love? These things are immeasurable. We can’t prove it but we know they’re there. So I think that that doubt, the doubt for believing anything that I can’t see is not real, is a limiting doubt. I know living in Washington DC a very sophisticated town, I go out too dinner parties or events and people say “Hey, you got to meet this guy, he’s a minister.” And it’s sort of like they’re introducing a blacksmith, it’s like, from another time. And they’re like “Really? A minister? They’re still around? They still exist? Oh wow that’s so strange. How could anybody who’s sophisticated, who’s well educated, possibly still be involved in church or faith or spirituality?” Because we doubt that; we doubt that in our culture. And I think that kind of doubt, at some point, can get to be an unhealthy thing. But I don’t think that’s the doubt of Thomas. I think the doubt of Thomas is really very different. Thomas’ doubt, I believe is the doubt of saying “I really don’t understand this. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I haven’t seen Jesus rise yet. I haven’t experienced Jesus and until I do I’m not going to believe.” And I think, from the teachings of this church, that that’s exactly how faith works. We’re supposed to doubt. We have our doubts. Too often the church tells us to be ashamed of our doubts; don’t talk about your doubts. Keep your doubts to yourself. We all have them. In fact, if we imagine how incredible God is, how can we not have doubts? Because there’s no way we can completely understand, and in that gap between understanding and doubt comes belief.  And I think when Thomas says “I want to experience it.” That is a call for all of us to ask the same question. I think we can make that same demand of God: I want to experience God. Like, my experience with people who have a faith background, there are those who end up right where Thomas does when he says “You are the Lord?” And in their teachings they’d say “No that’s all you have to do just say the right words and you’re done; it’s finished.” But when the tough time comes, and there will be tough times, there will be unexpected tragedies in life, I find that faith doesn’t last. It’s almost like the house built on sand because I’m just taking what someone told me. It’s in my head; it’s not in my heart. I’ve not wrestled with it and then I’ve met other people who come up to me and say “I feel so bad. You know I don’t know if I believe Jesus is really God. I don’t know if I really believe in life after death. I don’t know; I’ve got doubts. I don’t know if there’s a loving God.” And when they say that to me I generally experience a response saying “That’s great.” God can handle those doubts. That’s a loving, motivated doubt that can lead you to belief. Be honest about it, wrestle with it, God loves you for that type of doubting. And I believe, in the gospel story today, that’s what Thomas is teaching us, that it’s okay to ask questions; we all have them, it’s okay to doubt; we all do, and it’s okay to build your faith upon experience; that’s great.

Today we’re going to be doing a baptism for Oliver and in our culture today, that makes no sense. Why would we in this old building with these old rights and this old practice go back to something like that? I doubt, if I’m in the secular culture, it really matters very much. But I think it’s one of the most important things you could do as parents, is to say “There’s a more complex world out there and the spiritual world is as real as the physical world and love and beauty and God are going to be important parts of Oliver’s life and so we’re acknowledging that in saying “Yes, society you might have doubts but there is more here than meets the eye.” The other path of baptism is, when we do the baptism, we’re not saying that “Oliver we bless forever.” Oliver in his life will have his doubts. He’s going to have his questions. He’s going to have his struggles and that’s the only way to grow spiritually but he’s going to have the blessing of people around him who love him; the angels in his life who have blessed him; that’s how we get through doubt. It’s through that. It’s knowing that it’s okay to question, it’s okay to struggle in fact you’re faith will be stronger if you have doubts. So let’s hear it for doubting Thomas. I think he’s under appreciated and a great spiritual teacher for all of us so Thomas, thank you for doubting and giving us the benefit of the doubt. Amen. Download Sermon

 

                                                   

STANDING FIRM WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGES

The gospel story today from Luke is not a feel good, happy story. In the story, Jesus tells the disciples that are admiring this beautiful temple, looking around at the beautiful glass, the beautiful gold; everything is great and Jesus is, in modern words, a sort of Debbie Downer. He says “This is all going to collapse. Everything you see will fall and…” “Wow, we were just admiring the building Jesus and then you have to tell us that all this is going to collapse?” And if that’s not bad enough, Jesus goes even further and says “And you will be tried and some of you will face death and a period of destruction and change is coming in your lives unlike anything you can imagine.” So quite a dramatic story, not the sort of uplifting, happy story that we kind of like to watch at the movies but a story of great change. He ends the story by saying but do not worry for God is with you in all of this and I will be with you in all of this.

So this story is read at two levels like most stories you’ll see; a very literal level and for us in our tradition, I think we’re fortunate to have to look at it at the spiritual or deeper level. I’m glad we have both. At the literal level, this story was seen as Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple which did happen about 40 years after this prophecy. So 40 years after this moment where Jesus is with the disciples, the temple is completely crushed. Why? Because the Jewish people rebelled against Rome, they thought they could kick Rome out of Israel in about 66 AD and Rome said “Not going to happen and in fact when we crush you this time we’re really going to crush you and we’re going to crush the holiest place that you have, the place where your God sits — in the temple.” And so the temple was destroyed in about 70 AD. So at the very literal level, it’s Jesus giving a prophecy and telling what the future is going to be and telling people “Stick through it” and that’s interesting at the figurative level but I think at the spiritual level, the deeper level of what the images are, are much richer and very relevant. At the spiritual level, Jesus is basically saying, “This temple that you’re in, this place where God sits, that period of worshiping God is ending. God is now going to be with you presently through me, Christ. We’re coming into a new spiritual period and when that happens there is all sorts of destruction. Institutions that we knew and loved are gone. The way things were passes away and we’re coming into a whole new period and it will be tumultuous and the good news is I will be there with you.” What a perfect text for this week in our nation’s capital. A time when people are literally describing a political earthquake as taking place. There is wars and rumors of wars and a campaign that was fought almost like a battle and described as a battle and there is tumult. What you expected didn’t happen and people are very surprised and very upset.

This past week, it all started on election night really, as I watched on Facebook my friends from both sides of the aisle. One side in complete despair another side shocked and happy and I saw these two completely different worlds, two completely different countries and then the rest of the week I was fielding calls from the thousands of people — I didn’t get thousands of calls but there’s thousands of people who will lose their jobs or have to find a new school, or have to get a new home. And it’s not just that they didn’t know that’s the deal when you work in politics but it was a shock. So they were surprised and when there is surprise, there is great anguish. So people are literally depressed, the temple has been destroyed. The way I was expecting didn’t happen. We are in a uncharted territory so lots of sadness and I had an unusual week in the last week we did that service of unity and healing with other groups and we had, I think 11,000 subscribers on Facebook watched the service and I brought my godson up to talk about how he was anxious. Children were anxious, adults were anxious and you could feel it all week. I left there and joined the National Council of Churches in South Carolina. We met in Charleston at Mother Emmanuel Church. Mother Emmanuel Church is the church that had the horrible racist killing just over a year ago and we worshipped together in that space. It was an African-American church and they talked about their anxiety about the election. What did it mean? They were worried and then as faith would have it I was in Mexico this week, a long planned trip. Can you imagine being in Mexico this week? The one thing they want to talk about was their anxiety. They were upset that people on staff and companies — so it’s a ripple effect. All over the world, so I was in Mexico talking about this. So we’re coming into a period of what you might call the new normal, ‘tumultuousness’. Things are upending, old institutions that we use to rely on are not serving the same way and we’re in a new period and I think it is a wonderful opportunity for new spiritual leadership to rise in this moment. The old institutions that aren’t serving are going to need to evolve including this church. As we’re looking at our future we need to evolve to meet the needs because the spiritual needs will only increase in periods where there is chaos and confusion and what I thought I knew, I don’t. Three quick things I think that we could be doing as spiritual leaders in this time, taken from the text and the first is that Jesus prophesied, he told a different story and I think we need a different story.

The story right now in our culture is “I’m good, they’re evil and I must destroy them,” and it’s infected our politics and our politics have infected our churches so that people are just in warring sides. “I’m good, their bad we must destroy the other side and if I lose I’ll fight another day” and the war goes on. As spiritual people, followers of Jesus we know that we are all one, we are all children of God we are not all good or all evil; we all have evil within ourselves on our side and good on our side and we need to learn to find Christ in each other, particularly when we disagree. So we need to be prophetic, and prophetic sometimes can be awkward but the prophecy I think is that we are one; we’re not one good and one evil. The other thing I think that we could learn in this period or we could teach in this period as spiritual leaders is moral courage. Moral courage, I believe means that as Christians we stand in solidarity with the voice that is not being heard. This election has been a lot of talk that the voice that wasn’t being heard were people in the Rust Belt. Generally, the stereotype is poor, white men who didn’t feel heard and so for that I’m glad they feel heard, personally. And then this week as I said, getting calls from friends who are immigrants, friends who are Muslims, our job is to stand in solidarity with them as well. It is not hitting one against the other, or arguing which side is right. It’s when people don’t have a voice, we can stand with them as a voice in this very difficult time and just give them love and protection of their fears. That’s our job as Christians and then finally we come to, I think the third lesson of this period and it’s the conclusion of the gospel where Jesus says “You may face death but don’t worry, nothing will happen to you.” It’s a very different way of looking at it. Most people would say death is the worst thing that could happen. But we don’t see the story that way. We see that we are developing our spiritual soul and that what we have in these tumultuous times is we can trust in God, not in political parties, not in nationhoods, not in consumer goods that we purchase, not in the data but in God. We can believe in God and trust in God and stand in God and know the world can move and these can be tumultuous times. God stands firm and we stand on that foundation and we can know trust. Trust is the toughest when the narrative that we’ve been thought has been disrupted.

A friend called me late last night who I haven’t talked to for many years. And the person he loves most in the world had a sudden death and he said “It’s not fair. That’s what I can’t get over. I’m even thinking of possibly, maybe ending my own life because it’s not fair.” We talked about trusting, that’s when trust in God is most important, when you can’t see the way out of it. Trusting when it doesn’t seem to make sense. Trusting that we were never promised to live eternal lives on this planet, that we are spiritual beings in a physical world. It’s a different narrative than the one that’s being taught. So there is an important role for a new spiritual awaking in this country and in this world, one that can prophesy a different story of oneness, that we are all one and we are connected and we can put to death the lie that we are good and they are evil and we must destroy them. We can be morally courageous in this period where we stand with whichever group feels it doesn’t have a voice. The weakest group is the group we must stand with and finally we can trust in God that God loves us and only through that love do we have the power to play this important role at this important time. Here we are at Church of the Holy City in our nation’s capital with the unique understanding of what it means that a new heaven and a new earth is coming into being. We have an important role in this space, I believe and I believe that’s coming into being and I look forward to stepping into that role in this very tumultuous time so that we can find peace in the midst of this confusion. Amen.  Download Sermon

HOW TO BUILD A JUST WORLD: LESSONS FROM A WIDOW

So the gospel story of the widow and the judge, known as the, sometimes as the persistent widow is a little confusing at first but I think you’re going to find within this gospel, is a real gem of a lesson that is so practical to our world today that it’s unbelievable. It’s really a great, great gospel story and basically Jesus is saying, there’s this widow, she is so annoying and seeking justice from a judge, that the judge who has no spiritual outlook, no belief in anything, just says “Lady you are such a pain in the … I’ll do it, not because I’m a good person but just to get you off my back.” And so Jesus says, if that’s how persistence works in the world, imagine what persistence can happen with God.

Amen, the sermons done. This gospel lesson is about social justice. It’s about how Justice happens in the world. And that’s a hot topic right now. It’s a hot topic for everybody but it’s a really hot topic among the rising generation. We did a really exciting dinner here of thirty people, under thirty talking about what spirituality means to them. And it was fascinating because they said “We don’t like religion, we don’t think there’s any real truth. My truth is as viable as your truth, is as viable as their truth. We all have our own truth. So whatever you believe, that’s your truth.” And then we talked about, but what’s important, what are your values and what are key? And then they said “Oh you can’t be anti-gay and you can’t be anti-women, you can’t be racist and you can’t be against immigrants.” So they started talking all these [00:01:57]. I said well those are sort of values. And they said “No, that’s social justice; that’s social justice, that’s not the truth. It’s just what’s obvious to any good person that that’s how you would be. So the value of social justice has really, excitingly, been present in the rising generation. It’s been around for a long time. We’ve certainly heard the phrase. But what does it really mean? I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean talking about a topic and thinking that you’re changing the world. It doesn’t mean liking a link on Facebook and saying I like that poem and therefore I’m on your side. It doesn’t mean just passively thinking and saying in a dinner conversation, “This is my opinion.” That’s not how the world changes. That’s not social justice. That’s an opinion. We’ve confused opinion with world change and from our spiritual perspective, God asks of us, that while we’re on this planet that we are God’s hands, that we are active in this world to bring Justice. We should be doing it. Those of us that claim to be guided by God should be the most active on earth toward making it a better place. But that means activity.

I believe that the widow in the story gives us three really concrete lessons that we can apply to our life when we’re trying to create justice. The first lesson is persistence, tenacity. I just came back from Boston where I was at something called Sustainatopia and it’s all about investment and impact investing for social change. Someone raised their hand “What characteristic do you find the most important among the successful investments the people who really change the world and get a return on. What about them? And they said the first thing is their biography; it’s never the model, it’s always the person. Tenacity, they’ve got tenacity. They here of people who have proven in their life that they can stick with it. They are going to be persistent. If nothing else this widow is known as being persistent.

Seth Godin in one of his books called ‘The Dip,’ says that it’s really tricky to know when to stop and when to keep going. He says “:Life is like when you’re in a dip and you’re trying to solve something, because we all think that things are going to go like this, the plan is going to go like this, and we know in life it goes like this and there’s downfall and failure and mistakes.” And in the book he points out how many people are in the dip and they stuck with it and came out to incredible change. Had they given up, the world would not have changed but he has a caveat just to make it complicated. He said “Sometimes we’re in a culdesac or just driving around and around in a circle. We’re not in a dip and figuring out when you’re in one or the other is the key to a successful leader. Figuring out when you’re doing the same thing and expecting something different or when you’re really in a tough period but is there a plan how we’re going to get out of this? So persistence is a key phrase.

Tomorrow we’ll be talking with the denominational leadership about this church. And there are people here today who, it was their persistence and tenacity that allows me to be preaching in this pulpit, for this local congregation. And Jane, I think of you and your life, because I know you were ordained when I transferred my ordination. But for a woman at your age, at your time, growing up Pretty Prairie when no women were ordained, to decide to become ordained to shift your life, that had to take  incredible persistence. In a way women understand better than men because of what they’ve been up against in changing things. So the persistence of sticking through is the number one lesson. Tenacity, you either have it or you don’t. But if you’re a quitter, you’re not going to change the world because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to take a while.

What’s the second? What’s the second lesson from this? I think the second lesson, not much talked about, is that she is a nag. She does not care what the judge thinks of her. She is not entering a popularity contest. She doesn’t want to be liked. She wants justice. We also live in a culture where we’re all polite people. We want to be liked and there comes a moment when you’re fighting for justice where you must risk being misunderstood and being unpopular and possibly being disliked. And if you really changed the status quo, you’d probably be hated. That’s what happens to people who change the world. So she is not Miss Congeniality. She is willing to risk what the judge might think of her, to accomplish the justice that she’s trying to do. Moral courage is the key ingredient to most social change in the world and it almost always requires going against the status quo. That is a risk. She exemplifies it.

So what’s the third element in changing the world? I’ve got the pulpit, you’re in a church, I get to say it: God. In fact that’s the whole purpose of the parable. The purpose of the parable is to say that this is how the world operates and she gets what she wants. Imagine when you tap into the power of God when you’re doing good in the world. We live in an illusion that we do things and that we’re not connected. I recently heard a speaker at a conference and he made a very good point. At this conference with investment bankers, very financial people he just said “You know we’re all connected and there’s all oneness.” And the room kind of looked at each other like “Oh boy, I didn’t know this was going to be an S-seminar, I thought it was going to be a talk on how we change the world. And he just gave this analogy I’d like to share with you. To summon the audience he said “So when you breathe, what do you breathe from?” A person said “Lungs, you need your Lungs.” He said “Okay, so if we took you’re Lungs out and we put them up here, we’d be able to breathe?” “No, no, of course not, I need the body.” “Oh, so to breathe you need the body and the lungs connected? Oh, okay so it’s not just the Lungs it’s this unity. Okay so if we took a body and Lungs we can breathe?” “No we need air.” “Oh okay so we have air, the body, lungs, now we can breathe so we can do it ourselves.” “No actually we need the environment which is protected by a very thin shell from the universe.” And the point he was making was “We’re all connected. This is all connected. We all need each other. I would take it a step father and say that’s God. I would say that every time you take a breath it’s but by the grace of God. Now this would be the most controversial thing that i could share in a speech about changing the world or in a strategy session. I’m more and more convinced that God has to play a role. Does that mean that people have to believe in a certain religious dogma or doctrine to really be change agents? Absolutely not, but I do believe that the spiritual power is the transformative power.

People know that I’m obsessed with this idea of Spiritual Entrepreneurship. And people always say “But, there are no examples, no-one’s ever done it. And I say “Well who are your heroes? Who are your big change agents?” They say “Oh Martin Luther King and Ghandi and then Mother Teresa and Bon Hoffer and these great people who changed the…” Well you do know that they were all, you know before he was Doctor Martin Luther King, he was Reverend King. “Oh I never thought of that, you’re right.” So we’ve kind of taken that up and it was the spiritual nature i think and the support to be persistent, to be disliked, I think you actually need spiritual support in those moments and that is God. And I think things are changing.

Just this last week someone came to me and said “We’re doing a big grant and it’s going to be about what happens after this horrible election. Because if you think the election is going to end the anxiety and the pressure and the negative talk, I think we all agree that’s not going to happen.  Whatever happens there’s going to be some people who are going to be very angry and in a way that we’ve almost never seen, and frighteningly angry. And so now the funders are saying “What would you do, you’ve been working on this hyper-partisanship and republicans, democrats, what would you do? What do you think the secret is and we have these ideas and these ideas and we have a lot of money,” and I said “Well I’m going to be blunt, I think it’s not going to happen without a spiritual aspect to it. It’s going to be a transformation of consciousness. We’ve got to realize that we’re one and we’re connected you know. If that sounds flaky, I’m willing to be unpopular and unheard but I’m just saying that i am convinced that God underlines these things, if you want to say the evolution of humanity, the evolution of consciousness, i don’t care what words you use, but to accomplish great change in the world, i do believe requires the humility of believing in God. And all of this in a gospel parable about a widow who took on a judge and she taught us in the parable how to be tenacious, how to stand up and be willing to be unpopular and finally, the lesson of Jesus, that if she can accomplish that, imagine what we can do with God’s help.

