Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear, Folly, and Power

King Solomon's got it goin' on. (Photo credit Wikimedia)
Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon? I mean, he’s got it all. He comes from the right family—I mean, move over, Daleys. He’s got enough money to look Bill Gates in the eye and seriously play poker with Warren Buffet. And he’s so famous that other world leaders come just to see if the hype is true. The Queen of Sheba looked Solomon up and down and, “Dang, Sol, you got it goin’ on.”

            King Solomon’s legacy even lasted into the incredulous Scientific Revolution. The Freemasons adopted symbolism that connected their fraternal order with the splendor of Solomon. And who could forget that classic Nick Cage movie, National Treasure, where the protagonist discovers King Solomon’s treasure in, um, Manhattan, but where else would King Solomon’s treasure be? That’s just one of many reasons why it’s a classic.

            But setting aside Solomon’s celebrity, let’s get some back story here. A kind of  “behind the music” look at Solomon, you know, like if Bob Woodward worked for VH1. So Solomon is the son of King David, a man after God’s own heart, and Bathsheba, whom King David pursued apart from God’s heart. If you don’t remember that story, after he had become king, David played peeping Tom after Bathsheba while she was bathing, had a child with her while her husband was off fighting in David’s army, then had her husband killed, and finally admitted his guilt once the prophet Nathan called him out. That’s Solomon’s daddy, all right. Now Solomon wasn’t David’s only son, no far from it. Solomon’s step-brother, Amnon raped Solomon’s step-sister, Tamar, and Solomon’s other step-brother, Absalom, killed Amnon in revenge. Then Absalom staged a military coup against David, in which he killed most of his step-brothers, except, obviously, for Solomon, but eventually Absalom’s head got in the way—literally, his head got stuck in a tree branch. If you want the whole story, read it in the Bible. It’s even better than Game of Thrones. So, back to Solomon. He and his mother convince King David, who eventually gets old and dies, you know, like kings do, that Solomon should succeed David to the Israelite throne. David agrees, and then Solomon goes and kills everyone who might oppose him. I think Francis Ford Coppola was reading the Bible when he was directing The Godfather. Now stay with me, we’re almost to the best part about Solomon. He was humble.

            Yes! Believe it or not, Solomon was incredibly humble. See, Solomon knew that the Israelites he was to rule were a great people and were difficult to rule, as evidenced by the deaths of all of his step-brothers. That’s enough to humble anybody, I suppose, even a Kennedy of antiquity like Solomon. But one night after a long day of sacrificing all sorts of things on a high mountain to the Lord God, God comes and asks Solomon what he wants. I kinda bet the first thing that comes to Solomon’s mind is, “I’d like know if I have any more step-brothers who might want to kill me,” but no, that’s not what Solomon asks. Solomon recognizes that God is steadfast in love and mercy, and he asks God for an “understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil step-brothers (no wait, he didn’t mention step-brothers), for who can govern this your great people?” No, seriously, God, who can govern these people, because they are, like, crazy.

            Solomon’s request for an “understanding mind” strikes a deep, harmonious chord with God, and God grants Solomon’s request, along with a bigger bank account than the entire Saudi royal family and more fame than all of the One Direction guys plus Justin Bieber put together. If you don’t know what One Direction or a Bieber is, then blessed are you. I bet you didn’t expect a beatitude tonight. But God does bless Solomon! God blesses Solomon so much! God blesses Solomon so much that Solomon makes a bunch of alliances with the historic enemies of God’s people, and Solomon develops a harem of hundreds of women, and Solomon conscripts thousands of peasant Israelites to build the temple to the Lord, because God blesses Solomon to be a blessing—and a slavemaster. Yes! God. Bless. Solomon. I even bet he made a patriotic song out of it.

            In case you haven’t been able to cut through my sarcasm, let me make this plain. I don’t really like King Solomon. I don’t really like his daddy, either. Honestly, I have a hard time reading a lot of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible. I might enjoy watching House of Cards on Netflix, but I don’t enjoy reading the same plot lines in the scriptures that leads us to salvation and liberation and redemption. Blame it on the highfalutin seminary education I’m getting in Hyde Park, but I can’t read the story of God’s gift of wisdom to King Solomon without my hermeneutic of suspicion leaking out my ears. Of course King Solomon starts out on the right foot! I mean, besides killing a bunch of political enemies, but Solomon is all right to start with. But so was King Saul before God replaced him with David. And so was King David before he had that fling with Bathsheba, Solomon’s mom. I can’t help but recall the prophecy of Samuel, through whom God said,

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon?

            I grew up with the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even well-meaning people have a really hard time resisting the corruption that often accompanies power. I am a student of major revolutions in world history, and I can get pretty disheartened when I survey them. The American Revolution cast off the bondage of the British crown, but Americans kept African-descended people in bondage for another century after that, and then established Jim Crow and systematic mass incarceration came after that. The French Revolution brought down the Bastille, but after a decade or two of beheading each other, Napoleon warped the revolutionary spirit to conquer most of Europe. The Russian Revolution promised the dictatorship of the proletariat, but instead got secret police, gulags, and Ukrainian famine.  It’s enough to make an idealistic revolutionary leave the Occupy camp, put on a tie, and sit in a cubicle. At least there’s a better shot at good health insurance. Eventually.

            It’s enough to make somebody fear the folly of power, too. I remember during a community organizing training a faith leader shared that he was afraid of getting too much power. Now this faith leader had more musical talent in his little finger than most whole church choirs do, and he had a magnetic personality that sucked you into whatever project he’s working on. But he’s a man of God, and a Christian of undeniable integrity, so he was very nervous about associating with the corrupting nature of power. He didn’t want to be another Elijah Muhammad, who fathered several children by his secretaries while he was leading the Nation of Islam in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, he also wanted to participate in the great missio dei, the mission of God to liberate and redeem all of creation, and, well, what can I say but the missio dei needs powerful people.

            Yes, we may be afraid when we decide to get into God’s mission of liberation and redemption. In fact, we should approach the great throne of God with more than a little fear and trembling, but let’s not let that fear stop us from accepting the liberating power of God. Rather than leading to the worldly folly of greed, malice, and lust, the power of God works in us so that we can have power over the temptations of our culture. Accepting the power of God moves us while still amidst our folly to overcome our fear and participate in the holy missio dei.

