Friday, April 24, 2015

Sermon for April 19, 2015



The Roar of the Faithful Tide

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  1 John 1:1-7

Dorothy Sölle was a theologian and writer. As A German who watched the atrocities of Auschwitz, Sölle wrote passionately that humans are to struggle together against oppression, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of authoritarianism. For Sölle, the idea of a God who sat in “heaven in all its glory” while Auschwitz was organized was unbearable. Sölle she developed a powerful “post-Auschwitz theology,” an understanding of God who does not float above history and its trauma but who shares intimately in the suffering of the victims.

In an article in The Christian Century, published in 1982, Sölle thought about sin and suffering. She wrote a caricature of a woman named Marianne, which I want to share with you today.  

Marianne is an attractive young woman who owns her own home in the suburb where she lives with her two children. She talks about the gold jewelry her husband gave her for Christmas. The gold comes from South Africa; but she doesn’t see the blood on her gold chain. She hardly understands the connection between racism, infant death rates and exploitation, on the one hand, and profit and the low price of gold, on the other hand. Another thing she doesn’t (yet) know is that gold can’t keep her warm.

For her, “sin” is a ridiculously old-fashioned word, connected with eating too many calories, illegal parking or uncondoned sexual behavior. You really can’t take any of that seriously. Marianne feels guilty about her mother because she doesn’t visit her often enough; occasionally she asks herself if she takes proper care of her children. But sin?

Like so many people, Marianne is superficially Christianized. In her youth she was taught that sin means separation from God, turning away from the Creator, revolt against God, worship of other gods. But all of these are empty phrases which have nothing to do with her life. She experiences the actual meaning of this word sin -- namely, being separated from God -- most closely when she is depressed.

Recently she’s been depressed a lot without being able to say why. Soon, the emptiness of her life will catch up with, her. Then she will either have to change her life, or she will go right on living in her modernized doll house and denying, repressing, sweeping under a thicker and thicker rug everything that disturbs or challenges her. She will remain underdeveloped rationally, emotionally, socially and therefore individually as well. A colonized being, governed by trends in which she has no say but to which she submits, cut off from life.

Thanks to her feminine upbringing, Marianne feels like a victim of her environment. She doesn’t know her own strengths and capabilities. She’s been brainwashed long enough to believe that she can’t patch an electric wire; that only young, attractive women have anything to say on television; that she doesn’t understand anything about business and politics.

Marianne’s relationship to her neighbor is very reduced. She has to do only with people of her own class. She keeps her children away from contact with different people, different experiences, different cultures (unconsciously, of course). Unrecognized racism has become an integral part of her life. But even her relationship to people of her own class is essentially based on competition and envy.
Marianne’s relationship to the creation and to nature is perhaps somewhat less disturbed. She rides a bicycle, but she’s lost her original joy in the returning birds, the rise of the moon. Everything she loved as a very young girl is further away now, more indifferent.

Marianne’s relationship to the human family, to her sisters in the Third World, is troubled. I’ve given up even trying to answer her occasional “But what can anybody really do?” This question just masks the fact that she really doesn’t want to do anything.

I wonder if there is some resonance – some truth in this caricature? I wonder if there is a little bit of Marianne in each of us; people who have been trained to live a water-logged existence. How many of us would like to experience the abundance of love while denying the death-dealing power of sin. I ask that question because I don’t think we can have one without the other. We can’t understand love without also experiencing separation. We don’t understand light without shadows. Artists call it negative space: the area that surrounds an image. Negative space helps to define the boundaries of the main image and brings balance to a composition. In the same way, can we understand fulfillment without yearning? Peace without violence? How can we know forgiveness without sin?

Like Marianne, we may think of sin as a ridiculously old-fashioned word. Some of us were taught that sin is any willful act against God’s rules for us – an open revolt against God. Or, there are sins of omission – failing to do the things God wants us to, like all those rules about loving our enemies. In this worldview, God becomes the moral lawgiver who establishes the boundaries of proper human conduct.  Since we are always overstepping the boundaries, God has to judge our sin. We become candidates for some of God’s renowned and notorious wrath. When I was growing up, I was taught that sin was an individual problem that could be solved with some good old fashioned prayer and repentance, or some blood atonement from an innocent victim that sacralizes victimization. As today’s scripture says, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