Amen.   Download Sermon 

THE SPIRITUAL POWER IN SAYING THANK YOU

 

The gospel story of the ten lepers is one that’s pretty familiar and it seems pretty straightforward, not complicated. We could finish the sermon pretty quickly. Most sermons about this say “It’s really important to say thank you,” and you could say that the gospel of Luke today is sort of miss-manners, teaching us the importance of being grateful and thankful and that’s it. And if it were just that it wouldn’t be that much more than good manners that we learned growing up. In my house, my parents used this expression, I don’t know if yours did but the magic word, what’s the magic word? “I want a piece of cake,” “What’s the magic word?” It was either please or thank you, we can never remember which one, so sometimes we’d say “Thank you?” “No try again, there’s another magic word.” “Please?”  That’s the magic word. So we learned ‘please’ to get something and then what do you say, what’s the magic word when you’re done? ‘Thank you.’ So that is the basic stuff that probably all of you in some way, shape or form, were raised by your parents or somebody in your life who taught you good manners. And that’s usually the lesson that’s taken from the text, that we should be grateful and thankful. And I agree with that but I think there’s more. The other sermons usually preached on this text, is that God demands thanks. And in many places in scripture, it says we are supposed to thank God, and I think gives the impression that God is sort of the ungrateful giver, like you know i gave you those things and i really want thanks and if you don’t give it, I’m really going to be mad. But that doesn’t really square with our view of God, a loving God who needs nothing. So maybe there’s something more. So I think there is a third way of looking at this text, and the third way is quite different than the first two. The first two, thanks is important to the other person involved. And i would argue that thanks and being grateful is really important in this text to us. There’s a power in being grateful, there’s a power to saying thank you.

In the early to mid-80’s, i signed up for one of the scariest things i had ever done. I became an AIDS buddy. What does that mean? It sounds scary just saying it. An AIDS buddy was someone who, at that time, would visit a person living with AIDS on a weekly basis. And I was very afraid. At that time, we didn’t know what caused it; we didn’t know where it was from. Was it from food, was it from water, was it from dogs? Believe it or not, that was a theory. And so there are all these theories and nobody knew, it was a very scary time. I was living in Boston and I became an AIDS buddy and you had to go through a training. And it’s interesting how horrible that period was. We forget it now. I sometimes have lectured at Johns Hopkins on health care and public policy. And when i lecture to the younger audience I say “I was an AIDS buddy in the 80’s and how long do you think the average connection lasted, the buddy connection?” And they’d say “Two years,” “Three years,” “Five years,” and the answer is the average at that time was two months. In two months, the person died. In two months the person died and you got a new buddy. So you had to be in a support group yourself to even deal with that horrible reality. I got assigned to a guy named Richard Tremblay. And so i ended up visiting Richard every week. And your only job was just to really show up. You weren’t so much to be a counsellor, you weren’t so much to be an advocate but boy did i get to see the healthcare system inside and out as he went through the horrible thing, horrible of a body just breaking down from disease and no treatment. So this is 1985/86. And Richard lasted nine months which was a record in my group. And what I remember about it and that I’m thinking about this text is one, I thought to myself, wow leprosy in Jesus time and the closest thing i could think of would be having AIDS today in the 80’s when no-one knew what it was. And the second thing i thought was: in the story it points out that the person who comes back as a Samaritan, think about being gay and having AIDS in the 80’s. People were getting kicked out of their homes, families weren’t supporting them at the hospital. The Samaritans were a despised group. It’s no accident that in the gospel Jesus is pointing out that it was a Samaritan, the group that was the outcast. So you take Samaritan okay, and then you take leper and you have Outcast of the outcast. And it’s the outcast of the outcast who’s the only one who comes back to say thanks to the Jewish healer, Jesus. What struck me about that story and that memory for me was how grateful I am for working with Richard during those years. You can imagine I was 25 or so, it was scary. But it just completely changed my world, changed how i thought about things; life, death. You think about things you shouldn’t often think about at twenty five. And i think he was grateful for me just showing up, just somebody showing up. And we were grateful for each other and we said thank you and he said thank you. There was a lot of gratitude.

What i realized in the third way of looking at this text is that when we say thank you, we’re acknowledging something very profound that we often overlook and that’s that we need each other; that we cannot do it alone in this life; that we are created in relationship and in community and we can’t do it alone. I could come and preach, it wouldn’t be fun if no-one was here to listen. I couldn’t play the piano, i couldn’t organize the service. We have to thank each other for all that we do to pull things together on a daily basis.  The real power of thanking someone is not what it does for them. The real power in thanking God is not because God needs thank you. The power in gratitude is it’s a spiritual reminder to us of humility, that we can’t do it alone. We need other people. And when we thank we’re acknowledging that. We’re saying “I can’t do it without you.” This has profound power and there is a power in saying thank you, there’s a power in humility and self-examination that is required by simply saying thank you. And that’s why some people can’t say thank you. You do meet people, they’re not fun to be around but they just simply can’t say the phrase because in their mind they really don’t see a need for other people generally and they’re uncomfortable to be around. I think that the power in the gospel of saying thank you cuts this way as well, with God. They’re going to be times in our life where we will be like Richard was in that story or like those lepers. We’re going to feel isolated, we’re going to feel outcast and we’re going to see Jesus in the distance and say “Master, over here, over here, I don’t even feel connected to you God. I feel far away and i feel outcast.” And in those moments we’re healed because we’re connected. And in thanking God, we’re reminding ourselves that we have that connection. One of the most painful things to do in that moment when we feel disconnected is to do something very counter-intuitive and that is to thank God. I really encourage you to challenge it. In that moment, thank God.

In the story of a horrible person dying of AIDS, I’ve talked about how grateful i am for that in my life. This last week we really dodged a bullet on a hurricane for the most part for our country; Haiti not as much but it really [00:08:33] but you saw people responding to the Camera and saying “I have my family.” “I have my family, I lost my house, I’m grateful,” and it’s sometimes in those moments when we’re off in the distance feeling cut off and outcast by simply saying thank you, we are releasing and reminding the power that we’re never alone, we are never alone, God is always with us. When we feel disconnected that’s the illusion that this world perpetrates on us that we’re disconnected. So thank you for coming and thank God for all that he can do in our lives.

Amen.  Download Sermon

The gospel is taken from the gospel of St. Luke, the ninth chapter, beginning at the 28th verse.

“About 8 days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God and Jesus Took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray and while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men Moses and Elijah talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with Him. Just as they were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus “Master, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered the cloud then from the cloud came a voice that said “this is my son; my chosen; listen to Him.” When the voice had spoken Jesus was found alone and they kept silent in those days and told no-one of any of the things that they had seen.”

Here ends the reading the Gospel of St. Luke. So you know that when I am looking at a gospel story for preaching I always say “what can I be curious about” and I encourage us to read scripture with that. Because we’ve read so many of the stories, so often that sometimes we can’t even hear the message. So I thought “What am I curious about in this story and what I was curious about is what did Moses and Elijah and Jesus talk about? It’s a pretty dramatic scene. In fact you can just see that the light is leaving that scene of the resurrection up there we’re Jesus rose, all white. It’s probably something like that. You can see that in the stained glass there. And it was a dramatic moment. But why did Jesus bring Elijah and Moses down after they had already certainly died, why were they brought in to talk? And the reason is in the scripture and it’s just mentioned very subtly but it’s very important. They came to talk about Jesus’ death. This text uses ‘departure,’ other texts will use the word ‘Exodus’ but it’s His death. So Jesus brings in Moses who symbolizes the law, Elijah who symbolizes the prophets and then there’s Jesus who symbolizes the Gospel and is the gospel. He brings these figures together to talk about his death and I want to talk about planning a really successful death because that’s what Jesus is doing with them. What can we learn from that? And I found three things that I took away from this as I was reading it. The three things were:

1) It’s important to think about your death; I want to talk about that

2) We do have spirit guides. These are spiritual guides that are guiding Jesus; and

3) The importance of mystical encounters. As we see this is a very mystical experience. It won’t get much more mystical in the gospels until Jesus’ resurrection, than the story of the Transfiguration we heard today.

So let’s start with planning your death; not a very romantic, exciting, positive, upbeat thing to talk about. In fact our culture tries to dismiss death as though it doesn’t exist. We talk about passing away, they’ve departed, they’re no longer with us but death is a crucial evolution in our spiritual life to the next world and it’s something we shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed about and it can be a very good planning tool. In my coaching practice, one of the exercises that I have done, and I’ve done for my clients that has been very profound is asking them to write out their memorial service, their funeral. Tell me where is it held? Who speaks, what do they say? What kind of music is played? Is there music? What do you hope they’re going to say about you after you go? And first my clients say “Oh my gosh, that’s so depressing.” But they try it and they do it and what’s amazing is by planning with the end in mind as Stephen Cubby would say, “When you plan with the end in mind, death on earth, it actually makes you more strategic with the rest of your life. Because when you plan that death and you say these are the things that are going to happen at my funeral and these are the questions I had: Who is going to be there? What are they going to say? What do I need to change in my life now to make that experience fantastic? And so I would invite anybody here tonight or listening if you write out your memorial service, your funeral and you want me to look at it, I’d be happy to engage you on that document because I found it extremely helpful in planning out what’s the most important thing to accomplish in life. And that’s what Jesus is doing. He’s doing he’s playing out his final days.

Planning for death can be a new thing and then, particularly for ministers who do a lot of funerals, they kind of get used to it but for most of us not so much. My first experience dealing with a funeral and a memorial service was when I was a kid in college doing a summer internship for the Lutheran Church in the Pocono Mountains for Campgrounds and they gave me a collar to wear, you know, I wasn’t a minister and I had kind of long hair and those crazy glasses with the tie dye [00:06:31] and the glass, crazy glasses with the lens and the moustache, and I was doing the best I could and I got a call one day from a funeral home through the church and they said “hey look we’re really desperate. We’ve got somebody who just died; they need a memorial service at the grave and they’re relatives have flown in from Germany and there’s nobody to do the service. Would you be willing to go over and do the service? We’ll pay you Two Hundred bucks if you do it. Two Hundred bucks, I was sort of [00:07:05] and terrified. I went to the funeral home and I had never seen a dead person and the guy brought me back in and he had a horrible sense of humor and he brought me back into the area where the bodies were being embalmed and, you know it sort of, I don’t know, just sort of freaked me out. I’d never seen anything like it with the big stitching and he is making jokes “I like this business nobody ever complains ha, ha, ha.” Oh geez, he’s smoking his cigarette then he says “when we want to change out the suits for the people, you don’t like the brown suit or blue suit, we just change the heads.” And I was just like “Ugh, gross; this is a guy, clearly this is his business, this is his every day. He’s making jokes and he says “And you, you’re the Minister? Look at you. “Oh great, I mean I really didn’t look the part. So then he says alright. He pulls out what looked like a little keg to me, he says “Here it is,” and that was the ashes and he said “get in the hearse, they’re already there, it’s hot and they’re already waiting.” So I get in the hearse, I put the urn on my lap and we drive out to the graveside service. We get there and I’m a responsible guy right; I fastened my seat belt. And we get there and I can’t get my seatbelt open. We pulled the hearse right up to where the crowd is so we’re only five feet away and I say “You’re seatbelt, I can’t get the seatbelt off.” Then this comic, [00:08:31] says “You can’t get the seatbelt off? Who wears a seatbelt in a hearse; we drive five miles an hour; nobody has ever worn that seatbelt.” So he plays with it and the crowd is kind of looking in “Oh there’s the young Minister I guess but he’s not getting out of the car.” And he said “I guess we’re just going to have to drive up to the side of the service and roll your window down, you’ll have to do it seated.” And I’m like “Oh dear God; you’ve got to be kidding.” I am in complete panic and he looks for a screw driver and he tries to break it with the screw driver; He cannot get it off. So finally, I had to do the humiliating act of pulling the seatbelt like this and crawling out of the car, with the family all standing there. Worse, they were form Germany and I tried using a German prayer that I had been taught, only to find out that at this point in my family, this prayer had been passed down so many years that it was no longer German. And so they said “That was a beautiful prayer but what language was that?” So I had screwed up the entire thing. I had not planned well for the end. I challenge all of us to take this lesson from Jesus to plan for the end. It’s a funny story but on a more serious note, I think we do have to plan for the end. So one is that Jesus, the one time he brings in these guys is for his death. The second thing that a church like this, is comfortable discussing and thinking about it that there were people guiding Jesus who were no longer physically on Earth. I believe that all of us have those same things. We can call them guardian angels, spirit guides, whatever they are they are all around us, they want to help us and those most difficult things that we’re facing, we have that; we have our Elijah’s and our Moses and I’m convinced of it. In this space Swedenborgian, we might be one of the few in Christianity that truly Embrace that but I will say in my own experience I’ve had times where I felt relatives or people that I’ve lost recently, have absolutely been involved in my life in a positive way and so not much preached about, but I would like to talk about that mystical aspect about those on the other side actually working on our behalf and that we can tap into it. I don’t know it’ll be quite like the Transfiguration I doubt that but they are there.

Then the third part is the mystical part. Why did they do this Transfiguration; really part of it was Jesus needing advice and the second part was He was trying to show the disciples “you’re going to know a very difficult time. This is the real deal and you needed something dramatic to show you.” So I am not one of those people who have seen physical angels, some people do; I don’t But I’ve definitely had mystical experiences in my life that have guided me at the right moment. I don’t know whether I have more of them than others or I’m just paying attention or that I have such a week faith that I need mystical experiences, but I’ve definitely experienced. When I was going to Harvard Divinity School, I immediately went to where the Swedenborg school of religion was in Cambridge because my grandfather had studied there and the school of [00:11:49] was gone; it was now the school of design so I was very disappointed. I wanted to see that building my grandparents had lived in; I heard about it as a kid. Lo and behold I get a job at the chapel at Harvard University and the Minister knowing that I’m tight for cash says “You could live at the Minister’s house if you’d like and you’ll have no rent but you’re going to have to essentially be the butler and I was like “No rent? You had me at no rent; Great. I’m there” So I become the butler at the Minister’s house at Harvard University and in no time the Minister Peter Gomes, my mentor, says to me “Rich, you told me you had this Swedenborgian ancestry right?” I said “Yeah.” He said “you know you’re sitting in the Swedenborg School of religion from the early 1900’s and the late 1800’s?” And I said “No, actually I know the address, it was across the way,” and he said Oh no you’re wrong. In 1968, Harvard picked up the building and moved in. You’re in the house that you’re grandparents lived in.” It was a very difficult time for me and being in that house and getting that find, meant a lot to me. Paying attention to those things can have transforming experiences. Fast forward to Church of the Holy City; years ago I was cleaning up, there was some trash in the balcony, old books and things that had gotten water logged and there on a top of the trash heap was a ripped, torn photograph of the house; of the house that I lived in that my grandparents lived in; clearly a Minister who preached here, that was where he went to school; that was his school picture; and there it was. So I took it, cleaned it off and it was a sign to me. I get signs like this all the time and I think if we’re paying attention, we can have transfiguration experiences, if we’re open to it and they’re incredibly helpful. I don’t believe in Jesus or God because I understand it or because I’ve been taught it; I believe because I’ve experienced it. I’ve had experiences in my life and I believe that we can have those experiences and I think that’s also what the Transfiguration is saying; that God and Jesus is an experience not an intellectual exercise but it’s a life transforming experience. So let’s plan our death. Let’s plan our death with the end in mind, let’s be open to those spiritual guides that could help us in that very difficult process and then finally let’s pay attention to the mystical guide posts in our life; they’re helping us when we lack the faith that is so necessary. Amen.  Download Sermon

My Recording

St. Luke, Chapter 7, verses 11 through 17:

“Soon after healing the centurion slave, Jesus went to a town called Nain and His disciple and a large crowd went with Him. As He approached the gate of the Town a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son and she was a widow. And with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her “Do not weep.” And He came forward, he touched the bier and the bearers stood still and he said “Young man I say to you rise.” The dead man sat up and began to speak and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear ceased all of them and they glorified God saying “A great prophet has risen among us and God has looked favorably on his people. This word about him spread throughout Judea and all of the surrounding country.”

Here ends the reading from the Gospel of Luke. So the story of the Widow of Nain is pretty dramatic. It raises some interesting questions for me that I’d like to talk with you all about. Jesus has just, if you remember, healed the slave for the Roman officer and we’ve shifted from the Gospel of St. John to the Gospel of Luke in our readings these last couple weeks. And one thing you’ll notice in the difference between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John; they’re both the story of Jesus, is that John is the more mystical, more spiritual Gospel. A lot of people would say the more Swedenborgian Gospel, and Luke is known historically to be a physician and it’s a healing gospel and it’s full of miracles whereas John doesn’t have as many. So that’s an interesting difference. So we’re hearing a lot of healing and this is our second healing and this is a resurrection from the dead. And when I read the text as you know, I always read it and I say “What am I curious about? What makes me curious?” And I’ll be really honest, when I read this text I was curious and I had really three questions as I was preparing the sermon. And the one was: “Why did He raise this child up and not others?” To me it seemed a little arbitrary, that was one question: why the widow of Nain’s son, and raise him from the dead, and why not everybody else? That was one.

The other question was: Why not miracles today? Why don’t we have these miracles today? Why can’t spiritual leaders raise people from the dead? And then of course the third question that I always ask when I’m thinking about a message is: So what does this have to do with us? What’s the relevance to our daily lives? And when I looked at the first question, I had a bit of an uh-huh moment, when I realized that Jesus was moved by compassion. He had seen a widow; a widow who lost her only son. So she has lost her husband, she’s now lost her child and of course in that world, she’s lost all economic opportunity. So she’s losing on all fronts and He has compassion on her. And I thought “We often talk about the free will of ourselves but what about the free will of God?” And this is an example of God just being moved by a compassionate impulse to do something really beautiful. And I thought it was fantastic. And then I thought “Okay, so why miracles then and why not miracles now?” And the best answer that I’ve had on this is actually from Swedenborg, who is the Christian Mystic that this church is founded on his teachings and he basically says “Jesus performed miracles in that time and space for very specific reasons: One, it sent a message to the people of just compassion and caring so it had that human-it met human need okay. But it also had another powerful message which was: it taught people about the power of God;” two things at once. “And that if God constantly did miracles forever, we would lose our free will because if I, every week you could come in I could heal this and solve that…we’d certainly increase the follower-ship but why would they be following? That’s the question- the free will would be lost. So I thought those were interesting things and then what does it have to do with us? It occurred to me that I was being short-sighted in saying there aren’t miracles happening right now. They’re not happening the way that it did for Jesus but we through God’s blessing have evolved in this world and our science has evolved and our medicine has evolved.

Many of you know, we talked about it many times- my father on April 5th arrived at the emergency room of St. Mary’s Hospital with no pulse, at 88 years old. 10 years ago he would have been dead, probably; 20 years for sure- a person of that age right? And the doctor said “It’s a miracle that your father is alive.” And I thought “You know, we are extending life on this planet. I was involved, as I’ve talked about before, with the people with AIDS. We found drugs and there are people alive all over the world that would have been dead for not having these drugs. So in a way, in the modern world, thanks to the evolution of rational thinking and science, God is working and extending our lives, so much so that maybe Russ, you’ll live to be like 150, the rest of us, I don’t know but the next generation-it looks like the life span will really, really grow. That is a miracle: human life can go on for many years. But this is the question: remember how Jesus did it for two reasons: one was the physical and the other was the spiritual, I think a crisis for us in this time and place is that we are extending the quantity of life but I don’t know that our spiritual teachings have caught up. I don’t know that we’re extending the quality of life; the spiritual life. Will people be happy being here longer? I think that’s a big question. We have to marry the Spirit to the technology because we know that ultimately that little boy of Nain that was risen; he later died, as did Lazarus right, they later died. Eventually all of us here will die; we’ll all experience that loss. But the one thing that will go on is our spirit. And the question is how do we develop our spirit? How do we have a quality life? A life built on purpose and spirit? And who’s teaching that?