            Dear friends, God did not wait for King David or King Solomon to be perfect before God began using them for God’s great mission. And what about Moses before them? While Moses was a prince in Pharaoh’s corrupt court in Egypt, he murdered a man, and yet God still used Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage and embark on the great exodus to the Promised Land. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who betrayed all her neighbors to the invading Israelites, but God still used her to help set up the sabbath communities where widows, orphans, and strangers would be cared for. And who could forget how Paul locked up Jesus’ followers and thought it great fun when they were stoned to death. That didn’t stop God from busting into Paul’s life, messing him so much that he blacked out for a couple weeks and then started answering to a different name.

            Our worldly folly does not prevent God from busting a move and delivering us from the tempter’s snare. We get caught up in our security and safety and a life where nothing surprising can ever happen, trying so hard to live out a life that doesn’t need God, turning away the unaccompanied immigrant children, ignoring the disheveled street people, and denying our LGBTQ sisters and brothers the opportunity to marry with the blessing of our church. We are so caught up in playing it safe that we are caught in the same fear and folly that we were trying to avoid.

            But fear not, sisters and brothers! God doesn’t wait for us to get it right to work the holy missio dei in us and around us. God’s love is so great that Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, lived and died amidst worldly fear and folly so that all of creation, even you and me, might know salvation, liberation, and redemption. There’s no mountain too high, valley too deep, or expressway too busy that God’s love in Jesus Christ wouldn’t cross to save, liberate, and redeem all of creation, even you and me. In the words of the apostle Paul, written once he had recovered from that nasty blackout, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even Solomon’s corrupt politics nor his daddy’s crooked wheeling and dealing can stop God’s love from blessing them from blessing the world around them. That is the power of God’s love!

            So let us seek power, dear friends, not the power that leads to folly and fear, but the power of God’s love which organizes us for the holy missio dei. With the power of God’s love organizing our lives, fear and folly lose their corrupting power. With the power of God’s love organizing our church, no walls can exclude any of our sisters and brothers from Christ’s body. With the power of God’s love organizing our world, all widows, all orphans, all strangers, indeed all of God’s creation will be reconciled and redeemed back to God and to each other. Praise God almighty! Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Weeding the Kingdom of God

Crabgrass: the demon weed from the 7th circle of hell.
(Photo credit Michigan State University)
Let me tell you a golf story. Well, at least it takes place at a golf course. The summer after I graduated from college, I worked for the maintenance crew at a resort and golf course close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was primarily raking leaves for six weeks when my boss gave me a new assignment: weeding. Now being the son of a self-employed landscaper, I know the ins and outs of weed removal, but this was a different brand of weeding. See, there had been an infestation of crabgrass in the first cut of grass around couple of the greens—it’s called the “fringe”. My boss was baffled at how the crabgrass had snuck into the fringe of several greens, but she sure didn’t want it there for the big tournament in the middle of August. However, she also didn’t want any holes in the fringe where the crabgrass used to be. The first commandment in golf course maintenance is to keep greens smooth so that the golf ball can roll naturally. That meant that I had to remove each piece of crabgrass individually with a pocketknife and fill in each little hole that I had created with sand and a bit of grass seed.

         I spent almost two weeks doing this—kneeling on the fringe, using a pocketknife to remove individual blades of crabgrass, filling each little whole with sand—so that golfers would never know that somehow the crabgrass had been there. There was one day I spent 12 hours doing this. I called that number 11 fringe “the seventh circle of hell”.

            A landowner sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well...

            If I started with a story about golf, then this parable from Matthew 13 is a story about weeds, which means, of course, that it isn’t. Jesus knew that to get through to his audience in 1st century Palestine, he had to talk about agriculture. And he knew how to tell good story, too. When he told this parable about the wheat and the weeds, I can picture the people, many of whom are migrant farmworkers, cringing at a story about weeds among the wheat. They’d especially cringe at the mention of this kind of weed, too. See, the word which is translated “weeds” or “tares” in English can also be translated as “darnel”, which looks an awful lot like wheat. In fact you can’t even really tell the difference between the two until they produce grain. It’s pretty important that you don’t mix the grain of wheat and darnel, too, because darnel has the tendency to attract a fungus that quite noxious when eaten by humans, even fatal at times. So you see, the landowner had quite a problem on his hands, and the poor slaves would have been the ones to painstakingly separate the noxious darnel from the useful wheat. Perhaps with a pocketknife, going plant by plant, for maybe 12 hours a day, for acres and acres in the hot sun. Yes, cringe I’m sure Jesus’ audience did.

            But you know what? Sometimes you just have to pull those weeds, you know what I mean? You can’t have crabgrass on the fringe around number 11 green, and you can’t mix darnel with wheat. You just gotta do what you gotta do.

            Let’s look at this allegorically, a little like Jesus did. Sometimes we can’t leave the children of the evil one among the righteous. After all, scripture also says not to associate with nonbelievers and people who are just gonna bring you down. In the church we call some moments like this “reform”. Martin Luther was a master metaphorical weeder. He was obsessed about whether he was a child of the evil one or one of the righteous, and the church as it was in the 16th century couldn’t resolve his anxiety. There are stories about how Luther as a young man would do confession with his priest, think, “Wow, that was a great confession,” and then immediately run to the back of the line so that he could confess the sin of pride.

            Of course Luther also looked around his beloved church and saw extreme corruption. See, back in Luther’s day the Vatican was building St. Peter’s Basilica off of people’s anxiety about the eternal life of their loved ones.  For a price, folks could get priests and monks and nuns to pray for the souls of specific people, thus shortening their time in purgatory and getting them into heaven faster. They were called “indulgences”, and it was the snake-oil fraud of the 16th century church. Luther saw indulgences for what they were, and so he boiled down Christian doctrine to his slogan “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia”. That is, scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone, and that’s how the Reformation began with some theological weeding.

            Methodists were metaphorical weeders when we began, too. John Wesley experienced a severely watered-down faith at Oxford in the early 1700’s, and so he too went back to the basics. Wesley often said that he was trying to emulate the early Christian communities of Acts and the New Testament epistles with the Methodist societies he helped organize. Like Luther, Wesley loved his slogans, too. Probably the most famous were his “3 Simple Rules”: do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God. And Wesley wasn’t afraid to weed out folks who weren’t putting a good faith effort into the Methodist way of life. Back in the day, if you wanted to go to a class meeting, you had to have a ticket, and I’ll be darned if you could get past good ol’ John Wesley if he had taken away your ticket. Call it Christian accountability, if you will. I, being a landscaper’s son, might call it Wesleyan weeding.

