Sunday, February 23, 2014


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.
The box was constructed mostly by John Dewey
     who gave us the decimal system.
He liked everything in its place
      and God’s space was very small.                         
Most of modern 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 reads today's lessons
         which cover everything from real estate to the legal system
          to employee rights.
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 public life,
            he would not have understood the question.
It was all one life.
Occasionally  someone tries to figure out Jesus public mission
       and they usually get it wrong.

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.
This week we mark the 90th birthday of Robert Mugabe.
He led the violent insurrection that ousted Rhodesian President Ian Smith
            and made Mugabe President of the new nation, Zimbabwe.
For 33 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.
If we search our hearts honestly
     we may be more inclined to the way of Robert Mugabe 
     than the way of Jesus.
But maybe Jesus isn't really about surrender.
Maybe 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, properly translated 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, Invictus, 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.
It started with the guards giving him a hot plate.
It culminated in de Kerk giving him a nation. 

In case a story from Africa is to 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 that people engage 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.
We have seen far to much of that in recent decades,
            worldly power players using our name.
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.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


This is from a few years ago, but as our Standing Committee begins a process of visioning for the Church in Nevada, I thought this might bear remembering.

Today’s lessons challenge Christians to engage the world.
In Jeremiah, God tells the young prophet
         that he isn’t here by chance.
God has created him for a purpose.
         “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.
          And before you were born I consecrated you.”

So God had a mission in mind for Jeremiah.
But  the nature of the mission was a bit of a surprise.
God said, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
By “the nations” he means the gentiles.
Jeremiah the Jew was to proclaim God’s message
         not to the chosen people but to the gentile world.

Fast forward 800 years to our Gospel lesson.
Jesus has just told the synagogue in his hometown
         that the Holy Spirit has anointed him
         “to proclaim good news to the poor,
                  release to the captives, . . .
         and to let the oppressed go free.”

The hometown folks have said, ok that’s us.
Do something for us.
But Jesus said he was sent to those outside.

He reminded them God did not send Elijah the prophet
         to a good Jewish widow to bless her,
                  but rather to the widow of Zarephath,
                  a foreigner in an enemy land.
The prophet Elisha did not heal any good Jewish lepers.
Instead he healed an enemy soldier from Syria.
That’s when they ran Jesus out of town.

The people wanted something different from religion
         than what  Jesus had to offer.
We need to look at that carefully
         because a lot of Christians are looking
                  for the same thing the people of Nazareth wanted
                           – not what Jesus has to offer.
Jesus doesn’t come to fix our problems
         so we can get on with our own life projects.
He comes to give us a new life project – a mission of mercy
         to a broken world.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer
         practiced what Jesus preached.
He was safe in America during World War II
         but he voluntarily choose to go back to Germany
         to support the part of the church that opposed Hitler.      
He died by hanging on April 9, 1945 in a concentration camp.

Bonheoffer called Jesus  “the man for others.”
He meant Jesus did not make his decisions for his own success.
Jesus gave himself for the world around him.
As a follower of Jesus, Bonhoeffer did the same thing.

In last week’s gospel lesson
         we saw that Jesus was not about himself.
He was about the poor, the outcast, the prisoner,
         the handicapped, the oppressed.
In today’s lesson, we see that his mission is not for the benefit
         of those near and dear to him, his family and friends.
Jesus had never heard the proverb “charity begins at home.”
The reason he never heard it is
         that Sir Thomas Browne did not compose it until 1642.

Even Sir Thomas did not say it was the truth.
He said “’charity begins at home,’ is the voice of the world.”
For Jesus, charity did not begin with himself
         or even with his own people in the synagogue.
It began with outsiders, the folks he did not know.

So what’s that got to do with us?
We are the Body of Christ in the world today.
St. Augustine said,
         “Christ died that the Church might be born.”

St. Theresa of Avila said,
         “Christ has no body now but yours,
                  no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
          Yours are the eyes through which he looks
                  compassion on this world.
         Christ has no body now but yours.”
If Jesus was “the man for others,” that makes us,
         what Fr. Jim Beebe at St. Patrick’s calls,
                  “the Church for others.”

Fr. Bill Cowans sent me a riddle this week.
“What’s the difference between the Church and a yacht club?”
Both use nautical terms. Nave is a word for ship.
Yachts are powered by wind
         and we are powered by the Holy Spirit.

The Church is a lot like a yacht club with one basic difference
         – its reason for existing.
The yacht club exists for the benefit of its members.
The Church exists for the benefit of others
         – the people who don’t belong.

Most religions don’t work this way.
Most religions are about how we can escape
         from the world’s hardships and struggles.
Most religions try to pray and meditate their way to serenity.
They form sanctuaries from stress.

But Christianity leads us deeper into the heart of the world,
         with all its pain and travail.
The person who represents the Church in Scripture and in legend
         is Saint Peter.
The legend of Quo Vadis is set in Rome at the time mad Nero
         was slaughtering Christians.
The story goes that hundreds of Christians were escaping
         the persecution along the Appian Way.
Old Peter was in the midst of them hurrying away
         from Rome, the deadly earthly city.
But then he met Jesus on the road,
         only Jesus was going the opposite direction.

Peter said, “Quo vadis. Domine” – “Lord where are you going?”
The Risen Lord answered, “To Rome -- to be crucified again.”
So Peter turned and followed Jesus back to Rome
         where he too was crucified.”
Maybe that’s just a legend.
But Dietrich Bonheoffer is history.
And isn’t it really the same story?

Theologian John Douglas Hall tells us the moral
         of the Quo Vadis story.
He says,
         “Faith in . . . Jesus Christ . . .
                  is a journey toward the world.”
But Peter represents the Church.
He shows us our natural tendency to turn our back
         on the world as he turned his back on Rome.
It is our natural tendency to turn inward,
         to become a mutual support society.
We should support each other.

But Jesus leads us back into the world.
That means proclaiming the good news in word and deed.
There are people around us who cannot hear the gospel
         in the ways other churches present it.
God has entrusted them to us.
They are ours to invite, to welcome, and to befriend.

It would be so much easier to sell the brand of religion
         that says if you get your mind right and say the right prayer,
                  God will make you rich and happy.
That’s not what we have to offer.
We have the way of the cross.

The way of the cross is to follow Jesus
         with his way of compassion
         into a world we might prefer to escape.
We want to run away, like Peter.
But Jesus says the only way out is through.

Our way of salvation is the way of caring.
It is participating in the world with wisdom and grace
         that transforms us into the likeness of our Lord
         and prepares us to be with him in eternity.

Following our Lord into the world may sound
         like a dramatic, heroic thing
But it’s really very simple, very ordinary.
It takes two basic things.
The first is to look at everyone we meet
         with the compassion of Christ.
We set aside our judgements
         and look at people, all people,
                  as beloved children of God,
         to befriend them and care for them
                  as our brothers and sisters.
The second is to to claim the name of Jesus
         wherever we go.
We don’t have to preach at people.
We don’t have to tell them what they ought to do.

It can be as simple as mentioning where we worship
         and saying a word or two about how it helps us.
We don’t have to twist anyone’s arm or give them advice.
We can just admit our own faith,
         confess that we pray,
acknowledge that the sacraments nourish our souls.

When we go into the world
         with the mercy of God in our hearts
         and the name of Jesus on our lips,
                  we are following the way of the cross.
It is a simple way, but not an easy one.
Befriending this world can be costly.
Look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St. Peter.
It is sometimes a hard way,
         but it is the way to everlasting life.