As Church decreases in popularity and interest, I think it’s a really open question. Now here’s a statistic I’m going to give you a quiz and ask you do you think that people who go to church more are more happy or less happy? Anybody want to venture a guess? More happy or less happy? Yes, go ahead. More happy. Dramatically so, so much so that if you go to church once a year, your happiness is at a certain level; once a month it’s a higher level of happiness; every week is another; the highest level of happiness. I think the reason we don’t know it is because the social sciences are secular and not pro-spirituality and religion. That’s an amazing statistic it’s one of the most fascinating statistics. There are other ways to measure happiness but if you tell me that you go to church four times, some spiritual community, it doesn’t have to be church but if you’re involved in a spiritual community of some kind, you’re more likely to be happy. I like to think that it’s because you’re investing in that quality of life; you’re investing in the eternal part of life; you’re investing in purpose and you’re meeting with other people and you’re committing to do good in the world. And that’s my own theory but nobody quite knows what the reality is. But in a society where social capital,  a time we join together and do something, is decreasing, the fact that some people are coming in who are seeking to understand our own spiritual development more, does lead to happiness. So maybe this church and this community really has something to offer to the greater society who is making amazing technological advances. It is a miracle. Life is being extended. But let us be a place and a people that can actually help in developing a quality of life and a connection to God.

Amen.   Download Sermon

The gospel lesson today is taken from the gospel of St. John, the 12th chapter beginning at the first verse:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for Him. Martha served and Lazarus was one of those at the table with Him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume but Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples, the one that was about to betray him said “why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; he kept the common person and used to steal what was put into it. And Jesus said “leave her alone she brought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

And here ends the Gospel reading. So this gospel lesson is one of the most misquoted parts scripture that I’ve ever heard and it’s very frustrating so before I talk about what I think the gospel lesson is about, let me say what I think it’s not about. What it’s not about is that last line-that last line ‘the poor will always be with you,’ has been used again and again by people saying look we should help the poor, we should try to end poverty, we should make a difference. And someone in the group will say “you know what we could but the poor will always be with you I mean even Jesus said it and look he was right-they’re still there. So it’s often used as a justification for not serving the poor and if there’s one message that you get through reading the gospels it’s that Jesus is not simply concerned about spiritual poverty, which He is, but his talks, again and again, including his first-ever sermon about helping the poor, the needy.

So let me just say, next time you hear someone say “Well we could help the poor but the poor will always be with us,” you can say “you’re taking that out of context,” and you can tell them what the true meaning of this story is. So that’s what the story is not about. What is the story about? What is Jesus trying to teach us through this lesson? And the lesson, it’s a pretty dramatic story; to get to that I want to look a little bit at the context of what’s going on here, paint a little bit of a picture okay, so we can kind of get a better sense of the setting, what’s taking place.

So Jesus, just before this story, has raised his friend Lazarus from the dead okay. He is now at dinner in his honor at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus; they’re brothers and sisters. You follow me? Mary and Martha, you may recall from other stories, were the ones; one was at Jesus feet and one was cooking in the kitchen and she says “she never helps out” and Jesus says “no it’s good to be at my feet. It’s good to listen to the lesson.

So that’s Mary and Martha, we’ve heard them before. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is by far His biggest Miracle; it is really big. And Jesus has already pissed off the Roman authorities and the religious establishment and he stayed somewhat outside of Jerusalem. When he raises Lazarus He’s coming back in and He’s getting close to the centre toward Jerusalem. So He’s making his march towards Jerusalem, knowing that he will face humiliation, torture and execution and the betrayal of his friends. And that night, they’re all having some wine and they’re sitting down and Lazarus who was dead is laughing and Mary and Martha and everybody was having a great time. And for Jesus, I think what’s got to be on his mind is “this is joy; this is great; I’m with friends, the people who love me and I also know what’s coming. So this is particularly a special night. We talked about the Last Supper with the disciples but this might be the first Last supper, the last party. So He’s celebrating. And then Mary does something really strange, strange by the standards then and strange by today. She breaks out some perfume and she starts massaging His feet, and if it sounds weird, it was then. It would be today. Imagine somebody getting up from a dinner party and saying “Ugh, let me give you a massage,” at the party. And imagine it’s a girl and it’s a guy and people would be like “Hmmm, what’s going on here, this is a little weird, this is a little uncomfortable; this is not what happens and certainly not among friends and not at parties. So it’s awkward right, it’s a little strange and she breaks out this expensive perfume. Experts say that it was in the value of a whole year’s salary, so we can kind of value it that way; that’s what it cost. She’s definitely wasting it, is what the story’s pointing at. It’s odd, it’s special. And so in the midst of all that, Judas, who is the treasurer says what any fiscally responsible person would say I think, right: “Look, the cost benefit, the value, washing feet with this really expensive perfume versus “we can be doing so much good with this. Why waste it?” He’s trying to cast a shadow, put a little darkness on the moment. He’s a righteous guy I think, in the meeting.

The gospel of John, the writer of John, just so the audience doesn’t mess it up, has like a Greek chorus there and tells you “by the way, Judas is stealing money from the treasurery.” You know, turns to the audience as a narrator “He’s a bad guy and he’s going to be the one that betrays Jesus very soon so are you with me on this? Like, Judas is bad.” And so Jesus then says of course, “Let her go, let her do what she’s doing.” And I can’t help but think what’s on Jesus’ mind, I guess it’s a dangerous thing to say what was on Jesus’ mind but I’m a preacher and this is a sermon so I can guess. I think Jesus is probably thinking “Wow, this is great, this is pure joy, this is pure love and damn it somebody is caring about me for a change. I’ve done all the miracles, I’ve done all the blessings, I’ve done the raising of the dead; I’ve done all this and I’m the caregiver here and only one person in the whole world gets it;” and it’s always this woman Mary, she’s done it before and interestingly enough, I talk a lot about women in my sermons but it’s always women who lead in compassion in the gospel stories; they’re always opposed by men. This is important for people who say that the Bible says women cannot be in leadership roles because they always lead with compassion. It’s always the men that argue with them. And here’s another example: so she might be the only person in the world that gets it; that Jesus needs some care giving; He needs to be taken care of and He is grateful for that, that somebody gets it. And it’s that feeling that we have when somebody gets us. That click when you’re in a joyful moment and people are laughing and you’re with friends and you’re with family and you’re with loved ones and somebody gets you and they know how you feel and that’s very deep empathy and it’s very rare. And Judas says the practical thing about- this could be spent in other ways. And Jesus is challenging that and saying “You have your values, but let me just say there is a value in taking care of each other. There’s a value in empathy; there’s a value in love. And it’s not just about money all the time.

A few years ago I read an article for Stanford Social Innovation Review about the social change movement, where I do a lot of consulting. And when I was interviewing this group I found out something really interesting: The more exciting and world changing the groups’ mission was, the sadder the employees were; completely contrary to what we think right? How could that be, you’re going to solve the water crisis, solve the climate change crisis, solve the refugee crisis, whatever they’re doing, and the people in the organization say “I am treated like you know what here.” They ask me to do heroic things. Friday night I’m ready to go home, I’ve got a special night with my partner, we’re going to have dinner, it’s exciting and my boss says ‘I need you to write this, you got to do one more thing.” “But who’s taking care of me?’ And the answer is “well if you care about the kids that we’re serving,’ so there’s a lot of guilt, couldn’t this be spent on the poor, what happens in organizations. And my point in the article was “we can’t change the world and make it sustainable until we operate a sustainable organization where we actually take care of caregivers. And I thought non-profits were bad and then I did consulting for churches. And if you want to meet some the saddest people, the lot of them are ministers in my field and they are just in deep pain because they’ll say to the congregation “I need a salary increase or I need a day off” and people are like “but you’re a minister, you’re called by God to serve the poor, you don’t need those things,” as if that person can go to the store and say “Don’t charge me for the groceries I’m a minister, you know I don’t have to operate in the economy here.” That person has to pay their rent and so people often resent it and I talk to one church board member at one of these things and he said “This minister is making more money than me, that can’t be right; they’re working for God they should be making less and I’m not going to support any increase.” Who takes care of the caregiver?

This last week in the news, controversial story was something about ‘wounded warrior,’ a group that helps veterans and the executives of it were fired. It’s a pretty straight forward story; CBS news found out that they had spent a lot of money on salaries, on retreats for the employees and though this guy had taken the organization from like ten million dollars to eight hundred million dollars, they basically said “you shouldn’t be making that kind of money in overhead if you’re in a charity. But I want to look at the other side of that story. A good book by a guy named Dan Pallotta, a friend of mine, called ‘Uncharitable,’ shows how we have come to the point where we don’t value people doing social good enough to reward them and take care of the caregivers. It was a business and it was a start up Tech Company and he held these retreats and he made those salaries we’d say “smart guy, that’s a good person doing good things,” but because it’s in the social change arena, we say “caregivers in that field, you need to suffer. We’re not going to care for the caregivers.” Another perfect example of this, if you work in the medical field, are nurses, you are kind of like God’s hands on the front lines, reaching the people’s lives on a daily basis and you talk to them and they are like [00:12:31] from the doctor, not treated with as much respect, so we see this, caregivers often not getting care, and so I  think in this story, I think Jesus is saying “Listen, look at Mary, she’s being empathetic, she’s taking care of me; I appreciate that; you do that with each other, you take care of each other. Money can’t buy everything, money can’t buy love. We can be empathetic to each other and there’s really no value on that, you can’t people can’t put a price tag on it. But I think when we look at the end of our lives and we reflect back, at least I know when I’ve talked to people, what’s most important in your life; the joy, the laughter, the family, the love; when people took care of me and I took care of other people. You can’t put a price on that but we do need to value the caregiver. I think Jesus is teaching that in this lesson.

We can learn from all the characters in the story as we wrap up. I think from Mary we can learn about being impractical sometimes and just loving. I think from Judas we can learn that it’s not what you say it’s why you say it; he does not care about the poor but it’s a great line and it sounds right. And I think from Jesus we’re being taught in this lesson that we have to love those who love and look after each other. Amen

 Download Sermon

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Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

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

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

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The gospel lesson today tells of the Temptation of Jesus and marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a forty-day period preparation for Easter.

In the story today Jesus is offered three temptations. First, to end his personal needs—materialism. Second, to prove himself—fame. Third, to control the world—power.

What can we understand at the spiritual level of the story and how does this story relate to us?

At the spiritual level of the story, we are taught about the role of struggle in our lives here on earth.

Very often during our QA period, I’m asked, but did it really exist. Do you think that story took place as it literally is described. Most often I describe stories from the life of Jesus as having happened, but in our tradition, we don’t see this story as a literal encounter.

We see this as a parable that reflects on Jesus entire life. We believe that from a young age Jesus faced temptations and even confusion as he grew into adulthood. It’s a pretty fascinating idea and would make a great movie. What was Jesus the teenager like?  This parable suggests that throughout his life he faced temptations as all humans do. His were on a great scale, but he had to humble himself to experience our temptations and overcome them.

The temptations represent classic struggles we all go through. What excuses do we make to make a living? I’ve got to pay the rent. I may not be living the life God would have me live, but I’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed.

The next temptation is our desire to be liked or prove ourselves to others. Recent studies have shown that the number one life goal for the rising generation is celebrity. Should we be surprised when we elect a TV celebrity to the highest office in the land?

The third temptation is our craving for power. Nowhere in the world does this temptation live and breath than in Washington DC. Like a magnet this city attracts people who are willing to work long hours and suffer in their paycheck to gain power and the celebrity that entails. And n sadder figure exists than a former Senator. After years of be driven around, sought after for meetings and making decisions that impact millions, they become a shell of their older selves.

The overall teaching of this story is that life on this planet involves struggle. It never stops until we die. The challenges and temptations change over time, but they don’t leave us. And the challenges transform as we transform.

Malcolm Mountain Climber

The next hill is waiting.

How does this apply to our lives?

1. Recognize that struggle is normal. We are all struggling with something.

Story of job loss after 2008. Aging?

  1. Recognize that we are not alone. We have the power of God and the angels with us always.

At the toughest moment, someone met me.

Can this community be there? Can I as pastor be there?

  1. Recognize others are struggling as well.

It’s easy to lose patience, but everyone is struggling. Recently wife with husband. Called asked, planned. Took hours of my time. When he returned, she returned and stopped talking to me. I’ll need to ask help next time.

Jesus teaches that the temptation of this world hasn’t changed that much. He’s given us a map and the strength to navigate them if we ask. We are all struggling and must be kinder and gentler to each other.

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.  Download Sermon

Learning To Love

So this is the assigned text today and it’s not usual that I read both assigned text; both from  Revelation and from The Gospel, but I thought they tied together so well, I couldn’t resist bringing them together and seeing if we can make sense of them in the sermon today.  So the gospel story of John, John 13,  this passage should be very familiar because it was in the creed that we read weekly and it is really, if you will; it’s the mission statement for Christianity.  It’s very simple: love one another, as I have loved you.  And Jesus says “and people will know that you’re my followers, for one simple reason, you love one another.”  That’s it no complex theology, no insiders outsiders; good bad; it’s just ‘love one another.’  That’s the mission statement of all of Christianity and that is our challenge in our lives.  It’s also interesting that He says it in the context that Judas, His Treasurer and disciple, has just left to betray Him and He’s having a conversation with Peter who is about to deny Him.  So it’s interesting in that context, that He’s talking about: love one another, even though I know that even in this room I will face evil, betrayal and denial. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky, love one another; it’s a love one another based in real challenges that this world provides us.

And then the second reading was from Revelations which is a prophetic book in the New Testament, it’s really the only prophetic book in the New Testament; the Old Testament a whole section of Prophecy, but this is prophetic; in saying this is what the future is going to look like and it’s written by the same writer John, who wrote the Gospel and he’s writing now in a prison at Patmos and he has this vision of a New Jerusalem.  Now that should sound familiar as well and I couldn’t possibly ignore reading from that text; because we are in a church called Church of the Holy City and it is so named from this text; so this church takes its name from this Bible verse holy city,  it describes a holy city.  And it describes the New Jerusalem and for those who don’t know who’re interested, this denomination’s real official title and name is the Church of the New Jerusalem and this text is sort of its guiding vision statement.  So these texts I think tie together very nicely. One is Jesus saying love one another; it’s almost the mission statement for Christianity and then we go to Revelations and it’s almost like a vision statement for Christianity. This is what the future is going to look like.

One thing that makes this faith different from most traditions in Christianity is that most believe that Jesus is coming again physically in the world, there will be a punishment period, for the people who remain on earth; others will be lifted up in the rapture.  We don’t believe that.  We believe that this text is saying that a spiritual evolution is taking place in the world and that new spiritual teachings are descending and that the descent of New Jerusalem is really deeper understanding, greater love, than evolution that we could have heaven on Earth and that’s what we’re moving toward.  So that’s how we see that text and together they really fit in nicely. So these are two beautiful texts. The problem would be that here we are this many years later and the challenge of loving each other is still a huge challenge and even more challenging is that if I went out on to 16th Street and said to people “Christianity, what do you think describes it?  Just give me a line of description. I probably got: intolerance, discrimination, judgmental, maybe some charity, maybe some good; but the idea that Christians are known for their love still remains a challenge for the Christian church.  So both in our own life, learning to love one another is a challenge and it’s continuous throughout our whole life and the role of the New Jerusalem descending into the world is still a challenge for us today.

And so, as I was thinking about the text I asked myself: so what do we do?   How can we love more? What could we practically do on a daily basis? Are there any secrets? Is there something we can do; because I do believe it’s a product of spiritual evolution; I don’t think we can do it ourselves.  I think we can only do it, through the love of God working through us.  So we have to be tapped into that first of all. But in my own life I thought of a couple different ways that I’ve seen it happen and that may be practical things.  One is that the opposite of love for me- most people would say it’s hate- I think its fear.  And I find that when I’m not loving, it’s usually based on some fear. Fear of scarcity; I’m not going to have enough money; I’m not going to get my fare share; I’m not going to get treated the way I should be treated; they don’t like me; they don’t include me.  So I find that fear and scarcity generally leads to a lack of love and it’s when I’m least loving is when I’m afraid. And what can we do about that? I think, you know it hit me this last week as I was in the hospital for two weeks- the ICU, the hospital, let’s face it, these are like the least pleasant places to be in. No matter how hard they try to be, the beeping, the smell, people screaming, you know beds coming in and out, it’s a tough place, particularly when you’re with people that you love and they’re in pain, and I thought to myself I’m handling this better, because of something I did many years ago, in the 80’s; because I’ve been around awhile,  I was very afraid of the whole idea of AIDS and It was all mythology and fear and I became an AIDS buddy and  what that meant was you visited with a person on a weekly basis and you bought them groceries and so on and so forth but in those days the average length of time with your buddy was two months before they passed, it was so fast and you were in the hospital quite a bit and so I saw the whole hospital system in my 20’s, early 20’s, so it’s not so fearful for me. I think that when we have fears, if we step into them. Sometimes our fears are like a tiger, out there in the grass and we can hear it and we are afraid of it; but if we can confront it, very often it goes away. So stepping into your fear and facing it, can actually, I think, create more compassion, more love we can grow.

The other lesson that I’ve experienced in my own life about increasing my love, could be taken out of the text, where Jesus I said, was with Judas and with Peter and he’s talking about love. In my own life, I found people who I hate or I want to hate, okay- really dislike; I find they’re my best spiritual teachers, that they are almost brought into my life for a certain time to be a spiritual teacher, because if I give in to their terrible person and I’m a great person, I grow not at all, the relationship doesn’t grow and the world has a little bit more hate, right. If I can look at them and say okay what’s my shadow; what’s my dark side here, that I am so angry at this person. How can I flip it?  How can I love that person?  And if I can love that person in my personal life, what a great lesson for me and then I can take it further into the world.  I think Jesus there with Peter and Judas and then teaching that within that context might be an indication of how we might also do it.

And then the third thing tying in this whole New Jerusalem, this spiritual world that’s coming into being, I find it’s very easy to get completely negative about the world. We read about terrorism; we have accidents in our family;  things don’t go the way we’ve planned; we’re disappointed and we read the paper, we watch the news and it’s kind of geared towards sensational sadness; it can kind of put you in a bit of a funk and you say is the world getting better or worse? And I’m a huge fan. I believe the world has definitely evolved into a better state; we are in a much better place.  I think the world is more loving. I think we’re a lot more aware of each other even globally than we were.

In this last week, I have an example what I would say of that kind of descending of the Holy Spirit, the New Jerusalem; when I got an email from Uganda and it was a group of gals and guys who produced- they are tailors- they produce clothing but they are also being harassed because I guess a bunch of them are gay and in Uganda it’s illegal and they are actually putting people in prison and killing them. And so he reached out to me on LinkedIn  and said could you advise our business to help us create a social enterprise, that we might survive right now because all of our contracts are being shut down and then the name of this program was the Christian Tailor Program- something like that- and at the end of the conversation we had a good discussion on Skype; he said what an amazing world  it is that God could connect us through Skype and you’re in Washington and I’m in Uganda and maybe you can help me but even if you can’t; you listened to me and I’m going to tell my people about you and it was, I thought to myself that’s the internet, technology, Skype;  these things can have extremely transformational and spiritual power for love in the world.  So I’m going to make a pitch, that we’re getting better, we’re evolving all the time; both personally and in the world and that the new Jerusalem is coming in this holy city, this heaven on Earth to the extent that we learn to love. Amen.   Download Sermon

The scripture lesson today is taken from the Gospel of Luke, the fourth chapter beginning at the first verse. It is known as the temptation of Jesus:

“After his baptism, Jesus full of the Holy Spirit returned from Jordan and He was led by the spirit Into the Wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days and when they were over He was famished. The devil said to him “If you are the Son of God command this stone to become a  loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him “It is written one does not live by bread alone.” Then the Devil led him up and showed him in an instant, all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to Him “To you I will give the glory and all their glory and all this Authority for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you then will worship me, it will be yours.”And Jesus answered him “It is written Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him. Then the devil took him to Jerusalem and placed Him on the Pinnacle of the temple saying to Him “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written he will command his angels concerning you to protect you and on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him “It is said do not put the Lord your God to the test. “And the devil had finished every test. He departed from him until an opportune time.”

