Winning the World with Love

blogpic.KingLoveA Sermon preached on Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016

The difficulty in celebrating Jesus Christ as our King today, and every year, for that matter, is that after 2 millennia, Christians the globe over still find Jesus’ style of leadership nearly impossible to follow.

This passage from Luke offers us two kinds of kingship—two kinds of power and authority, two kinds of kingdoms, and we often find it’s easier to side with the crucifiers rather than the crucified.

The leaders, soldiers, one of the criminals and the standers-by give voice to Herod’s kingdom. In the verses earlier in chapter 23 of Luke, both Herod and Pilate have found that Jesus has done nothing wrong, yet the truth seems irrelevant in a culture where wielding power over others is the ultimate god. “Save yourself!” shouted the soldiers, leaders and on-lookers. “save yourself and us!” implores the criminal hanging beside him. “Look out for #1 and use force, use might, use power over others by any means necessary to win the day!”

Jesus, hanging on the cross, brings us a different kind of kingdom. “Father, forgive them for they do not what they are doing.” Instead of fighting and resisting, Jesus takes on the violence, he absorbs it rather than giving it back. Jesus takes in all the pain and returns love. In Jesus kingdom, he reigns from a cross rather than a palace; he forgives the people who killed him, his only weapon is love rather than might, and he saves criminals and brings them to paradise. Rather than power over others, he embodies an equalizing power beside others—beside all the other innocents who suffer unjustly.

Herod uses violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality. Jesus' sets aside the sword and instead invites all people, even enemies, into a new way of being.

Herod’s authority comes from the will of Caesar, the emperor, and it’s always tenuous. Jesus' authority comes from doing the will of God, which is constant and eternal.

Herod taxes the poor, takes what is not his, oppresses the vulnerable, and demonizes those who threaten his power. Herod has no interest in building community - much less one guided by truth and love, and Herod keeps order through fear--through the threat of death on a cross or otherwise. Again, by contrast, Jesus’ ministry has been a traveling parade of love, healing, renewal, second chances, beatitudes and bread – lots of bread to feed thousands and thousands of people. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers leap for joy, the demon-possessed dance with praise. Jesus enters peoples’ suffering, sees their humanity, empowers those he meets with forgiveness and love.

Yet when his kingdom leads to the cross—we’re not so sure we want to follow Jesus’ reign as king there. There’s a fearful part of us that wants the same kind of king as the crowds, leaders, and soldiers that believe that Herod’s kingdom is the only way – we want someone who is powerful, who can save himself and us, and who will take vengeance on his and our enemies.

But Christ our King, looks at us from the cross and asks, which kingdom will you follow?
• When white supremacist views regain currency in our national conversation and leadership, who’s kingdom are we listening to—Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we view our political enemies as a “basket of deplorables” who’s kingdom are we voicing —Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we’re tempted to demonize Muslims or immigrants out of our own fear and prejudice, who’s kingdom is gaining power, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?
• When we see acts of terrorism that continue around the world, we do want to give into fear, to close our borders, to increase military action abroad, use drones and every kind of fire power against our enemy, but who’s kingdom does such action follow, Herod’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?

We bring our cries and prayers before God today and we ask for the power and wisdom of our risen Lord and King to help us tease out the differences between what our fear want us to do and what our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to do.

The great sin of American Christianity has been to merge our patriotism with our Christian calling in the world, but Luke makes clear that these are often not one in the same. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to lift up Jesus Christ as King than after this election. For there is no political party, no candidate, and no government that embodies nor deserves our loyalty above Jesus Christ our Lord.

For all violence, whether wrought by terrorists, nations, or individuals, is the way of Herod which never leads to a crown of righteousness, a kingdom, and a power that is true and everlasting.

All rhetoric that divides and demeans people whether spoken by a political candidate, a family member across the Thanksgiving table, or a social media platform, is the way of Herod and not the way of the cross.

Mahatma Ghandi said it this way: “The enemy of love is not hate, but fear.” In fact, there are 365 “Fear nots” in the Bible – one for every day of the year. Fear is fundamental in our drive to follow Herod’s way and save ourselves, rather than Jesus’s way of forgiveness, transformation through love and care for those on the margins of society.