            The slaves said to landowner, “Then do you want us to go and gather the [weeds]?” But he replied “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”

            Now, hold up. When Jesus breaks down his own allegory he identifies the landowner as the Son of the Man, which means Jesus. So that means Jesus is telling folks not to weed. Just when I had my pocketknife and bucket full of sand together, Jesus comes and tells me that should leave that crabgrass in the number 11 fringe. I’m honestly pretty happy about that because I hated that job, but what gives? Everybody knows that you can’t have crabgrass on the fringe, and it’s downright irresponsible and dangerous to have darnel among the wheat. So come, on, Jesus. What’s your game here?

            I’m gonna confess something here, friends. Sometimes I get a little over-exuberant about weeding. It’s just that I focus on one task at a time; I do that one task really well before I move on to the next task. So sometimes when I get to weeding I start yanking up every last little plant that seems just a little out of place. It’s my job, right? But here’s the thing: even though I’m a landscaper’s son, I didn’t plant this flowerbed. I don’t know exactly how it’s supposed to be, so that means I need be quite careful about weeding in someone else’s flowerbed.

            Dear friends, we are merely stewards of God’s great garden of creation. In the second creation account in Genesis, God put the first human in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. But the human didn’t plant the garden; God did. The human didn’t know what was supposed to be in the garden and what was a weed; God had to tell the human what to eat and what not eat, specifically that one tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even though our mythical ancestors were driven out of that first garden, we still inhabit God’s garden today. That means we better be careful about how we weed God’s garden.

            That means we better be careful when we go to further and further lengths to extract fossil fuels from deep within the earth. We build our oil rigs further into the ocean, and somehow we are still shocked when something goes wrong and 4.9 million barrels of oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. We develop new technologies that hydraulically fracture shale formations, that is intentionally causing mini-earthquakes, to collect natural gas, and we are somehow still perplexed when people’s tap water becomes flammable. More people than ever before are burning these substances and emitting all kinds of gases into the air, and then we still argue about whether our climates are changing because we raced past the scientist-recommended 300-parts-per-million ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We better be careful about how we are weeding God’s garden.

            Now Jesus specifically says that his allegory is about people, so we better be careful when we start weeding out people, too. In Gaza the Israeli army is currently trying to weed out Palestinian militants by shooting missiles and marching in heavily armed soldiers. In the United States many people are trying to weed out undocumented immigrants, including unaccompanied children who showed up at our doorstep to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries. In our churches, many people are trying to weed out LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks, from leadership and from marriage. Dear friends, don’t we know that when we are weeding out people we are violently wrenching our fellow children of God from God’s garden of life? Or are we so blind that we insanely dig and tug and yank every last weed we see in God’s garden even though we cannot see the things that make for peace? Let anyone with ears listen!

            Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

            The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…what? A weedy field of wheat? A mustard seed? Maybe some yeast? Come on, Jesus, speak plainly! I don’t have time for these parables when there is so much darn crabgrass on the number 11 fringe.

            So let anyone with ears listen. When God gave the Israelites the laws in Sinai, God told them to especially care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger. We’ve got some widows in Gaza today and we’ve got some widows on the South and West Side today. We’ve got some orphans who are traveling to our borders for the hope of a better life. We’ve got 11 million strangers who live among us without any official documented status. How are we caring for them?

            And when the disciples tried to shoo away the little children who wanted to see Jesus, Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. And when Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last. And Jesus shocked the disciples by saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…but with God all things are possible.

            So you know what? Let’s freely admit that we don’t know exactly what the kingdom of God looks like. It doesn’t make sense to us. It runs counter to so much of our middle class, American dream, and if I can’t just pull some crabgrass out of the fringe of the number 11 green, well, I don’t know what to do. Maybe we should just let the weeds grow up with the wheat and let God sort it out, because I just don’t know what to do. It’s such a big mess that only God can clean it up at this point.

            And so Jesus says, “Yeah, that’s the start of what I call repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

No Taming This River

(Preached at the Historic Methodist Campgrounds of Des Plaines, June 29, 2014.)

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst,I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys;I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together,so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand,that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

-         Isaiah 41:17-20

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and God’s servants will worship God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
-         Revelation 22:1-5

