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When you ask a congregation, especially Govans congregation for sermon topics, you never know what you’re going to get. I asked this congregation to complete the following question ”What does the Bible say about ________?” Shortly after that I received the following e-mail from choir member Doug Storey:

“Hi Tom, In response to your request for sermon topics, here is one I have been thinking about for a long time.

A book that influenced me many years ago was the slightly hippy-dippy effort to popularize Eastern philosophy, especially the Vedanta, by Alan Watts called “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.” In it, he provides a simplified version of the Hindu creation myth that goes something like this…

In the beginning was Only God. God grew bored and decided to play a game (hide and seek) by pretending to be the myriad of animate and inanimate, material and immaterial things that make up the universe. But because God is all there is, all of these objects are bits of God. And, of course, God is really good at hide and seek, so it is very hard for us to recognize that God is everything around us and within us. Whatever we see and experience is a manifestation of this oneness. There is no place where we, infinite in nature, do not exist; we just don’t realize it.

I find the notion of the unity of existence highly compelling. It encourages reverence for all of creation and, applied broadly, doesn’t contradict other religious traditions, because the stories they tell describe various manifestations of God in our lives, encouraging us to discern them. Even the idea of life after death could be encompassed in this unity. I imagine that heaven is the state of reunification with God; rebirth doesn’t have to be anthropomorphized to satisfy me.

What does the Bible say about the unity of existence?”

You know in some churches, I would ask for sermon topics and get, “What does Bible say about gambling?” or “What does the Bible say about pre-marital sex?” At Govans I get, “What the Bible say about unity of existence?”

I love this question. My theological sentiments are somewhat similar to Doug’s in that I also experience the presence of God in all things and all people. I think many of us do. 

And the Bible does speak to this idea, however the narratives and theology of the Judeo-Christian tradition use different symbols and stories to express this fundamental spiritual experience. 

There are two basic ideas about God in both the Old Testament and New Testaments that speak to this reality and then there is another specifically Christian idea. The two most basic ideas are that God is the Creator of all things and that God is the Sustainer of all things. 

So in the Genesis Creation story, God speaks or perhaps sings and various parts of the world come into being. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the waters.Then God said, “Let there be light. And there was light.” So God’s first action is to create light and separate the light from the darkness. Then God keeps creating more and more diverse things. The land and sea, the stars and moon, the plants in all their color and majesty, the animals in all their diversity and wonder.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition God is not becoming all the different things in creation, but God is creating them. God is the creator. We can still see God and know God through Creation, but it is not a game of hide and seek in our tradition it is more like discerning the identity of an artist based on her art. If a giraffe is a work of art what does that work of art tell us about the artist? That God has a sense of humor, perhaps? That God is playful? That God delights in diversity? That God creates everything with a place and purpose? Regardless, we can discern God’s presence, God’s nature, even God’s love based on the work of God’s hands. 

So God is the Creator. The Bible also says, God is the Sustainer of all things. So, God didn’t just make a tree or a frog for instance and then walk away, but the Bible says that God continues to actively sustain that tree and that frog. Their continued existence depends on God. If God were to disappear or cease supporting creation, it would cease to exist. And that includes you and me. Our life, our very existence from moment to moment depends on God’s sustaining presence and work. 

Some passages that speak to this:

From our reading of Psalm 104 this morning,

“From your lofty abode you water the mountains;

    the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,

    and plants for people to use.”

God does not just create grass that perpetuates itself and then walk away. God is continually causing the grass to grow. Maybe this time of year, some of us wish God would not make the grass grow quite so much. 

And further on in the Psalm,

These all look to you

    to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up;

    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

    when you take away their breath, they die

    and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

    and you renew the face of the ground.”

God did not just create the world and walk away. God is intimately involved in every moment of Creation. 

And from the New Testament, Matthew 10:29  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

Acts 17:28 – For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’  

These passages speak about God as an active sustainer of the universe, and I think express the same idea that all things in this universe are connected, unified, even in diversity, because all the universe comes from God and depends on God. 

Yet these two ideas: God as Creator and God as Sustainer are from the Jewish tradition. Even those last two quotes from the New Testament are basically Jewish theology, which is great. But,the early church gave us a uniquely Christian idea that speaks also to the unity of all things in the universe. That is, they began to see Jesus as more than just a prophetic figure and more than even a messianic figure and even more than a divine figure. They began to see Jesus as co-creating the universe with God. We hear this most clearly in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He (meaning Jesus) was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

But, Jesus as Co-creator of the universe is not just in John, in Hebrews 1 “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

And then in Colossians 1 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 

You see if we are trying to articulate a Christian understanding of the unity of all things, I think we have to look to the early Christians’ experience of Jesus. But, we have to be careful. Our theology matters here. For us and for the early Christians, Jesus was divine and co-creator not because of some magical immaculate conception and virgin birth. The first Christians experienced him as divine and told stories about a virgin birth to express that. He is not divine because of his great power to do miracles. The early Christians felt his power in their lives and told stories about his miracles to express that experience. He is not even divine because God sent him down from heaven to earth to save the world. Jesus was believed by the early church to be divine because of the self-sacrificing love he demonstrated on the cross. It was his giving of himself on the cross that elevated him in the minds of the early church from teacher or prophet to Son of God and even Co-Creator.  His love and self-sacrifice on the cross transformed him from historical Jesus to what Matthew Fox called, Cosmic Christ. 

In other words for the early Christians selflessness, self sacrifice, giving generously to others, wasn’t just a virtue, it is part of the very fabric of the universe. Christ self-giving love on the cross was like God’s self-giving love at Creation. 

So when the Gospel of John has Jesus say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” It is not saying that the only way to God is to say some magic words about Jesus. It is not saying that the only way to God is to think the right things about Jesus. It is saying that the only way to God is to follow the example of the selfless love of Jesus for others. To follow the example of self-sacrifice and resurrection that he demonstrates on the cross. 

Therefore, you could say that self giving love unites all things in the universe. When we practice that self giving love, when we follow the example of Jesus to love others with our whole lives, then we can become conscious of our unity with all things in the universe. The self or ego is the only thing standing in our way of that consciousness and when we let it die, when we let it be crucified with Christ, our traditions says we will rise to something greater than we were, something more communal, more joyful, more powerful, that is we rise as the Body of Christ in the world. When we faithfully let go of self and serve others with love we are raised from death and can become one with a universe whose life is love.

I think that is what the Bible says about the unity of all things. Yes all things are created by God. All things are sustained by God, but more importantly, we are invited to live in communion with the universe, by following the example set by Christ of loving self sacrifice for the world and her people. We are invited to be conscious of that unity by giving of ourselves generously, extravagantly, faithfully to others. 

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It’s hard to know where to begin with Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, better known as Romans. On one hand, it is his most sophisticated articulation of his theology, written late in his ministry after refining his message with years of active missionary work. It also probably influenced the Protestant Reformation more than any other single book of the Bible with its emphasis on salvation by faith alone.

On the other hand, Romans can be a daunting read as Paul takes a deep dive into human sinfulness and the nuances of faith with somewhat esoteric arguments based on assumptions we might not have. Further, anyone who has been a victim of anti-gay teaching and preaching in the church may know that just a bit further on in this same first chapter of Romans, we find a passage that has been and is still used repeatedly to bludgeon, shame, and exclude LGBTQ people. And though we can accurately state that Paul did not have a modern understanding of sexual orientation or knowledge of same-gender romantic relationships that were based on love, it is also probably fair to say that even if he had that knowledge, he would have come to the same conclusions as he did. In fact, that particular passage from Romans 1 is one of the passages that led me in my own journey to conclude there are some things in the Bible that do not reflect God’s will for us today, but instead reflect the biases and prejudices of the flawed, sinful people God used to write the Bible. And though the line between the author’s prejudice and God’s will is not always clear, we as modern people of faith have the responsibility to try to figure out which is which.