It does not mean that we don’t need compassionate screening at our borders, or economic policies that produce jobs. But as Christians, we must call to account, manipulation through fear-mongering, demeaning and endangering people by fostering hate, and unethical, inhumane policies that result from fear.

Jesus did not let fear, the threat of violence, or the pain of death put a stop to his love, compassion, and solidarity with God’s people. He transformed fear into love, and death into life, and violence into victory. Through his resurrection from the dead, he slipped the surly bonds of earth so we can all touch the face of God. Jesus’ kingdom is so powerful that it bridges this life and the next life, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, the finitude of this world and the infinity of the next.

We don’t need to save ourselves, because Jesus has already done so! Herod’s kingdom tempts us to seek through violence that which we already have—salvation!

To the criminal hanging next to him, Jesus says: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Today, not tomorrow, not next week, not when the kingdom comes in its fulfillment, not at the apocalypse, not when the Herod’s of the world give up. Today. Today you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus says the same to us--"Today, you’re sins are forgiven. Today, this is my body and this is my blood given for you. Today, I am with you. Today, my love is stronger than death. Today my power is greater than your fear. Today my kingdom is greater than this earthly realm." Today, Jesus calls us to live in this eternal kingdom here and now, as a witness against the “Herods” and “fear-mongers” of this time.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and The Spiritual Exercises, describes Jesus’ call from the cross in this way: It is my will to win over the whole world, to overcome evil with good, to turn hatred aside with love, to conquer all the forces of death—and whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and humankind. Whoever wishes to join me in this mission must be willing to labor with me and so by following me in struggling and suffering, that you may share with me in glory. (A contemporary interpretation by David L. Fleming, S.J. in Draw Me Into Your Friendship, p. 85)

Jesus, risen from the dead calls us to join him in winning over the whole world with love. A friend of mine has a son who works as a high school counselor. The day after election, he texted his mom in the morning to say it was a terrible day already because white students were bullying minority students. He had a Latino student in his office in tears because students were saying he would be deported. At the end of the day, he communicated with her again and said it had turned out to be a good day. He was able to talk with the bullies and the victims and was able to begin to transform hate and pain into respect and healing. In other words, he was working in Jesus’ kingdom to win over the day with love.

So be filled with Jesus love at the Communion table today, and at your own table every day. Embody Jesus’ kingdom in your daily life, your daily conversations, in your daily actions and your daily work by being grounded in Jesus’ love and salvation for you, grounded in God’s love for this whole Creation and for every person it; and trusting that through Christ, all things are possible.

That’s what Jesus, our King desires; and it’s absolutely what our country and world needs.

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We are All Beggars

blogpic.wearebeggarsA Sermon Preached on Luke 18:9-14

Thank God I’m not like other people--thank God I’m not like that junkie, that criminal, that homeless man with the sign at the end of my exit ramp, that ugly, mean, politically misguided, or whatever person.

The distance of 20 centuries melt before our eyes as the Pharisee lays bare our secret thoughts. Thank God I am not like them.

We think it without even noticing sometimes--comparing, appraising, judging-- jockeying for our imagined superiority with practiced mental gymnastics that allow is to feel better about ourselves for one more hour or one more day.

The whole advertising industry feeds on our insecurities born of comparing ourselves to the person next to us or worse, to some artificial ideal--whether of attractiveness, wealth, success, social status, moral superiority or religious devotion. As if on cue, a new movie called “Keeping up with the Joneses” hit theaters just this past Friday.

The Temple rituals and structure in Jesus’ time was also based on the stratification of society. If you could enter the Temple and how far you could go in depended on your religious and social status, and whether or not your were purified through ritual washing. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies--the earthly dwelling place of God’s presence; it was blocked off by a thick curtain and the high priest entered it only once a year to atone for Israel’s sins. Those considered unclean--the poor, the sick, prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners--were not even allowed inside the outermost gate.

As in ancient times, this problem runs much deeper than social status, and acceptability. We ascribe our stratifications to God whom we believe has more love for those who are “better” people and less love for those who are worse. God loves us churchgoers more than those uncommitted spiritual but not religious people out there. God has less to forgive of me, then those in the county jail, and so on.