At this point in my life, I have some problems with this definition. First and foremost, the idea of individualized sin as rebellion against God tends to keep marginalized people down.  It’s so easy to say, “That person must be poor, or sick, or jobless, or suffering because of some rebellion against God. That person must be afflicted because God is punishing some sin.” If my life is going well, then I must not be sinning enough to get God’s attention. I can claim that if my life is good, then God must be on my side. So now there are sinners and saints. Them and us. Outsiders and insiders. Locking our doors, building our fences, clutching our purses, we begin to hide from the possibility of relationship with “those people.” Now I can marginalize those who are suffering while praising my own inherent goodness. Now I can look at people who are different than me with fear. Now I can judge others. Now I can protect ourselves from “them.” Now I talk about “those people” but fail to think about how we function in the system. Now I can use religion as a justification to hurt others. Now I can use violence as an instrument of God’s wrath. It’s a tactic as old as time: use religion to blame and hurt the victim. As we remember Holocaust Remembrance Day, we realize that what I’m describing is a world view that takes us only a few steps away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. As the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaches, we recognize that religion-invoked murder begins with theology that flourishes by creating outsides and sinners who are worthy of God’s wrath.

I think Western Christianity got this one wrong. I think we did the exact thing that 1 John warns us against: we say we have fellowship with God while walking in darkness.  What if the people I thought were saints are really part of the sin? What if calling other people out on their sin is a way to distract others from the big problems of organized, systemic immorality? For example, I can mistakenly think that the level of personal happiness in my life has to with how pleasing I am to God. In reality, my happiness can be attributed to the fact that our culture affords me privileges as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male.  If I unconsciously benefit from white supremacy, then who is really involved in sin? Is it those who are devalued because religion says they suffer due to personal rebellion against God? Or is it me? Am I caught up in sin because I can benefit from unjust social structures that reward me for the arbitrary color of my skin, or my gender identity, or my sexual orientation? If there is sin, then where does it lie?
Yes, we were taught that sin is the destruction of our relationship with God. But let’s think this through some more. When the tradition says that sin destroys of our relationship to God, it doesn’t mean individual “sins” but rather the destruction of our human capacity for relatedness. Let’s get back to Dorothy Sölle’s image of Marianne. Sin means that life around us seems to us to become shadowy and unimportant; it loses its taste. We can take it or leave it. Sin means being separated from the ground of life; it means having a disturbed relationship to ourselves, our neighbor, the creation and the human family. Sin means not knowing one’s own strengths and capabilities; never experiencing solidarity; giving oneself credit for nothing; having no self-confidence. It means living without self-determination, without power, without hope – it’s what Black theologians define as the apathy of those who have given up.

I think we need a different kind of discourse. Instead of heaping judgment on the sinner, we attune ourselves to the voices of those who have been sinned against. So, using my example of white male privilege, I can lament my own complicity in racial injustice and the ways white supremacy continues to leave racial relations undone in the United States. I can listen to the pain and anguish of my sisters and brothers who are hurting and suffering, and then do something about it. I can relinquish my economic and racial advantages, beginning with ways that whiteness has been used to name God and define the human condition.

The same can be said about hetero-patriarchy (that’s fancy talk for being a straight male). What might it mean to hear those who have been sinned against and relinquish heterosexual male advantage? What an uncomfortable conversation we must have about this! And yet, we cannot talk about sin in ways that render us comfortable in the face of rampant injustice. If our sin-talk can lead us to healing, it must disrupt the idolatry of the individual and the veneration of the narcissist

What we need is a different method -- a different relationship with the world that has borrowed the eyes of God. A different set of ears that hears God summoning us, like the lulling, rhythmic roar of the faithful tide, eternally wearing away immovable pillars of stone on the shoreline:
Solid stones of separation,
Towering rocks of recklessness,
Conceited cliffs of chaos,
Prideful pillars of prejudice,
Ceaseless shores of injustice,
Venerated veins of violence,

All of those sins, those obstacles that seem like they will never change, those boundaries that separate us from one another – they are not as fixed as we think. The roar of love’s faithful tide wears them all away.

You are I are living in a condition that God wants us to change. Love erodes our defenses and opens us to fullness. Love ashes over all the obstructions and helps us give way to God. All will be gathered in God. All will be made whole. And each moment, each wave, each demanding and insistent tide of love crashing upon us, helps us live as forgiving and forgiven people.