So that’s all in Romans: inspiring, soaring theology, obscure biblical arguments, painfully prejudice texts and so much more. Today we get the first chapter. The Apostle Paul is writing to the churches in Rome hoping to introduce himself in preparation for his upcoming visit. He knows that there is great acrimony in the Roman church between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, and he writes Romans in an effort to help the two sides find unity. So, he presents his understanding of the Gospel in a way that is firmly grounded in the Old Testament but is lavishly inclusive of Gentiles.

In our reading this morning we find a couple verses which I think summarize the entire letter. They are verses 16 and 17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”

In these verses that I want to focus on this morning, there are four words that need some unpacking. salvation, righteousness, faith, and Gospel.

I won’t spend a lot of time on salvation, but I do want to suggest a different way of thinking about this very traditional word. A Pastor I know believes that whenever we see the word “salvation” in the Bible we should read it as “liberation.” He says that the word salvation in our day has accumulated so much baggage that it can no longer be heard as the good news that it was originally intended to communicate. Anyone who had been accosted by a street evangelist asking if we have been saved or insisting that our salvation is not the right kind of salvation will be familiar with this baggage. “Being saved” for some just means being right and there is nothing else required for salvation but saying some magic words about Jesus as Lord and Savior and everything is forever, literally forever, taken care of. Alternatively, liberation suggests that we are set free from things that hold us back. Where salvation emphasizes the end of the process, liberation emphasizes the beginning. We are liberated so that we can live. We are liberated so that we can celebrate the freedom of a life with God. We are liberated so that we can serve God starting today and forever.

With that in mind, verses 16 becomes “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for liberation,”

Two other words in the passage can be handled quickly: faith and righteousness. Again I won’t go into detail here because I want to spend most of my time with the word gospel. But righteousness or righteous really means being in right or good relationship. It is less about being on a moral pedestal and more about being reconciled with God and with all people. So when you hear about a person being righteous, think about a person who has right or good relationships with God and right and good relationships with others.

Faith is about more than just believing God exists or believing the right things about Jesus. Faith is about trusting God. In the face of powerful reasons to doubt or question, trusting that God can and will help us change ourselves and change the world. Trusting God leads us to righteousness because it leads us to right and good relationships with God and others.

 So going back to verses 16 and 17 we might read something like, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for liberation for everyone who trusts God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in the Gospel good relationships with God and others are revealed. Through faith for faith; (or we might translate that to say “everything comes down to trusting God”) as it is written, “Trusting in God leads us to a good relationship with God and people.”

So now our last word to unpack is gospel. In some ways the simplest to translate and in other ways the most profound. The Greek word translated gospel simply means good news. Just ordinary good news. It could be the good news of your team winning the game or the good news of a baby being born. It could be the good news that you got a new job or that you just retired. But, when it is used in the Bible it often specifically refers to good news about God and sometimes more specifically about Jesus.

However, Jesus used the word gospel to describe not himself but the Kingdom of Heaven, that is God’s will being done on earth or the world as it should be. He said he was proclaiming the gospel or the good news about the Kingdom of Heaven, about the world as it should be. He begins his ministry in Luke by reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah, “God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, and release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free.” Notice here also the emphasis on liberation more than salvation.

So Jesus has his own idea about the word gospel, but our friend Paul has perhaps the most expansive view of the gospel which he lays out right here in the passage. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” the good news. What is it? He says, “It is the power of God.”

When candidate Barack Obama was on the campaign trail the slogan or chant, “Yes we can” became popular. He used it in stump speeches. People would chant those words at his rallies. The slogan appeared on bumper stickers. It was a simple message that captured people’s hope that the country could be better while emphasizing each person’s responsibility to make it better; that it wouldn’t just get better on its own. “Yes, we can” is a powerful idea that invites us to believe we can do more than we thought possible. That whatever doubt or despair we may face can be overcome. We can do that which we thought we could not do.

That slogan “Yes we can” is so powerful because in many ways it is a summary of the Gospel, except that the Gospel brings God into the equation. That through faith, through trusting in God, being guided and empowered by a power greater than ourselves we can accomplish what we thought was impossible.

We hear a lot of bad news today. From gun violence to climate change to women’s rights being rolled back. It is easy to despair for the future. But, the Gospel is good news. The Gospel is the power of God. The Gospel invites us to believe and have faith that we can change things for the better.

It’s true that for some people the Gospel is just about believing in Jesus, but remember that Jesus himself was proclaiming the Gospel and it was not about him, it was about the Kingdom of Heaven being near, the world as it should be being so near that it was in our hands. He was calling us to live into the Kingdom of Heaven today.

The Gospel is the power of God available to us through faith, through trust, through good and just relationships with others and God. Believing the Gospel or believing the good news means we live like we believe we can change the world because we know that the power of God can work through us to do just that. We don’t live in despair. We live in hope.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can be the people God is calling us to be, living in a world God is ready to create through us.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can find reconciliation and peace in our most difficult personal relationships. The gospel is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.  

Through faith in the Gospel, we can live according to our means and give to others according to our most generous inclinations. The Gospel is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can create safe, thriving neighborhoods in our inner cities and small towns. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, addicts can find real, long term recovery. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can end gun violence in America. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can make America a place that welcomes all immigrants to share in our abundance. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can dismantle institutional racism at every level. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can end police brutality. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can give every girl the same opportunities as every boy. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can make a safe, free world for all women. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can protect LGBTQ people from violence and teach all children that love is love. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

Through faith in the Gospel, we can eliminate CO2 emissions, eliminate plastic waste, regrow our forests, save species from extinction, and reverse climate change. It is the power of God to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

That might all sound fanciful or pollyannaish, but remember what the Gospel is not. It is not a belief in a set of doctrines. It is not magic words that we recite to receive an eternal prize. The Gospel is the power of God able to liberate us from the bondage of self and self-destruction.

Now please be clear, I am not saying that God will do all this for us if we just believe, but through faith in the power of God, we can do what we could not do on our own.

I am not ashamed of this good news. I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God to liberate anyone and everyone. For in it, God’s good relationship with us and our good relationships with others are revealed and we can live into those good relationships every day.

Those who trust in God and believe the good news will overcome doubt and despair. Those who trust in God and believe the good news will live into that good news every day and so change the world for the better.  

Do not be ashamed to have hope even in these difficult times. Do not be ashamed to have faith. Do not be ashamed to trust God. For through faith in the power of God the Kingdom of Heaven is in our hands. We can live in it together. We can change. We can make it real. Yes, we can.

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Let’s break this passage down into three basic lessons: listen to women, listen to angels, and listen to Jesus

First, listen to women. The fact that women were ever excluded from leadership in the church and that they are still excluded in many churches, is some truly audacious patriarchy. Because every gospel tells us that women were the most devoted and fearless followers of Jesus and that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection and the first preachers about the resurrection.  The gospels don’t agree on everything but they all agree, the women did not run away at the crucifixion like the men did, they remained faithful even after Jesus’ death, they saw the angels at the tomb, witnessed the empty tomb, saw the Risen Jesus, and proclaimed it to the men who had run away in fear. So, that the patriarchy was able to look at these stories and still come to the conclusion that women should not be allowed into leadership in the church is basically insane.

Without that insanity operating, we can read this story and hear at least one very clear message: We should listen to women. Believe women. Follow women. And while we are at it, elect women.