These passages—the one from Isaiah 41 and the other from Revelation 22—are pretty special to me. They were both read at my wedding, which occurred only four weeks ago. I know, I know—not traditional wedding scriptures. No 1 Corinthians 13 of “love is patient/love is kind” fame or 1 John 4, which declares that God is love. It’s not even the wedding at Cana, which is recounted in the beginning of the gospel of John, but that one would have been weird at my completely dry wedding. Nope. My wife, Kacie, and I chose some prophecy for our wedding.
The Susquehanna River in the background
of the Fort Hunter lawn where Kacie and I
were married. (Photo credit Doug Austin)
Ok, so we didn’t really choose these passages for their prophetic prowess, though it’s pretty cool, too. We figured out our wedding scripture by looking around us when we did our site visit at a country park called Fort Hunter, just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. See, we got married on the lawn between the old Victorian mansion of the park and the Susquehanna River. It was the river that inspired us. I grew up beside that river—the mighty Susquehanna, which divides the state of Pennsylvania between east and west (and Eagles and Steelers, if you follow football) and upon which no boat bigger than a flat-bottom motor boat can travel. It starts somewhere up in the hills of New York and then cuts through the Northern Tier and coal country, going past my little one-traffic light hometown (which is one more traffic light that it had when I was living there), surrounding the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which nearly blew up in the late 1970’s, and finally empties into the Chesapeake Bay down by Annapolis, Maryland. It’s a beautiful river, even if it’s not particularly useful for shipping like the rivers of the Midwest. It also passes Lewisburg, the town where my overeager Methodists in central PA like to think Robert Lowry wrote the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River”—he did have a house there after all. Too bad Lowry was Baptist  and actually wrote the song with different lyrics about a church in Brooklyn. It’s nice story, though, and it’s a nice river, too.
But I’ve seen the Susquehanna show its untamed side, too. In 1996 after hard winter with a blizzard or two, the high river and its ice took down a span of the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg. In my senior year of high school the remnant of an Atlantic hurricane whipped up the river until there was 6 feet of water in the square of my hometown. I recall folks fishing there, where cars usually parked to pick up their pizza at Zeiderelli’s, though I hope they didn’t eat whatever they caught, considering the sewage treatment plant was less than a hundred yards away. Then again, maybe that’s why Zeiderelli’s had a limited-time-only small-mouth bass pizza that autumn. Hmm…
There’s no taming rivers, really. There’s always been that tension about rivers, and water in general. Get too much, you’re knockin’ on Noah’s door. Get too little, you join Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Of course, all the great civilizations of the ancient world—the ones that started building their cities 20,000 years ago—were by great river systems. Egypt had the Nile. The Chinese had the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Mesopotamia in the Middle East was the land “between the rivers.” The rivers brought not only the water which no human can live without but also the rich silt of dirt that accumulated as it flowed inexorably down-hill. In fact, many of these civilizations were successful at early agriculture because their rivers regularly flooded and renewed the soil with its floodwaters. Maybe that is to say that untamed flooding isn’t all bad.
However I know that you all have a pretty tense relationship with your river, too. You already know that there’s no taming this river. The mighty Des Plaines River has left its mark on your little civilization here at the Historic Methodist Campgrounds. I remember when I first came here last summer. The mud was mostly dry, but it was still visible in the grass and on many of the cottages. I understand many of you have been in the process of putting your cottages on stilts, and I understand that some of you didn’t make those stilts high enough for those untamed Des Plaines River floodwaters. I understand that these floods were supposed to be hundred-year floods, and they occurred twice in 5 years. Still, let’s praise God that we can meet in this tabernacle of the Lord without floating around in anchored dinghies. I’m confident that God would meet us nonetheless, but I’m glad that God has kept the ground here dry, at least for today.
What do we make of these untamed floods? How do we understand these watermarks five feet above where we stand or sit now? And if God is the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omni-benelovent God that some our doctrine declares God to be (hope you don’t mind me getting theological in here), what does it mean that God doesn’t tame these floods? My seminary professors say that these are issues of theodicy, coming from the Greek theo, which means God, and diche, which means justice. So we are treading in the untamed waters of God’s justice now, and the water looks as murky as the Des Plaines river floodwaters.
Pat Robertson, that sage of the 700 Club who told New Orleans and Haiti that their natural disasters were because of their deals with the devil, might say that these floodwaters are sent directly from God to punish unrepentant sinners. Then again, Pat Robertson also recently said that tattoos were worthy only of heathen. If Pat Robertson is consistently right, then you have word of God coming to you from a heathen today. Well, I was taught to respect my elders, but I don’t respect Pat Robertson’s theology. I don’t respect Pat Robertson’s theology because, as some of my African American colleagues would say, the Lord God Almighty is no respecter of persons. That is, God will work good things in us and through us flawed humans despite our sin. That is, God will take the weakest parts and honor them the most. That is, God will redeem even the greatest sinners, like maybe some Roman soldiers whose job it was to crucify uppity Palestinian Jews, and transform their most terrible instrument of humiliation and death, like maybe some old rugged cross from the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and make the most glorious symbol of victory, justification, and grace in the history of creation. Let’s give God some praise for God’s untamed river of redeeming grace!
Now I love praising God. It’s one of my most favorite things to do, whether it’s an old Charles Wesley hymn like “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, or it’s an African American spiritual like “Go Down Moses”, or it’s some praise chorus fresh off the pen of David Crowder. Coming together to praise God is so good, we can rise up from these murky floodwaters into that third heaven that Paul visited long ago. I’ve heard experiences like that called “mountaintop” or “burning bush” moments, and if you haven’t experienced one yet, I pray that you will, because it is so good. Fresher than the freshest spring, sweeter than the sweetest honey, warmer than the warmest sunlight. Hallelujah!
Here’s the thing: we don’t spend all our lives in the third heaven. In fact, we’re really, really lucky if we get to spend even one nanosecond up there. No, dear friends, we spend nearly all of our earthly time here on earth, often stuck in the mud or trapped in floodwaters. So, to repeat an earlier question, where’s God’s justice in the floodwaters of this untamed river?
Let me drop a bomb on you now that sends a shockwave more powerful than any thermonuclear warhead our military or any other military can hope to build. God’s justice is not our justice. You might be shell-shocked now, so let me repeat that. God’s justice is not our justice. Just to make sure it’s getting through that Lake Michigan fog, say it with me: “God’s justice is not our justice.” No! It’s not! And let’s praise God for that! God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s justice is not our justice. God doesn’t throw away black and brown and poor folks into jail for profit or for election-day boasting. God doesn’t sentence minors to a lifetime of prison rot. God doesn’t execute folks whose innocence would be proven with just a little more effort. No, dear friends, God’s justice is not our justice, praise God! Hallelujah!
See, dear friends, God’s justice does actually flood us. God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Yes! Maybe God’s justice really is in those untamed Des Plaines River floodwaters, just not the way Pat Robertson thinks. See, God doesn’t want us to suffer, and God doesn’t make us suffer. Why would God want to do that when we humans are so good at making our own sinful selves suffer? No, God’s not in the suffering business, but God IS in the redemption business and the repentance business.
When our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ started his ministry in northern Palestine 2,000 years ago, he said, “Repent! For the reign of God has come near.” That word for repent is the Greek metanoia, which more precisely translated means to “re-orient” or “re-center”. It’s like when we’re caught in water over our heads, and we get off course. When I was in Boy Scouts, we always started summer camp with a swim test. I was always finished the test strongly, but I was always swimming off course for whatever reason. I always felt bad for the Boy Scout swimming next to me because he was in danger of me strongly swimming directly into him. I needed somebody to “re-orient” me so I could finish the test. I needed to repent of my wrong course so I could get to the place where I needed to go. That’s what repentance is about.
Dear friends, maybe the floor under our feet is dry today, but let’s confess that we are awash in the floodwaters of sin. We need to repent. Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which took place in West Greenwich Village of New York City, and today a million people are gathering on the North Side of Chicago for what is known as the Pride Parade. Maybe you don’t like some things that are part of the Pride Parade, but you probably don’t like some things in the Bible, too. If you think that you do like everything in the Bible, then I challenge you to read the Bible more closely. Then I challenge to check out Pride again. Because the men and women of Pride know some stuff about repentance. They know what it’s like to repent of the isolation and shame and endless bullying that they suffered for years. The real question is when will the rest of us repent of our idolatry of the white, heterosexual man who has the body of an underwear model and the bank account of a hedge fund manager. When we repent of our sinful idolatries and truly worship God the way God calls us to—that is, by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—then maybe we too can celebrate the new heavens and new earth that God has prepared for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
So even when we are in the midst of murky floodwaters, let us praise God for justice that cuts through the clouds like a ray of sunshine. Let us praise God for throwing us a life preserver was the river rages around us. And let us even praise God for that lovely untamed river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing untamed from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of North Halsted Street in the city of Chicago. On either side of this untamed river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, but especially at the end of each June; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations, but especially for these United States of America. Nothing accursed will be found there in Chicago any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in Chicago, and God’s servants will worship our most gracious and loving God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name, “I am what I am,” will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night where innocent people get beaten up just for being who they are; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Act. Reflect. Repeat.

Preached at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on May 24, 2014 on Acts 17:22-34.

