Sunday, February 26, 2017


A lot of Episcopalians are kinda nervous these days
            because Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
            is enlisting us in something called “the Jesus Movement.”
They say they don’t know what he means.
But when he has invited church leaders
            to try to spell out what “the Jesus Movement” is,
            some of us have nervously shied away from the question.

I can’t say I’m surprised.
It was a running joke back in my seminary
that we had an informal taboo on our preaching.
We were not to say, “the J word.”
We could talk about “Christ” vaguely,
 meaning what Theosophists
            call “the Christ principle” defined as
“a spiritual abstraction and no living man.”
But Jesus of Nazareth made us nervous.
This talk about Jesus feels out of bounds.
We recently asked a group of our Episcopal leaders
            what Nevada needs that the Church might offer.
No one mentioned Jesus. No one said the gospel.
We talked instead in the secular language of the world,
            and Jesus is no part of that.

But today’s Gospel lesson says, “it’s all about Jesus.”
“They looked up and saw no one except Jesus, himself, alone.”
I want to talk about that lesson
It can be hard to really hear a story we’ve read so often.
So, let me tell you another story first – a wild, fantastic, magical story
from an entirely different religious tradition.

The Ramayana is a sacred Hindu epic about Ram, an avatar,
            which is essentially an incarnation of god.
When Ram’s wife Siva was kidnapped by the forest monster, Humbaba.
he enlisted his friends in a bold rescue mission.
About a thousand pages later,
after they had Siva back home safe and sound,         
            Ram threw a thank you party for his comrades.
He gave each of them a valuable ring with a precious stone.

One of his friends was a magical talking monkey named Hanuman.
Hanuman looked at his ring, chewed it up, and spit it in the trash.
Others said, “Look at that foolish monkey,
            ruining and discarding such a valuable gift.”
Hanuman answered, “Not so.
            This ring was worthless to me
            because it had not the name of my Lord Ram
            anywhere on it.”

The others laughed and said,
            “By that standard, you should discard your own body.”
“Not so,” Hanuman replied,
            and he pulled open his chest to show them,
            he had carved the name of Ram on each of his ribs.

That’s the Jesus movement.
It’s a religion -- not about an idea -- but about a person.
A whole way of life flows out of our relationship with that person,          
            but the heart of it is the person, Jesus.
Some of us think we’re too sophisticated for
that personal of a faith.
Well then, just briefly I promise, let’s talk a little philosophy.
Philosophy begins in the basic mystery.
I notice that I am here. You seem to be here too.
In fact, there is a here for us to be – a universe.
We wonder: why is there something rather than nothing?
The Big Bang isn’t an answer. Who lit the fuse?

Western philosophy for centuries answered that question
by talking about Being with a capital B,
            the suchness of things, an impulse to Being that creates and sustains.

Eastern philosophy looked at the emptiness of things,
            the way they seem to come from nothing and return to nothing.
Instead of Being they talked about, Sunyata, the Void.

In the 20th Century, a group of Japanese philosophers
            began reading Western Theology.
They read Karl Barth who was all about Jesus.
And these Japanese philosophers learned something.
They said, the universe is born from the Void because the Void
            is procreative. It is personal. It loves.
The Void is not just nothing.
It looks a lot like a man on a cross.

In the world of philosophy, the hymn came true.
“In Christ, there is no East and West.”
Both sides of the great philosophical divide agreed that
            the Source, the Destiny, and the Meaning of the Universe
            isn’t an idea, it isn’t a spiritual abstraction,
            it isn’t a cosmic order.
It’s personal. The Source, Destiny, and Meaning of Everything
            thinks, feels, cares, desires, intends, and loves.
Christians meet the Source, the Destiny, and the Meaning of Life itself
            in Jesus.
The disciples had two ways of understanding life,
two ways of living it, two ways of being in the world.
They had the law and the prophets – morality and spirituality.
So, when they saw their rabbi talking on a mountaintop    
            with Moses, the father of moral religion
            and Elijah, the father of Jewish spirituality,  
            Peter said to Jesus, “Let’s build three dwellings here
            – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He meant it as a compliment, to put Jesus on a par with those giants.
But Peter had missed the point.
So, God showed up as a “bright cloud” and thundered,
            “This is my beloved Son . . .. Listen to him.”
And the disciples were afraid.