Sources:
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1314
The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology, by Marjorie Suchocki
Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders, by Elisabeth T. Vasko
Reclaiming the Faith; Sermons by a Liberal Christian Wil Bailey by Carlos David.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Sermon for April 5, 2015 / Easter Sunday

The Rush to Completion
Saturday evening, when the Sabbath ended, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went out and purchased burial spices so they could anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on Sunday morning, just at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they were asking each other, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, but the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.” The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened. Mark 16:1-8
This week, a lot of families packed up for road trips to visit relatives or go on vacations. And about 1 hour into the 10 hour trip, drivers heard the classic complaint coming from backseats of millions of cars: “Are we there yet?” We’ve all asked some version of this question. We want immediate answers about our futures; our jobs, our relationships, what schools to attend, which organizations to join, what car to buy. “Are we there yet?” We pray for a sick loved one and want God to get involved yesterday. We grow discouraged if our prayers aren’t answered on our time and in our terms. We work for justice among the downtrodden and it feels like we make no difference. One community worker I talked to, who serves the poor of our county, said, “It’s the same thing ever day. I give out money to meet immediate needs, I try to help people learn how to earn a living, but every day more people come to me for help. Often the same people are the first in line.” She was saying it. We are all saying it. “Are we there yet?”

I confess, I’ve asked it as a minister. Is our pledge to create a just peace stanching the flow violence we see in our communities? Is our church doing enough to offer radical hospitality that welcomes people of all races cultures, ages, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities? Are we known for the quality of our caring and our commitment to compassionate justice? Are we there yet? Well  … yes and no. Yes, we are on the way. And no, we are not there yet.  Whether its church, work, family or our personal lives, each of us lives in a constant tension between the already and the not yet, the what is and the what is still to come.

Let’s be honest. How many of us woke up today singing, “My God, what a morning,” and how many of us woke up saying, “O my God, it’s morning”? How many of us came here with the full assurance that Christ has given victory over all our problems? I mean, isn’t that what churches are supposed to say at Easter? Aren’t we supposed to holler hallelujah and insist that on Easter, everybody’s a winner? Because Christ arose, isn’t love supposed to bloom, health flourish, sinking careers suddenly soar, acne clear up, miracles abound, church attendance skyrocket, and ruptured relationships get healed?

Well, maybe some of us aren’t there yet. Our days can feel so trivial. We roll out of bed when the clock wakes us up, get battered by news headlines, and tested by traffic. Our concentration is interrupted by meetings and small crises that feel like cosmic ruptures. Eventually we settle into well-defined lives of comfortable piety, well-fed virtue, and practicality. For some of us, life is a victorious limp.

That’s my experience, at least. I won’t speak for you. My life is up and down, peaks and valleys. Sometimes I feel fired up with the Spirit. Other times I fill my spiritual hunger with unhealthy substitutes like work, reading, ice cream, TV, day dreaming, or sleeping. Sometimes I sense God’s presence leading me in new exciting directions. And sometimes I allow myself to be hardened to God and I don’t to pay attention to the call of love in my life. Am I there yet? No. My life is already and not yet. My life is, and it’s yet to come. How about yours?

Something strikes me about today’s resurrection story from Mark. I’ve read it dozens upon dozens of times. I’ve preached on it at least 5 times. Something new jumped out at me this week. It has to do with the words of the angel at the empty tomb. Remember, the women approached the tomb and saw the enormous boulder that closed the entrance to the rock–hewn grave of Jesus was rolled away. Now they are terrified. You can sense the chill running down their spines. Then they see a young man – an angel – who says, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here!”

I want to tell you something about that phrase. Hang in there with me – you are about to get a Greek grammar lesson (The text we have was translated from Greek). The Greek phrase “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified” is written in something called the perfect tense. In Greek, the perfect tense lets us know that something decisive has happened, but the effects are ongoing. Think of the ripples on a pond after a stone has been tossed in. The stone is the decisive event. The ripples are the ongoing effect. So, the Greek phrase in the perfect tense can be translated, “Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified.” It’s a witty way for Mark to get at the point: The risen Christ still has holes in his hands. The angel declares that even though Jesus is risen, he is still in the state of being crucified. Jesus is already and not yet; already risen, but not yet healed; already alive, but wearing the perpetual marks of death. The foundations of Jesus’ new Earth are already established, but his kingdom is not yet finished.