I have a confession to make, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. I’ve been cheating on you with another internship. No, no, let me finish. It gets worse. My other internship is with a campus ministry…sponsored by the Episcopalians. And the Lutherans. Yes! There it is, out in the open. Let me explain…
             I’ve been on staff at South Loop CampusMinistry since early 2013, and it’s been an exhilarating roller coaster ever since then. See, the pastor of First Trinity Lutheran Church on the South Side started working as the official campus pastor in 2012, and he offered me, a professing Methodist, a job. I’d been attending his church for a couple years, and I figured that if someone would pay me to work with college kids, I better take the offer. The thing is that Pastor Tom needed some help. See, one program he had started was a free community meal on Sunday nights at Grace Place Episcopal Church. I guess Pastor Tom remembered his days as a college student and figured that if you cook it, they will come. Well, they came, but they happened to be homeless folks from the South Loop and not students. Somehow he didn’t see that one coming.
            Instead of casting out the homeless folks, he had dinner with them. It was small group, and one night
Takin' it the stairwells at Lower Michigan
with South Loop Campus Ministry.
they had so much food left over that he and a few other people packaged the leftovers into plastic bags and wandered into the streets to see if anyone would take food from a plastic bag being carried by strangers. The answer to that quandary is yes, and that’s how SLCM’s “Takin’ to the Streets” program began. We still have free community meals at Grace Place, but now we only do them on the last Sunday of the month. We focus a lot more on preparing 60 bagged lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a piece of fruit, a small bag of chips, and a doughnut from a friendly local bakery. We walk with a couple carts overflowing with paper bags up State Street and then down to Lower Wacker and back, offering food to anyone we encounter along the way.
            Then, when we get back from our 2 mile journey through the Loop, all the time looking for the people that society tries to ignore, we get to the really exciting part. We evaluate our experience. We borrow our evaluation structure from community organizing, and we do it in three parts. In the first part, each person shares one word that sums up what that person is feeling after the evening’s experiences, after which we open discussion for unpacking people’s words. The second part is what we call points of tension. When did you feel tense throughout the night? It’s very rare that a Sunday evening passes without some tension. I mean, really, just wandering into that subterranean mess of streets beneath the Loop is enough to put your stomach in a knot. We call the last part our “theological learning”, which corresponds with community organizing’s “political learning” which ends most meetings. Theological learning means anything you learned about God, faith, or even humanity, because we recognize that some people aren’t well practiced in looking for God. Then we pray.
            So let me recap this program for you. We act. We reflect. Then we repeat.
            This action-reflection model is called “praxis” in some academic circles, and it’s how we do theology at SLCM. It is also, historically speaking, how we do theology as Methodists. A lot of scholars have called John Wesley a praxis theologian, and that’s why the United Methodist Book of Discipline, our official church rule book, has “a theological task” instead of a distinct confession or catechism. Methodists act, then reflect on what we just did, and then we repeat, only a little more perfectly or holier than the previous time.
            So in the spirit of praxis, I really want to join the Athenians in heckling Paul. Maybe not for the same reasons as the rest of the crowd in Athens, but dude, Paul, can’t you see that your speech just didn’t work? Let me set the scene a little bit more. Paul has been traveling around the Aegean Sea to different cities proclaiming the lordship and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he’s been getting into a lot of trouble for it. The keepers of first century civil society keep putting him and his comrades in prison to stop his blaspheming against the emperor in Rome—or at least to stop bothering people in the marketplace. In fact, Paul’s hosts in Beroea sent him to Athens because his own people, the Jews, were going to politely ask him to shut up before they impolitely shut him up.
            Now Athens was a different kind of town than the other places Paul had visited. It was a college town, and it attracted people who liked to learn for the sake of learning. Basically, Paul had been in the South Shore, and his friends gave him bus pass to Hyde Park. The Athenians at this point were an open-minded, academically-inclined bunch. Sure, they had forcibly poisoned Socrates a couple hundred years earlier, but they had matured since then. They even had a place called the “Areopagus” for crazy religious fanatics to entertain them. You know, crazy folks like Paul. So Paul got into Athens, did his Jesus thing, and the open-minded Athenians said, “Hm! This guy seems crazy to us. He would be perfect for the Areopagus. Let’s give him a soap box and let him go to town.” And so Paul did, and the Athenians politely humored him, at least until Paul started talking about how they would be judged by a man whom God has appointed and resurrected. That’s when the less polite Athenians, probably the ones who were only there for the extra credit for their religious studies class, started heckling him. Some were polite, but Paul had had enough of this over-educated crowd and left. Clearly Paul had not gone to the same evangelism workshops that I’ve gone to.
            Then again, maybe any critique I have of Paul’s performance at the Areopagus is really about my hang-ups with Christian evangelism and not about Paul at all. I grew up in rural, central Pennsylvania as a very active member of my little United Methodist church in Marysville, and I became quite evangelical by the time I was a teenager. I even once turned down a romantic relationship by using the excuse that I wanted to focus more on a revival in my high school. Yes, I was one of those people. I continued in my holy rolling ways during my freshman year of college in dormitory hall of drunks, potheads, and other inhibition-less people. By my second semester, I was ready to start witnessing to them. I had a pretty good relationship with one atheist engineer two doors down—his name was James—and I got my opportunity to witness to him one night while I was on crutches and I had his sympathy. We went to the cafeteria for a late supper, and I started questioning him about why he didn’t believe in God. And you know what? My hallmate didn’t want to talk about his atheism. Drats! Foiled again! I kept trying to bring up the subject again, but all James wanted to talk about was how difficult it was to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend. Girlfriend, shmirlfriend, James. Don’t you know that your soul is in peril? Flee from the wrath that is to come, James! Fleeeee!
            I had my evangelical Christian agenda, and it was not meeting my hallmate’s need for care and support that night. James didn’t need an evangelist. He needed a friend, and I wasn’t being a very good friend. I was lucky that a year later when my somewhat long-distance relationship fell apart, I did have good friends who were willing to give me the love and support I needed. In the middle of a deep, dark depression my friends brought me bit by bit back into the light. They were witnessing to me through their actions of care and love and support. They were preaching the good news to me.
            You know, Paul got this kind of good news once, too. Not the proclamation kind, but the knock-you-on-your-keister-and-accept-help kind. Back when Paul was still known as Saul and was holy rolling his way through Judea, putting Christians in prison and generally being a jerk, Jesus came and literally knocked him on his keister on the road to Damascus.
            I don’t think Jesus gave Paul all the instructions that he gave his disciples the night before his crucifixion, but Jesus still got the point across. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” That’s one of the things Jesus told his disciples in the upper room that night long before Jesus revealed himself to Paul. “They who have my commandments and keep them…” Jesus only really gave one commandment that night to his disciples: “Just as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another.”
            Love one another. Maybe Paul received some tough love on the road to Damascus, but he got the more caring, supportive kind of love from the Christians in Damascus. They housed him and fed him and cared for him while he was sorting out his life. Even though this guy, still known as Saul, had a record of Christian’s lives living hell, they still loved him. Paul witnessed the good news through the loving action of that Christian community in Damascus, and so he witnessed Christ among them. That love brought Paul out of the darkness and bit by bit back into the light.
            One maxim I’ve learned about preaching is to avoid preaching what I don’t know. I shouldn’t try to make gleaming metaphors about astrophysics and faith because I barely passed my behavioral statistics class. I’ll leave the astrophysics to my dear friend Elizabeth who is getting her PhD in that field, and who was a great friend when I needed one after a certain nasty breakup. So I’ll leave astrophysics to her. I can, however, preach about love because I have witnessed an awful lot of love. I have witnessed love in the support that my family and friends give me even when I act like a knucklehead. I have witnessed love in how a little Lutheran church on the South Side welcomed me as a Methodist missionary and let me live in their former parsonage for nearly four years. I have witnessed love in how my fiancée, Kacie (who will be my wife in one week), is okay with me preaching tonight even when we still have SO much to do between now and our wedding.
            I have witnessed love among you, too, First United Methodist. I have witnessed love in how you help each other out when in hard times, like when someone’s mother dies or when finances are running really low. I have witnessed love when you not only provide a free breakfast for homeless guests on Saturday mornings but also when you cross lines of economic class and really listen to someone’s story. And I am witnessing love as you struggle with how to care-fully, that is, full of care, host marriages of same-gender-loving people in your building. These are acts of love, and they preach volumes about who God really is.
            Friends, we can love because God first loved us. That love very often comes through the actions of other people, but it is God’s love, nonetheless. This is God’s righteous action—to love us. As my boss at the campus ministry, Pastor Tom, likes to say, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us—me, you, and everybody else—more. And there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God just loves us. Period.” Whether you experience that love on a mountaintop or on Lower Wacker, it’s still God’s love. God meets us wherever we are, however we are, because God just loves us.
            I think that’s what Paul was getting at while he was on his soap box at the Areopagus. He was just doing his best to witness to the love he had received from God through a faithful community of Christians. Maybe he would have done better to just get out of the way and let God love some people, but God loved the Athenians anyway. I know I would have done better back in college if I had gotten out of the way and let God love my hallmate, James, but God loved James anyway. It’s just what God does. It’s just how God acts.
            God acts. Yeah, God acts. Then we reflect. That’s what I’m really doing right now. I am reflecting on how God acts. That’s what we really do when we gather to worship. We reflect on God’s holy, righteous, and loving action. That’s what we’re really doing tonight. It’s good. It’s really good. Let’s keep doing it.
            Act. Reflect. Repeat.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Resurrection and the Struggle