But, let’s take this message a bit further, beyond just listening to women specifically. The testimony of the Gospel of Matthew and all the Gospels is that Christ is revealed to us, and God’s will is revealed to us through not just women specifically, but all who are marginalized. That in a world of unequal power, whether it is power disparity between women and men, poor and rich, black and white, gay and straight, immigrant and citizen, in a world where some have more and some have less, God is with the less powerful. God stands on the side of the marginalized. God cries out to the world through the poor. Christ is not revealed to us equally in every person. It is true as Quakers say, “There is that of God in every person.” But, if we want to have the veil pulled away, to meet God, to know God, to know God’s will, then we need to listen to the voices of the world’s marginalized, believe the testimony of the poor, trust victims, find those with less power and follow their lead, and elect people who have not been cultivated by the power structures of our society.  Listen to women. Listen to the marginalized.

A second lesson: listen to angels. In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln mentions angels. And I know that is a big jump from an appeal to listen to the marginalized to Abraham Lincoln, but bear with me. In his first inaugural address, facing the secession of 7 southern states Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Just as our resurrection story today calls us to listen to women and the marginalized, it also calls us to listen to, as Lincoln said, our better angels. Listen to the voices within us and without that call us beyond division to unity, and call us beyond despair to hope. Listen to God’s call in our lives, more so than the call of selfishness and self-interest.

What did the angels tell the women at the empty tomb? What are we being called to listen to if we listen to our better angels?

First, do not be afraid. Angels say this all the time. Do not be afraid. If someone or something is telling you to be afraid, it is probably not an angel, certainly not a better angel. It is true that our fears warn us of appropriate dangers, but once we have been warned we must no longer be guided them. We must balance our fear with logic, compassion, and faith. Alerting us to potential danger, the fear has served its purpose, but no longer should we allow ourselves to be dominated by that fear. Do not be afraid.

Second, the angel says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” The better angels of our nature and our world, do not deny the pain in our lives or in our world. The better angels are not about denial and rosy unrealistic pictures of the world. This angel acknowledged that the women’s loved one had indeed been unjustly arrested, incarcerated, beaten by the police, tortured and killed by the State. This angel acknowledged that these women were grieving and looking to tend to their grief. Evil, injustice, pain, and grief are real. We must not deny or minimize these realities. Instead of denying them, we must listen to our better angels and acknowledge these realities, look at them, feel them, speak about them, and circling back to the first words of the angles, do not be afraid of them.

Third, the angel says, “He isn’t here, because he has been raised from the dead just as he said, come see the place where they laid him.” In other words, just as our better angels speak about the truth of the real world as it is, they also testify to miracles and call us to hope for a better world that could. They tell us that we cannot live in the past. We can be informed by it, but must not be dominated by it. The body is not here anymore. That which we grieve and mourn is not here. Don’t stop grieving, but don’t stop living either. You did not die. Don’t act like the victim. Look ahead. He has been raised. Your life is ahead of you.

Finally, the angel says, “Now hurry, go and tell his disciples” Again, don’t wallow in self-pity. Grieve but don’t stop living. Go, hurry, get on with life. There is work to do, reconciliation to be accomplished, equality to be created, people to be held accountable, vulnerable to be protected. And as you go to do this work, tell about it. Talk to people. Listen to people. Share the good news, that we are not bound by the past. That miracles are possible. So go find the living and live.

So, listen to women. Listen to angels. And finally, listen to Jesus. In this story what Jesus says is very similar to the angels. Though he first says one thing that is different. He says, “Greetings!”, which I think is kind of funny. Basically, he’s saying “Hi!” Talk about a spitting out your coffee, falling over backward moment: Having Jesus unexpectedly appear before you and say “Hi!”. It would be a very giffable experience.

Then like the angel, Jesus says “Do not be afraid” so that idea is reinforced. Don’t let fear dominate you. But, unlike the angel, Jesus is not interested in proving anything. In this story, he doesn’t say, look at the empty tomb, or feel my wounds, and he doesn’t eat fish as a demonstration of his physical nature as he does in Luke’s gospel. The vision of Christ is supposed to be enough. He is standing right there. They are receiving the vision of Christ in the moment. When we truly catch a vision of God in our lives, we truly know in the depths of our soul who we are, who we were created to be, what we are called to do, we don’t need proof. What we need is what Jesus (like the angel) says next, “Go and tell.” Share your truth, live your calling, let your light shine in the world.

Ultimately Easter is a story about transformation: from death to life, from grief to hope, from meaninglessness to purpose, from the impossible to miracles. We can listen to fear as appropriate. We can grieve our losses as we need to. But, we are all in the presence of God right now in this moment. We are called to follow a risen, living Christ. We are called into hope, purpose, meaning, into the future, into a new life. Listen to the women. Listen to all who are marginalized. Listen to our better angels. Listen to Jesus. They all say just about the same thing. Don’t be afraid. Feel the pain. Live in the present. Look to the future. Then go and tell about it.

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Until today, as we have been reading from Matthew’s gospel, we have managed to avoid people being thrown “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But, we can avoid it no longer. Matthew is actually very fond of this concept. He uses the phrase six times in his Gospel. By comparison, Luke uses it once. Mark and John don’t use it at all.

The Gospel of Matthew is known for its emphasis on divine judgment and punishment and we have now entered into a section of the Gospel where it comes up more often.

Next week there is more weeping and gnashing of teeth in the Parable of the Unprepared Bridesmaids. In a couple weeks we will read the quintessential judgment passage from Matthew where at the end of time Jesus separates people like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. It is the famous passage, “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to [Christ].” In that passage, the punishment is not weeping and gnashing of teeth, but getting thrown into “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

So let’s talk about divine judgment. First, in life, the concept of divine judgment is most often used by people who feel oppressed, victimized, and powerless. These are people who feel like there is no justice available to them in this world and so they put their hope in the next world where people will receive a divine justice from God. They look around and see their oppressors literally getting away with murder, so they hope and believe that if there is a God and that God is just, then those who have harmed them and the people they love in this life will be held accountable in the next.

Note that people can turn to these ideas of divine judgment not just when they are oppressed but sometimes when they perceive they are oppressed. For instance, if people have experienced privilege for a long time and society starts to change in the direction of greater equality, the privileged can start to feel oppressed. That’s how you get Westboro Baptist Church: white, heterosexual, middle-class people who feel threatened by equality for gay people. The members of Westboro Baptist are not oppressed, but losing their privileged status makes them feel that way. There might be some mental illness involved too.

The point is that hope in divine vengeance is understandable, but not always reasonable. At some point, we have to evaluate it. We have to decide if people are being reasonable in their appeal to divine justice. Are they really victims of oppression or do they feel that way because their privilege is being challenged? And another question, as we will see is, “Are they wishing God’s divine justice on the appropriate people?”

So when we examine Matthew’s interest in people getting cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth we have to consider his context. What we know is that all the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans. So Jews were conquered subjects of the Roman Empire. Israel and the city of Jerusalem were militarily occupied by Rome. Just think about how that would feel. Imagine soldier from another country marching through the streets of Baltimore harassing our citizens. Anyone who challenged Roman authority was tortured and executed often by crucifixion. After a series of especially corrupt Roman governors of the land, the Jews revolted in the year 67 and took control of Jerusalem. Not long after that, Rome arrived with reinforcements and retook Jerusalem in what is described by an eyewitness as a complete slaughter of the people of the city: men, women and children, blood running in the streets, sacking the temple of all its holy treasurers, and then burning the temple and the city. So the Jews of Matthew’s time were legitimately oppressed and had very little hope of any real justice without God’s intervention. It seems like they would be justified in hoping for some reckoning from God.