Here ends the reading of the gospel of St. Luke. The story of the temptation of Jesus is one of my favorites. And one of the reasons is that in so many times when I’m reading the gospel I think to myself “well that’s Jesus. I can’t pattern myself like that. He doesn’t know what my life is like, Jesus is God working it out in the flesh. But here, Jesus is going through a very human experience, that is temptation. And when Jesus goes through an experience there’s a lesson in it for us. Now, Jesus was in the desert it’s said for 40 days and so on the Christian calendar last Wednesday, which would be Ash Wednesday, marks 40 days till Easter. And that’s where the 40 days comes from for lent is this time of preparation that Jesus was in the desert and it’s our time to prepare ourselves for Easter, the resurrection, so those were the connections. So it’s a perfect text for us to start on the first Sunday of Lent. Now in that story, just to reiterate, Jesus is tempted in three major ways. First he says “you’re hungry take these stones and make it bread”; the second he says “come up look at all these kingdoms. You could have them all if you do what I say right? And the third is prove yourself to me. Throw yourself down and not be heard; so three temptations. Can we relate to these? Do these have anything to do with us and our lives? I think so. On the first one I think these are almost three of the typical, common temptations that all of us have. And the first one what do we often refer to money as in our lives; Bread. Give me some dough, give me some bread; So even that image has translated. How many times have we in on our own lives, we’ve heard of the people say- “What are you doing that job for? Why are you engaging in that thing? And they go “Hey. I got to pay the rent” or “I’ve got a mortgage to pay.” I’ve heard more really bad acts justified in the name of [00:04:13]. She’s like “Yeah I’d like to be moral about it but I’ve got expenses and if I don’t pay my expenses. So bread, food, that’s our major temptation, that we have a belief, that if we follow this path and we get paid well, we can sort of maybe give it to charity or do something good on the other side of it, even if the activity itself is immoral. An immoral business, or immoral activity, it’s not good. We know it’s not good. No one has to tell us it’s not good-we already know all that but we justify it and that is often the first tempt, very, very common temptation.

The second one more or less is about power and couldn’t be more at home in all cities than this city. I was recently watching, I am as you know a political junkie so I was watching commercials for CNN for a series they’re doing on the presidency and the line is “What would you do to become the most powerful person in the world, the presidency.” And I thought “Wow. That phrase could have literally just came out of the Demonic presence there,” because it really does say I’m involved with many people in politics and very often I’ll say ” whoa, you’re doing this, you don’t believe it’s a good idea so how do you justify it and they’ll say “look here’s the deal we got to do that because for me to be in power then I can do good. It’s a lot like the mortgage thing right? “I got to pay the mortgage.” This is “if I get elected if I’m in power, I can do good, whatever means it takes for me to get there, if I have to step on people, crush people, destroy people’s reputations, that’s for the greater good. So it’s another Temptation. Ends justify the means, exactly Helen and the evil and its temptation forms rarely comes directly at us. It always comes a little around the back. And then the third area was where he says “prove yourself.” Now how often in our lives do we hear that voice when we want to know do we have the right clothes, the right apartment, the right car, the right neighbor, the right Church, the right status, we’re always being asked to prove ourselves. “Prove yourself;” Satan in the story says to Jesus “Prove yourself.” We’re always trying to prove ourselves. Our whole advertising industry in some ways is built on the idea of “you’re not good enough, but if you use this toothpaste, you’re going to get a date, it’s that simple;” “If you did this you’ll be rich.” these are very, very tempting in our consumer culture. So even though Jesus face these many years ago, those archetypical temptations are with us today. Jesus faced them, we face them. The question then is why? Why are we tempted ? In our theology we would say that temptation is the natural state of being a human being. There’s not a human being who’s not been tempted to do evil and in fact spiritual growth takes place when we overcome temptation, when we face evil and we move beyond it . Those who never have temptation, for example little children, we understand from our teachings that they travel right to Heaven because they’ve never had a choice of good or evil. But they also miss the chance to overcome temptation or darkness or evil. So you could think of it in the in the expression that the gyms use “no pain, no gain.” I also noticed that astronauts who fly around the earth for long periods of time have no gravitational pull of push on them. Their bones become very brittle, because our bones need the push of gravity to operate. We live and move because of the tensions that we live in. And so if temptation is a natural part of life how do we respond to it? Are there evil spirits?

So last week I talked about the Transfiguration and I talked about Jesus seeking counsel from spiritual guardians, and I believe in that. This could almost be the flip side of that. And I do believe in evil spirits. Maybe one of the more controversial things I’ve talked about or preached about, so you can give me some feedback if you think I’m way off, I do know that the topic of evil spirits or evil energy, demonic, any of that is probably one of the more unsophisticated things you could talk about in secular society. So I’ve talked to people and they’ll say “You don’t believe that, you don’t believe in evil spirits do you? Like ha, ha medieval enough and when I say “yes” they go “Wow, that’s really, really medieval of you, it’s really backward, it’s really unsophisticated that you would believe that there is evil out there. I do believe there is evil. I believe spirits are allowed to tempt us. I believe that’s why Jesus is doing this teaching. It’s my personal belief that a lot of what we would call mental illness has aspects of demonic presence in it in people and there’s some incredible writing on this topic where therapists have actually said “who is that” and it’s almost another voice comes through and it’s a different voice with a different goal. so this is a controversial field I’m on, so again, in the feedback, you can tell me if you think I’m crazy but mental illness may be an aspect of it. Another example-this last week something very horrible was in the news if you saw it; in Virginia, Nicole Lovell was a Seventh grader. A seventh grader who had overcome an operation to have her, I think cancer. She had been mocked in school and being bullied and somebody, a couple of Virginia Tech students propositioned her online and said hey we want to meet you and, this guy “I think you’re really cute.” And she sneaks out of the window with her cartoon blanket and she’s ritually murdered and they had it all planned including getting rid of the body. So why did I bring in such a horrible topic on a beautiful Valentine Sunday, because we will say well, “Well there’s mental health issues, what happened to those kids what it is- I actually believe there is evil working in the world. I don’t know how we can explain things like that in any other way it’s so horrific, it’s so terrible.

Now this is interesting, in my own life, a story that just recently happened, a little run-in with evil if you will. So when I took the church job I moved in an apartment nearby that was a mission, before that it was a car dealership and I thought it would be cool to be at a place that had a mission church, you know, always looking for these correspondences. And one of the first nights that I was there, I was woken up from my sleep, with a nightmare which I almost never have and it was just a demonic presence; I mean it was just an evil and I felt it in the room. And I thought “This is very strange. I prayed, said Psalms, you know and it went away. This is what’s really weird about it-the next day I meet with the priest that wanted to meet with me. Now this priest was a venture capital real estate guy in his life until he was 60 so he was a multi multi-millionaire with eight homes, found his life empty, became a brother in the Catholic Church, took a vow of poverty and lived almost as a homeless person in DC and was telling me the story and he’s living there in a brothers Community right now. And he was telling me his whole story, it was fascinating. And then he said “What about you, and so in my part of the conversation I share about living at the mission. And he said “My gosh, when I was homeless, I lived there.” And he said “I hope you’re not on the third floor.”  Now I know this sounds like a horror movie but it really happened. And I said “I am on the third floor.” And he said “We had a murder and various horrible things take place on that floor where you are.” And he said “Definitely, do a smudge, do prayers, you’re in a space that will react to your energy. So think what you will, these sort of stories happen to me all the time. I’ve been countering evil so I think it’s very real. I think it’s the world we live in. So I thought, for this sermon, what would be practical, what could we use and I thought “How can we better identify these voices? How can we identify evil and be aware of it?” In my experience I have now coached hundreds of people and done counseling and some spiritual counseling, I found that those voices always focus on the past. They always bring up the past it’s always negative, very negative and it says “Look at you miss. [00:13:25] sounds like ‘Look around’. Look what you did wrong;” very negative voices. Second thing I found is they bring in shame. Angelic voices would never bring in shame, they always say you’re too this, you’re too that, look at you fail, look how you’re not good at this; and so those voices. And that’s another thing so when you hear a voice in your head, we all have voices  in our head, when we hear the voices talking about the past and dwelling on the past and wanting you to go back into the past, when you hear voices that are dwelling on shame and saying “You should be completely ashamed of yourself,” and saying “Go back in time.”

The third, I found is they’re very judgmental. God is not judgmental and the angels are not judgmental so when you here shame on you shame, and it’s a lot of judgment, and there have also been times in my life where, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, where I’ve had a voice say something about somebody else I’m looking at and I say “Where did I come from, that was so horrible,” and I’m ashamed that I even thought it. I’m glad nobody can hear it. Those are coming from the hellish realms and we should be aware of it. And finally, the other element that I found is that they are hopeless, there is no way out of this. They kind of paint things [00:14:41] and they say “Things are hopeless.” When we give in to that energy, when we go with it, it can bring us into a darker and darker space. So I say those to be very aware of it.

Now at the very last line of the story of Jesus the demonic presence says “he decides, he’ll come back at a more opportune time. These things are very patient; these forces. They will circle back at a right opportunity. So, is there anything that we can do when we’re fighting them? Well, one I think, in this story of Jesus and whenever Jesus is dealing with demonic possession, it is okay to call them out, even if you need to say “Get behind me Satan,” if you need to say “You’re a liar,” whatever phrase you need to say, but it’s okay to engage them and just say “You’re not telling the truth. The other thing is an exercise that I found very helpful with myself and clients. It’s more of a therapeutic exercise, by Byron Katie and she calls it ‘The Work’ and she says “When you have a thought in your head and you feel really stuck, you can do these questions,” and it really does work, you say “Is this true?” So let me just give an example “I am never going to succeed at this job, this is never going to work; my pastor hear at this church “It’s never going to work, it’s a negative voice. The first thing you say “Is it true?” And then ask yourself the second question “Is it absolutely true?” Most people will say “Yes it’s true.” Is it absolutely true? “Well yes.” Is there any chance that it’s not true? Any chance? Most people will say “Well, there’s a chance.” And if it wasn’t true, how would you feel then? And it somehow flips the energy we say “Oh, there’s a way out. There is another way of looking at this. Sometimes, I think when we’re facing temptation of evil we can get very locked in and very myopic and we put blinders on and have you ever tried to get help to somebody in that situation where they say “This is this” And you give advice and they say “No. Not that. That’s not going to work. We’ve done it ourselves, almost want to be there trapped in the drama, beware of that. That’s a good exercise and you can look that up or I can share it with you if you’re interested in more. Another thing that I found in these situations, Jesus uses it in the text today, is memorizing the word and memorizing scripture. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy when He’s responding. These are all quotes from the scripture that he’s giving back. But I have found that the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, these are the things that we have in every service, the Sanctus, which is the holy, holy Lord God of power and might, if you come from the Catholic tradition and people use the rosary, holy water, whatever it is I find these are actually very powerful weapons. So again, when you’re in those situations and you feel that darkness, praying the Lord’s Prayer, doing the 23rd Psalm, those things are very powerful.

Third, remain calm. Jesus in the story is very calm. My experience in these situations is that the energy that you’re dealing with is an angry, upset energy, it wants to take you to that level. If you get pulled into it, it’s hard to get out. Remain calm and realize it’s not you. Detach yourself from it and then fourth I would say, again based on my experience, traveling in the spiritual world playing games like a Ouija board or just doing séances with friends and things like that for fun or games can be quite dangerous and Swedenborg actually speaks about that. You’re opening portals  to things and you really don’t know where you’re going and they’re out there and so it’s generally, it may not be your grandmother coming through on the line, it could be somebody else impersonating.  So just be very careful with that. And I think even with children, I am adamant when I’m talking to kids that they should not play those games. Sounds silly, it’s a Hasbro game, what could be so dangerous about it? We’re tapping into voices that are very powerful and we shouldn’t be naive about it. I also say this because some people have told me this again and again and again and I don’t know particularly why, it has no biblical background but smudge sticks. These are like big sage sticks, have you ever seen the,? So people will use those, they’re always used for like home blessings, cleansings, so maybe it’s more from the new age culture, and maybe some of you have had some experience with it, but it is so commonly referred to that it is something to consider if you feel like  a presence or you’re trying to change an energy.

CONGREGANT: The Sufi tradition of purification

Exactly, The Sufi, [00:19:31] so it is definitely. And I would say that when you study the people who work on [00:19:38], always start with that. And then finally I would say, research it. There’s a great book by William Van Dusen called ‘The presence of spirits in madness’ that I think is fascinating and it’s his study as a therapist engaging with spirits and saying “who’s there? What’s going on?” And another resource is, if you haven’t discovered this site yet called ‘Off the left eye,’ Curtis Childs for the Swedenborg Foundation does a video series where he answers questions and he is just quite brilliant and he does a great job. He’s done three or four on this topic and it’s interesting, the callers you can tell have no background in [00:20:20] and asking really like “I am trapped. This is going on.” Those voices you described are exactly the voices I’m hearing so if you’re looking for more research; I think researching and being prepared. So thank you for coming with me today on a journey into evil. I think we’ve looked at the fact that Jesus was tempted. As human beings we have been and will continue to be tempted and some argue that the more pure you are spiritually, the greater the Temptations that will come; so the mountain gets larger as you continue and you need more spiritual ammunition. I hope that through this discussion we can be more aware and recognize it when we see it and also we have some practical things that we can actually do to fight off evil because it is real and the faster we can deal with those forces that come into our lives and push them away and get them behind us, the faster that we can grow and develop our spiritual life closer to God. Amen.  Download Sermon

HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR INNER LIFE

So I can see a few of you are reading the gospel story again trying to maybe make sense of it. On the one hand Jesus is talking about mustard seeds and the power of faith and the next He’s talking about servants. So there are many interpretations of this and since you came here today, and my job is to give you an interpretation of what might be going on here. I’ll give you my take on what’s going on in Luke, in a verse that I think would be pretty confusing at first glance. I think what Jesus is talking about is answering the question: how do we achieve faith and how do we have the power in our lives to actually bring Heaven to Earth? How do we transform the world? Where do we get that from? How can we have more faith to do that which we were asked to do? And I think Jesus’ answer is this: 1. First of all you already have it; you already have it within you. You have the power, you’re not tapping into it. You’re being blocked, it’s not of use yet. If you had just this much, this tiny little bit of faith, you could move mountains. You have much more. And as we know the disciples turn out to having a lot more right. Later they end up creating the early church so they do go on to great things, they did have more than the faith of a mustard seed. Many people interpret that as a criticism of the disciples and I think Jesus is saying you have it, it’s within you, you have the power.

What about the whole thing about the servants at the table and should your servants serve and what’s Jesus talking about there? I don’t think that’s a critique on slavery or servant-hood I think what He’s saying there is when you show up in life, when you do good and you don’t commit  murder and you stop stealing and you stop being evil, you don’t get points for that, not just showing up. But you also don’t get points for just showing up in general. You can’t check a box in your life and say “I did this, I showed up, look at all the things I’m doing.” Really it comes back to that mustard seed, that faith, that deep, deep spiritual desire to love your neighbor and to love God that’s coming out.

One of my dirty pleasures I guess is I like mafia movies. I don’t know why I’m embarrassed to admit it. I guess ministers shouldn’t like mafia movies. I love the Sopranos, I love the Godfather. What I’m always struck with in those movies though, I think that I’m fascinated because they’re dealing with deep evil right? I’m always fascinated with how much they love their family and I’m also fascinated by what good citizens they often are. They were often very liked in the community. They gave to charity and they really treasured their family. And so when we say things like “Well I take care of my family and I’m a good citizen and I give to charity,” we’re no different really than these criminals that do these same things. Just checking the box without the motivation of love is useless. And so I asked myself when I read this “Okay so if we have this incredible power within us, the power to move mountains, what’s stopping us? And I would suggest that that is the purpose of our lives, is to uncover that answer. That we are constantly in a state of re-growth, evolution, regeneration whatever word you want use, we’re constantly everyday being challenged to push ourselves to that next level, to unleash just the power of a mustard seed that could actually move mountains, in our terms could actually change the world.

Recently we had a dinner here at the church for thirty, under thirties and we talked about spirituality and faith and it was really fascinating and one thing became very clear to me after the night was over as I walked home, I realized “Wow, there are very few places in our culture to develop your inner life.” Where do you go? If it’s not church, which used to play that role and it’s not the community organizations of which we used to be a part of, where do you go to grow internally? Our culture today is focused on that external growth, particularly here in Washington. Do you check the right box? Have you worked for an administration-check; have you worked for an agency-check; Are you politically powerful-check. Washington is the city where people don’t say “Where do you live or how much you make.” They say “Who do you work for?” And once I learn that I’ll decide if I’m going to continue the conversation because we’re really, for a variety of reasons a city of externals, accomplishing achievement and attracting. But what about the inner life? Where do we grow the inner life? So I’m going to offer three suggestions of what we could do to grow that inner life, to develop our interiors, to bring out that mustard seed of faith and let it grow and move mountains. The first is, and everything I’m sharing are things I’m working on; that’s how I have any sense of them. So this is not like I’m telling you because I have the answers. And the first is: we’ve got to listen, we’ve got to be aware, we’ve got to wake up. For the most part most of us are asleep. We’ve got to wake up.

A friend of mine, longtime friend of mine, Andrew Sullivan just wrote a piece for the New Yorker where he talked about creating the first real political blog: ‘The Daily Dish’ years ago and he said “Every morning I get up and I type my thoughts, I’d read everything, type, read script. And he eventually talked about having to go to a retreat, a spiritual retreat, where they took your phone and you dropped your phone in the offering plate to get in and people just were like this “I can’t do that. I can’t, No, I can’t give that up. I can’t give up the phone.” And he said I had a twinge and it took him days of being at the silent retreat to get back in touch with that interior again that could be so cut off. We, not only is it hard to listen throughout all of history but today with me with my iPad, my iPhone and my television or screens, it’s very hard to listen. Only in listening can we discern the voices and this is the part where I’m going to say stuff that may sound a little unusual, certainly not contemporary, not very modern, but I do believe we do have hellish voices in our lives and Heavenly voices. And I think it’s a cacophony in our heads. And the way, when we’re quiet and alone and listening, whether it’s starting with a prayer, reading the 23rd Psalm, doing the Our Father, reading the scripture, playing some meditative music, however you get there, if you can take five minutes a day that would be a great start. We hear the voices. I’ll speak for myself, I hear the voices and I’m not sure which one is which but then when I think about it the voices that say “You’re good, you’re on the path, keep working, I forgive you, you’re not perfect, of course you’re not perfect, I love you,” those are the voices from God. The voices that say “It’s never going to work, you’re really an idiot, people are laughing at you, what a failure, you are a disgrace and the things you do in your life, if people really knew who you were they would never respect you,” those are from hell. God would never say these other voices. The problem in our daily life is they’re going like this. And remember those ICBM Missiles that would shoot up and then the other would shoot it down. When we have those soaring thoughts about love and our purpose and goodness, very often the hellish voices try to knock it down. And I think the more good, the more aggressive those other voices can come in. When we’re worried a lot, those are usually the voices and in my life they’re always the voices hellish voices; they’re not heavenly voices. So listening and discerning I think, between the voices. What next after that? We’ve listened, we’ve been awake, we’ve tried to awaken ourselves, my advice is to focus on one thing.