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
-          Gen. 32:22-32

Resurrection happens when you least expect it, where you’re least likely to look, to the person you’re most likely to ignore.

Like when everybody’s gone away, and the sun is setting on the banks of the River Jabbok, to that exile, that wanderer, that trickster, that heel of a person we know as Jacob. Really—that’s what his means.

Jacob isn’t somebody I want to like. He was never the once and future quarterback of the championship football team; that’s his brother Esau. Jacob gets what he wants through trickery, through withholding food to the hungry, through dressing up as someone else and fooling an old, blind man. And then when his sins catch up with him, he runs away.

Jacob’s trickster nature follows him in exile. He manages to seduce Rachel, Laban’s daughter, but then somehow ends up marrying both of Laban’s daughters. And then he has sex with not only both of them, but also several of his maids. That’s not even why Laban eventually evicts Jacob. That happens because Jacob has been tampering with his father-in-law’s herds of cattle. And then Jacob runs away again.

That’s when Jacob gets word that his estranged brother, whose last words directed to Jacob were “I’m gonna kill him first chance I get!”, is looking for him. With 400 other guys whom Jacob assumes want nothing more than to take turns hitting something.

And what does Jacob do? He sends all of his family to the other side of the River Jabbok where Esau and his bloodthirsty band of brass knuckles are waiting for him. Like I said—I don’t want to like Jacob.

Maybe I don’t want to like Jacob because his story reminds me of my own character defects. Jacob’s story reminds me of all the times that I have struggled—struggled with my own identity and purpose, struggled with my relationships with other people, and struggled with God.

So where is the resurrection in this story? Well, let’s have a look at Jacob when the sun comes up. Jacob is visibly limping. He answers to a new name. And he confronts the demons of his past with the confidence of someone who has experienced true, life-altering blessing.

Jacob had experienced resurrection, resurrection through struggling with God.

Funerals are another place where we don’t expect resurrection.  Loved ones gather to share in their grief and their loss, to give their last good-byes to a corpse that is as empty as a deflated balloon.

And yet we often call funerals services of death and resurrection. We often refer to John chapter 11 where Jesus declares that he is the resurrection and the life. And then we pray “Requiem aerternum dona eis Domine”—“Grant them eternal rest, Lord our God.”

But rest isn’t the intention of resurrection. The purpose of resurrection is life, yes, even life abundant! And what is life but struggle—struggle with the world, struggle with all the wicked and wonderful people that inhabit it, struggle with God, great God Almighty, Dominus Deus Sabaoth!

God is the resurrection and the life. God is the resurrection and the struggle.

The struggle! Yes, sisters and brothers, God is the struggle, or as our Spanish-speaking sisters and brothers call it, la lucha. I’ve heard my Spanish-speaking sisters and brother talk a lot about la lucha since I decided to join them in solidarity with la lucha. “¡Viva la lucha!” they shout at rallies, and I’ve gotta tell you, sisters and brothers, Anglos like me should listen to them. White folks like me should listen to our sisters and brother from the global South because they know an awful lot about la lucha and resurrection.

My Metodistas de BsAs
I learned about la lucha and resurrection when I had the blessing to study in Argentina while I was an undergrad. I’m tempted to say that it was another one of those unlikely times and places where resurrection occurred. Some young people in the little Methodist church in downtown Buenos Aires graciously accepted me into their clique, and then began educating me in the ways of the la lucha. My friends invited me to march with them in the Veinti-cuatro de Marzo parade, that is the twenty-fourth of March, which marks the anniversary of the last coup-d’état in that country. See, during the military dictatorship that began on March 24, 1976, some 50,000 political dissidents were “disappeared”, many of them young people who were learning to struggle, to be in la lucha, against injustice.