Resurrection is not just a one-and-done moment.  I know we want to hurry the resurrection. We want to rush to completion. But the transition from death to life is not complete, yet. The effects of crucifixion still ripple out today. Our world is far from Christ’s new earth. We see heartache, pain, illness, evil, bullying, unemployment, death, and all kinds of frightening events that seem to blot out God’s light. Jesus-The-Already reminds us that the beginning of something new has begun. Jesus-The-Not-Yet reminds us that we are not there yet. The risen Christ, invites us to live into the reality of new life, wounds and all.  He summons us to get in touch with our own wounds and then help liberate humanity from our death dealing ways.  In other words, there’s still some work for us to do in this already-but-not yet world. There is still some work for us to do, because we are not there yet.

Therefore, I’m not going to talk anymore about the risen Christ as if it’s something that happened way back when and has no impact on my life today. Instead, I’m going to watch for the Rising Christ. Resurrection is not a done deal. Resurrection is an ongoing process. We can still experience its effects. Jesus still has those scars -- those nail marks in his hands and feet -- and they remind us that Christ is rising for all oppressed people who have been tortured or victimized. Christ is rising to make God’s presence known among the poorest and most despised of humanity. Christ is rising to give power to those who are cast aside. Christ is rising to restore us to abundant compassion. Christ is rising to say, “Yes” to freedom and, “No” to bondage. Christ is rising to be present in our struggle for a better today and a greater tomorrow. Christ is rising to show us how it’s done, because we are supposed to be following his example -- because we are supposed to be rising with Christ in this already/not-yet world.

When we find a way to keep hope alive, even when doubled over by our wounds, we are rising with Christ

When we admit our failures and breathe in forgiveness, we are rising with Christ

If we find love when it seems impossible in a world of despair, we are rising with Christ

If we let God touch our deepest sorrow and find the strength to become agents of joy in this already-but-not-yet world, we are rising with Christ

When we can stand in solidarity with the victim and the oppressed, when we hold unjust systems accountable for their actions; when we use our resources to promote equity and justice; when we teach our children Black Lives Matter; when we scream “No” to anti-LGBT laws like those proposed in Indiana; when we petition the Maryland assembly for prison reform and transgender equality; when we resist gun violence at home and abroad -- be it Garissa, Kenya or Ferguson, Missouri; when we open our lives to the spirit of unity God intends for all humanity, we are rising with Christ

When we approach our communion table and say, “No matter what … no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, no matter what you’ve done or where you’re going, no matter what, you are welcome here,” when we do that, we are rising with Christ.

Maya Angelou was a poet, and like most poets, she was a truth-teller; an unwavering voice who would not tolerate pushing people to the margins of life. The second class status and silencing of women, especially African-American women, really bothered her. Maya defied counterfeit social constructs that allowed men to treat women like they weren’t fully human. So, I want to close with a selection of verses from her poem, “Still I Rise.” As you listen, imagine Jesus speaking. Yes – I want you to imagine Jesus as a Black woman. Imagine her confident voice of strength, offering power for the broken. Imagine she will no longer be pushed into being a passive voice. Imagine she is the Rising Christ, inviting us to keep rising with her.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries …

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise …

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise

Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise

Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday Meditation | April 3, 2015

Thirst No More
Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips.
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and ben
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new . . .

Now that’s a God for you. Those words were written by the English poet John Donne in his 14th Sonnet. John Donne’s God kicks butt and takes names. We know all about this God – the God of unlimited power and might who breaks down prison doors and bends human will like Superman curls an iron bar. We were taught to put our hope in the One who shatters the chains of evil and conquers death. And don’t get in this God’s way. His anger and fury are notorious. Many of us were raised with this image of an eternal, almighty, irate Being who smites enemies for all eternity.

But God on a cross? We’re not so comfortable with that. SuperGod is nowhere to be found on Good Friday. Jesus feels abandoned. And he’s thirsty.  Maybe the words of Psalm 22:15 come to his mind: My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead. Jesus begs his torturers for the smallest sip of relief. At this moment, Jesus is just so fragile. Dehydrated. Powerless.