It’s like we put faith on a bell curve-- the small group at the high achieving end-- like Martin Luther, Mother Theresa, Dr. King, Dorothy Day, or Nelson Mandela. We’re not quite as good as they are, but we’re in that big group in the middle of the bell curve-- we go to church, we volunteer, we help others when we can. Then there’s the miscreants at the other end of the bell curve--those people on the other side of the political spectrum, criminals, addicts, the homeless--whomever we disdain the most.

Verse 9 of Luke 18 says that Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. That’s the poison of our comparison game--we can’t remain self-righteous without developing the accompanying hatred for the other.

We develop the most contempt for those we fear we might become. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, says it this way, You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

We see this so clearly in the Pharisee in this parable-- On the upside, he seems to take great joy in being able to fulfill the religious rules so well, he really is devoted -- I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. It’s the pride that gets him: And look here, I am praying in the inner court of the Temple because I am so awesome. I am so easy to love because I am so pleasing to you.

His arrogance puts a barrier between him and God, --he trusts himself rather than God. He credits himself with his blessings, rather than coming to God with a heart of gratitude, giving thanks to the Source of all of who he is, all of what he possesses, and all of what he can do.

Jesus contrasts him with the tax collector--which actually when we look closely at the Greek, is actually a toll-booth collector. This man is not skimming off the rich, as did Zaccheus in the next chapter of Luke, but rather he’s at the bottom of the economic rung. He’s the person sitting in the toll booth, collecting fees from those who use the roads. His work exploits the poor and benefits the Roman occupiers. He knows his work hurts his people, yet if he were to stop, how would he feed his children?

It’s intriguing that the toll-booth collector offers no promise to change his line of work or his behavior. He doesn't try to bargain with God. He throws himself on the mercy of God, begging for forgiveness and trusting that all good and blessing in his life comes not from his own efforts, but from the God of love, mercy and forgiveness. The toll-booth collector is too desperate to divide people into stratifications for he is too aware of his own great need. His brokenness opens him up to God in inverse proportion to the barrier that the Pharisee erects with his self-congratulations.

Where does this leave us? It might be tempting to leave here and say, Thank God I am not like that self-righteous Pharisee! Thank goodness I’m humble! (my first thought when I read this passage!), but that would be missing the very point. For as soon as we fall prey to dividing humanity into groups, we align ourselves squarely with the Pharisee who trusts himself more than God. And anytime we try to decide who is in and who is out, we will most assuredly, find God on the other side.

Through this parable, Jesus invites us to take our focus off the Joneses, and off our self, and put it back on God--the God who alone is the judge of the human heart; the God who chooses to justify the ungodly and yes, the undeserving, with unmerited love and grace.

For this God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ to offer himself for all of us who sin and fall short of the glory of God. When Jesus died on the cross, that dividing Curtain in the Temple was torn in two-- erasing all divisions of humanity before God. As the curtain tears, the thread that forms our supposed bell curve, pulls loose--the curve collapses and we all land on a level plane before God and beneath the cross.

In those who seem extraordinary like the Pharisee, Martin Luther, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela, God knows brokenness and sin, but instead sees the righteousness of Jesus.
In you and me and the rest of us in the imagined middle, God knows brokenness and sin, but instead sees the righteousness of Jesus.
In the toll-booth collector, the criminal, the junkie, the hateful, the Presidential candidate we’re NOT voting for, God knows brokenness and sin, but instead sees the righteousness of Jesus.

Because it’s not what we do that bring us to God, it’s what God does for us in Jesus Christ that brings us to God.

On his deathbed in 1546, Martin Luther scribbled 6 words on piece of paper: We are beggars, this is true.

With the toll-booth collector and the Pharisee, we are all beggars, freed from worrying about ours or anyone else’s status. We are freed to live by the love and forgiveness of Jesus that embraces and feeds us today, a love that knows no human boundaries and begs to be shared with others.

DT Niles, one of the founders of the World Council of Churches, has been credited with summarizing our -mission as the church with these words, evangelism is one beggar showing another beggar where to find food. People everywhere are hungering for the food of God’s love and that’s our mission as ones who have been loved, freed and forgiven in Jesus Christ.

We are all beggars, that is true, but no one is beyond the beating heart, the pounding feet of a God who searches for the lost. So go, therefore, beggar of God, and share your bounty.