Further, Matthew was writing in particular to Jews who had become Christians and who were either expelled from the synagogues or they were about to be expelled, they could see the writing on the wall. So for those Jewish Christians of the Roman Empire, they were doubly discriminated against. They were Jews who after an unsuccessful violent revolt had to continue living under Roman domination and then they were being expelled from their synagogues which were the only social safety net they knew in a hostile empire.

In other words, their desire for divine justice seems pretty reasonable. They had suffered at the hands of others in ways that would never be righted in their lifetimes. But, what seems unreasonable is that Matthew reserves the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, not for the Romans, and not even for the Jews who expelled his community from the synagogues. The person in the parable who gets the worst of the divine justice is a Christian who was not living up to Christian community expectations.

So now let’s turn to our parable and see what I’m talking about. A great wedding feast has been prepared by a king. This is the feast of the Kingdom of Heaven, however, you define that as spiritual, material, or in this world or the next, the parable suggests God has prepared a feast and sent servants out to invite the Jews to enjoy it as God’s chosen people. Yet, according to Matthew, the Jews reject the invitation. They have other priorities. But, Matthew is actually least concerned with those who had other things to do. In this parable, the only consequence they experience is they don’t get to enjoy the feast.

But, there is one group of invitees who “seized God servants, mistreated them and killed them.” God’s servants here are almost certainly the prophets and Jesus. Those who killed the prophets and Jesus are the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. Matthew envisions a harsh divine justice against those people. He says, “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” It is very likely that Matthew here is envisioning the burning of Jerusalem as divine justice administered by the Roman Empire.

Right here we see that one problem with the human wish for divine justice may be that we wish it on the wrong people. We blame the wrong people for our suffering. Jews were suffering because of Roman military occupation, but Matthew is more concerned about the misbehavior of his fellow Jews, and even the people of his own Christian community, and is wishing God’s vengeance upon them instead of Rome.

Well, things take a nicer turn in the parable at least briefly. The king now wants to invite everyone to the banquet, not just the Jews. These new folks probably represent either Jews who are somewhat non-compliant with Jewish law or Gentiles who want to be part of the Jewish vision of God’s feast.

In the parable, “The king says, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

That’s nice. We probably wish the story would just end there.

But then things get really dark, wacky turn. There is one guest at the banquet who does not have a wedding robe. And this is the poor guy singled out by the king to be cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The guy who responds to the surprise invitation, but doesn’t wear the right clothes received the harshest punishment.

OK, first, some people hear this part of the parable and protest that this is not fair because this guy was just brought in off the street so how can he be expected to have a wedding robe? However, that objection doesn’t really stand up to the assumptions of the story. Everyone there had just been brought in and were not expecting to be at the banquet and yet they all apparently had wedding robes. Only one person does not. So what is it that this guy should have been wearing but wasn’t. In other words, what the heck does the wedding robe symbolize? What is Matthew saying will get us cast out of the feast and into the outer darkness? Seems like an important thing for us to figure out.

Fortunately, there is an answer. Most likely wearing a wedding robe is a symbol of living an ethical, moral life. Whatever your life was like before you arrived at the banquet, now that you are at the wedding banquet you are expected to live a better life. Two passages in the epistles make reference to this. In Romans 13:14 Paul writes, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about gratifying the desires of the flesh.” And then from Colossians 3:14 “Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.” So this was probably a known metaphor in the early church: the idea that living a life devoted to helping others was like clothing you wear every day.

But we still have the problem that the person who receives the harshest punishment is the one who tries to come to the wedding banquet and doesn’t live up to the expectations. Which has horrible implications for all of us here. Because this guy is us. As Christians, we have shown up to God’s banquet and we may not be living up to our calling to love our neighbor and love God as we should.

So let’s take a step back and recap how we might think about this concept of divine justice. First, hoping for divine justice is a reasonable thing. The fact is there are people today who are being violently oppressed. People who are being killed and imprisoned because of the color of their skin, or nationality, or religion or other kinds of superficial reasons, people who are seeking safety from violence only to have their children taken from them, people who are having their homes overrun and burned, people whose homeland is being used to enrich the wealthy, people who are being held captive and raped, and none of those people are getting justice in this world. And even if they would dedicate their lives to fighting for justice they would not see in their lifetime. And there are people responsible for the suffering. There are people who are preying on weak and the vulnerable for personal gain. If we believe God is just, and this world is so filled with injustice, then there has to be some kind of reckoning. There has to be another world to balance this one where the wrongs of this world are set right.

I know we want to believe in a God who forgives everyone in the end. I know I do. But, it is also somewhat arrogant, privileged, and unfeeling of people who have not been the victims of the horror of oppression and violence to blithely say God will just let the perpetrators off the hook. I’d like to believe everyone gets off the hook, but as a privileged, white, middle class, heterosexual, American man, my hope in a God who even forgives the oppressor may be biased by self-interest.

All that is to say that hoping, believing, and wishing for divine justice, and even retribution is reasonable.

Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, we are terrible at figuring who deserves it and who doesn’t. I mean in my evaluation, Matthew’s parable should have the Romans as the primary recipients of God’s divine justice. The oppressor, the violent, military empire, the one doing the crucifying should be the primary recipients of God’s divine justice, but in Matthew’s scheme, they aren’t just off the hook but become the instruments of divine justice.

Then if we are settling grudges, the Jewish leaders who killed God’s prophets and ultimately expelled Jesus-followers from the social safety of the synagogues deserve some kind of justice. And last of all the person who tries to make their life better by coming to the banquet and fails doesn’t really deserve any divine justice at all but deserves a second chance. Give the guy a robe. Teach him how to put it on.

But, I could be entirely wrong in that evaluation because ultimately we are completely ignorant of who really deserve divine justice and who deserves mercy. Our perspective on that is entirely skewed by our limited perspective, our self-interest, our hurt feelings, and our prejudices.

There is one more danger to consider regarding this topic of divine justice and then I will wrap this up. Sometimes we can give up on the work of making this world more just because we decide that the only real justice will come in the next. And Matthew’s version of this parable basically supports our temptation to give up. Our job in Matthew’s parable seems to be to get ourselves to the banquet, make sure we are wearing our robe, and leave everything else up to God the king who will kill people, and cast people out as he sees fit.

We must avoid that interpretation. And our only hope of avoiding it may be found in the folds of that mysterious wedding robe. If putting on a wedding robe is about living a good, ethical, Christian life, then that includes working for justice for the victims of injustice and standing with the vulnerable. That includes inviting and including more and more people in the banquet. That includes helping people at the banquet live a life devoted to neighbor and love for all people.

So in summary, hopefully, there is divine justice. Hopefully, we all get what we deserve for behavior that harms others. Hopefully, there is abundant mercy, because everyone is going to need some. But, we are terrible at guessing who deserves justice and who deserves mercy.

We do know we have been invited to the banquet. But if you respond to the invitation to this banquet, for God’s sake put on the robe. Wearing the robe means we dedicate our lives to love of neighbor and justice for all people, we work to include everyone in the banquet, and we teach everyone what it means to wear the clothing of love.

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There is an expression attributed to ancient Celtic culture that has become fairly popular in the spiritual/faith circles of our day. The expression is “thin places.” The saying goes that heaven and earth are always only three feet apart, but in thin places, they are even closer. Thin places are physical places or even moments in time when the veil between the material and spiritual is pulled away or becomes transparent. Thin places can be ancient holy sites or particularly moving experiences of nature, or profound events in life such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one. In all such times and places, we might think that God is coming closer to us, or the barrier that seems to exists between the Heaven and Earth crumbles. But, I wonder if that is really what is happening in those thin places.

Is the barrier changing? Is the veil changing? Or are we changing? Are we changing so that we become more able to see what is always there? That change may be the result of a gift from God so that we are somehow given the ability to see the divine and the holy even though it is always there. And/or the ability to see, feel, and know the presence of God may be something we can practice and cultivate.