The day ended with a concert by León Gieco, the Bob Dylan figure of Argentina, at the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada—the Naval Mechanics School—which had served as a center for detention, torture, and execution during the dictatorship. Shortly before the concert began, a branch of the Peronista party, which had been viciously persecuted during the dictatorship, began a rally to remember their fallen comrades. I can still see the flags, banners, and posters lifted high into the air. I can still feel the exuberant bodies of the crowd around me. I can still hear their chants of liberation. The leader would read a name of a disappeared person, and the crowd would shout back, “¡Presente!” As León Gieco sang his most famous song, Solo le Pido a Dios—I Only Ask God—and everyone sang with him, I could feel resurrection around me. And la lucha—the struggle—continued.

A classmate of mine at seminary, Tito, had some thoughts about resurrection during our first semester of classes together. While we were struggling with the concepts of early Christian theology, Tito shared that resurrection was very important for him and his comrades in Latin America, particularly in El Salvador where he had served the victims of the civil war there. He said that resurrection was important because no right-wing death squad, even when armed with best weapons the American government could sell them, could stop a revolution based on resurrection. Such resurrection-minded revolutionaries could cry out like St. Paul, “O death, Where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” La lucha—the struggle—continues and you, O Death, can’t stop it. You, O Death, can’t beat it. You, O Death, are overcome by the power of the resurrection and the struggle!

Dear friends, witness the power of the God of resurrection! Let the power of resurrection blow apart all of your expectations! Let the power of resurrection touch you and change you forever! Let us say yes to the God of the resurrection! Let us say yes to the God of life! Let us say yes to the God of the struggle! ¡Que viva la lucha! ¡Amén!

[Sermon was preached at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple on April 23, 2014.]

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Getting away with it

This sermon was shared at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple at the Saturday evening service of Feb. 15, 2014. It used the scripture of Matthew 5:21-37.

