Sunday, August 21, 2016


After 60 years of captivity in Babylon,
the Jews returned to their hometown, Jerusalem,
to find the wall of their city torn down.
Back then, the city wall was the national security system.
To live in a city without a wall was like
living in a bad neighborhood in a house with no door.

But security also meant having God on your side.
To keep God on your side, you needed a Temple for God to live in.
No Temple, no God was how they saw it.
But the Temple had been destroyed. It was rubble.
If they didn’t have a Temple,
         they didn’t think they could get by
         agriculturally, economically, or militarily.

 So they set out to make Jerusalem great again
         starting with building the Wall and the Temple.
But it wasn’t going well.
The capital fund drive flopped.
People were squabbling with each other,
         blaming and blame shifting, left and right.

They felt poor -- and the  poorest among them,
         the am ha-aretz, the people of the land,
         were a burden on the better off folks.
The better off folks weren’t mean or stingy or greedy.
They were just afraid.
They were financially, militarily, and spiritually afraid.
They didn’t have enough army, enough police, enough wall,
         enough Temple, enough anything.
Scarcity and fear were the hallmarks of the day.
So they hunkered down. They pinched their pennies.
They launched a campaign to deport    
         immigrants from their neighbor country, Moab.
They adopted a fortress mentality -- suspicious of outsiders
and even of each other.

Then along came Isaiah with this surprising message from God.
“If you want to restore your City,
you’re going about it all wrong.
you gotta do it different.
Here’s how:

If you remove the yoke from among you . . .
if you offer your food to the hungry,
         and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light will rise in the darkness
         and your gloom be like noonday.”
The word of the Lord.

They added up the construction costs
         and saw there just wasn’t enough money
                  in the building fund.
So God said, “Not a problem. Here’s what you do.
          Take some of that money in your building fund
                  and put it in outreach.
You don’t have enough construction workers on the wall project?
Send a few of them over to tutor the children of the poor folk.”
 “Just do it,” God said, “and watch what happens.
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt,
         you shall raise up the foundation of many generations,
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
         the restorer of streets to live in.”
The word of the Lord.

God is saying something completely backwards:
When you don’t have enough,
         take some of what you’ve got and give it away.

It doesn’t make sense, does it?
That’s because God doesn’t play by our rules.
God also said through this same prophet,

         “'My thoughts are not your thoughts;
         nor are your ways my ways,' says the Lord.
'For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
         so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts
         and my ways higher than your ways.'”
 God says that at the deep down core of things,
         when you get to realest possible level of real,
         the take it to the bank truth of life,
         everything we think we know is wrong.

It’s wrong because everything we think we know
         is based on fear and scarcity.
Our basic assumption is that life is a zero sum game.
There isn’t enough of it to go around.
But God says “not so.”
Jesus said,
“I came that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly.”
Life isn’t something to be seized by fang and claw.
It’s a gift to be received in faith,
         and the test of faith is generosity,
-- the courage, when we don’t have enough,
                  to give away some of what we have.

Crazy? Of course it’s crazy.
Some spiritual traditions call it “crazy wisdom.”
I know churches that live like that.
I was once at the budget meeting of our congregation in Pahrump.
They adopted a deficit budget without blinking an eye.

Then they began expressing their concerns, their real worries.
They had heard some other congregations were struggling
         and they wanted to help.
So they added a line item to support another parish.

They got an unexpected gift and they sent it to a local ministry.
We sent them their assessment rebate.
They gave it to St. Jude’s Ranch For Children.
You just can’t help some people.

I’m describing faith, a leap into the dark.
It is a leap into God’s ways – the ones that are higher than our ways
         -- God’s ways of faith, hope, and love.
It’s like exhaling in the faith that the air will still be there
         so we can inhale again.
It’s crazy like that.
But you know that crazy little congregation somehow
manages to pay the light bill,
         and last year they bought additional land.
How do they do it?
They don’t. It’s a God thing.

I like to see a congregation walk by faith
         because that’s the only way
into the Kingdom Mission;
and the Kingdom Mission is what makes life count.

But the best thing about it is a faithful congregation
teaches its people how to live faithfully.
It doesn’t just talk about faith and trust.
It shows us what they look like.
Such congregations teach the art of breathing.
You have to breathe out all the way so you can breathe back in.
One basic thing I’ve noticed about living churches and living people:
They breathe – in and out.
The heart of being a Christian is living
by God’s ways instead of human ways
-- by faith instead of fear.

When we are baptized,
         we take our stand on this earth as believers.
Believing is our trust.
We don’t just say, “I believe that God exists.”
That’s just an opinion.
An opinion and 2 bucks will get you a tall coffee at Starbucks.
We say “I believe in God the Father. I believe in Jesus.
         I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
I jump out of this burning building of mortal life
         because I trust God to be holding the net.

I know a young man in another of our churches,
         a financially prosperous young man,
         who carefully calculates the Church’s value to him
-- it’s the difference between his kids’ tuition at Camp Galilee
and the tuition at a comparable private camp.
He subtracts the Galilee tuition from what he’d have had to pay
         a private camp,
then he gives the difference to the Church at the end of the year
         after he makes sure all his other obligations are paid first.

And God says,
         “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor your ways my ways.
         My measures of worth are not your measures of worth,
nor your calculations my calculations.”

Brothers and sisters, this isn’t about a bill we owe to God.
It isn’t about a moral debt we owe the Church or the Church
         owes the community.
It’s about a chance to breathe.
It’s about an opportunity to live in God’s ways of faith
         instead of our human ways of fear.

God’s ways are lighter, freer, happier, in every way – better.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Remember the Brady Bunch?
How about The Waltons? Beaver Cleaver’s family
      Ward, June, Wally, and the Beaver?
Remember Ozzie and Harriet.
Even Lassie lived in a family of health and harmony.