In our reading today, the disciples and Jesus experience a thin place on the mountain top. They experienced a time and place where the veil of the material, physical nature of Jesus was pulled away so that his dark brown skin began to radiate light. Even his clothes dazzled. Even the veil between present and past was pulled away as visions of Moses and Elijah appeared living and walking and talking with Jesus. A cloud overshadowed them and a voice from heaven was heard. But, I wonder did all of that change, or did the disciples change so they could suddenly see what was always there? Was Jesus always brilliant, and always in communion with his spiritual ancestors, and always hearing the affirming voice of God, and then in that moment on that mountain top did something change in the disciples so they became able to perceive it.

As we read this story, even this strange and fantastic story we should ask the question we always ask of Bible stories, “What does it mean for us today?” There are at least two answers to that question. One answer certainly has to do with our understanding of Jesus and who he was. Matthew is telling us, as do Mark and Luke that Jesus is like Moses and like Elijah, the great spiritual icons of Judaism who appear with him, and that he is even greater than these. Moses and Elijah never got a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.” Matthew wants us to see Jesus as a new Moses and even more than Moses.

But, beyond that theological statement about Jesus what else can we do with this strange, otherworldly, fantastic text. The second answer to the question what does it mean for us is that it invites us to always be more open to and aware of the presence of God all around us, all the time, in our daily lives. Jesus did not change in this story, the disciples did. The disciples became able to see a dimension of reality in Jesus that they previously could not see or hear. I suggest this story invites us to keep our eyes and hearts open for this kind of truth and reality everywhere.

In the movie Pulp Fiction, which is a great movie and also violent and awful, so if you haven’t seen it be warned. But, in that movie a hit man named Jules played by Samuel L. Jackson has a near-death experience where someone jumps out of a closet and tries to shoot him in the head and misses every shot. As a result, Jules begins to reflect on his life choices and there is a great scene in a diner where Jules is talking to his partner Vincent played by John Travolta. I wish I could show the scene but it has a bunch of language that would be offensive. But, Jules tells Vincent that he believes what happened was a miracle. Vincent says it was not a miracle it was just a freak occurrence. They debate this some and then Jules says, “Vincent you are looking at this the wrong way. It could be the God stopped the bullet, or changed Coke to Pepsi or found my car keys. You don’t judge stuff like this based on merit. Now whether what we witnessed was an according to Hoyle miracle is insignificant, but what is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.” The transfiguration story is inviting us to see all the ways God gets involved in our daily lives.

There is that old saying is we should not make a mountain out of a molehill. That is we should not make little problems into big problems. But, maybe when it comes to seeing thin places or opening eyes to the divine, maybe when it comes to feeling the touch of God, to recognizing when God gets involved, maybe we should not require molehills to be mountains. Maybe thin places are appearing on molehills everywhere. Everywhere we turn God is involved. Every person we see is shining with the light of God. Our spiritual ancestors always walk with us, beside us, and within us. Every sound we hear is the voice of God calling to us and affirming us as beloved.

I can share a few times when I have seen God in molehills. In other words, these are not times when I had to go to extraordinary lengths, but were God was clearly getting involved in everyday experiences.

Last Monday morning when we had all that powerful wind blowing, I sat in my favorite chair with my dog laying on his back in my lap and I rubbed his chest and watched out our front window the wind blow as the sun rose over my suburban street. In that moment, God was opening my eyes to see the divine and holy right there in Lutherville.

One time, driving my son, Oscar home from the airport on his first winter break from college, having to get off 695 because of traffic and driving through West Baltimore listening to his playlist of obscure bands playing familiar covers. That’s about as close as Oscar and I get to intimacy most of the time.

God fairly consistently opens my eyes when I’m in the kitchen preparing food, listening to music and drinking red wine. Maybe the wine has something to do with the process.
Worshipping in the evenings at Kay Papa Nou in the darkness as the girls move from kneeling on wooden benches and praying aloud to loud enthusiastic singing praises to God by heart.

Laughing hysterically at the dinner table when it is a joke the only my daughter and I think is funny. And Sasha and my mother just look at us like we are crazy.

Sunday mornings, singing together in church or in a small group where the voices blend and unify.

The veil between heaven and earth is always thin. It is not only that way on mountain tops, but heaven and earth touch on molehills everywhere. I don’t think they are ever three feet apart.

Sometimes we don’t realize we experience the holy until it is over and we look back on them.

Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward”

But sometimes we do know that it’s happening and we do see it, feel it, hear it. Then we are like Peter who wants to preserve the experience. And we can lose it by wanting to hold on to it. Right in the middle of the vision, Peter says, “Lord let us build three tabernacles one for you, one for Elijah and one for Moses. Let’s us contain. Let us hold onto this moment of beauty and clarity.

Matthew is unique among the Gospel by the way the voice of God does not just come after Peter gives his idea, the voice of God literally interrupted Peter, “As Peter was speaking a voice “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”

Which brings us back to that core tenant of the Christian faith, that we can reliably see God, hear God, know God by listening to Jesus, by studying his life and example, so that when we lose the ability to see the Kingdom of heaven in our everyday life we can turn to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and know we are seeing God.

When the transfiguration was all over, the cloud had disappeared, Moses and Elijah were gone, the voice from heaven stopped speaking, the disciples were left with just Jesus, ordinary flesh and blood, dirty clothes Jesus standing there. But, there is no way they would ever look at him the same way again. Knowing that just beneath the veil of his flesh was his divinity. That perhaps even his flesh was divine.

Hopefully, they would never look at anything the same, knowing that the kingdom of heaven is less three feet from every person, every situation, every moment.

So ask God for the eyes to see it, the ears to hear, and the heart to feel. If for some reason God does not provide that gifts at that moment, just look to Jesus.

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At Soul Kitchen our weekly free community meal we have noticed over time a very peculiar phenomenon. We seem to always get a really big turnout whenever we have baked chicken. Even though we don’t advertise we are having baked chicken; there should be no way our guest know we are having baked chicken, we still get a big turnout when we bake chicken. People who only come occasionally show up when we have baked chicken. New people show up when we have baked chicken. It’s like there is some kind of telepathic messaging sent out into the Baltimore area on baked chicken night. Recently this happened and Carolyn, our Soul Kitchen Coordinator had prepared or so she thought. We always try to have enough for people to get seconds or bring something home so she made 100 chicken legs. Though sometimes we do get 60 or even 70 those numbers usually include volunteers who might not eat or would not get seconds. But, 100 should have been enough even on baked chicken night. But, after all the guest had gone through the line once and only about 20 minutes after we started serving, no volunteers had eaten and we had 35 legs left over. Baked chicken night. So before we started handing out seconds, we pulled all those 35 chicken legs off the line and had about 6 people pull all the meat off the bones and then Carolyn poured a bunch of gravy over the meat and by doing that we were still able to provide seconds or take out to everyone who wanted it, and by the end most volunteers were able to eat, and we had some left over. I said to Carolyn, “It is like Jesus feeding the 5000” and she said, “Your the third person to say that to me in the past 10 minutes.”

There is a debate about what kind of miracle happened when Jesus fed the 5000 which is an inaccurate name for this story because at the end Matthew tells us that it was “5000 men not counting women and children.” So in our day, since we consider women and children, you know, people, we really should call it feeding the 10,000 or more, or perhaps feeding the multitude. But, still the debate is what kind of miracle was this. People with a high Christology meaning people who believe that Jesus was God on earth, and was capable of literally creating matter out of nothing, as God did in creation, will say that Jesus did just that. There were five loaves and two fish and he made loaves appear where there were no loaves. He created matter, or perhaps transformed air into bread. But, it was that kind of miracle.