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Body-Love for Women

blogpic BodyLove03I was praying one morning last week about my frustration with my weight. Even though I exercise almost every single day, eat a healthy diet with a glass of wine only once or twice a week, I seem to be on a steady rise in weight. My pants still fit, but now that I’m over 50, it’s the shirts that are getting tighter in the stomach and the sleeves. I do not understand why evolution thinks this is a good plan.

My spiritual director shared that the granddaughter of a friend of hers calls the fat under her upper arms “fluffy angel wings!” While I love the phrase and the image, I still would rather not have fluffy angel wings until I get to heaven. Being on a headache prevention medicine that can cause weight gain is not helping my cause. I’ve lowered my dosage by 15 mg, but still have a ways to go before I wean off of it. 

As I prayed for the grace to have middle-aged body acceptance, I heard the Spirit urging me:

Love your body fiercely!
Like Me, she’s been with you and supported you through all of your life.
   Your body has born the slings and arrows and hurts of this life—
      everything from cutting remarks, tears, pain, and illness
         to your own harsh judgments.

Your body bears the scars and marks of who you are today, how you got here, and how you have become wiser.

She has grown and changed with you and loved you,
   Your body has tolerated bad food and unhealthy choices,
      survived cancer and chronic migraines,
         walked you into foreign lands and new experiences.

Love your body fiercely!
   Love your body as you love Me.
      It’s a sign of My presence with you.

She holds the lessons of the past so you will not forget them.

   She enables you to move through today and offers you tomorrow

      Your body will be your constant companion until you die.

Say thank you!

   Tell her you love her.

      Love your body fiercely!

[I named this piece before I found the photo, but was so excited to happen upon it at: http://www.rebellesociety.com/2016/02/12/tracystamper-bodylove/

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Beyond Financial Anxiety

blogpic tithingA sermon preached on Luke 16:1-13 on September 17-18, 2016

In 1989 I was ordained and moved to Detroit MI for my first call. I was serving an urban congregation and lived in the parsonage or house next door to the church. I was so excited after 4 years of college and 4 years of seminary, to make a real salary. I was going to buy my first car, start paying off student loans, purchase a professional wardrobe,ge t some furniture, and decorate my little house like a real adult.

I quickly discovered that doing all of these things on a salary of $17,000 was going to be difficult, if not impossible. Even with a parsonage, it was a struggle to meet all my needs on this amount of money; and I became racked with anxiety about not being able to pay my own way.

To make it worse, before I left seminary, I attended a workshop on tithing—giving 10% of my income back to God through the church for the mission of the Gospel. I couldn’t make it on $17,000, so now how was I going to tithe and live on $15,300? Oh, and did I mention I was getting married the following year? I thought earning a real salary was going to be awesome, but instead I had a higher grade of financial anxiety. You cannot serve God and wealth. What was I going to do?

In Luke 16:1-13, Jesus tells a parable about a dishonest manager who also seems to have high financial anxiety and worry about not having enough. Unlike a positive parable that shows us how to behave, like the Good Samaritan, this chapter of Luke contains Parables of Judgment—how NOT to behave given our financial anxiety. The Dishonest Manager has been caught squandering his bosses’ income, most likely in finding ways to line his own pockets. Now he’ll be left without a job and no means of livelihood.

Instead of this crisis leading to repentance and positive behavior, he uses his deceptive and dastardly ways to make friends with other dishonest folk, ensuring someone will help him once he’s cast out on his kiester. Misery loves company, and so does dishonesty and fraud as it turns out.

Then we come to the very puzzling, vs. 8, where Jesus talks about using dishonesty and the ways of the world to secure a place in “eternal homes.” Something is amiss. We are used to Jesus welcoming the lost into the kingdom of God, but such a welcome causes a transformation from dishonesty to honesty. We hear such a story later in Luke 19, in the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector. His encounter with Jesus causes Zaccheus to return four times what he has stolen, and to give half his income to the poor, NOT to make friends in heaven with continued dishonesty.

My colleague, Pr. Richard Mueller pointed out to me and I agree with him, that “eternal homes” in vs. 8, is not the best translation. Keeping in mind that Luke is writing to a Greek audience, the word for “homes” could also be translated as “shadows.” Make friends by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal “shadows”—or to hell in other words. A Parable of Judgment. You cannot serve God and wealth. This makes much more sense since the very next parable in Luke 16 is about the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man fails to help the poor, starving Lazarus who begs outside his gate. When they both die, Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell. By positioning these parables together, Luke wants us to know that the rich man will find companions already in the eternal shadows—this crooked manager and his dishonest friends.