They say when you’re dealing with debt, you ever dealt with debt? I’ve dealt with debt. I think we’ve all – we live in a debt culture. And they always say if you’re dealing with debt, focus on one of the elements. Don’t get overwhelmed by everything. Start with one project, pay off one credit card. I know when I do coaching with people they say “I want to do everything. This is everything and I want to get it done in three months.” And I always say pick one thing. Pick one thing, it’s the difference between praying “God, make me an instrument of your peace,” the general prayer, it’s fine, but another prayer would be “God help me to deal with Sally, help me to forgive Bob, help me to forgive myself.” Whatever it is, make it focused and make it specific and try one thing. And then the third is to reflect back on it. And once there is some reflection and listening, when you start a project, very often we never look back to see what worked and what didn’t work. In the military they call it ‘After action review,’ which I think is a good phrase. How are things going? How am I doing How am I doing? What did I learn? What voices came to me in that prayer moment and how did I react to it? The best ways I find for that are keeping a journal; writing a journal even you know a couple paragraphs: This is what I’m working on, this is what I thought, have a conversation with yourself. If you really want to get deeper, and you can do this, I encourage you to keep a dream journal. I believe our dreams are full of what we can call correspondences or symbol of things that are actually quite strategic and can open us up. So journaling, dream journal, getting in a group of other people and sharing what you’re all working on.

One of the great success’ of Alcoholics Anonymous is that we hold each other accountable within it. People get there they say “How are you doing? What’s going on, you sponsor people, it’s the most successful spiritual organization in a country and one of its key elements is holding each other accountable. So we could do that with each other, see what works. And then you’re going to make mistakes. Some things are going to work, some things aren’t going to work, but just trust in the flow. You have the power to change the world. You already have the faith of a mustard seed that could literally move mountains on this earth. We have it here. The challenge this week: find five minutes a day and find time to listen, find time to act on one specific thing and then reflect back. If we do that we can unleash this power, this power of the mustard seed and we too can move mountains. Amen.   Download Sermon

How to Create Unity

So do you believe in unity or diversity? Which one’s more important? Is it more important for us to be united or is it more important to have diverse viewpoints and diversity? That’s often a question that we’re asked and if Jesus is weighing in this week this is one of His last prayers with the disciples okay. And He’s saying to them “the thing that I really want to pray for you is unity; the way that I am with the father I want you to be united with one another.” And he says that “this will be for the church that follows as well, people, not even here with me now I want them to be united. So how are we doing in just the Christian Church as far as Unity? This is the lectionary text so it’s the assigned text this week and it was a perfect week for me for this text because I was at something called the Christian Unity Gathering. So it was pretty perfect right? The National Council of churches which is about 36 of the main line, mainstream denominations, have a gathering a couple times a year and this tiny little denomination is part of it and I represent us at this table with all these large, large denominations and I’m sort of like, in politics, I think I’m the senator from Rhode Island you know who has a vote but I’m from a little tiny district. So I’m at this table with all these other denominations and it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what they’re wrestling with and how we’re trying as Christians to be more united. But diversity is also everywhere there. One woman started and said “I represent the, you know, Baptist National.” She said and it’s important for me to say which one because there’s twenty eight Baptist Churches. So that’s just the Baptist and then the rest of Christendom is really quite divided and quite split. The National Council meets and that’s probably more [00:02:10] sounds like ‘senator left’]. There’s also an Evangelical Council that meets and interesting enough, they don’t meet together; the Evangelical Council and the National Council. The Roman Catholic Church does have representation at the National Council; they had a visitor and the Orthodox churches are part of the National Council of Churches [00:02:28] sounds like ‘India’ ] Greek, Russian.

So it’s interesting to be at the Christian and unity gathering. But boy are we diverse. So did Jesus’ prayer go unanswered? We are in a period it seems, of real division and disunity right now. In our political life we can’t miss it we’re in a historic time. This last week with Donald Trump becoming a Nominee for the Republican party, whatever your view point on him is, the reality is that there’s disunion in the republican party with leading members of the party and former presidents and presidential candidates not being united with the candidate. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. And on the democratic side we have the presumptive winner and Hilary Clinton but still Bernie Saunders keeps winning races and so the unity doesn’t seem as clear there. So we’re in a period of upheaval and disunity in our political life, in our spiritual life and the question is do we like that diversity; is that better or is the unity better? And I think I’ve asked sort of a fake question maybe, in asking you to choose between the two because I think we confuse unity with uniformity; and those are completely different things.

If you look at any of the societies around the world where they’ve had uniformity, everybody believes the same thing, everybody dresses the same way, everybody drives the same car, if they drive a car right? Those societies, when you’re not in the unity, when you disagree, you can also often face imprisonment or death. So when we see uniformity around the world, I don’t think that’s what we’re seeking; we’re seeking unity. And one of the great spiritual paradoxes is, I would argue, that you really can’t have Unity without diversity; these go together. But how do they fit together? How do these different groups come together?

In my own life I’ve experienced within the church, I’m sort of an ecumenical mutt of an upbringing. I’ve got a mix of everything. Many of you knew I grew up with my grandfather being a Swedenborgian Minister so this denomination. But I was raised in an Evangelical Baptist Church; that’s where I grew up. When I went to college I attended a Presbyterian church but in the summers I volunteered for the Lutheran’s campus ministry program and when I got to campus and college I checked out the Protestant group and the Catholic Group. And the Protestant group, which would have been the group I would have sort of thought I would get involved with, they would sort of kind of judge everybody else on campus. It wasn’t a very fun group. Then the Newman Center which was the Catholic group, they were doing canned food drives for the poor, adopt a grandparent, adopt a little brother so I threw myself in with the Newman Center and the Catholics, much to my parents, [00:05:22] at the time now would be irrelevant, but they were a little concerned that I was getting so into the Newman Center. And eventually, after many years of college I became the first Protestant head of the Newman Center. I ended up running the Newman Center to East Stroudsburg State College with Father Jack Benedict who’s now [00:05:38]. This pattern continued. I was still loving Swedenborg so when I went to divinity school I studied at the Swedenborg School of Religion but I went to Harvard Divinity school; eventually got a gig at the chapel at Harvard and that was the best because it was ecumenical. We had every faith preached there, including non-Christian faith so I loved it. And what I loved was the Minister there Peter Gomes would say to the preachers, these are all world class preachers; He would say “preach your message. Don’t change a thing. We can handle whatever you say but we’ll also keep our service the same way each week.” And in that I said that “what a great recipe for diversity and unity and respect for differences.” One funny story is that I volunteered, I couldn’t get away from the Campus so I volunteered at St. Mary of the angels in Roxbury, Massachusetts on Saturdays and one week, [00:06:36] sounds like Carvel Laud) came to do a visit and he said “you look really familiar how would I possibly know you?” I said “well I introduced you to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Harvard;”  So all these worlds coming together. So I am an ecumenical mutt and I’m so grateful for it. From the evangelicals I learned a great knowledge and respect for scripture and I love that I got that. From the Presbyterians I saw great preaching. The Lutheran, service. I’ve already talked about the Catholic service but the Catholics also have a great mystery in their theology and many people who’ve seen my apartment or if you see my office here in the church you’ll see icons and the first question people ask “Are you Orthodox?” Because I love the mystical nature of the Orthodox too. I think everything, all these faiths each bring something beautiful to the body of Christ and to the greater Body of Christ. I’ve learned so much from my Jewish friends and my Muslim friends and my clients and I think that this is the unity that Jesus is talking about. It’s not a uniformity where we all believe the same thing, I don’t think he created us that way. I think it’s a respect for diversity. And I think there’s no greater time really, maybe in the history of the world where leaders, a new type of leader has to come up that says “I really respect your difference. I don’t tolerate it. That’s different. I love you. I love your difference. It doesn’t mean I’m going to be it; doesn’t mean I have to abide by it; doesn’t mean I have to believe in it but I love you in your difference. That’s the new body. That’s why our political system’s breaking down right now. We need leaders that can say “that’s not how I see the world but I love you for we’re you’re coming from.” Now interestingly enough where do we learn this? I find that within ourselves, we have our own divisions. Now if you’ve ever had voices in your head, if you look that up on the Internet you’ll probably be told to go see a psychologist right? If you have voices in your head that’s an hallucination. In my coaching practice into my own Spiritual Development I have found I have many voices in my head; a lot of voices going on and they are in need of facilitation. They are in need of talking and it’s a really interesting exercise. I encourage you to pursue this if this is something that you encounter, that I find with my clients there’s the accountant voice that many people have. Do you ever hear that voice talking to you about finances? Have you heard the voice -the ‘Critic Voice?’ “You’re such a failure. This is such a disaster. You fail at everything. Nothing Works.” Then, interesting enough, on Mother’s Day, many of my clients talk about their mother’s voice right? “You really shouldn’t be doing that should you?” Then there’s the ‘relax and enjoy’ voice. These different voices are alive within us, our own community-they too need to be heard and I find that when we suppress voices that we disagree with, they tend to sabotage as opposed to listening and getting them out. Whether that happens within ourselves or within the body of Christ or within our political life, we need to find ways to give people a voice instead of a desire to suppress them. The Apostle Paul talked about it in 1 Corinthians Chapter 12, verse 14 and he said “the body of Christ is like the human body; the hand is no better than the eye, is no less important than the ear; they’re all serving different parts.

So when we see people we don’t agree with, we can look within and say “Wow they’re serving a different role than me. It’s not my thing. It’s not what I like. They’re not my tribe but, they’re part of this great body of Christ and we can come to respect them and really come to admire them. One place I read this week that really hit home for me on this topic was one of my fellow Ministers Kathy Speas, Swedenborgian Minister in California and she is a hospice Minister. And she’s such a good writer that I usually don’t read but I want to read what she says about what she learned being a hospice Minister about working with Ministers of different faiths. She says “one of the greatest opportunities I’ve had to shake off the bed of my neat little opinions about Theology and Religion has been working with other clergy and other churches in my Ministry as a hospice. I’ve experienced the peace that passes all understanding with ministers whose ideas about heaven and hell would get me in a shouting match. It’s been wonderful. It’s taught me to be a better person, to share spiritual support at the end of a person’s life alongside colleagues whose beliefs about Jesus are closer to Mel Gibson’s than mine and then spending time with those people as we’re all approaching death and they’re changing into whatever comes next, I’ve moved into a world where the leak have faded but Love remains strong. Our thoughts, our opinions, our belief, our theologies and our doctrines, they change over our lifetime and eventually diminish. For some of us they vanish completely. What remains is love, connection; allowing ourselves to be open to receiving as well as giving. It’s peace, hope, devotion. God is what endures.” I just love that- working together for a common cause and letting love be the guiding principle to overcome division and in realizing the importance of diversity, because that diversity within us and within the world is the body of Christ. Amen.  Download Sermon

 

 

God is Not Fair

Sermon by Reverend Richard L. Tafel

Text

The gospel lessons this morning, which was very long, it’s also a story we’re very familiar with. Whether you’ve read the scripture or not you’ve heard the phrase ‘The Prodigal Son’ right? It’s a very familiar story. In fact it’s so familiar that it’s a little hard to hear it and think there’s anything new that we can learn from the story ‘The Prodigal Son.’

Now when you hear the story, I’m just curious, who do you relate more to? Do you relate more, in your own life, to the dutiful son who does the work, shows up and takes care of his dad? Or do you relate more to the Prodigal or lost son who goes out, has a Crazy Life, loses all of his money, parties, drinks, hires prostitutes and has to sort of come back in shame and embarrassment and ask for help?  Should I ask for a show of hands or do you just want to think about it?

How many are on the Prodigal Son side; you feel more like the Prodigal Son when they hear the story? How many feel more like the dutiful son? I know in my case I think I definitely go back and forth I think in my life  but I would relate more probably to the dutiful son as well  and that’s really what the story is about in a nutshell. It’s pretty straightforward. Jesus is basically saying to religious leaders who were criticizing him for being with these outcasts that this is what fairness is in the Kingdom of Heaven and I’m going to treat these people the way anybody would be treated. And so it does seem to incentivise unfair behavior. I think we can conclude from this text that God is not fair here right? I mean fairness is a very important principle. We grow up with it; we learn it at a young age. If you are around a seven year old, you know a seven year old is adamant about being fair. I am one of six kids and if my mother so much as poured a little bit more orange juice in my glass and a little less in my brother’s glass: “It’s not fair he got more than me!” You heard that phrase?  Our politics is full of the language of fairness. We hear candidates say “the rich should pay their fair share,” right? We have other people saying “it’s not fair for those immigrants to come here and not get in line. Do it this way! Be fair!” So fairness plays out; and very much like in the story people say “why should I pay for people who don’t work right? That’s not fair; I’m working hard they’re not so we give them support.” So it plays out in the policy world as well and fairness is a big ……..[00:03:14] policy; It’s something we have  in our daily life, It’s something we kind of live by and I confess, as a minister that if I was to leave here today and I went to Whole Foods and I got in line and I’m waiting and I’m waiting and someone cuts in front of me, the famous person who cuts the line, I will go from spiritual beacon of light to outrage fairness warrior. That’s not right. I’ve traveled on enough airplanes now where I’ve noticed the people that do the pretend line cutting;  they kind of walk up like they don’t know what’s going on and they slowly work their way up into the line. They know exactly what they’re doing and it’s not fair.  And I’m not usually the one who says “excuse me the lines back there,” but I’m glad when someone does.

I want fairness. I want rules. And it feels to me like in this text Jesus is saying that God doesn’t care about the rules. God is not fair and I think that’s confusing. So when I look at the text and I look at it a little deeper I say what can we learn from each of these characters? Each of these characters in the parable has a story for us in our own spiritual growth. And first we look at the dutiful son.

What can we learn about that? Well clearly the lesson for the dutiful son is that if you’re following the rules, if you’re doing it because it’s fair but your motivation is not love then it’s no good. In your program today there is actually a quote from Emmanuel Swedenborg where he basically says there are people who live their whole life, they gift, they worship on Sunday, they give to the poor, they do all these great things, they’re public figures but they do it out of a sense of selfishness and they want to get credit publicly; it’s not motivated by a spirit of love. And he concludes it by saying they are frauds. So that’s pretty powerful and that’s sort of where Jesus is going with the story of the dutiful son.

Now what can we learn about the other son? The Prodigal Son? Well this is a more spiritual message I think. The message is basically that: No, God is not fair, God’s love is consistent, constant and it’s undeserved by us and it’s for everybody, all the time and God is love and His love is constant. Maybe the best analogy that we read in reading group a few weeks ago here, was that God is like the sun. We don’t earn the heat, we don’t earn the light, but we can block it and that’s sin-stopping the light. But we don’t make the light happen. It comes on everybody and so is the love of God coming up on everybody. The love of God can’t be earned and none of us deserve it but it is constant and consistent. What can we learn from the other son that we’re most like? I think that if we have a dutiful personality we can learn from the Prodigal Son about taking risks and maybe living life up a little bit. I think we can get stuck in patterns and we can follow the rules and we can keep our heads down and we can miss kind of the joy of life. This Saturday I was up at Malcolm Peck, our chairman’s building ‘the Meridian’ where he had a group of folks from the Middle East-women entrepreneurs and they were all sharing their business plans; what they were trying to do to change the world and to grow their business. And everybody there was judging the business and trying to help them figure out how to create their business. It was a really great day but in that room they all shared the attributes of entrepreneur- risk-taking, up and down bank accounts, putting your family at risk at times. It goes like this, it’s very frightening but without those Risk Takers there is no innovation, there is no change; If everybody is strictly following the rules it’s really hard for there to be innovation. So I think for those of us who are more on the dutiful side we can learn about risk, taking chances and maybe enjoying life. So what could we learn if we’re on the more Prodigal side?  The prodigal side is pretty straightforward. If your life is basically always looking for other people to help you out in a crisis or you’re always looking to have everything resolved by somebody else and kind of doing your own thing and being selfish; that’s not a way forward. You need to also live in service to others and reach out to others. I think we can learn from both.

 If I had to conclude I think in a way, the message is that we’re actually all the lost son; that we all need forgiveness, that we all have shame. That shame is the shame of not wanting to go back to his father and it often keeps us from healing because we’re so embarrassed by it. But as I’ve said before anytime there is shame, it is really never of God. Even though many religions use shame, it is never of God. So shame can keep us from healing, shame can keep us from asking for forgiveness, shame can keep us from going home but that is not the way forward and the way to God is a way of: we all need the love of God and we’re lucky that God is not fair. There’s a third character in the story and that’s the father.

This week I was getting my hair trimmed over here in Dupont Circle at that very classic Barber Shop and I had Mario as my hair cutter from Nicaragua; he grew up in Nicaragua. And he was talking to me and he said “looks to me like you’re writing a speech,” and I thought to myself “do I tell him what I’m really doing,” because it never goes well when you tell people you’re a minister. I usually get in a fight. People usually have to harangue. So I said no I’m writing a sermon. He said “wow what text?” And I thought “wow only somebody raised not in the United States would ask that question.” And I said “The Prodigal Son” and he said “I love that story. It’s a beautiful story. When you preach to your people do me one favor: preach what nobody ever talks about.” “What’s that?” I’ve got all the answers here, I’m writing my sermon. He said “remind them that the father is the same; the father is the same. There is only one father and he loves them both. It’s the same father.” We sometimes think we’re either the bad son or the good son; the bad daughter or the good daughter. We have one God who loves all of us and we’re united in that. And the goal I think in our lives is to move beyond the resentment towards those who are getting things that they don’t deserve and the “I’ll deal with that tomorrow” attitude of the two sons and their extremes and we want to become more like the father who is the God-figure in the story and the father lives in abundance: There’s plenty for everybody; this is all going to work out; there is no shortage of love here.  That’s the way we’ll grow.  How do we know we’ve reached that point when we’re in a conversation with someone and they tell us very good news in their life and you think to yourself “why are they getting that and I’m not getting that?” Secretly; we don’t say it but we think it.  “How did that happen to them and not happen to me?”  That’s scarcity.  That is not of God. But when we can truly be joyful for another person’s success and truly be sad at another person’s loss and truly be empathetic with other people we’re more like that father who can respond to both and he doesn’t complain to the dutiful son at the end he says “let me explain it to you.” He is empathetic to both.