But, people with a lower Christology who see Jesus at least as he was on earth as very human and who see his divinity as some sort of metaphor or that was attained after his death, would say the miracle here was that he inspired people to share what they already had. That when people followed him out to the wilderness, many brought food with them, but they didn’t want to bring it out and have to share with those who had nothing. There was an ethos of scarcity in the crowd. “If we share, there won’t be enough for us.” But, when Jesus began by sharing what he and the disciple had, in a spirit of gratitude to God, it inspired others to share what they had and it turns out that there was not only enough for all to be fed, but there was more than enough. Each disciple ends up with a full basket of bread and the implied commission to go out into the world and continue the miracle.

I like the second interpretation better because it is something we can continue to do today. It is not a miracle that needs a supernatural God/man to perform today. It needs the spirit of Christ to inspire us with gratitude and generosity, but this second interpretation does not offend some of the basic laws of physics that matter in the form of bread can be created out of nothing.

However, the next miracle does not have a nice neat rational explanation. I mean we can still come up with one. We can say that walking on water is a metaphor or a narrative device used to communicate how special Jesus was, but if we accept the story at face value, if we enter the world of the narrative and let our imaginations take us where the author wants us to go, this walking on water is a flat out miracle.

The author even sets it up by having Jesus finally get his alone time to pray which he has been trying to get since before the feeding of the multitude. So he is up on the mountain communing with God and charging up his divine spiritual batteries so that he will be able to walk across the sea as if it was land. The disciples out on the sea straining against the wind and waves in what everyone agrees is a metaphor for the early church struggling to survive against religious and political prejudice. Then here comes Jesus walking on the water, full of divine power to do the impossible. Defying all expectations, making that which we think is hopeless attainable. The disciples first think it is a ghost as the early church first questioned how real was their experience of the Risen Jesus. But, Jesus speaks to them while walking on the water, “Be encouraged! It is I. Do not be afraid.” Those who know the Jewish tradition that God is the great “I am” will not miss that Jesus is saying the same thing here, “Be encouraged. I am!” “I am the divine. I am the presence and power of God among you. I have power over the wind and the waves and all that threatens to destroy you.”

Then Peter wants to try. He wants to do what Jesus does. As well he should. As we all should. As a follower of Jesus, as his disciples, we should want to do what he did. We should want to heal people as he did, to feed people as he did, to advocate for the powerless as he did, to stand together against the powerful as he did. Peter is not wrong here in wanting to do what Jesus does, we all should be asking what would Jesus do, even if the answer is “walk on water,” still we step out on faith and we try. And Jesus encourages him. “Come on out. Step out of the boat. Step out the church. Be not afraid of the wind and waves of this world.” And Peter succeeds. He also walks on water. He also does the impossible. He also conquers fear and hopelessness.

Until he doesn’t. Until he falters. Until he takes his eyes off Jesus, and turns his attention instead to the wind and everything that could go wrong. He starts to believe more in his fears than his faith. He remembers that what he is doing is supposed to be impossible. So he begins to sink and cries out to Jesus, “Lord rescue me!” Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” They get into the boat and with Jesus in the boat, the winds die down and they all begin to worship Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

There is not much room for a low Christology here. And there isn’t much room for a low Christology if this world in which we live has a chance of being saved from disaster. The storms of our day are powerful and destructive and the tasks may seem impossible: global climate destruction, economic inequality increasing, sophisticated media in the hands of the rich and powerful who are becoming more effective at using it to control the masses, constant efforts to erode democracies, not to mention in the personal sphere the storms of violence and hurt that blow through our families. Those are some pretty strong headwinds. And yes, of course, we do need to share what we have and yes that is the way to turn things around and yes it would be a miracle if everyone became more generous. But we also need power. We need divine power and guidance that leads us and inspires us to do that sharing which we have always known was the answer but somehow been unable to do. We don’t have the power on our own.

There are lots of ways to think about how to access that power. Lots of paths. Lots of version of the same truth, but we need to pick one. If you want to plug in a lamp you need to pick an outlet. You can just say that these are all good outlets and expect the lamp to come on. One clear, obvious, well worn, access to the miraculous power of God is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Not just what he did and what he taught, but the way through his life, suffering, death and resurrection he opens for us the power to overcome every evil and destructive influence in this world. To do what may seem impossible and what may be impossible without him. The storms and challenges may be it in our families, in our communities, in our nation, or throughout the earth. But we can do the miraculous deeds of overcoming them all if we keep our eyes not on the wind and the waves, but on the one who walks upon them.

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In the first Back to Future movie Marty McFly uses a time machine created from a Delorean to travel from 1985 to 1955 which is before he was born and just before the time his parents met. But, somehow back in 1955 Marty interferes with his parents’ first meeting and therefore jeopardizes his own existence. Then he has to go through all kinds of adventures to get his parents to meet, fall in love, and thereby save himself from existential obliteration in the future which in the movie is the present and in the present which in the movie is the past. In the first sequel Bif, the villain goes back in time to give his younger self, a sports almanac that allows younger Bif to become incredibly wealthy betting on sports which causes the future to become dystopian since Bif is a total jerk. Now Marty has to go back in time to keep old Bif from giving young Bif the almanac and thereby saving the future.

So that’s lots of fun. I love movies about time travel. The idea of time travel can help us think about the ripple effects of even very small decisions and actions. We can look back and see how small decisions made us who we are, perhaps even saved our lives.

When Jesus stands on a mountain and gives his inaugural address to those gathered, he uses his own version of time travel to make his point. He does that by explaining that people who are having certain bad experiences today will have better experiences in the future. But, he goes beyond just predicting better times in the future. He explains that because of a future happiness that is coming, those experiencing bad times now can actually be happy now, despite being sad. He is unifying the future and the present.

In our text, the word is blessed, but many translators agree that the word the greek markarios translated as “blessed” in our Bible is more literally translated “happy.” So, for instance, Jesus says, “Happy are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” He doesn’t just say those who are mourning now will be happy in the future, but they can actually be happy now. The formula is “happy are…for they will be.” That juxtaposition of present and future is repeated throughout the Beatitudes. Happy are the meek, they will inherit the earth. Happy are the merciful because in the future they will receive mercy. Happy are the pure in heart for in the future they will see God, not now, but in future. In other words, people can be happy and are happy even if circumstances don’t warrant it because of what is coming in the future.

On some level that makes a lot of sense. We all know the value of delayed gratification. We go through something difficult now, because we believe something better is coming. Many people find a lot of joy thinking about retirement because they do not enjoy their work. Yet, that is not exactly the same thing. Most people in bad jobs would question whether they are actually happy now just because one day they get to retire. Further, things get really uncomfortable when the promised reward is in heaven. So people are told to accept their circumstances, such as poverty or injustice, for their entire lives, because when they die they will be rewarded. That is really convenient for those benefiting from injustice today. For this reason, some people would call The Beatitudes “Pie in the Sky” theology.

That phrase, by the way, was coined in 1911 by a labor organizer named Joe Hill. Joe Hill was parodying a Salvation Army song of the time which you may know, “The Sweet by and by”

There’s a land that is fairer than day,

And by faith we can see it afar;

For the Father waits over the way

To prepare us a dwelling place there.