They were afraid because they had rashly answered
            life’s ultimate question
            – the question of what really matters
            – and they had gotten it wrong.
In a multiple-choice question,
            with the answers being morality, spirituality, and Jesus;
                        they’d answered, “all of the above.”
But that wasn’t’ God’s answer.
They’d missed that the ultimate value of God’s own self
            was right there in this human person,
this peasant preacher who would end up a convict, this Jesus.
All of morality and all of spirituality lead to this this glory in the dust.

The disciples thought the terrifying cloud was the Epiphany.
So, they fell on the ground and hid their faces.
But the real epiphany happened next
when Jesus touched them, and said,
            “Get up and do not be afraid.”
God isn’t a terrifying cloud driving us to the dust in fear.
God is a brother reassuring us, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The real epiphany was Jesus, himself.

As a Pharisee, St. Paul practiced the moral life to perfection.
As a Mer-kobah mystic, he achieved the most advanced
            states of spiritual contemplation.
But one day Paul, just like the disciples,
            saw a light shining from Jesus
            – and what he saw changed everything.

Decades later, he looked back on his life,
all his ethical discipline, all his mystical practice, and said,
            “Whatever gains I had, these I count as loss
             because of the surpassing value of knowing
                        Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul no longer billed himself as a just man or a mystic.
He didn’t bill himself at all.
He said, “It is not ourselves that we proclaim.
            We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants
                        for his sake.”

Paul carved the name of Jesus on his bones --
no deeper than his bones -- in his very heart.
Paul tossed aside every prize he had every claimed,
            every success he had ever achieved,
            like Hanuman throwing away the priceless ring, and said,
                        “I’d rather have Jesus.”

Paul’s faith – our faith --  is all in the words of another old spiritual,
            “In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
            When I am alone, give me Jesus.
            When I come to die, O when I come to die, give me Jesus.
            You can have the whole world.
            You can have the whole world.
            Just give me Jesus.”

Thursday, February 16, 2017


In the Ancient World everything was a whole.
God was the ruler of it all.
Religion’s business was to seek God’s will
            in all things.
The modern world put God in smaller box.             
Most of life is entrusted to secular ideologies
            of politics, economics, and sociology.
Religion is relegated to the realm of
            our inmost personal feelings.

But occasionally someone notices that
the Bible is about the whole human project,
and Jesus did not restrict his  mission
to the private and the personal.
If you asked Jesus whether his teachings
            were about personal or political life,
            he would not have understood the question.
It was all one life.
Occasionally  someone tries to figure out Jesus public mission.

Reza Aslan’s book  Zealot portrays Jesus
            as a revolutionary concerned about the social,
            economic, and political condition of his people.
So, the argument runs, that he must have been
            part of the Zealot party,
            advocating a violent nationalist insurrection.

That runs against the modern God in a small box notion
of Jesus  as a heavenly minded spiritual teacher
            who either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that his people
                        were an occupied, oppressed, and exploited nation
                        with the boot heel of Rome on their neck.

Responsible Biblical scholarship says both versions
            of Jesus are wrong.
Jesus was concerned about real social, economic, and political issues –
            but in a personal way, not with an ideology like modern politics
He was a revolutionary.
But he was not a Zealot working for a nationalist insurrection.
He was after a much more radical revolution than that.

Jesus knew that you can’t change the power structure of the world
            using the same violent methods that created
that power structure to begin with.
Revolutions, invasions, wars of liberation and so forth
            do not have a good track record in history.

Consider the story of Robert Mugabe.
He led the violent insurrection that ousted Rhodesian President Ian Smith
            and made Mugabe President of the new nation, Zimbabwe.
For 35 years he has ruled with an iron hand
            using military force and militias to protect his power.

Mugabe’s approach is the opposite of the way
            Jesus taught his followers to act in the world.
Turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone sues you
            for your coat give him your cloak too.
It sounds like giving up, being a doormat.
But actually Jesus was teaching a more human way
            of changing the structures of human life,
            a more personal approach than mere politics

New Testament scholar Walter Wink today’s explains today’s lesson
            as a clever form of mischief.
Our text, reasonably translated from it's context, says
if anyone strikes you on your right cheek,
            turn to him your left.
To strike someone backhand on the right cheek
            is how the master strikes the slave.
To strike someone forehand on the left cheek
            is how one strikes an equal to challenge him to combat.