We can measure that in our own lives that when we’re serving others we do it in joy. When we’re helping others it’s really about them, it’s getting beyond ourselves. So in our lives let us take more risks if we’ve been playing it safe.  Let us be more responsible if we’ve been irresponsible and let’s realize that we’re all lost, none of us are any better than anyone else and God is not fair because fairness is contingent on something and God’s love is not contingent on anything; It is constant, it is never withheld, we cannot earn it, we cannot work for it, it’s a gift that we can accept or reject. So let us each try to grow and develop ourselves in ways that we haven’t. And luckily for us God is not fair. God is love and that love is abundant. Amen.  Download Sermon

Following your Purpose

In the gospel story today, Luke takes us into a situation where Jesus is at his rudest. I mean really rude. He says to someone who says “I want to follow you but I’ve got a funeral to do.” And Jesus says “Nope, no good, funerals don’t count, if you can’t follow me, you’re not a part of me.” And Jesus could, it would seem, be in need of a course on courtesy, on politeness, that’s not what we do, especially around a funeral, so what’s He getting at? So in our story today, Jesus is among the Samaritans. And the Samaritans are mixed: Jewish and Non-Jewish, not very much liked by the Jewish community and for whatever reason as He’s walking through this community, they reject Him. And the disciples do something that we’ve all kind of wanted to do, they go sort of full Tony Soprano in the situation; total mafia. They say “Hey, they’re rejecting you, let’s rain down fire and destroy them, wouldn’t that be neat?” And I’m sure Jesus is thinking “That is not my message; it’s not about violence but no, we’re just going to go further.”  And as He’s walking further on people start saying “Well I’ll follow you but I’ve got to say goodbye to my family.” And that’s where He says about birds and foxes: “Foxes have holes in the ground, birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” The next person says” but my father, I’ve got to bury my father. “Let the dead bury their own dead.” And then He concludes by saying “You can’t start in the direction of plowing your field and look back or you’re going to mess up the job you’re doing.” So very tough gospel story and one that many Christians are uncomfortable with this story because of Jesus. He’s not being very nice.

So what’s the challenge to us? What are we supposed to take from this? One of the key phrases in the gospel that jumped out at me was that Jesus had set His face to Jerusalem. So what does that mean? Jesus is moving in the direction of his own purpose-the reason for His existence. He is a man on a mission and the mission is to Jerusalem. We know what happens there and that’s where He’s going. I believe what we’re learning from this text today is that when we’re called to our purpose, we must stop with excuses. We must not be afraid of being rejected as Jesus was. In other words, we have to stop being nice sometimes and move in that direction. Sometimes we’re so nice that we get caught up and derailed in the purpose that we’re being called to. I don’t think it’s saying be rude, but it’s saying be focused and be stuck on your purpose.

Many of you know I do a lot of coaching. And in coaching the Millennial Generation, one thing I’ve noticed is that they’re very nice. But they’ve also expressed a concern as they go to achieve your purpose. They say “I don’t want to be disliked by anybody. I want to be nice. Time Magazine called the Millennial Generation -Generation nice. And they said “I just don’t want to offend anybody, but they want to do great things and they want to follow their purpose but sometimes that leads to rejection, sometimes that means being very direct. This is where we’re going, you have to follow now.

This last week I was in San Francisco at the Breakthrough Institute Conference called the Breakthrough Dialogue and it brings together mainly Climate Change Experts on what are the solutions to climate change, an area where I’m particularly ignorant so I’m always learning a lot in the discussions. And during one of the discussions one of the scientists said “Well I got into this field of Climate Change because I think it’s my purpose and I think it’s going to save the world and I’m into it. And in the process I concluded as a scientist that the only solution was nuclear energy. And I am fighting for nuclear energy to achieve climate change. And so she saw that she started following her purpose but then she reported something else in her environmental friend prow, she got ostracized. She got kicked out of groups. Her friends de-friended her: Dinner parties, work, she was cut off the list. She said “I’m stunned; I really thought we could have a discussion about it. But because she took a position that was counter to the conventional wisdom, she had to sacrifice something which is often true to our purpose. And then just a few weeks, a month ago rather, I was at the national Council of Churches gathering for the Unity of Christian Gathering that is done there and they had a speaker who was an evangelical. And he was one of the founders and leaders of the Pro-Life Movement and through prayer and discernment for a variety of reasons, he said “I concluded that limiting guns was a pro-life issue. And he was the cheer of an Environmental Council and he said “I believed it; I believed it was consistent with my morals, but I was terrified. If I told people this position, I could lose my Chairmanship of the Council, I could lose my funding and to his courageous decision he came out on gun control. And he did it he lost money. And he did, he got kicked off of one of the Councils. Another Council kept him on.

The point I’m trying to say here today is not so much about what’s the solution on climate change or what’s the solution on guns, but what impressed me about both of these people was their moral courage to run against the grain; to say “I’m sorry I’m not gonna be nice necessarily, I’m on a path, I’ve got to go. I can’t get caught up in excuses and so if that makes you uncomfortable, so be it.” I think we have to be willing to risk more of that. In the church itself, very often the Christian Church, there are people who are so nice to a fault that we’re really almost ineffectual in the world. Maybe it’s time for the church to take more positions that might run counter to the culture at times and be brave on key issues. And be willing to do what Jesus is calling in the story which is sacrifice. I’m asking you to sacrifice something- to follow your call and to follow your purpose. And I think that’s the message for all of us in our lives. Maybe you do or don’t know what your purpose is or in the language of our church we use the word “use;” the place where you’re most useful in the world. Getting clear on that is incredibly important and then praying to God for the moral courage to follow that call is what being a disciple is all about.

Amen.  Download Sermons

Follow Me

The gospel today is taken from the gospel of St. John; the 21st chapter, beginning at the first verse:

“Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two others of His disciples. Simon Peter said to them “I am going fishing.” They said to him “We will go with you.” They went out and got into a boat but at that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak Jesus stood on the beach but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. And Jesus said to them “Children you have no fish have you? They answered Him “No.” He said to them “Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.” So they cast it and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple who Jesus loved said to Peter “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked; and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat dragging the full net of fish for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it and bread. And Jesus said to them “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore full of large fish; one hundred and fifty three of them and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of these disciples dared to ask him “Who are you?” Because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus took the bread, He gave it to them and the same with the fish. This is now the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished eating breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?” He said to him “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him “Feed my lambs.” The second time He said to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him “Tend my sheep.” He said to him a third time “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he had said to him the third time “Do you love me?” And he said to Him “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. He said this to indicate the kind of death by which He would glorify God. After this He said to him “Follow me.” 

Here ends the reading from the Gospel of John. So in this Gospel lesson this is Jesus’ third and final representation after His death and after His resurrection. And he appears to the disciples when they’re fishing. And if I were Jesus’ strategist, I would have thought of better places to show up. I would have gone to Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate’s house, I think that would have been dramatic or maybe downtown somewhere where everybody could have seen Him; something a little bit more, shall we say ‘showy;’ you know, a real event. But when Jesus does something it’s always for a reason. And so He shows up with His followers in the most mundane, normal of circumstances; they’re fishing, they eat together and He essentially is passing on leadership to the next generation of the church in this gathering. And the story is full of symbolism: fish right? If you remember early on in the gospels Jesus calls the disciples and says  “I’m going to make you Fishers of Men,” and takes these Fishermen and says “you’re going to be spiritual leaders,” and so here we are full circle back at the fish and fishing and the symbolism of fishing for human beings; give them a purpose, meaning in spiritual life. And then the symbolism continues when He comes ashore and he talks about feed my sheep, the Good Shepherd and Jesus being the Good Shepherd, take care of my sheep, the innocence of sheep and He’s calling them to a new form of leadership; a leadership that is kind not top-down, authoritarian but really love these followers and it’s a message that we can here today and it’s still shocking that we’re really not, even at that level today we’re in leadership, we respect and love those that are being led, very often it’s “Follow me, this is the rule,” and Jesus is introducing a new concept: “Take care of my people.” His last act with the Last Supper was to wash their feet and He said if you want to follow me, you need to be a servant and here He’s saying “Feed my sheep.” And He says it three times, a little puzzling. Anybody know why He asks the question three times? Anybody have a guess?

[CONGREGANT: The Trinity]

The Trinity? Good guess, that could be. What did Peter just do to Jesus when he was arrested? He denied Him three times; so this is an absolution, this is you know, “you’ve denied me three times and it’s forgotten and Peter will become the leader of this new community so he is essentially giving absolution and forgiveness in that asking it three times. But the part of the story that I’m really intrigued with, that I really have not heard anybody preach on so we might find that I’m way off base on this one, is something we really don’t talk much in church or in sermons, but I’m struck by the fact that Jesus came to them when they were providing their daily bread, meaning they fished for a living and the fish were what they ate it’s also what they sold and he made them successful in it. And for my part, having coached now hundreds of social change leaders, the biggest challenge for people who want to change the world, who are receiving a call the way Peter does later, is they basically say “I can’t give up income to follow this call.” It’s a huge problem and so people live sort of smaller than their purpose because they’re worried about the money and we live in a society even more complex financially than the time of Jesus where you could eat your own fish and grow your own crops a little bit; much more poverty then than today actually but we’re in a complicated economy where by our very nature we’re almost all in debt to somebody, whether it’s a car or a house or a credit card, we’re always wrestling with money and it’s not much talk about the church and my interpretation is that He’s coming and saying “I’ll take care of that,” that’s why He says “Throw the net on that side.” If you’re stepping into your call, if you’re stepping into your greater purpose, I will take care of your needs as well; give us this day our daily bread we say it every week right? And I think Jesus is saying “I can handle that.” This is a very tricky place for spiritual people because for those in the reading group, this book ‘One simple idea’ about positive thought, it talks about  the history of positive thought from Swedenborg, through Christian science and how it became a healing, but eventually it became the ‘Prosperity Gospel.’ The Prosperity Gospel essentially says “God give me money and give me a lot of it and I want it manifested now.” And I’m very uncomfortable with that personally, I don’t think that’s the message. I don’t think it’s about living in this world and being consumed by the consumer culture of this world. But I do think that we often forget when we talk about spiritual life and following our call, that we can turn to God on the financial needs and it’s not the Prosperity Gospel which is give me money and give me a lot of it, but having a simple lifestyle and living into your call is really important.

A coach and Author that I’ve worked with, a guy named Tim Kelly has a book called ‘True purpose’ and he has an exercise in his book that I have not seen anywhere else and he works with major change makers and he works with entire countries. He’s working with the country of Israel on its purpose for example and in the book he basically says “write down all of your conditions that are stopping you from achieving your purpose. What is it?” And people are a little shy in the beginning and they go “Well I’d like a nice place to live, I want a car and I want these things. I want this lifestyle.” It’s rarely a grandiose list but they’re basically saying “until these are met, I’m not following my purpose.” It’s an interesting exercise and what he has discovered is until people can articulate it, they never really admit that the reason they’re not following their purpose is because they’re afraid and that fear is often financial and that’s not something that we like to talk about. We don’t like to talk about money or our financial needs and they’re very real and that liberates them to actually achieve their greater purpose.

And so I think, in this text, we might be being told that each of us has a purpose and, like Peter, we’re being called into something greater. This little community that we’re building here at this church, I think we’re called to some purpose and financial discussions will be a part of it. I don’t think we should be embarrassed by that. I think the Lord will take care of our needs and that’s the state in the faith, when we are in providence or living to our greatest use but we’re in the flow, I think the financial needs can be met and I think we can be open about that and talk about that and raise that in our prayers and have that in our discussions and I think when we have the two together, Jesus coming back in physical form in the body, we are a body religion about God coming in human form. When we’re traveling in the real world we have real needs. Our purpose and mission is pretty cosmic and very spiritual but I think the two must go together; we have to acknowledge them both. And I think when we have those two wedded together, a clear purpose for ourselves and our finances, and our daily needs met, I think we can really listen to Christ who then says “Follow me.” Amen.  Download Sermon

                                             Fighting Our Demons                           

So Jesus performs an exorcism and he comes to a town. He has just, if you remember and if you’re following Luke, He’s healed the centurion slave, He  has healed the widow’s son, He has traveled across the lake and made it calm and so far nobody really knows exactly who Jesus is. He lands in a foreign place across the lake and a man possessed by demons comes up to him and the demons are really the first to say “You’re Jesus the son of God.” Jesus cast out the demon and the town’s people are thrilled- no they’re not thrilled-they’re frightened and they actually encourage Jesus to leave after doing such a great thing. It’s a pretty interesting text.

You know I always approach the text each week with: what makes me curious. A couple things this week made me curious but first and foremost, this whole topic of Exorcism, demonic possession, what does that mean and what does this text have to do with us today? Is that something that we could still apply to today’s world or is this something that’s best left back 2000 years ago? And as I looked at it I thought “Yes, this is about demonic possession,” and I don’t think that’s the entire story here but I think in the same way that we have seen an evolution in healthcare, where we can do a lot of great things with medicine now that we couldn’t do many years ago right? I believe that’s God advancing healing and I believe Mental Health is the same thing. I think mental health has had an evolution, I think it needs more evolution and I think that many people interpret this story as a Mental Health issue. I would say I think it’s a little bit more complicated than just that. And then the question is: Is there a possibility or an existence of demonic possession. And people ask me what I think on that and that is a medieval concept for most people. It’s unlike angels so they say “What’s your take on this whole idea? Could there be demonic possession or evil in today’s world?” And my answer is “Yes.” I actually believe it exists. I think it’s rare. I’ve certainly been around people who exhibit some behavior you could call Mental Health but it sort of goes into something even beyond that.

So the issue of possession, do I think it exists? I do, but I think it is rare and I recently read a report of a psychologist at a prison who said that his strategy for dealing with one person’s mental illness was to talk to the being that was representing him. And he said “I just decided to talk to it because I decided to apply, like it was a spiritual being of some kind; its own person. And that’s how he did the therapy and they arranged it so that the patient could knock on his window and get right in to get treated whenever that voice came. And he saw dramatic health. And then one day he says that the patient came to him and said “They want to talk to you.” And he said “Who? What? What?” He said “They, the spirits want to talk to you. They’re very frustrated by what we’re doing together; they’re angry.” And so he tells a story where they literally say- a voice comes out and says “You’re not supposed to know we’re here, leave us alone, we were doing what we were doing.” So this therapist was describing it just as a ‘demonic possession.’ Do I think that exists? Yes. In our tradition, we do believe in demonic presence. We don’t believe in say ‘a devil,’ but we do believe that the forces of evil can be active.

So what’s the lesson for us today? Should we be involved with exorcisms? I don’t think that’s the teaching for us today so much, as I think it’s an example from Jesus of how to deal with evil. And Jesus deals with evil with love, but that’s not how evil thrives; evil thrives on fear. And if you’ve noticed this within yourself and within our society, when you’re anxious or nervous and you get fearful, it’s not your better angels that comes out, at least that’s my experience. Now does this apply to our world today? Well we have become so critical of each other in our culture that we almost can’t have a common conversation as a country and this is happening around the world. And what’s the phrase we use when people are really hyper-partisan or really fighting against each other? The phrase we use is ‘demonization,’ right?” You demonize the other. And I do find that when we are being asked to grow spiritually, very often, we look out to the other person and say “They are wrong, they need to change, it’s them and they are bad.” And I think that the challenge here is that when Jesus confronted this demon He said “Who are you;” He identified it by name. And I think that’s the challenge for each of us to identify it by name.

You can’t preach from a text such as this during this week when we have seen, really, from my personal perspective, evil in the world, in that man who murdered innocent people at a dance club in Orlando last weekend, who took a gun over the stall as people were begging for mercy and laughed and texted his wife and texted the media to make sure they were paying attention. That to me is evil, that to me would be demonic and it gives us an opportunity to respond. Do we respond in fear or do we respond in love? And so what are we doing as a country? One, we all went to our sides to blame the other right? We immediately went to our corners and said “They’re the problem it’s the NRA!” “No they’re the problem, it’s the Muslims!” “No they’re the problem it’s…” And each side kind of quickly moved to comfortable positions of demonization of the other. What can we learn from it? I think that we can move beyond demonization and we can look within ourselves. It is a sad reality that many people couldn’t even say that it was a gay club in the media.

I was on MSNBC this morning on the AM Joy Show on this very topic and the question was ‘Why are religious leaders and particularly Republicans, unable to even say that it was a gay club? And the answer, sadly, this is really sad is that because of people’s religious beliefs, Christianity has now become perceived for many as this is “I must be anti-gay therefore I can’t say anything nice about people murdered at a dance club.” That’s an opportunity for us to reflect as Christians, not to point to anybody else but we need to change and evolve. Many of the people in the club itself didn’t use the real names and the reason is because they are from Latino Community, the black community and those churches can also be very homophobic, so many were outed in their death. It was very sad, it’s very sad. This could be an opportunity for all of us, particularly for Christians to reflect and say “Wow, how did we get to this point?” We need to grow beyond this; we need to look within ourselves. This is certainly not the Gospel of Jesus that would make us uncomfortable standing with an impure and solid support of the victims of that atrocious, atrocious crime. And I think we have to be careful not to fall to our fears. Terrorism is a form of evil, it’s a very clever form of evil because it does something very specific- it scares everybody. And we cannot fall prey to those fears, fears that then say things like “This is how I have to treat Muslims and this is how I’m going to treat this group and that group and we start demonizing each other. We have to in my opinion, bring more love when we’re confronting evil.

It’s interesting in the end of the story in the gospel, the town’s people are not happy about what Jesus has done. And that’s also true. When love is brought into a situation, very often, we don’t really want it; we’d rather go back to our old ways. They were comfortable with that man running around the sepulchers, screaming. That’s what they were used to and when he was cured they are unhappy. So let’s beware of that too; that when we do bring change into the world it will not often be brought with open arms, but love as a choice versus fear when we confront evil.

So I believe that this week, this text and the events in our life do give us a challenge to, when we confront in our own lives, those trigger moments where we’re sort of possessed, we’re embarrassed by how we respond. Where did that come from; that moment when we’re facing evil to overcome it with the Lord’s help and through love.   Download Sermon

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Experiencing Divine Relation Sermon

So in the scripture/text this morning, Jesus is talking to His disciples and He is telling them about the future after He is gone. And He says to them “There are things I just cannot tell you; you cannot bear them. So the spirit will come in the future and the spirit will guide you and teach you new things.” And so that’s fairly important in the Christian calendar because in the Christian calendar today, this is called Trinity Sunday, where we focus on the Trinity. Now, I don’t know about you but the idea of a Sunday focused on a theological concept, it’s a little abstract like the Trinity, is probably not the most interesting topic you would want to hear about. It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time in Christendom that people literally created different denominations and faiths and fought wars over the interpretation of what the Trinity was. There was a time when people fought over that. We’re not really in that place right now. As your pastor and a good example of theological ignorance; I went to a good theological school but I’m always amazed as I read and prepare for Sunday with how ignorant I am in Theology and I think our culture is in general, so there’s a lot to learn about the Trinity.

Now that said about the Trinity, as it may not be the sexiest topic you ever want to hear in a Sunday Sermon, I was one of those religious nerd kids that actually cared about this stuff. I know, it’s hard to believe. What kid is like, scratching his head about the Trinity. But I grew up, as you know, in a more Evangelical Church and I was in fellowship with Christian athletes and I was in the Varsity Christian Fellowship. And then week after week the Ministers would talk about God as a father figure with like a grey beard sitting on the middle throne and Jesus as we know with the dark beard, younger, on the right hand side on another throne; and the Holy Spirit was kind of flying around like Tinkerbell, just like a butterfly, kind of flying around and they would talk about this “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” as three complete Gods almost. And week after week in my church they would say “God got so angry at us, that He was no longer going to accept the lamb sacrifice that people have been giving. “You know how they use to give the lamb sacrifice in the Old Testament, “And the new lamb had to be His Son. And he was going to bring His Son as a lamb and His Son would be murdered and His blood would be shed and we would be saved.” And week after week we talk about being baptized in the blood of Christ, the blood of Christ, the blood of Christ. As a kid, it just never made any sense to me-it really didn’t. I was like this religious nerd and it’s actually that topic of all the various things because this is in the Baptist church. My family, Swedenborgian, my dad said “You got to read Swedenborg on this.” And that’s one reason theologically I became [00:03:05] because I said- “This makes sense-this other idea of the trinity.  One sort of, I thought was almost three Gods. And if you know anything about Islam, they view Christians as Polytheists because of the Trinity. They see us as having three Gods.