It turns out they’re all in good company when it comes to financial shenanigans.
• Amos 2 reprimands Israel for “trampling on the needy…practicing deceit with false balances...buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
• The Pharisees bent the law so they could collect nice fees for things like unlawful divorce.
• As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are reminded that Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences designed to make money off of Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness.
• Recently Wells Fargo bank has been in the news for opening unauthorized accounts and charging customers extra fees.
• Maybe we too, are tempted to live in the financial shadows and fudge just a little bit on our taxes or on our expense account, engaging in shades of dishonesty when our financial anxiety gets the best of us.

You cannot serve God and wealth. Luke’s parables of judgment in Luke 16 call us to repent of our service to wealth and to instead trust in God to provide all we need and use our resources to help the poor.

So how do we do this given our real financial anxieties? In 2nd Timothy St. Paul reminds us that there is only ONE God –there is only one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

Jesus has already paid the price and secured our future –to live within the embrace of God’s love for eternity! Jesus paid this price, not just so we can have peace in death, (and pie in the sky bye and bye), but so that we can have peace in this life here and now, freed from all of our anxieties. Complete trust that God’s hand is in my life—every detail of it—including my budget, is the kind of faith to which God calls us and Jesus Christ won for us.

There are two spiritual practices that help me manage my finances and my anxiety. I don’t exercise these spiritual practices perfectly, and I need God’s forgiveness and help everyday when I flunk. I’m sure many reading this practice these as well, and I would love to hear your testimony in the comments!

The first spiritual practice that helps me worship God instead of wealth is gratitude. When I wake up in the morning and I put my feet on the floor for the first time that day, I try to remember to say, “thank you”—one word for each foot on the floor, so that my first thought of the day is to thank God for the gift of life and all that surrounds me before I even stand up.

This practice led to saying “thank you” to God more frequently throughout the day, and at night when I looked back over my day. Keep a journal by your bedside and write down that for which you are grateful. What new additions can you add each day?

Over time, I noticed an internal shift when a destitute person asks me for help; the first time this internal shift happened several years ago, I was standing in front of a Thai restaurant in the University City Loop several years ago. A woman asked if I had any change and instead of getting that uncomfortable-guilty-stingy-shameful feeling, I gave her some money, and as I did so, a new thought popped in my head, “God will give me what I need.” It came as a gift of faith; it was not something I generated myself.

Two weeks ago, I was on my way to Saturday evening worship and I had one of the red bag lunches with me (that the church I serve prepares to give to homeless people). I stopped at the bottom of the exit ramp, and an old gentleman was there with a sign. I told him I didn’t have cash, but I did have some food to eat, and he said, “well if you gave me money, I would buy food with it, so thank you!” Even he practiced the spiritual discipline of gratitude.

The second spiritual practice is the one I mentioned at the beginning—tithing. Remember that $15,300 I didn’t think I could live on aftter giving my tithe? I was taught in the tithing workshop that when I give God my first fruits—with gratitude—God will provide what I need—not all I want, mind you—but what I need. I confess to you that I did not believe it. I did not trust God to provide what I needed because I had a lot of financial anxiety. But, I thought it was part of my job. So after my first paycheck, I wrote out my 10% check to the church—not as an act of faith—but because I thought I had to.

A week and a half later, I was out doing my first Communion visits to the homebound. It was a Tuesday and I was on my way to see Gladys Steinheiser, who lived the furthest distance from the church. I looked at my gas gauge and it was below a ¼ of a tank. I was completely out of money and payday wasn’t until that weekend. As I looked at my gas gauge, I thought to myself, “I won’t be able to do any more visits this week since I am almost out of gas and I’m out of money.”

I arrived at Gladys’s house; we had a lovely visit and shared the Lord’s Supper. She walked me to the door and as I turned to say goodbye to her, she handed me an envelope and said, “Here, this is for gas.”

I’ve been a tither ever since! I got in the car and I said to God, “Ok, I get it!” and that’s freedom from anxiety!

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The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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