If someone sues you for your coat he just gets your coat.
But if you give him your cloak too,
            you are standing naked in front of him,
            and in that culture the person who sees the nakedness
                        of another is the one who is disgraced.

The one who could make you carry his load for a mile
            was a Roman centurion.
He could press any civilian into duty carrying his pack for a mile.
But if the civilian carried the load one step further,
            the centurion got court martialed.
So carry the load an extra mile.
Jesus was teaching non-violent ways of resisting oppression.

Let’s compare Robert Mugabe’s violence
            that led to war and finally dictatorship
            with the story of Nelson Mandela.
In his book, Playing the Enemy, John Carlin says
            the peaceful transformation from apartheid
            to a free South Africa happened because of rugby.

It happened  this way:
While Nelson Mandela was in prison,
he learned some things that grew
            into his strategy for changing South Africa.
Mandela had a simple problem.
The food was all served at once in the morning.
So his evening meal was cold.
He wanted a hot plate.

But the Afrikaner guards wouldn’t talk to him.
Mandela had no way of getting his hot plate.
So he listened to the guards  to find out what they talked about.
It was rugby. Afrikaners are just obsessed with rugby –
            which is why Black South Africans hated rugby,        
            had nothing to do with it, and knew nothing about it.
But Mandela had library privileges.
So he devoted himself to learning everything
there was to know about rugby.

Using that knowledge, he enticed the guards
            into talking with him – not about his concern –
                        but about what interested them – rugby.
Before long he had his hot plate.

That was the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s new way
            of dealing with people.
He made it his principle to treat every human being,
            friend or foe, with basic dignity and respect.
When people were opposed to him,
            Mandela’s response was curiosity.
He wanted to understand their viewpoint.
What did they know that he didn’t?
He assumed they were children of God
            and people of intelligence,
            so there must be something in what they say.
He wanted to understand it.

His old revolutionary friends were confused.
They were as hell-bent on a bloody civil war
            as the Afrikaner militias.
He had to engage them in conversations
            which were sometimes harder than his conversations
                        with the Afrikaners.
But he kept at it.
And he won them over.

Over a course of years,
he built personal relationships, something akin to friendships,
            with the Afrikaner power structure
            starting with the prison guards and working his way up
                        to the President, F. W. de Klerk.
That’s how Mandela changed South Africa.

If case a story from Africa is too far away,
            let me tell you one from our own history.
After the Republican Convention of 1860 nominated
            Abraham Lincoln for President,
            his political rival Edwin Stanton stomped out, saying,
            “I will have nothing to do with that gawking ape.”
Lincoln’s friends said, “Don’t worry. When you’re President,
            you can destroy him.”

But when Lincoln took office,
            he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War,
            the most important and powerful post in the government.
When people said to Lincoln, “What are you thinking?”
he said, “If I make my enemy into a friend,
                        have I not destroyed my enemy?”
When Lincoln died, it was Stanton who placed the coins
            on his eyes, and said,
            “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Now is this about how we practice our politics
            or how we live our personal lives.
Moses, Jesus, Mandela, and Lincoln saw it all as one life,
            a life guided by God’s ways.

Jesus’ mission was to overthrow the ways of the world,      
            the violence, coercion, one-up-man-ship, and greed.
He wanted to overthrow it all and replace it with God’s ways.
God’s ways belong in our homes and in the public square alike.

The problem isn’t religious people engaged in public life.
The problem is people carrying a religious banner
            but abandoning God’s ways for the world’s ways
                        when they enter the public square.
Frankly, we are all too ready to practice the world’s ways
            in our private lives too.

But it’s all one life.
It’s all God’s life.
Jesus taught us how to live it.
He showed us the way.
And thanks be to God
            people like Lincoln, Mandela, Martin Luther King,
                        and so many of the saints
                        have shown us it isn’t just a dream.
It is a good way to live, a winning way to befriend each other,

            and a powerful way to change the world.