Scholars think John’s Gospel was written around the close of the first century. Right around that same time, a political exile banished off the shore of modern-day Turkey, also named John, records some visions he’s had. This John is part of a growing group of Christians known as Followers of the Way. The members of his church have a tough decision to make. The Roman Emperor, Domitian, summoned citizens to the dedication of his new temple in the city of Ephesus. You don’t say no to Domitian. The Christians need to decide, do they worship Christ or Caesar? Will they protest the invitation and face punishment and death? In John’s vision, The Book of Revelation, those who stay true to Christ lose their lives, but gain the reward. They enter a new paradise where God wipes away every tear from their eyes. And get this: these martyrs get to drink from streams of living water. As soon as they drink, they thirst no more (Revelation 7:9-17).

Thirst no more . . . You know what that means to me? Those Christians might have felt like Jesus on the cross -- laid in the dust and left for dead. They dare to thirst for an end to violence borne of intolerance. They thirst for a renewed earth where everyone has enough, where children survive, where the oppressed go free, and the strangling grip of evil is finally undone. They thirst for a world where the poor and needy have enough, where those on the margins get treated with dignity and respect, where aliens and immigrants are welcomed.

Sound familiar? Sound familiar you dreamers who can see a word where beauty is restored, tears are wiped away, and thirsty souls drink the waters of life?
Sound familiar you prophets who call us to build societies based on equity and justice?
Sound familiar you servants who work to soothe and heal the pain of injustice?
Sound familiar, you who are tired, weary and worn … You who feel forsaken by God and left for dead … You who feel fragile … weak … thirsty?

We still follow the Ancient Way, and we must decide who we worship and whether we participate in the unjust structures of empire. The church was supposed to create redemptive communities who find strength in weakness. Instead, Christians started using theologies, rituals and political power to shame people instead of healing their thirst.

Rich was diagnosed with cancer when he was a student in college. He was not that religious, but in his physically wasted state, he remembered a teaching from his boyhood church. He had not been baptized, which meant he was not saved and would go to hell. He was terrified by the thought of eternal punishment. One morning, after a fit of coughing and with death’s face staring back at him in the mirror, he called his mother’s pastor to come and baptize him by immersion, the only method acceptable to their tradition. Rich had no idea what baptism meant, but he feared the consequences of not going through with it. The logistics were complicated. The hospital staff secured a large tank, loaned from the physical therapy department. Lowering Rich into the tank would be painful, as would be his trip from his room to the basement where the tank was located and filled with warm water. Lifting him off the bed caused excruciating pain. Even the most experienced therapists winced at Rich’s screaming. Some had to leave the room as Rich prepared to receive his sign of God’s acceptance. When they lowered Rich into the water, he was too weak to keep the fluid out of his mouth. He came up out of the water strangled and close to drowning. Then the tortured trip back to his room began. Rich died three days later.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Baptists or immersion baptism. I’m talking about the ingredients in our theological recipes that feed Empires and create outsiders. I’m talking about what happens when Christians offer an overflowing chalice of guilt when someone asks us for a drink. I guess I’m feeling kind of thirsty, too.
  • I’m thirsty for an honest church where fear is not used as a technique to manipulate others into obedience.
  • I’m thirsty for a church that gives preference to the other; the-called “weak people” who are the victims of the world's power.
  •  I’m thirsty for a church where we have one and only one immutable claim on each other – the claim of love.
  • I’m thirsty for us, people of God. I’m thirsty for us to sit by the bedsides of people like Rich and say, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from or where you’re going – no matter what, you belong to God who formed you in the divine image and will never leave you or forsake you.
At the foot of the cross, we stand together, looking at thirsty, broken Jesus. It’s right where we need to be. It’s where we get in touch with the power of protest that rises up from innocent suffering and calls out against it. You dreamers and prophets, you servants and wounded healers, it’s here at the foot of the cross where we can dry the tears and nourish the bodies of those who live in this beautiful, terrible, wonderful world. It’s here at the foot of the cross where we offer thirsty victims the waters of life.

Maundy Thursday Meditation | April 2, 2015

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:44-46
In Matthew’s version of the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew uses a Greek phrase we translate as, “He yielded up His spirit” or “He released his spirit” (27:50). John uses a similar phrase: “He gave up His spirit” (19:30). These descriptions of Jesus’ last breath are bold and active. They emphasize the voluntary nature of Jesus’ death. Jesus is in control up to the very last breath. It fits in well with John’s theology. He’s the one who has Jesus say, “I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again (Jn. 10:17–18, emphasis added). For Matthew and John, It ain’t’ over ‘till Jesus says it’s over. Jesus is on top of the whole salvation process up to the very end of life . . . and beyond.