Not many of our families actually lived up to that fictional standard.
It made us feel like failures.
So along came Rev. Dobson and Focus on the Family.
In an extraordinary religious revolution,
            the family became all-important.
God was reduced to a kind of super-family therapist
            or angelic power to help us become the Bradys.

Well the religious prescriptions for family felicity failed too.
Despite all of Focus on the Family’s thou shalts and thou shalt nots,
            families continued to have the same basic problem.
They are made up of people.
So in despair, we began to celebrate family chaos.
We TV fans watched The Loud Family disintegrate before our eyes
In the first major reality program.

From there we went on to watch all manner of families
            misbehaving and falling apart.
An endless string of reality TV shows has fascinated us
            with the disintegration of family lives:
Nick and Jessica on The Newly Weds;
Carmen and Dave on Till Death Do Us Part;
Linda and Hulk on Hogan Knows Best.
The list goes on.
The Real Housewives have had seven divorces in five years.

We went from the fantasy ideal of harmony
            to a seemingly addictive prurient delight in chaos.
Today we can even have a major political leader
            whose ex wife recounts tales of horrific domestic violence.

Eventually television producers recognized that
the family is the basic unit of society,
but what happens in the family isn’t limited to the family.
You don’t have to be married or next of kin
            to cheat, steal, lie, and betray one another.
So we got Survivor, The Real World, and Big Brother.
All of a sudden the whole world looks pretty questionable.

I don’t know whether TV causes society to be the way it is
            or vice versa.
Most likely the two are egging each other on.
But just look around and what do you see?
Our nation has not been this torn apart since the Civil War.
We are divided by race, class, religion, political convictions,
            -- you name it.
We live in gated communities
            of people who look like us.
More than ever before, we  associate exclusively
with our own kind and live in fear of
and loathing for anyone who is not like us.
We get our news from networks that tell us so called facts
            but only the ones that support what we already think.
Political discourse has gone from principled debate
            to the level of hate speech that our House of Bishops condemned
                        last Spring as the wrong way to be a democratic society.

So what does Jesus make of all this turmoil
            on TV, in society, and in our homes?
Well if Jesus were a TV producer I expect his show
            might look more like Keeping Up With The Kardashians
                        than The Brady Bunch  -- but none of them quite get it.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says,
            “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?
             No, I tell you but rather division.”
Then he goes on about family conflicts.
Luke stands out as the Gospel in which Jesus is most clearly
the Prince of Peace.
But here, smack dab in the middle of Luke,
            Jesus says he has come to stir up division.
What are we gonna do with this?

The key is the way the lesson starts.
“I came to bring fire to the earth.”
Later on people started talking about fire
as God’s instrument of punishment.
But that isn’t what the Bible means by fire.
Fire represents purification,
            the refiner’s fire used to separate base metals
                        from precious metals.
It’s the smelter, the refiner’s fire.

The prophet Malachi said,
            “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
                        burning away the dross.”
Peter writes of our faith being refined by fire like gold.
It’s an image that comes up over and over:
fire removing the dross of ego
and purifying the precious heart of humankind.

John the Baptist had prophesied that Jesus
would baptize us with fire.
So Jesus says he comes as the refiner
            and we will walk thorugh his fire.
But what does that mean literally?
 Just how are we to be tried, refined, purified?

Brothers and sisters, we are changed
– not by sitting on a mountaintop contemplating nature’s beauty
            -- not by esoteric spiritual disciplines
            -- not by hanging out with other enlightened holy beings
We are purified through the ordeal of real human relationships.
We are changed through the spiritual discipline of loving each other
            at those times when we are not especially lovable.
The place people rub up against each other most is at home.
We call it family friction.

Jesus says family troubles, addressed and endured faithfully,
            are the refiner’s fire.
One of the best books  ever written on Family Therapy was titled
 The Family Crucible,
because family life heats up and if it doesn’t kill us,
 it makes us stronger, better, kinder, wiser.

I heard of a family therapist once who was working with a couple.
He told them to go ahead and let their anger out.
Say what hurt them. Say how they actually felt, however negative.
But there were two rules.
They had to hold hands and look into each other’s eyes
            the whole time.
No matter how choppy the surface waters of our relationships may get,
            we live in a deep tide with a constant direction
-- a direction that leads us back to each other.

And it isn’t just family life.
It’s the challenge of human relationships wherever we meet.
It’s life at work, in schools and hospitals, in our politics,
and most certainly life in the Church.
We bump up against different people with different ideas
            and we all get our egos invested in our ideas
                        and getting our way.
That’s a recipe for fire.

But Jesus says we need a little fire to refine our souls.
We need the fire to burn out the ego
            so the spirit can shine through.

For centuries, Christian have said our mortal life
is a pilgrimage and it ain’t easy.
“Through many dangers toils and snares
            we have already come.”
Pilgrimage is an arduous process of growing in grace.
It burns out the ego and lets the love light shine through.
The pilgrimage, the refiner’s fire,
isn’t about being the Bradys on the one hand
or the Loud family on the other.
It’s about being real people working out real differences
with the real people God has given us to love.

But why do we need to go through all this?
It’s God’s way to prepare us for something.
St. Augustine said these relationship struggles
            prepare us to “bear the weight of glory.”

We’ve already got our admission ticket to heaven.
Jesus paid that price for us on the cross.
But we aren’t ready to go in yet.
God’s love light is too bright for our feeble eyes.

We need to prepare them through the gradually brightening process
            of letting our own love light shine,
            letting Christ shine out through us.

That’s what the poet William Blake meant by this immortal verse:
            “We are put on earth a little space

             That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”