In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore; In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

Some nice sentiments, but Joe Hill heard this song as instructions to the poor to accept their poverty with the promise of a better life in heaven. Joe’s parody song goes like this:

Long-haired preachers come out every night

Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right

But when asked how ’bout something to eat

They will answer with voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and Pray, live on hay

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

So, we can easily hear this kind of Pie in the Sky theology in the Beatitudes. You are happy now because of what will happen in the future. Yet, if we dig deeper we find there is more going on here than just pie in the sky. Most importantly, we know that many people who are living in poverty or who are oppressed today do not just receive this teaching in the Beatitudes as just a promise for the future. They do not receive it as an opiate of the masses or a reason to accept their current circumstances, but on the contrary, they are inspired by these words. They are inspired to continue their work for justice and for their work to improve their own well being today. Because they know something that an objective reader of the text may not understand. They know when Jesus says things will be different in the kingdom of heaven he is also saying that the kingdom of heaven is the ultimate reality even today. The kingdom of heaven, in fact, is even more real than the kingdoms of this world. He is saying that you not only will you be children of God, but you are children of God because God and God’s kingdom transcend time so what will be, is also what is. You not only will receive mercy, but you are receiving God’s mercy now because what will be is also what is. You not only will inherit the earth, but earth really belongs to you today so act like it and claim it. The injustice and suffering of today is not only temporary but can be transcended because God’s reality is forever, in all places and times: future, present, and past.

And note that the Beatitudes are not just theological or philosophical statements about the nature of reality but they also provide the path to that reality. These verses communicate the values that bring future and present together. They tell us how to act, how to think, how to be in such as a way that we are uniting the future and the present in everything we do.

They are like an anchor that we throw forward from the bow of a boat that is rocking in stormy waters, but we are throwing the anchor forward into the future so that our faith and our reality and our definition of what is, becomes anchored in the future kingdom of heaven even as we stand in this world. But to bring present and future together we still have to pull on the rope. We still have to pull the boat toward the anchor. Hand over hand, heaving with all our strength against the buffeting waves and wind of this tumultuous world, as bit by bit we bring the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven closer together. And we do so by practicing the values described in these verses.

To be poor in spirit. Those who are poor in spirit are bringing heaven and earth closer together. This might be counter-intuitive because in some ways we want to be rich in spirit. We often say we want to be filled with God’s spirit. So why is it good to be poor in spirit? Probably because we are talking about two different kinds of spirit. We do want to be filled with Holy Spirit, but we can only do that through humility and utter dependence on God. That humility and dependence on God are what Jesus means by poor in spirit. Happy are those who are humble before God and dependent on God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven – note that only here and at the end when Jesus talks about those persecuted for righteousness do we get a more present reference to the kingdom of heaven. Not the kingdom of heaven will be theirs but, it is theirs.

Happy are those who mourn. Anyone who has been through grief or mourning knows it is not a happy time. I think what Jesus means here is that we are supposed to open our hearts to all those who mourn. Even if we are not grieving right now, people all around us are. The world is filled with people who have lost loved ones. And I’m not just talking about our sister in law whose mother died. Yes, we can mourn with her, but, this is talking about those who are consistently and equitably facing grief; those who are disproportionately victims of gun violence or incarceration, or who are living in the midst of war, or refugees in desperate circumstances. Can we mourn and grieve with all of them, with all who suffer? And can we, therefore, know God’s comfort? And can we, therefore, be inspired to create a world where there is less reason to grieve?

Happy are the meek for they will inherit the earth. This is very similar to being poor in spirit. It is about humility. It is not about allowing ourselves to be a doormat. But, it is about being humble and dependent on God for our power and strength.

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Righteousness here does not mean that we refrain from dancing, drinking, and playing cards. Righteousness means right relationships. Right relationship with God. Right relationship with each other. To hunger and thirst for them means, we need those right relationship the same way we need food and water. If we don’t have right relationships we perish.

Happy are the merciful. Pretty self-explanatory. When we have the power to forgive or to have compassion for others. Do we offer those when we can, or do we withhold them? This verse suggests that withholding forgiveness and compassion from others, means we are withholding it from ourselves. This idea, by the way, is repeated in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”

Happy are the pure in heart. This means singleness of intention. It means we have pure motives. A pure purpose. It is similar to hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Happy are the peacemakers. Pretty straight forward. Are we making peace in our relationships? Or are we making discord? Again going back to that hunger and thirst for right relationships.

Finally, happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness. Remember this one at the end here is less future oriented and more present. Not theirs will be the kingdom of heaven, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven. To be persecuted for righteousness means we have to want it again as much as we want food and water. We have to want right relationships. We must see them as a necessity, and therefore be willing to work for those right relationships, for ourselves and for others.

The Beatitudes teach us that everything we say and do has consequences that ripple into the future, change the future, and make our present our future, and even our future our present. We are not promised pie in the sky, but we do stand in the present day holding a rope attached to an anchor in the kingdom of heaven. And we are instructed in these verses exactly how to pull God’s future and our present together.  

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Why are we tempted? What lies beneath our temptations? Today I will suggest that beneath our temptations is a deep sense that we are lacking something; that we are incomplete as we are, and so we are searching for something out there to complete us; a sense that we have a hole within us and it must filled if we are to be at peace.

But, before we dig into that idea too deeply, just one theological point about the text in general. That is the role of the Holy Spirit and the role of the Devil in this story. We can have different ideas of the Devil. It can be a person, a force, a spirit, a metaphor, whatever works for you is fine. But, whatever we believe, the Bible offers at least one consistent idea about the Devil. I say one consistent idea because throughout the thousands of years the Bible was written the authors had different theologies about the Devil so there is a lot of diverse ideas in the Bible. However, one big theme about the Devil in the Bible is that his efforts to tempt us or test us are somehow a part of God’s larger plan. For instance, in the Garden of Eden we have a serpent, who is never actually called the devil or Satan, it’s just the serpent, but the serpent was created by God as the most cunning animal in the garden and God puts this cunning serpent in the Garden where it tempts Eve to disobey God’s will. Surely God knew that was going to happen. Then in the Book of Job, the Devil asks permission from God to tempt Job and God’s specifically gives permission. Then in our story today, it says the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. So, there are three places at least where Satan is not an enemy of God as much as a tool for God that is somehow a necessary part of our growth.

OK, so let’s go deeper with this idea of temptation. How does the experience Jesus has in the desert inform our own experience with temptation. The idea of temptation as lacking something comes from a Pastor named David Lose suggests that temptation at its core is about our misguided attempts to fill that lacking. The attempts are misguided because that sense is actually part of our human nature, it is not supposed to be filled, and faithfulness is about learning to accept that lacking as part of our humanity. Temptation then is when we don’t accept it and try to fill it with anything. David Lose writes, “Might it be that part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition. To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill. Adam and Eve beheld the fruit and conclude in a heartbeat that [the hole within them was] shaped just like that fruit. Yet after they [ate], the emptiness remain[ed].”

In the wilderness the Devil presents the emptiness Jesus is feeling as a problem to be solved and then encourages him to fill it with something. He says, “You are empty of food since you have been fasting, just make some and eat. You are missing God’s care out here in the wilderness. Throw yourself down from a high place and God will have to care for you. You do not have enough wealth and power to make the world the way you want it do be. Bow down to me and I will give you that wealth and power.” Jesus responded faithfully that the emptiness is part of his humanity and he does not need to fill it.

I want to be careful and say that this is not saying the emptiness is God shaped? That is something maybe you’ve heard before: there is a God shaped hole in our souls? And only God can fill that hole. The problem with that idea is that God has no shape, so the hole can’t be shaped like God. It could be shaped like an idol. Idols have shape. Idols can be any shape we dream up. The true God does not fit into any hole. So we might have an idol shaped emptiness but not a God shaped emptiness. Actually I think the hole within us changes shape so that any number of things look like tempting solutions. Sometimes it might take the shape of a substance like alcohol or tobacco. Sometimes the hole will take the shape of food. Sometime the emptiness will take the shape of money. Sometimes power. Sometimes it will take the shape of a person and that person could be a beloved family member that we have lost, a lover we have lost or never had or on whom we’ve become too dependent, or person with power who promises to solve all our problems. Sometimes the emptiness can be an experience of binging or over indulgence. So we don’t really care what we consume as long as we are consuming a lot. Those who scroll endlessly through social media news feeds or online media may be trying to fill an emptiness and they don’t even really know what they are looking for. But, we all have this emptiness, this ever morphing longing.