Mark and Luke use a different Greek phrase to describe Christ’s last breath. According to Luke, “Jesus cried in a loud voice, “Abba (Daddy), into your hands I entrust my spirit.” It still sounds like Jesus has some self-determination. It feels like Jesus is in control. He actively commits his spirit to God. Then Mark and Luke add this phrase: “With those words he breathed his last.” He just . . . expired. It’s one of those polite phrases we use when someone dies, similar to saying, “He passed on. He passed over. He was taken home. He’s lost.” It’s what we say when you don’t want to be blunt about death. It is also passive. For Matthew and John, Jesus’ last breath has some intentionality to it. For Mark and Luke, Jesus simply stops breathing. He’s had it. He’s done. He cannot suffer any longer. He takes one last gasp and he’s dead as a hushed world looks on in horrified disbelief.

Did Jesus die on the cross an active, intentional, voluntary act, becoming obedient unto death and securing eternal life for all who believe? Or, did Jesus die as a passive victim, exposing the human tendency to evil and corrupt systems? It’s a question theologians have fun arguing about: Was Jesus’ suffering on the cross active or passive?

The answer is yes. I want to suggest that our journey to Easter involves both the active and the passive. We need to hold them together to experience the fullness of God’s promise.

On one hand, transformation requires active, untiring effort to face the love of God. God puts us face-to-face with the reality of sin, suffering and death in order to heal us. Facing God’s love is painful for us. It means we need to face our own death-dealing ways actively. Because salvation has already taken place. The presence of God is already in and around us.  To grow in our awareness takes some activism. We have to give up our idolatries and biases. We need to reunite our dualistic perceptions. Our active role consists of reminding ourselves, day and night, at home and on the road, at work and at play, that we can entrust ourselves to God, that we can commit our spirits, to God’s mercy. So, transformation is active.

After all, the Apostle Paul tells says, “Transform yourself by the renewing of your minds,” right?

No way. He says, “Be transformed.” I other words, transformation is also passive. I need to be open for something vital happen to me. I not only actively contemplate God, I allow God to contemplate me. So, we are transformed by a mutual loving encounter in two dimensions: Active effort and passive receptivity. Works of compassionate justice balanced by open accessibility. Insistent love tempered by the capacity to be loved in return.

Scripture gives us another way to think of this balance. Paul says, “Love is patient. Love is kind.” The literal phrase actually has more flair: “Love does patience,” or as the KJV puts it. “Love suffers long.”

Love suffers long when your friends and co-workers drive you crazy or your kids and grandkids wake you too early in the morning when you were planning to sleep in.  Long-suffering is a survival strategy we use to put up with people who make us nuts, because at the end of the day, we love them more than they grate on our nerves.

That’s what God shows to us, isn’t it? Long-suffering is the passive side of God’s love. Even when we have actively defied, God is patient. God suffers long for us.

But God’s love is also kind. It’s the active side of love. God’s love forgives. God’s love restores. God’s love makes us whole.

Active and passive.

We give and God receives.

God gives and we receive.

God’s insistent love is tempered by our need to be loved in return.

Our growing love is balanced by God’s desire to be loved with all of our heart, mind, and strength.

Sometimes I use a term around here to define this process. I call it spiritual activism.  Spiritual Activism is like a breath . . . a heartbeat . . . a rhythm. It means we breathe out and go out and do the works of compassionate justice in the world that God calls us to do.  But we know we don’t get it right the first time around. So we gather together and breathe in. We pray. We listen. We receive. We refine our approach. And we realize we can’t stay in the pray circle forever. So we go back out. We exhale and reach out actively with God’s love in our communities. We feed and house the poor. We clothe the naked. We visit the prisoners. We include those who live on the margins of our communities. Then we breathe in again. We come back together to talk, pray some more and listen to for the wisdom of the Spirit. Then, with another exhalation, we reach out to our families to make them healthier and more loving. Then we gather our families together to pray, and feel God, and listen to how we can be a better family. Then comes the hardest work of all. I breathe out and work on myself, doing whatever it takes to grow in spiritual maturity and wholeness. And I also receive what God wants to do in my life. It’s a breath. A heat beat. A rhythm. And it’s what I wish for all of us as we approach the miracle of Easter resurrection.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...