Sunday, February 25, 2018


I am going to make two points.
I need you to do a little mental work with them.
One point is about our covenant relationship.
The other point is about our language,
            the way we talk to each other and about each other.

What I need you to hold in mind is the connection.
The way we talk is a specific piece of the covenant.
Just hold on to that and it will all be clear.
The way we talk is part of the covenant.

The Bible’s basic plot line is about how God saves us.
Salvation means making us whole, healing us, and as the Catechism says,
            reconciling us to God and each other in Christ.
It’s about our relationship with God
            and our relationship with each other.

 When God wants to draw us into relationship with him,
            God always – always – does that as a group project.
God forms a covenant establishing a relationship
among those people with himself in the middle of it.

God made a loose covenant with all humanity in last week’s lesson,
            when he set the rainbow in the sky.
In today’s lesson,
            God makes a special covenant with Abraham
            to form a great nation, a covenant people.

In Moses’ day, God spells out the terms of his covenant with Israel.
He will be their God and they will honor God
by practicing justice and mercy
            toward each other and the aliens in their land.

Finally, God expands his covenant to everyone
            in a bond of love sealed with the blood of Jesus.
In that covenant, our covenant, we learn to love one another
            as Jesus loves us.

Being a covenant people requires us to act differently,
            talk differently.
It’s a behavioral thing.
The law of Moses,
            the teachings of Jesus,
            and the Epistles of Paull
            are all about how we act and how we speak.

Covenant religion is not popular these days.
Churches are shrinking.
Church leaders explain that people are turning away from faith.
They just don’t believe in God anymore.
But sociologists tell us, it ain’t so.
People still believe in God as much as ever.
We have not turned away from God.
We have turned away from each other.
People want to practice their own little religions.
It’s their life and they’ll live it their way.
We want to pray our own way, meditate our own way,
            think our own thoughts.

I get it.
I have been up to my eyeballs in the Church for decades.
I know Church people are all too human.
We can be a pain in the neck.
I totally get wanting to steal away with Jesus.
But that isn’t how it works.
God isn’t in a spiritual zone we reach
            through secret mystical techniques.
God, in Jesus, joined the human race.

God invites us into relationship with him
as a package deal with each other.
God loves us through the agency of each other.
Being the agent of God’s love isn’t easy.
Loving people at their worst isn’t easy.
When St. Paul told the first Christians to bear one another,
            his words literally mean to put up with each other.
Bear one another.

 That brings us to the cross.
Must Jesus bear the cross alone
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone
And there’s a cross for me.

In today’s lesson, Jesus says, take up your cross and follow me.
That means something a lot harder than
crawling through broken glass.
Our cross is each other.

We sometimes bring each other joy.
But we sometimes are pretty difficult.
People treat each other badly in large and small ways.
We naturally want to flee into solitude.
But Jesus showed us another way.
He loved people, forgave people, prayed for people
            even while they were crucifying him.

 To bear our cross is to stay in relationship,
            loving each other especially when we are not
            very lovable.
We practice love in all aspects of our lives.
But Church is the one place that exists precisely
            for the purpose of practicing this kind of love.
We practice by keeping the covenant,
            living according to its terms,
            and one of the terms is how we speak.

We get picky about 4-letter words.
Well, the Bible doesn’t say anything about 4 letter words.
But Jesus is crystal clear on one point about our language.
In Matthew 25: 22, he tells us how not to talk to each other.

Jesus says, Anyone who says to his brother or sister “raca”
 is answerable to the court.
Raca is a general Aramaic insult, any sort of put down or shaming.
Jesus goes on: Anyone who says, “you fool” will be liable to the hell of fire.
He will not stand for our insulting each other.
Insulting each other is a hell fire offense.
The President tweets raca and you fool about his adversaries
            several times each week.
But he didn’t invent it.
Fox News made it the norm of public speech in the 80s.
And MSNBC replicated their language for the left.
But the journalists didn’t invent it either.

They got it from stand-up comics
            in the 60s who discovered you don’t have to be witty,
            clever, ironic or any kind of funny.
You can just be rude and insulting
            and people will roll in the aisles laughing.

Put it together, and rude insulting language
            has become par for the course in our unchurched culture
 – left, right, and center.

But Christians are not like other people.
We have a covenant.
We don’t act like other people
            and we don’t talk like other people.
We vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
            and to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
We don’t have to agree with each other about issues,
            but when we insult or belittle the person we disagree with,
            when we call them a fool, we’re talking to Jesus.

Christians don’t talk like that.
Jesus says that kind of talk is a hell fire offense.
It ain’t me saying this. It’s Jesus.
So, anyone who doesn’t like it can take it up with him.

If you want to talk like people on tv and social media,
            you’re free to have at it.
Just don’t call yourself a Christian.
Christians don’t talk like that
            and if you use our name while spewing those words,
            you bring shame upon us
            and build a wall between other people and Christ.

 If foregoing the privilege of insulting your neighbor
            is a sacrifice, well Jesus paid it all for you.
This is what he’s asking back.
It’s at the heart of the covenant deal
at the heart of how we are saved,
            how we are reconciled to God and each other in Christ.