Let’s talk about rules. We’re in a Methodist church, right? So tell me, who here is good at following rules? Please raise your hand. Okay, who here is bad at following rules? Please raise your hand. Who here just doesn’t like to raise their hand?
            I’m a guy who actually likes rules. Really, I do! Give me a checklist and I will go down and systematically check those things off the list. You would be amazed at the impressive list of checks on my checklist, were you to check out my impressive list of checks.
            Or even better, instructions. Give me a collection of instructions, and I would probably be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. My parents were fairly well convinced that I would be engineer when I grew up. Seems pretty unlikely now, but when I was playing with Legos as a kid—dude, I looked like an engineer. I always had trouble completing a project when I just had one my big bins of jumbled up blocks, gizmos, and dismembered Lego people bodies, but give me step-by-step instructions and I could build anything. I still remember one of my favorite Christmas gifts—a Lego battle droid from Star Wars Episode I. You know, the one with Jar Jar Binks? I spent the afternoon of Christmas Day in my grandparents’ basement following those step-by-step instructions until that 2-foot-tall masterpiece would not only walk but also unholster its ray-gun in one fluid motion. Behold! The power of plastic pieces, some detailed instructions, and one little anti-social 8-year-old.
            As I got older, I learned other kinds of rules and instructions, namely social norms. Those don’t necessarily come easy to a kid who would prefer a dim basement and Lego instructions to actually spending time with my Iowan grandma. But over time, I learned how the world worked. Namely, identify the authority figures, find out what pleases those authority figures, and then subtly fulfill the desires of the authority figures, especially the desires that they don’t explicitly make known. And I was good at that. I suppose I still am.
            But here’s the thing about rules: they’re meant to be broken. At least in America, that’s the common ethic. Break the rules and get away with it. That’s what the smart ones, the cool ones, the fast ones, the successful ones all do. Break, or at least bend, the rules and get away with it. Guy Forsyth, a blues and folk musician from Austin, Texas gets the American ethos: “Everyone wants to pull off the crime of the century—steal two hundred gazillion dollars, enough to buy myself an island and build an honest-to-God train on it for no one but me. And get away with it. Get away with it. We Americans are freedom-loving people and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.”
            Or even more colorfully, there’s the allegory that my dad likes to use. The speed limit allegory of the American spirit: So we have a speed limit of 55 miles an hour. I know that 9 out of 10 cops will let me drive 60 miles an hour and not pull me over. And when there aren’t any cops around, I can go 70. And get away with it.
            Just look at some of most beloved heroes. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer float on a raft, defying their frazzled families and all that comes of it is one of the more memorable funeral services in American literature. Indiana Jones rescues the Ark of the Covenant and the damsel in distress without ever worrying that his lack of office hours at his tenure university post will adversely affect his evaluations. Harry Potter slinks around in a cloak of invisibility and not only defeats the Dark Lord but embarrasses all the bullies along the way.
            Break the rules. Get away with it. Behold, the great American ethos.
            So what’s up with this gospel lesson? I don’t know about you, but I came to reclaim my Christian faith with a strongly Methodist flavor because Jesus is constantly bending the rules until they break. Jesus hung out with drunks, prostitutes, and racketeers; disrupted orderly worship services by healing outcast lepers; and then embarrassed his snobby hosts by talking religion and politics at the dinner table. That’s counter-cultural Jesus, Jesus de la resistance, Jesus de la revolución! He probably had stylish facial hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and skinny jeans, too.
            But the Jesus of Matthew 5 is giving even more rules. Not that it’s big deal since we’re so good at bending rules, but Jesus is making it really hard to get around these rules. Holding onto anger is akin to murder, ogling equals adultery, and no matter how important your grandmother was to you, don’t swear on her grave. Then there’s the very troubling afterlife of the commandment about divorce. Couple that passage with Paul’s instructions for women at church and at home and we’ve got serious issues. It’s no wonder America, that ever-so Christian nation, is so good at breaking the rules and then getting away with it. What else are we gonna do with ridiculous rules that we can never actually follow?
            That is, if we look at Jesus’ sermon superficially. See, these commandments don’t stand alone in the Gospel of Matthew. They’re part of a much larger Sermon on the Mount. Just before Jesus starts telling his disciples or the multitudes or whoever it is who is sitting on the mountain with him, Jesus tells his congregation that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. These are encouraging words, but now Jesus is saying what flavor the salt is enhancing and what exactly the light is illuminating. Then Jesus references the law and the prophets, primarily that he has come to fulfill them and not abolish them. What we get next in these commandments are the parts of the law and prophets that Jesus is flavoring and illuminating.
            And then there’s the cultural context. I could quite easily give four separate sermons for these four commandments if I wanted to delve into the historical criticism of each commandment, six sermons if you include the two next commandments that tonight’s reading did not include but directly follow in the Bible. I know you must be terribly excited now, but I must disappoint you by admitting that I only prepared this one sermon. Suffice to say Jesus was addressing real issues that his listeners were really dealing with back in 1st century Palestine, much like preachers tend to do these days.
            So what is Jesus saying with these commandments if not instructing us in the whiles of litigation, sexuality, marriage, and public speaking? Scholars often call the style that Jesus uses here at antitheses, the plural of antithesis, which is that pattern of “you have heard…but I say”. It was a common rhetorical technique of rabbis of Jesus’ time, who were constantly interpreting and reinterpreting the Torah, the Law of Moses, the rules of Jesus’society. So let’s call Jesus “rabbi” here and recognize how truly counter-cultural Rabbi Jesus ben-Joseph is being when he gives this sermon.
            See, Jesus’ community was full, overflowing really, with inequality, much like today in our communities. There were levels of interlocking oppression ranging from the Roman occupying military to Hellenistic household hierarchies to the laws of the Torah that folks had been abusing for years. Women and poor people were perpetually at the bottom, though there were always inspirational stories of folks who escaped the doom of poverty and made it big. The general rule, however, was that these interlocking rules of state, culture, and religion systematically kept the folks on the bottom from moving up and threatening the status quo. While Jesus couldn’t have been happy about Roman and Hellenistic oppression, he really got mad about the oppression from the Jewish law. Because Jesus was Jewish. Because Jesus was a scholar of the Jewish law. Because Jesus knew that the Law was supposed to free people, not enslave them.
            Any good American might kinda snort, roll her eyes, and say, “So what?  Just be creative and break the rules. Get around them and get away with it.” But when we bend the rules until they break, we are admitting that the rules aren’t doing what they were meant to do. It seems a little self-evident. We break the rules we don’t like. We get around the rules because they do not lead us to fuller, more abundant life, so we break the rules and hope to get away with it. However, getting away with it abandons our responsibility to the multitudes who are trapped in the mire. Getting away with it assumes an ethic similar to the ancient ethic of Cain, that when someone asks us where our sister or brother is, we respond, “How should I know? Am I my sister or brother’s keeper?”
            Let’s think about that for just a bit. What happens when we abandon our responsibility to care for our fellow children of God? What happens when we focus on getting away with it instead of getting it right? Maybe we’ve seen a lesson in the country of Sweden where a judge recently ruled that a rapist can only commit rape if the rapist believed that the rapist was raping. According to court testimony the survivor of the sexual assault told her rapist to stop time and time and time again, but that he didn’t believe her. The rapist testified that he knew she really wanted to be raped. So he should get away with it.
            Maybe we see lessons in news coming from the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan when American missile strikes kill children. Unmanned drones deliver smart bombs with surgical precision, so innocent people who die in these strikes just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t be hanging around the wrong kinds of people. So our military should get away with it.
            Maybe we see lessons in our own state capital when legions of lobbyist, working in concert with armies of accountants, make sure that 2/3 of publically tradedcorporations pay nothing in state tax. Never mind that we have to close schools, cut pensions, and forcibly tighten the belts of the already hungry. We have to make sure that businesses keep jobs here in Illinois, whatever the cost. So multi-billion-dollar corporations get away with it.
            What have we done? Listen! The blood of our sisters and brothers is crying out from the ground! Even if we did not give that cruelest cut, we have not cared for our neighbor the way we ought to. This is confession time, and it’s good for the soul.
            This is why Jesus broadens the rules so that it’s so hard to get around them and get away with it. While some of the rules in the Torah don’t seem to apply to 21st century America, there are others that can preach volumes in not only this pulpit but from the middle of Daley Plaza as well. Yes, I know there are weird rules about avoiding hoopoes for dinner and things of that sort, and my youth group had a great time laughing about it. However, the books of especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy also command that farms and eating establishment not throw away all their left-over food so that poor people can eat good food.  The Torah commands that we treat immigrants with respect and dignity because we were all once immigrants, too. The Torah commands that every seven years debts must be canceled so that people remain equal and in right relationship with one another. The Torah is a blessing to God’s people so that God’s people may be a blessing to the world.
            Jesus doesn’t want us to just get away with breaking the rules, even bad rules, because these are kingdom rules, where the Lord our God reigns with wisdom and justice. Or even better, Jesus is highlighting kin-dom rules, where God is gathering her children back to her as a hen gathers her brood. Instead of seeking to use rules like a cop might use a nightstick, these kin-dom rules remind us that we have a common divine parent and we must care for our family.
            These kin-dom rules have echoed throughout the history of the church, and different leaders have emerged to preach them from the public square when we started to care more about getting away with than getting it right. St. Francis said preach the gospel always and when necessary, use words. Martin Luther preached the priesthood of all believers. The Methodist movement’s own John Wesley declared that there is no religion but social religion, and John Wesley knew some things about rules.
            I know that there are times when we need to break rules because some rules are simply unjust. However, when we know the kin-dom rules by heart (not necessarily memorized, but know them by heart), we realize that we can no longer hope to break the rules and get away with it. We have to care for our sisters and brothers along the way. That’s what Harriet Tubman did. She broke the rules time and time again by guiding African-descended slaves from the South to free land that is just across the Ohio River. She was not following a self-serving, ego-aggrandizing ethic of simply “getting away with it” but knew the kin-dom rules so well that she could see that the other slaves were indeed her own kin, her own sisters and brothers.
            And that was why folks called Harriet Tubman “Moses”. Harriet Tubman followed a higher rule and sent her people across the Ohio River like Moses sent his people across the Jordan River. Harriet Tubman knew the kin-dom rules and would follow them wherever they took her. And so the words of Moses continue to echo through to us today through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ who took the care to sit down talk about the rules with us. The words call from not only the mountain and the pulpit but also the streets which shall be restored so that children can live and play in them again. The words will echo in springs and river valleys flowing with clean water, purified of the taint of greed. The words will echo even in the dark places as sisters and brother reclaim their kin from the shadows of addiction and exploitation.
            And those words will echo throughout all the neighborhoods, all the cities, all the suburbs and small towns, throughout all the nations where disciples grow knowing these kin-dom rules by heart. And those words will be: See, I have put before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.”
            So dear friends, let’s put away our petty desire to get around the rules and get away with it. Let’s get to know God’s kin-dom rules by heart, get to know who our kin, our sisters and brothers, really are, and then, and only then, can we get to know what it is to truly choose life.