It’s not that God has no role in this. On the contrary, if our work is to accept our incompleteness then faith in God and a relationship with God will help us do that. Because we know God is everything, we do not have to be everything. Because we know God is complete, it is OK and it is in fact good to be small incomplete. It is good and even joyful to know that we don’t have to fill the hole. We are not meant to fill the hole. We are meant to find peace with God in the presence of our lacking, in the presence of our humanity. Without God that emptiness is painful. With God the emptiness can be joyful.

However, we can’t leave it with that. Especially on this Martin Luther King Weekend, we can’t just say that we are all lacking something and should accept our incompleteness. What if King and all those who fought for civil rights had just accepted their lacking of justice and equality? How does this idea of acceptance our lacking fit into our calling to strive for justice and for the kingdom of God?

The problem is that there are people in the world who will try to fill their own sense of lack by taking more than their share from others. They will take so much from us that we are not even ourselves anymore. In their efforts to fill their emptiness they will take from us so that we are not only imperfect or incomplete which is part of being human but we are being destroyed. We are being crushed.

There is that Japanese tradition of Kintsugi which is filling cracks in broken china or porcelain with gold to highlight their imperfection and make them even more beautiful. But, if the piece is not just cracked but shattered and crushed it is no longer beautiful because it is no longer even its imperfect self. So the experience of people of African descent dating back to the birth of this country is not just that they are experiencing human lacking like everyone else, but that they are being crushed while others are unfairly benefiting. From slavery, to lynchings, to segregation, to the mass incarceration and structural racism of our day they have known more than their share of lacking. This sermon is not suggesting that we accept all of society’s ills or all our own problems as part being human. We are called to be as whole as possible and help make all people as whole as possible. We all have a long way to go in that regard. But, throughout that work, we also know that we will never be perfect, we will always have a hole or a missing piece and that God is not the missing piece. God is with us in our imperfection. God is with us in our efforts to restore those who are being crushed. God is with us as we seek to live with the lacking and therefore be complete.

Another way to think about it is a term Carl Jung used when he said, “ Any form of neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” By legitimate suffering he means the suffering that comes with being human, with being mortal, with living in a physical body. So this is where discernment comes in. Is a particular experience of suffering part of being human or is this suffering unfair, unequal, unnecessary. One kind of suffering we need to accept. One kind of suffering we need to work to eradicate.

I’d like to share a video now which is a dramatic and musical reading of the book “The Missing Piece” by Shel Silverstein. This simple little parable speaks directly the issues of being incomplete and finding peace with that.

The Missing Piece- Dramatized Children's Book by Shel Silverstein - YouTube

Temptation is the belief that we are incomplete and we must have some thing from outside ourselves to make us perfect. Faith is the belief that we are an incomplete but through God’s love we are enough.

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Today I want to focus on just one sentence from Matthew chapter 3. It is the sentence that the Gospel of Matthew uses to summarize the message of John the Baptist, and not coincidentally to summarize the message of Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

We hear it from the mouth of John the Baptist in chapter 3 and then in chapter 4 it says, “From that time on, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That these messages are identical is one of several reasons some scholars speculate Jesus was at one time a disciple of John the Baptist, but when John was imprisoned, Jesus started his own ministry and shared the same message in a new way.

So let’s really dig into this sentence. After all, if the author of Matthew offers it as the summary of the teaching of both John and Jesus, it must be pretty important. Our New Revised Standard translation says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Common English Bible says, “Change your heart and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” The King James Version says, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven, is at hand.” If I were translating this for myself, I would preserve some elements of each of those versions. I like that the way the Common English Bible unpacks the word “repent” as “change your heart and lives.” Because in today’s English “repent” usually means to feel really sorry for what you did and to express that sorrow. It is mostly heard as a religious term and has a bunch of religious baggage. But the actual greek work is “metanoia” which means literally “to turn around, or change direction.” That’s where the CEB gets “change your heart and lives!”

I would adjust that wording a little to say “change the way you are living.” But either way, it might sound like a pretty radical calling. “Change the way you are living” might sound like you are being called on to change everything about your life, but that is not necessarily so. Of course, its true that we all probably do need a radical change in the way we live, since our planet is on fire, but even so, many people are not ready for radical change. We human beings are fantastic at denial. But, changing the way you are living can also be small changes. It can be small changes in diet, or exercise, or volunteer commitments (adding them or giving them up), adjustments in how we work, how we use our free time, how we use technology, how we respond to others. There are many ways we can change the way we are living, but the key is to actually change the way we are living. Metanoia is not about just feeling something, it is about doing something. And none of us is living so perfectly that we could not use at least a small adjustment in the way we are living.

The next part of the sentence is that the kingdom of heaven is near. First, note that the kingdom of heaven here is not the same as the heaven we go to when we die. The kingdom of heaven here refers to this world and the way it would be if God’s will were done always. This world the way it would be if our selfishness and self-centeredness didn’t mess it all up. One Pastor I know calls it “the world as it should be”. So that is a relatively simple concept.

But, then we come to the idea of its nearness. What does it mean that the kingdom of heaven is near, especially when it does not feel near? It does not seem like the world is any closer today to the way it should be than it was in the time when Jesus and John said these words. In fact, it seems like it is further away, noting again the planet is on fire. This issue with how far away the kingdom of heaven feels is one reason I prefer the King James wording here, “The kingdom of heaven is “at hand.” I love the term “at hand” because it places our attention in our own bodies, our hands. It takes us from abstract concepts of the amount of time that the kingdom of heaven is taking in getting here or the many ways the kingdom of heaven seems to be very far away and instead invites us to think about how the kingdom of heaven can arrive. It can only arrive by what we do with our hands. The way we live in our bodies. The way we use our hands to put our faith into action. I would however also adjust this phrase a little from King James to make the term a little more personal by saying “your hands”. The kingdom of heaven is in your hands. And by the way let’s let the “your” be either singular, your individual hands, or plural, your collective hands. So, putting that all together we get “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Change the way you are living, for the kingdom of heaven is in your hands.”

Earlier I said there are many ways we can change the way we are living. However, the Gospel of Matthew does give us some specific directions to consider. And it does so in powerful, strong language we find nowhere else in the Gospels. It comes in chapter 25 where Jesus speaks of a final judgement when people are separated into two groups. One group to live in the kingdom of heaven forever and one group that will not. Those who will live (or perhaps already do live) in the kingdom of heaven are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner will live in the kingdom of heaven. To those who do not do these things Jesus has strong words he says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…. For whenever you did not do these things to the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Now I’m a universal salvation guy. I think we are all equally broken and some of us just hide it better than others. And God loves all of us like a parent loves a child: unconditionally. I don’t know exactly where we are going when we die, but I believe we are all going to the same place. However, that is not what the Gospel of Matthew says. And if our intention is to change the way we are living because the kingdom of heaven is in our hands, then Matthew gives explicit direction for what kind of changes we should try to make. In our lives, are we feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison? We may not need to take this completely literally. There are surely other categories of people in need who we are called to help. But, the thrust of the message is clear: We are supposed to dedicate our lives to helping people. If we are not doing that, or if we could do more, the invitation is here, in the mouth of John the Baptist, in the mouth of Jesus the Christ: change the way you are living, the kingdom of heaven is in your hands.

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