Hate speech is no part of the Church.
This Church is where we become more like God,
            not in knowledge or power but in love.
 This is where we take up our cross,
            where we learn the hard discipline of covenant love,
            the love God has given us to share with each other

                        that we all may become whole together.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Mark’s story of the temptation in the desert
            is fast moving and concise.
After Jesus’ grace-filled experience at the River Jordan
            where he heard God call him beloved,
            and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove,
                        things take a quick turn in another direction.
Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.”
One preacher says “The Spirit morphs (from a sweet dove)
            into a . . . pecking, beating bird nightmare that sends Jesus
                        fleeing into the desert.”
This isn’t the dove on your Christmas tree.
It’s something by Alfred Hitchcock
            with Jesus in the place of Tippy Hedren.

Wrestling demons in the desert for 40 days
            wasn’t Jesus’ idea.
In fact, he was against it.
And the experience probably did not change his mind.
He went on to author the prayer,
            “Lead us not into temptation”
            – in other words, let’s not do that again.

Since Jesus’ time in the desert corresponds
            to our observance of Lent,
            we may take comfort in noting
            that he wasn’t thrilled about the idea himself.

In a progressive young church back East –
on Ash Wednesday, the priest imposes the ashes with one hand
            then immediately washes them off with the other
            to remind the people they live in the Resurrection.
She reduces our reflection on sin and death to about 3 seconds,
                        and rushes back to the happy thoughts.

 I once heard a priest say that rather than
            giving up anything for Lent,
            people should just take some quite time enjoying God.

Some of us don’t want to observe Lent.
That’ s ok. Jesus didn’t want to go there either.
In Scripture, the desert means the place
                        we do not want to go.
But immediately after his life changing encounter with God’s love,
            that’s precisely where Jesus was compelled to go.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron titled one of her books,
            “Go to the places that scare you.”
That’s what the Spirit made Jesus do,
            and that is what the Spirit presses us to do as well
            – to go to the places we would rather avoid
            because something essential happens there.
That’ s where our religion gets real.
The danger in religion is that it so easily becomes escapist.
It so easily becomes a flight into pleasant fantasies.
That kind of religion is fragile, unstable, and undependable
            because reality keeps breaking in on us.

Shallow optimistic religion continues to continue to pretend
            and then we get the shadow on the x-ray,
            then “something amiss” on the MRI,
            or our self-image as one of the good guys
                        is marred by a moral lapse.

Reality insistently intrudes on a false faith.
The Holy Spirit turns on a dime from a happy feeling
            into reality forcing us to confront the demons.
And that’s a good thing.

 Psychologist William James called the false faith
            of optimistic denial “the religion of healhty mindedness.”
He said two world religions are particularly effective
            at getting people through life
            precisely because they are not “healthy minded”
            -- because they acknowledge what we try to deny.
Those two religions are Buddhism and Christianity.
We observe penitential seasons to make room for the minor key,
            to paint with the darker tone.

That keeps our faith true enough, deep enough,
            rich enough to help us through all kinds of times.
Our faith isn’t about living in an oasis.
It’s about living in the desert with wild beasts
            but that’s where we meet the ministering angels.
Psalm 84 says when we pass through the desert valley,
            that’s where we find springs.

Ours is a faith for the hard times – not a na├»ve promise
            that if we get our minds right
                        everything will be just fine.
 Observing a penitential season runs counter to our culture.
Secular society and some brands of Christianity assume
            that it’s all about feeling good all the time.

Feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle writes:
                        “. . . W(h)at will become of a society in which
                        . . . suffering (is) avoided . . .; . . . in which a marriage
                                    . . . smoothly ends in divorce; . . .
                        relationships between generations are dissolved as
                        quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace;
                        periods of mourning are “sensibly” short;
            with haste the handicapped . . . are removed from the house
                        and the dead from the mind . . .”

Soelle says that in such a society
                        “even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced . . .”
            Suffering and joy are two sides of one coin.

To anesthetize ourselves against one
                        is to anesthetize ourselves against the other.
“No cross, no crown,” Spurgeon used to say.
We might say, “No Lent, no Easter.”

Much so-called “spirituality” tries to insulate us from pain.
Meditation is reduced to relaxation exercises.
Contemplation is pretending we are in a pleasant place.
Prayer is an incantation to drive away our hardships;
                        and faith is positive thinking.  

Today’s lesson teaches us a very different spirituality.
Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino defines spirituality as
                        “a fundamental willingness to face what is real”
                                    – including the realities of pain and injustice.

 Archbishop Rowan Williams says,
                        “the Spirit connects us to reality in a way that bridge[s] . . .
                        the gulf between suffering and hope . . . confronting suffering
                                    without illusion but also without despair.”
Our brand of spirituality dares to see things straight on,
                        to face the joy and the sorrow alike,
                        to acknowledge our failings and celebrate God’s love.

Lent is the time of the desert,
                        go there because God is present in every situation.
When we are in the desert with the ravenous beasts,
                        the ministering angels will be there too.

So, I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent.
I invite you to a deeper awareness of life.
And I invite you to a quiet confidence
                        that God is with you –
                        always there to strengthen and sustain you –
                        always there to love, forgive, empower, or console –

                                    always at your side.