But Swedenborg, and it’s in your program, had a very simple description of what the trinity is and it’s basically if you think about it this way: our soul; in the human being is God; the physical body-Christ on earth; and our activity in the world is the Holy Spirit. That made sense to me; that it was one, one God; not three Gods.

And so yes, I was a little religious nerd and the topic of the Trinity was a big deal for me growing up. Now, in Jesus text, it’s interesting He’s saying “There’s certain things I can’t tell you now,” and you have to ask why, you know.  Here He is with the disciples and he can’t tell them things but we know that with children when we’re  growing up, there’s only so many things that we can tell at certain ages right? And there are certain things you really want to protect the child from right? They’re certain movies you don’t want a kid to see. They’re not age appropriate. And spiritually there are there that we can’t bare, we can’t handle that are not spiritually age appropriate. In the history of the world there’s been a spiritual evolution. In this text Jesus is saying “Even though I physically am not going to be here, there’s going to be evolution, there’s going to be spiritual transformation, the world is going to change and new truths, new understandings of God will come to you over the ages. And we know that’s true, we can see it in just very basic things. Like the thing that always sticks out for me is slavery. The idea that at one time in the history of the world in this country not long ago people defended slavery based on their Biblical beliefs and churches defended it and today we would think that’s absurd from a spiritual perspective, but people defended it. We’ve seen the role of women historically, completely change right, in our own lifetime. So things change and evolve and I think that’s the unfolding of the spirit that Jesus is talking about that we’re more spiritually age appropriate. I remember again, growing up in Sunday school, in fourth grade and my sweet Sunday School teacher was going through the Ten Commandments. And there was one that made no sense to me and that was “Thou shall not commit adultery.” I didn’t know what it meant. I figured it meant acting like an adult. So thou shall not act like an adult, that’s adultery right? So I raised my hand, Mrs. Martin acknowledges me and I said “Adultery, what’s adultery? And the sweet Mrs. Martin, her face just- I knew I’d said something wrong, her face flushes all red, she says “Well Richard, that’s something you understand as you get older.” And I said “But we’re learning the Ten commandments, it’s one of the commandments, like I have to know.” And she said “Well, adultery is when a man Lies with another man’s woman.” And I went “What? That’s wrong. Why would a man want to lie with another man’s woman and  why would they lie down at all,” and I didn’t get it. But she was being age appropriate. I was evolving in my own spiritual development; I don’t think she could have explained it to me in fourth grade, probably in fifth; Fifth grade I could have handled it because fifth graders know everything. But fourth grade, I probably couldn’t have handled it. And so God does that with us, in our own spiritual life and reveals things to us bit by bit. And that’s a bit of a mystery- how does that happen?

So recently I was with a friend of mine whose wife passed away and he had a very profound question for me. He said ” Okay, my wife’s gone, I’ve read Swedenborg, and I know that he talks about life after death and that’s very reassuring, but some people can talk to the dead or the people who’ve passed or they get revelations from people who’ve died. Why don’t I? Why can’t I talk to her? Where’s the revelation? How does revelation happen? How do I connect to God? How does a person do that?” He said “You seem like you kind of download things spiritually, How? How do you do it?” And I thought that was a great question. It’s sort of what Jesus is talking about this week when he says “The spirit will come.” But He doesn’t say exactly how we can be prepared for it. How do we know it’s revelation and not something we’re making up ourselves? That’s a really tough question. I don’t think I have all the answers but I’ll tell you what I said, you can tell me in our questions period whether it makes sense. But I said “First I think there’s three steps. I said I think you have to start with the right motivation. I mean for example wanting to talk to the dead as a séance-er or just wanting to have a spiritual experience for the heck of it, probably not-is not the right motivation. You’re motivation must be pure. Then I said “We’ve got to do what’s really hard for our culture, we’ve got to listen, not talk to God, but listen. That’s getting tougher and tougher in today’s society. So listening-a practice, a spiritual practice. One of the blessings of my taking this church, is that preparing for a sermon, has become a real spiritual practice because I look at the text at the beginning of the week and it makes no sense, you know all these years of training you think I’d have like, no. And I say “Lord I don’t know, give me some ideas, give me some ideas. It’s opening yourself up to listening and in fact on that topic, on listening I’m going to challenge anybody who wants to join me this week of finding15 minutes a day of silence, not prayer, not meditation so much but just silence and listening. See what happens. Anybody, you can tell me at the coffee hour afterward if you’re interested in doing it with me and we’ll see what happens. But so often we’re not open. We’re busy. I’m running from screen to screen, computer to car, from walk to meeting. And there’s really no chance for God to talk to us and for the holy spirit to present to us. So first is getting the right motivation, second is listening and the 3rd I think is action in the world: go out, make mistakes, try to do good; you’ll fail, you’ll learn, work with new people, activity in the world.

Now what’s interesting after I came up, you know, I thought “That was a pretty good answer and then I thought about it. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. If you think about it, the soul, the body, the activity of the Holy Spirit: Motivation, listening, a spiritual practice, in the physical body, and our activity in the world. So maybe the Trinity will teach us how we can be open to the spirit.

Amen.   Download Sermon

WHAT’S YOUR SPIRITUAL PATH

So today we have two gospel readings, which is very unusual. We missed a little Christmas, we missed the New Year’s, so the good news is you’re not going to miss any of the great scripture for the Christmas holidays. The bad news is my sermon’s going to be twice as long and based on the laughter that I’m hearing, I take that back, I’ll keep it short. I don’t want to lose anybody, I’ll keep it concise. Even though all the stores are ripping down their Christmas decorations and everybody is throwing their trees away. In the Christian calendar, this is the last Sunday of Christmas- Epiphany Sunday and it marks the visit of the wise men and last week, we would have talked about the shepherds. We’re going to do both and they actually fit very nicely together I think.

So these two stories of the shepherd and the wise men, if you have any connection to any church, ever grew up in anything remotely religious, you’ve heard these stories of these beautiful visits. These are the two beautiful visits to the baby Jesus. One the shepherds with their sheep at night, an angel comes, they’re literally scared as hell. It says they are “…sore afraid” and He says “Fear not, the prophecy has come through, go visit the baby.” So we know the shepherds go and visit directly. Now, on the other side, years from maybe Persia or Syria these wise scholars, we say three because there were three gifts but we don’t know it’s probably an entourage of people outside of the region were travelling a long distance following a star and they see that star and they get closer and closer and they get just in the neighbourhood of Israel and they know they’re really close and they stop and they ask a king, king Herod for advice “Which way? Can you point us in the direction? This is a big deal. This is the big prophecy even in our faith we know about it, we’ve travelled to bring gifts.” Herod being an evil king says “Yes tell me where the baby is and let me know, I want to worship him,” which meant that Herod wanted to kill this threat to his kingdom. And so these wise leaders come, visit Jesus and they’re warned by an angel “Don’t go back to Herod, go back to your country,” and they do. These are two beautiful Christmas stories. So what do they have to do with us? At the literal level at the surface level, these are just beautiful stories of the two visitors to God coming into flesh into the world.

At the spiritual level if we go a little deeper, we can ask: what does this mean to us? How can we apply this to us and what are the deeper meanings of shepherds and wise men, what could they mean? And I think they fit nicely as two examples of different spiritual paths that people find to God. And as you’re listening, you can ask yourself, are you more of a shepherd in your spiritual path or are you more like the wise men? So what’s the difference? The shepherd symbolically right, the shepherds, we do the 23rd psalm every Sunday: “The Lord is my shepherd…” Shepherds are nurturing, love, innocence of a lamb. There is a simplicity to it. You’ve got to love the shepherds. They get spiritual connection directly through revelation. They are perceived by others as simple people sometimes: “They’re not sophisticated, they’re shepherds but God can speak to them directly and they get it directly and they go directly to God and they respond just by their love and it’s direct, it’s quick, it’s fast and they’re the first ones. When we see the manger scenes we always see like the wise men here and the shepherds here but the truth is that the wise men came a long time after the shepherds because they are travelling, so maybe Jesus was a year old when they get there, we don’t know, but it’s much later. They’re on a track and they have a different spiritual path. While the shepherds are guided more by their heart, the wise men are guided more by their head; they are more intellectual; they study. They study symbols, the stars and they are not even in that surrounding spiritual community and yet their faith and their knowledge guides them. And they are tenacious, think about it, they’re going to this far distance and they obviously didn’t know the local politics because they asked Herod for advice in finding this new king so they are coming from a far distance but they are more the head. And generally people in communities generally operate either from more of the heart or more of the head and so you can ask yourself, which are you? Are you more motivated in your phase of more direct; you don’t need a lot of explanation, it can even be mystical in its connection, or are you more someone who has to really study it, you’ve got  to really figure it out, you want to approach it like a scientist.

Swedenborg, who the teachings of this church are based on, he was interestingly first a scientist and then he used that scientific method to incorporate a mystical understanding so there’s hopefully in each of us there is  a meshing of both. And whatever side we’re a little bit weaker on, we can actually, this year, in this coming year we might even look to grow that side of ourselves. So if you’re more of a shepherd person, everything is direct, your heart moves you, you don’t need to know the details, you’re not really interested in the study of it. Maybe 2017’s a time to be more like the wise men, incorporate a little bit more of the mind. But if you’re totally wrapped up in your head and you are totally in intellect, it might be time to open up your feelings and your heart and have the direct mystical call of God, both are complementary. One is not better than the other both are beautiful, love and truth combined into the way we can understand God. So you can think of which path you’re on.

But there is a third element here that I can’t fail to observe. We know that they were visited by shepherds and they were visited by wise men but who weren’t they visited by? Who didn’t come? That might be the most striking part of the story. If God came in human flesh, God came into the world and this is a big moment, the most important day for the Christian calendar, if all that’s true, what’s really amazing is how few people did get it. Almost nobody got it, even the wise men are probably from a different religion they might be Zoroastrian or something else. It wasn’t the local folks who had the prophecies. What’s amazing about God coming into the world is who didn’t get the message. And I find that fascinating right now. And I don’t want to sound judgmental about our current country and our world that we’re in right now but I just have to say, I’m struck in my work that I do, how many people are not on any spiritual path at all. And I think that has very negative connotations for the world. I think it’s very important to have a God guiding you and being on some spiritual path. It was startling the night we did a group on spiritual thinking with millennials here at the church. We did it upstairs in the upstairs chapel and there was a moment where I just asked, where do you find your own spiritual guidance? Where do you develop your inner life? We kind of went around the group and people said, “I don’t, I don’t have a way, what is the way?” And I remember Malcolm said “Do you read books?”  You know, the wise man path, “No,” on this topic. “Do you engage in prayer and meditation?” The closest was yoga; stretching, that meditation, but that was the closest. So I do think we’re in a world right now where the need to bring in spiritual paths, whether they be more like the wise men or more like the shepherds is more important than ever so I challenge you for 2017 to re-examine your own spiritual path, balance it out a little bit this year and let’s all do a better job in this church of being a place that could actually help those who are trying to get on the path itself. Amen.   Download Sermon

WHAT DREAM HAVE YOU GIVEN UP ON

 

The gospel story from Matthew tells one of the most pivotal pieces of history in the world: Joseph is dating Mary, Mary is pregnant. We like to think that in churches you shouldn’t talk about sex, politics… you can talk about religion, but right at the beginning of the gospel where we’ve got sex, politics and religion in the first story because Joseph has a really tough issue here: His girlfriend is pregnant and he didn’t get her pregnant and there’s really only two options in that time, he can either tell the religious leaders who will kindly stone her to death or he can secretly end the relationship and try to push her away so she can have the baby somewhere else but he won’t be implicated. Those were his options. And the gospel tells us that he decided to, being a good man, decided to “Let’s just let her go away quietly.” And then he has a dream and the dream affects everything. The Angels come and say “This is actually God working through Mary. You are to marry her, you are to protect her and you will name the baby Jesus.” If Joseph didn’t follow what the dream had said, everything would be different. We hear a lot about Mary, we don’t hear a lot about Joseph, but Joseph followed his dream, his literal dream. And what I want to talk to you about today is both the literal idea of dreams and more figurative meaning of dreams in our own lives. What does that mean?

At the literal level we all have dreams at night when we sleep. Yes you have them, even if you don’t remember them, you have dreams. We all have dreams. And in this church in particular of all the churches probably in the Christian faith, we put a premium on dreams, we believe in them. And generally there are three types of dreams that you can have. One is a dream like Joseph had where you’re literally presented with someone; an Angel that comes to you and says “Here is the message; do this,” and maybe some of you have had those dreams; very direct, very literal: you need to do this. Many people have those dreams even today but we don’t talk about it in our secular society. Another dream that you’ll have is more along the line of metaphor or symbols, or in the language of this church, correspondences, meaning that everything means something else: water could mean truth, the house could mean your spiritual life, the church could mean… you know everything has different meanings. And it could be very strategic and important to track your dreams. And in fact if you keep a dream journal you can see this played out. And then third, are sort of random dreams that generally don’t have much of a meaning and they can be confusing and ah, they generally have less import. But i do find that keeping a spiritual Journal is a strategic way to live your life, it can offer guidance. And where I really see it in my own life when I’ve kept it and i look back years later and it’s pointing, pointing, pointing “Pay attention to this, go this way, don’t go this way.” And ah they can be very powerful guides. So first too, in a society that looks down upon the subconscious in spirit and dreams, I want to put a shout-out for dreams. You’re dreams are very important. If you start keeping a dream journal when you first wake up, you’ll become more aware of your dreams. Usually for most of us we’ll forget them within literally 30 seconds from waking up, even though they were just vivid a minute ago, so if you want to write something down. But they can be a part of your journal life. So dreams can be very powerful and that’s absolutely what happened. The turning point in the story with this man is a dream.

I also want to talk about dreams more figuratively. By that i mean the dream of your life; the vision. In Proverbs it says “When the people lose their vision they perish,” and that’s true in our own lives. All of us have had dreams in our lives, things that we felt like was our purpose or we should be doing or I wanted to do and one of the toughest things in life is saying “I’m not going to achieve that dream,” and maybe it really wasn’t critical to our purpose.

I know that when I do coaching with clients I do an intake form where I ask questions. And one of the most interesting questions is “What dreams have you given up on?” It’s a very powerful answer then people say very powerful things, things like “I’ve given up on love, given up on anybody caring about me, I’ve given up on ever getting out of debt, I’ve given up on ever having a job that I feel purposeful about. It can be very painful and deciding that: What dreams have you given up and can you come back in this time of Advent when we’re celebrating Christ coming into the world. Can you open up your heart again to that dream? Can you restart it? What are you being called to? What vision or dream are you being asked to do at this time in your life and what’s holding you back; what fears? Can you imagine Joseph’s fears that night? The fears that hold us back … but deciding to follow the dream as Joseph did can be the game changer.

In his book Starting with Why, Simon Sinek writes a really powerful case that we should ask the question why we do things.  But one of his great lines in the books he said “Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have a plan; he had a dream. There’s a difference.” Joe when you did the AIDS program for Africa and I remember at the time it sounded like we were going to put colonies on Mars. It was such a crazy idea. It was a dream, it was not a plan. It became a plan but it must start with a dream. The crazy things that change the world always start with a dream, a vision, something that people will probably laugh at you if you share it. So share carefully but treasure it. We’re all called to those dreams.

When we don’t fulfil our dreams I think of the poem Harlem, by Langston Hughes with that line that became a famous play:  “A Dream Deferred is Like A Raisin in the Sun, “and then he goes on to explain the horrible way of a dream deferred. He was talking about the black community in Harlem, I think it was in the 1920’s, and saying that this is a community of deferred dreams and what happens when you do that to people. I think the challenge for us is not to defer those dreams. With the power of Angels and our dreams and God, we can live out that purpose that we are being called to. As individuals and as a community, if we’re going to transform this holy space that we all feel called to in some strange way and probably most of us don’t know why we’re here exactly, but we know that we have to have a dream for this place. It can’t just be a plan; it has to be a vision that this is what is the best use of it for God and the world and that vision and we have a role in playing that which I believe we do and I’m very excited about spiritual entrepreneurship and all the concepts we’ve talked about this last year together. But I think we have to have a dream, we have to articulate a dream, then we can create a plan. So for all of us, when you ask yourself “What dream have I given up on,” maybe it’s time to reconsider those dreams, maybe it’s time to ask for God’s help and say “This next year as I come into it, I want to fulfil that dream. Amen.       Download Sermon

WE ALL NEED FRIENDS

 

The gospel lesson today is the story of Jesus calling the disciples. I grew up in the Baptist church and we had a kid’s song: “I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” It was engrained in us; this whole story of Jesus beginning to call His followers. And you know each week I try to look at the gospel lesson and I say, “Okay, what am I curious about? What questions do I have?” I supposedly studied it, I should have some leg up on people but I usually don’t so I have to study it and prepare and I’d like to share with you some of the questions that I have when I read the story and I’d like to share what I came up with and then we can discuss later, if you think it made any sense.

So what was I curious about today? First of all I’m curious, if you picture this, you’ve got these guys by the sea fishing and this travelling creature, not well known comes up and just says follow me, I’ll make you fishers of people and they follow. So first of all, I thought that’s a bit strange, I think they’re strange for following a stranger, so what about that? That was my first question. My second question was the concept of fish and fishermen is really powerful throughout the Christian tradition but I don’t know why. It was so powerful that the early Christians who were being persecuted would take in the sand and draw half of a circle and if you were a Christian you would quietly make the other half in the sign of a fish. The fish was the symbol of the early church and famously, in the biography of John McCain, he tells the story about being in a prisoner of war camp and one guard was particularly kind to him and one day the guard drew in the sand a fish and then quickly covered it over saying “you know, I’m a Christian.” So the symbol of fish, I was curious about that, that was my second question and then my third question is: why did Jesus need disciples  anyway? You believe Jesus is God coming into the world with all these powers, why followers? Why call these people? Why did he need them? So those are the three I’m going to try to tackle today.

