Sunday, June 26, 2016


“My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.”
Of all the far out spiritual experiences in the Bible,
         Elisha’s vision at the Jordan River easily makes the top five.
Who wouldn’t want a rush like that?

But I’m not sure this event was really so great.
Our story may in fact be a splash of cold water
         in the face of what we think religion is even for.
A great theologian named Paul Tillich
used to talk about “the sin of religion.”
Today’s lesson is about the sin of spirituality.

When I call it a “sin” I don’t mean it’s dark or evil.
The word “sin” in the Bible is an archery term.
It literally means “to miss the mark”
-- and that’s what we’re doing.

We have gotten our religion off course.
We are missing the mark.
Here’s what I mean:
Most of us want spiritual experiences.
We assume religion is the way to do that.
We just differ as to what kind of experience we want to have.
Evangelicals want to feel remorseful for their sins,
         then enormously relieved to be forgiven.
Pentecostals prefer a delirious ecstasy.
Contemplatives meditate themselves into a zone of serenity and peace.
Our own renewal movement likes to work up a sentimental affection.

Maybe we get a little experience, but it fades.
Then life is pretty much like it was before.
So we go back to get ourselves some more spirituality,
         but this time it doesn’t feel quite the same.
We keep trying to have the same experience but can’t quite get there.
We make a religion of trying to repeat old spiritual rushes.
A church is as good as its ability
         to help us get into whatever zone we like best.
Well we aren’t gonna outdo Elisha.
He saw God as a fiery chariot in the sky.
“My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.”

But let’s look at the rest of the story that comes after today’s reading.
Elisha eventually went on to do a few good things.
He also did some magic tricks like making a stone ax-head float.
But as he was bopping back from the Jordan River,
still in the new glow of his spiritual high,
some kids made fun of him for being bald.
So using his new his spiritual super powers, Elisha summoned bears
         to maul 42 little boys.
What kind of a religion is that?

And where did he go from there?
Elisha’s mentor Elijah had been a defender of the people
         challenging the kings for abusing their power
                  and neglecting the poor.
 But Elisha was the king’s man, helping tyrants win their wars.

Then he put a sniveling bureaucrat
         up to murdering the old king of Syria
         by smothering him with a pillow on his sick bed.

The moral is that a spiritual rush
         doesn’t always make for a better person.
It can even make us worse.
So what are we doing here?
What is this religion thing all about?

Christians trust in the unconditional grace
         of a loving God.
So we aren’t here to earn our way into God’s favor.
But we do have a spiritual challenge.
Sure God loves us,        
         but are we capable of taking that love in
-- especially if taking it in means loving God back
-- especially if God shows up in the guise of each other?

William Blake said,
         “We are put on this earth a little space
          that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”
Great teachers from many religions have agreed
         life is an opportunity to grow, to learn, to change.
We don’t change in order to make ourselves acceptable to God.
We change to grow our capacity to accept God
-- to bear the beams of love.

But how does that happen?
How do we let our souls be shaped to make us fit for heaven?
A spiritual experience of one kind or another
may help like a nutritional supplement.
But it isn’t the main diet.

Paul said to the Ephesians, the point of life is
to “grow into the mature body of . .. Christ.”
How do we do that?  

Paul answers:
         “Be humble and gentle,
         bearing one another in love.”//
We learn “to bear the beams of love” as Blake says,
         through the arduous spiritual discipline of
         “bearing one another in love” as Paul says.

Now this “bearing one another” has a double meaning.
It means to carry each other, to help each other out.
But it also means to endure each other, to put up with each other.
That’s what the Greek word Paul used really means.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus was passing through Samaria
         and hoped to get a meal, maybe stay the night.
But they had that sign up we used to see a lot in the South
         and still see some places.
You know the one: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
The disciples wanted to call down fire on the jerks,
         like Elisha sic’ing bears on bad boys.
But Jesus said,
         “Good Lord no! Where were you raised?
          That’s not how we spread the gospel.”

“Bearing one another in love” means enduring other people
         -- putting up with them --
         when they are not exactly bearing us in love.
It’s “turn the other cheek.”
It’s Proverbs 15:1 – “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”

The heart and soul of Christian life
         isn’t working ourselves up into a feel good state.
We can do that.  It may even help now and then.
But the heart and soul of Christian life
         is the discipline of how we treat each other.
It isn’t “do what comes naturally.”
It’s “do what comes supernaturally with God’s help.”
For years, I searched the Bible for a spiritual technology 
         to get myself into a zone.
Sit cross-legged. Hold your hands just so.
Repeat this mantra.

But what I found was the Sermon on the Mount.
If you’re on your way to worship and remember
         your brother is angry at you, stop and make peace
         with your brother before you talk to God.

I found Paul saying:
         “Be gentle. Be humble . . .       
          In your anger, do not sin.
          Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

At the ripe old age of 66, I figured out: this is it.
God comes to us in the form of other people
-- and not just when they are being agreeable.
Sometimes we have to look deep.

Harper Lee said,
         “You never really understand another person,
          until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
That’s how we find God.
That’s what we ritually enact – and hopefully learn to do –
         whenever we celebrate the Holy Communion.

The main purpose of all our church activities
         is to practice the art of Christian relationship
         so we can take those skills into our homes, our workplaces,
         and public life – including our politics.
Enduring each other in love isn’t a rule for being good.
It’s how we shape our souls for the Kingdom of God.