The first one was why did they follow him? It was a cold call, you know. Cold calls don’t work but there is a line at the beginning of the story and as I looked into it, what we don’t usually know is these disciples were followers of John the Baptist. They were on a spiritual path, they were looking and at this point in the story John the Baptist has been arrested by the authorities; he will soon be executed. So Jesus inherits John the Baptist’s followers. So that’s who these people are. That’s why it was so fast. They were ready, they were looking. So that’s pretty straightforward question number one. How about the fish? What’s the importance of the fish? For this one I found kind of fascinating when I looked at what the mystics who look at the deeper meaning of scripture, what they came up with and I thought it was interesting. Fish, if you think about it, kind of dart around in the cold water, cold blooded, eyes wide open, that is symbolic of life here on earth, our daily life. If you think about it what do we do? We kind of dart around, we eat a little bit, we float over here, some days we’re with a school, some days we’re by our self. The meaning of it all isn’t all that clear and the mystics believed that this description of the fish was our description on earth. A little not very clear, we’re kind of darting around, we’re just kind of doing our errands, we’re going to the next meeting, trying to get the next gig, trying to make the new salary, trying get the new house, trying to get to the grocery store, we’re just kind of darting around. And I know that when I was in my twenties and thirties, I was doing a lot of darting and what I find now that people get up into their older years begin to say “You know I did all that and I’m not sure it was all that meaningful, what was the purpose of it? Why was I doing it? Yes I got that and I got that status, or I got that gig, or I got that job, or I have this house or I have this car, I have this family or whatever I have but people are looking for meaning.” And so in a way, being pulled out of that, being fished out of that spiritually would be the symbolism of being fished out of it is being aware that there’s something bigger. That’s not it and so fishing people out of it. And we all know in our own lives, people who have either fished us out of situations or we’ve been around people who are just darting around and you can’t get their attention or we’ve been at times where we needed to be fished out. We’ve been caught up in everything. Interesting image of the fish and it ties into the third question I had which was if Jesus is so powerful and God is so powerful, why would He need disciples? It may be one of the most radical teachings of Scripture that God is saying “God doesn’t do it alone,” that’s pretty wild. That God needs us. We call them disciples but when you think about it these were Jesus’ friends. These are the people late at night when He’s having a drink and they’re talking by the fire and sharing stories and we know that they were key women that were also friends, very controversial. These were the friends of Jesus. Jesus needed friends and there is a teaching in that, it can’t be done alone. That becomes a more radical idea in a culture where we kind of made individualism everything: we can do it all. “I can do it on my app, I can watch it when I want, I can do it when I want. I don’t need you, I don’t need anyone. I can watch my shows when I want to watch them, when I want to watch them; in my time.” A radical individualism, so much so that it is a kind of a radical concept that God is saying I need others to accomplish this; we can’t be changing the world by ourselves, we’ve got to be in community and Jesus is demonstrating that right up front with His first act, calling together others who can be with Him. Jesus needed friends. We need friends and coming back to the fish, we need friends who are going to lift us out of our routines. We need friends who are going to challenge us to think beyond just the transactional culture which frankly permeates a lot of Washington, it’s very transactional. “What can you do for me now and if you can’t I’m looking over your shoulder because somebody else might be able to.” That’s not the friendship that I’m talking about. The friendship here is holding people up, letting them see “Hey, I think this is your purpose, I think this is what you do really well, you lift me up and thank you for doing it.” That’s the role of friends and that’s the role that Jesus needed with the disciples and it’s the role that God is saying to us that this world, however it is, we are involved in procreating it. Wow, God needs us to be involved with it. It can get better, it can get worse and it depends on our activities, it depends on our friends, it depends on our love for each other.

So there is a lot in this short calling of the disciples. First, you’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to be paying attention. Are you even listening? A lot of people come to me and say, “I’d like to become spiritual but what does that look like? How do I do it?” And I always say, “Open up your heart, ask God’s help but come in with no expectations. Stop putting pressure on yourself.” Imagine if we could think of our relationship with God as more of a friendship where if you have a friend that you don’t call frequently, it doesn’t work. If you have a friend that you only call on when you’re in trouble, it doesn’t work. If you have a friend who you don’t tell the truth to because you’re afraid of being judged, it doesn’t work. We have to have that intimate relationship with God that Jesus offers coming in human form to say that we have a friend in Jesus and a friend in God. Amen.  Download Sermon

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING DIFFERENT

 

Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount from last week to His disciples and He tells them what they are and what they are not. He says, “You are like salt and you are like light and what you should not be, you should not be like the religious leaders.” What does Jesus mean by using this analogy of salt and light? Why salt? When I first thought of it as a modern person who is not supposed to eat too much salt. I thought, salt that brings flavor, he’s talking about bringing flavor and that’s how most people interpret what Jesus is talking about. But the more I thought about it, I realized that in His time salt had a very different role in the culture. Without refrigeration, salt was the preservative. Salt kept things from rotting, kept things going. And light- pretty straightforward. In a world of darkness, you bring light and you shine. Lots of interpretations on what this means. For me, this week from my understanding, I think Jesus is suggesting to Christians/followers that it is our job to stand outside the culture; that we are to embrace our difference; that we can only bring saltiness to the situation if we’re not part of it. That we can bring light to the situation if we’re not part of the darkness. I think Jesus is telling us that we have a unique role in the world and if we completely conform, we’re useless. When we do not live up to who we were created to be we’re like a light put under a basket in a closet where it’s hidden; it cannot play its role. Each of us has been given a special gift, a special way to be and I think Christ is embracing the fact that we need to do just that.

In the wonderful play, ‘The night Thoreau spent in jail,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson, big follower of Swedenborg, has a quote in the play and he says, “Cast conformity behind you,” and I think that at its core is what the text is. We need to cast conformity behind us, we need to maintain our uniqueness, we need to be different. But being different isn’t fun. Growing up we learn to what, please our parents and then as we get to our teens what’s most important in the whole world; not our parents but our best friends and then as we get older we try to please our bosses and pretty much we’re always seeking to please. We want to be liked, we don’t like being outsiders. Now I’m sure each of you has not just one but many stories where you felt like you were on the outside. There was the in-group and you’re on the out-group. Everybody else had this in common and you didn’t and you felt uncomfortable and there’s a real desire to fit in.

One story in my life where I was very different is my one football story in honor of the Super Bowl, it’s the only one I have. Now, I’m going to really surprise you when you learn this lesson about me that when I went to college, young, arrogant soccer player, the coach didn’t put me in my freshmen year and I was so arrogant I said to the coach, “You’re not playing me, fine. I will go and be the place kicker for the football team.” And so I did. I knew nothing about football, I still know pretty much nothing about football but I went over and I was the place kicker and the field goal kicker for my college and got to kick in army stadium and kick against Princeton in some exciting games and I was pretty good as a soccer player. But I was never really part of the team. I never really understood the game, they didn’t really care much for me. I came in and I either won the game or lost the game. I was either the best guy on the team or the worst guy on the team. It was pretty stressful. As the season went on I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be a football player and my coaches said, “Rich you’re so scrawny that after you do the kick off we want you to run off the field because we’re afraid people would come over and knock you over for no reason.” So that’s how much of a football player I was. In the last game of the season I said “I want to kick off and I want to run down that field. I am part of the football team, I wanted to belong. I’ve been wearing these pads the whole season, let’s try them out.” So what I did I kick off the kick off and my kick off went really far and I sprinted down the field as fast as I could and then it dawned at me, I was a soccer player. I was faster than any of the guys on the football team and I was now ten yards at least ahead of the rest of the team. And then I saw these big, big guys looking at me and I realized, I was the target, I was the tip. So being a very courageous, being a very courageous football player, I slowly slowed down and let all the action take place in front of me. It was very embarrassing. When we watched the films of the game you could see this V with me at the head of it and then slowly watch me slow down as everybody else crashed into each other like a car accident in front of me. I came out unscathed. I was never really a football player, I was a kicker. That’s a funny story for Super Bowl day but there are all kinds of ways that we are trying to figure out how do we fit in and convince our self that we’re part of a team.

Diversity is a very popular buzz word in the culture right now. People like diversity. Diversity is a good thing but it’s a tricky word, diversity because very often we do it on very superficial things. We’ll say “Is your church diverse; your group diverse?” It’s usually around gender or ethnicity or race but around ideology what people believe we’re still not very diverse and very comfortable on our bubbles. We like to be safe. The evidence shows that people who move from a Conservative area to a Liberal area become liberal. People who move from liberal area to a conservative area become conservative. Why? Because instead of respecting diversity we like to hammer people into what we are: be like us. And I think that the text today is saying no, embrace your uniqueness, that’s the true diversity and when you meet someone you don’t agree with, don’t feel a need to hammer them into the same view point that you hold. Instead, love them for who they are and how they were created, what’s their story? Embrace the diversity of them and their uniqueness.

Now, that’s a lot about the individual but what about the church? What should we be doing? How do we be salty? Where is our light on a hill? What about this church here? What’s our role in the world? This last year of trying to create a community here, I have asked hundreds of people probably, what would make the service better or what would you like more, particularly in worship. And in true American fashion, I had about a hundred ideas of how it could be improved and it’s almost diametrically opposed to the other person. We have all very clear ideas and this is the tricky part for the church right now. This last year, I have been doing a bit of outreach with Millennials and they have basically said, “I want a church that’s a lot more consumer friendly. I would do it without the whole worship and just download a podcast of the sermon, that would be better.” The question for the church and for this church as we figure out what’s our saltiness, what’s our diversity, what are we bringing to the table, I think we have to ask ourselves, when are we chasing the culture and when are we being available? When are we giving up on our unique gifts that we can offer on a sacred space and chasing after and becoming just as we use to say in the 70’s, a church of what’s happening now. It’s completely relevant to whatever you are, we’ll be that; you don’t like that we’ll be that. But at the same time if we don’t evolve and transform, we aren’t going to be heard, we can’t be relevant. And I don’t know the answer to that but I think that will be the question for the church in general and this next generation. What is the salt? What is the light? Where is our flavor in the culture? So I believe this text is calling us to each embrace our uniqueness that we have; to be a light, not to be something else, to be that unique saltiness that can even preserve this culture in this country. And in this time of turmoil in the world and in our country, I think it’s the most important time for us to, as the text says, show by our works that we are followers of Christ, keep our light lit, maintain that saltiness in the world and really, truly be examples of disciples of Christ. Amen.  Download Sermon

HOW WE CAN BE PEACEMAKERS

 

The Gospel this morning is taken from Matthew 5 and it’s famously known as ‘The Beatitudes/ The Sermon on the Mount.’ And Beatitudes means blessings; these are the blessings. And this is Jesus’ sermon for us. We have the Lord’s Prayer, this is the Lord’s sermon.

Now over the past few weeks in sermons I can’t help as I’m preaching, to think about the strife and the chaos and the crisis that our country is in right now. And I looked at this text and thought “What can we learn from the Beatitudes? What can we learn from the Sermon on the Mount that applies to what’s going on in our country today? What can we as Christians learn that we could respond? And yet this last week with the recent executive order banning refugees, the battle lines in our country seemed to have only gotten more intense. I know I’m not here to talk to you about what I think politically and in fact a recent survey showed that people in church don’t really care what their pastor thinks so I will share my opinion on politics. But I am curious to find out: what could we learn from scripture? Is there guidance from the Lord for us in these really difficult times and what is the role for us as Christians and what is the role of the church and this church in this town at this time? I do believe Jesus is giving us the road map to what it means to be a Christian disciple in this text. And most importantly, what jumped out at me this week was the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.” 

This last week I spent time at something called the Civic Collabatory. It is people that meet from around the country who are involved in how to improve American Civil Society and civil life: how can we make it better? What can we do to improve it? And as you can imagine for people who that is their business and they are gathered from all over the country and we are meeting for dinner in the Holocaust Museum, you can imagine that we had a lot of thinking to do. What is our role? Because when Civil Society falls down, when those battles increase, we know what follows. When there aren’t peacemakers, warriors replace them and win.

In looking at the Gospel today I realized how counter-culture it is to our society today, particularly our Washington DC Society. What Jesus said then was as radical today as it was two thousand years ago. For the fun of it I thought “What would be the blessings or the Beatitudes for the Sermon on the Mount if it was written for Christians in Washington today who want to put forth their career. I’ve got a short version. Are you ready? This is the Beatitudes for politics today:

Blessed are those who win for there’s is the kingdom.

Blessed are those who get their way for they will be happy.

Blessed are those who speak over others for they will gain sound bites.

Blessed are those who know they are right, for they don’t need to hear.

Blessed are the snarky for they will gain twitter followers.

Blessed are the attack dogs for they will get great book deals.

Blessed are the people who rave about your brilliance for you shall be called a thought leader.

That’s the prevailing attitude, the beatitude, the blessing of our culture right now. And Jesus turns this completely upside down. It runs counter to everything that we’re thought about being successful, particularly here in Washington. When Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in spirit…,” I believe he’s saying that the more you know, the less you know; the more you grow spiritually, the more you are aware of your own thoughts. You become humble then you realize that you are in fact poor in spirit.

“Blessed are those who mourn…” Those who care about the suffering in the world are sad. The sadness in the world at times makes us want to cry. I noticed the great mystics often talked about the ministry of crying and said that as they grew spiritually everything was more intense and they cried more often but for shorter periods of time then they moved on. They felt the pain for the world.

“Blessed are the meek…,” means the person who is willing to speak last if at all, waiting to let others say what’s needed. It means no longer having to win the debate. It means facilitating the debate.

“Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness…” means seeking a better world. To be a Christian means to be seeking a better world; this world, to bring greater Justice, not in our spare time but it means with our life. It requires us to be constantly curious, calm and purposeful.

“Blessed are the merciful…,” means operating from a position of mercy knowing that by the grace of God go I. It recognizes that there are no borders to God’s love. Merciful people have done their own inventory. They forgive because they’ve been forgiven.

“Blessed are the pure in heart,” means operating from a place of authenticity, compassion and truth. It seeks to find God in everyone, especially those we want to hate.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted…,” means not conforming and not conforming to your tribe, to your team or to your side. It often means standing alone. Bridge builders get walked on as bridges. When we think of the great spiritual teachers and great political leaders: Ghandi, King, Rabin, Bonhoeffer, [00:07:58], we remember they were not killed by other nations; they were killed by their own team for betraying the team. Anyone who steps out of the Partisan March in our country right now risks standing alone. I think that’s important for peacemakers.

“Blessed are those who are reviled and denounced for my sake,” means that when we truly follow Jesus, chances are we will be demonized at times and misrepresented. We have to stop wanting to be liked, we must be willing to be misunderstood, even by those closest to us to follow Jesus Christ.

At the end Jesus says “Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you…” One prophet of the modern age that I’d like to quote from is the Reverend Deitrich Bonhoeffer. I quote him for a number of reasons: he’s an inspiration to me, this is Holocaust Memorial week, we remember the people who were killed in the Holocaust. He led the Christian Church in opposition to Hitler and he’s also my cousin so I have a familial connection. In his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship,‘ he reminds us that the Christian life doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit in. We don’t have to understand it; we have to follow it. I love this quote. Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend. It must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension and I will help you to comprehend even as I do. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you’re going is true knowledge. God says my comprehension transcends yours.

Today in the gospel Jesus has given us a radical sermon about what it is to be a Christian. Let us not comprehend it, let us follow it and let us each accept our role and the role as a community to be peacemaker at this very critical time in the world. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.  Download Sermon

 

A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO AMERICAN POLITICS

This Sunday feels to me like it should be Civic Sunday. It falls on the day before we commemorate Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, and it’s also the Sunday before we have inauguration of our next president. And here we are in Washington DC, the center of a city, a city in turmoil and we are at a place called Holy City. And it seems to me a good place to ask the question, in our culture right now, what is a Christian response to America’s political crisis? And so we look at the gospel of John and we see the story of the cleansing of the Temple and that text has been used by Christians on both sides of political causes to say, “See Jesus gets angry, Jesus got violent, we can be too.” And I’m sure that’s how it will be used many times in the coming weeks. I see the text as pointing to something very different. I think John is challenging us, at not just the literal level but also at the spiritual level and I want to come back to what John has in store for us.

I think you’ll agree that our political system right now is quite broken. The animosity on both sides is quite dangerous. We are no longer people who disagree politically; we are enemies of each other. We are good, they are bad and it’s become a dangerous situation. Now, I know that politics is something that most people feel is dirty, sleazy, manipulative, something that we should avoid and certainly pastors should avoid. And when it comes to preaching from the pulpit for partisan reasons, I would agree, that is wrong and it’s frankly illegal but politics, itself is a very important space and it serves a very important role. Politics is the realm in a Democracy where we resolve our differences without force. It’s a major movement forward in the history of the world but in the past we resolved it by who had the strongest army and who had the strongest King and who could conquer us and rule over us. Democracy said “We can resolve our differences without force, by voting. People will have a voice” and I think it’s a very sacred space- American democracy, and it’s done much good in the world and I’m worried about it. I’m worried that if we continue escalating in this country in political attacks of one another without a sense of the common good that we can go backward and as we move backward what will arise in its place are strong men or women, who will be the strongest not allowing voices of descent and that’s a very dangerous place to be.

Over my adult life since I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched each political party de-legitimize, each president that’s been here. We remember the impeachment of Bill Clinton, we remember the close election of George W. Bush, we remember Barrack Obama’s birth stories that he was not legitimate and now we are coming into another president where people are saying the same thing and I think this constant tearing at our fabric is quite dangerous. So what does a Christian respond? Do we engage in the battle? In my opinion, the Christian world has also, for the most part, been pulled into the hyper partisanship. We have not been above the debate, we have not been facilitators of the discussion, we have chosen sides and we now have a Christian right and a Christian left.

Not too long ago, a couple years ago, if you remember when Barrack Obama was giving his eulogy in Charleston and he sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and I get choked up thinking about it, it was very moving. And I was watching at the home of a prominent Conservative leader, religious conservative and he said, “Turn that off! We don’t watch that man in this house. Turn that off and I cannot believe that your tearing up,” in response to my response. More recently I was with a group of progressive Christian leaders who took and voted to say we must end name-calling and making fun of people in the political world. After we voted in favor of it, a preacher got up and said, “Doctor Ben Carson, I finally figured it out. He’s a brain surgeon who has taken out his own brain.” The room erupted into laughter and screaming and yelling and it took minutes to quiet everybody down from the giggles of making fun of Doctor Ben Carson. I’m afraid that we have blind spots now in our culture and we’re now imitating the decay and the breakdown in the culture. We as Christians are not separating ourselves, we are not different.

This last week, the national cathedral had to explain to its members why its choir was singing for inauguration and why they were allowing the Cathedral to be used. They faced such criticism. So what does the Gospel of John and Jesus in the temple give us any guidance on how we can operate? I believe that the spiritual level of that text, what John is doing and John is the only gospel where the cleansing takes place at the beginning of the gospel; the other three gospels, it happens at the end. If you’re a literalist, there were two cleansings but I think John is trying to make a point. John is the more spiritual gospel and I think he’s saying, Jesus has come to upend things, the status quo is about to change, he way that you’ve been thinking is going to be flipped on its head. Your religious sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness is being chased out. That’s what I think the story is about and I think that text guiding us at a spiritual level, the rest of the gospel of John, and all the gospels, is Jesus constantly upending the status quo. He’s always taking on the religious establishment and saying “You who think you’re sanctified and self righteous and you have all the answers, wake up! To be a Christian means to always be humble, to always be evolving, to always be growing, to always be admitting new mistakes. You’re never there, as soon as you think you’re there, you’re not.” That’s the challenge of Jesus and that’s the challenge of the temple- challenging the status quo, the religious establishment of His day.

So what can we do? Well, we know at the end of the text, Jesus says the temple will be destroyed and it will be built in three days. What is He referring to? Obviously not the temple itself. He’s talking about Himself. He will die and rise in three days. Jesus is also giving us a prophetic warning that the Christian life is a life of sacrifice. It means running against the grain, it is not about the kingdom on this earth, it is a different kingdom. It is running against what’s popular. There will be sacrifice. In the case of Jesus, it was His life. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., it was his life. For most of us it will be a sacrifice of being right, of having all the answers. If the Christian Church in the United states could be the facilitator, could be the one that doesn’t have to win the debate but knows the debate has to go on but doesn’t need to win it but can facilitate it, we have a unique role in American politics at a very critical time.

Last February I was quoted in a Harvard Divinity School magazine and I said something that brought me a lot of criticism and jokes because I said something to this effect, “If Trump beats these folks in the primary, I think he could win the election,” and so that was seen as silly. I had another prediction: American democracy is not a given, it is not guaranteed it is not promised. If we keep de-legitimizing each other and turning each other into enemies and we’re interested more in scoring political points than building our country, we will lose it. And so I think the Christian church at this time needs to break from being a voice for either party or either extreme and speak the gospel which is about love, compassion, forgiveness and humility. Amen.  Download Sermon