Sunday, September 21, 2014

Divine generosity and grace

Matthew 20:1-16
It’s not fair!  A perfectly human reaction.
We’re so reward based as a culture that we have come to believe it’s the right way to be.
But our focus on financial rewards, or any rewards for that matter, changes us.  When we’re counting and comparing, consciously or not, we get angry when someone seems to get more than they “deserve”, and we get less than we “deserve”.  And that leads us into feeling humiliation.
Sure feels unfair to us.
But really it’s not unfair—it’s radically fair, it’s just, it’s generous, it’s grace, it’s God’s way.  And we don’t like it.  It’s such a completely different way of looking at life.
So there’s the first call of this text: to see as God does, which is the reverse of how we see.  We see with what a Sojourners writer, Min-Ah Cho calls “the ethical standards constructed by capitalism”, as people in Jesus’ day saw with the hierarchical system of imperialism.
That’s the first shift: to let go counting and comparing, and admit where it has taken us and what it has made us.
But there’s more.  There is in fact more of a radical call here.  This story seems to suggest God goes even further, that the way of the kin-dom gives priority to the unwanted, and gives challenge to the privileged….comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable….with the purpose that the whole community can grow together through vulnerability – the vulnerability of being unwanted and the vulnerability of losing power – just as we were called to grow 2 weeks ago through the tough love of conflict and last week through the tough work of forgiveness.
This is a radical paradigm shift.  Like the 70 x 7 last week, this is a story about not counting, because counting and comparing are subtle ways of domination of the other—wanting power over others.  God’s paradigm is about empowering.
You see, the unwanted, those ‘standing idle all day’, were probably not the lazy idle, but the unwanted idle, those who weren’t as useful as the others, those at the bottom of the ladder, in fact not even on the ladder: the weak, the sick, the disabled, the outsider.   Today perhaps the list might expand to include the discounted undocumented immigrants, the elderly, children in poverty, the un- and underemployed.
In God’s kin-dom way, in God’s vineyard work force, those were the people last hired and first paid. I wonder why?  Perhaps so they might learn about divine generosity and grace, not just economic justice generosity, but inclusion generosity.   
And the first hired were paid last.  I wonder why?  Perhaps so they might learn humility and learn to BE just and generous.
So what?
The kin-dom of heaven – the community of God - our congregation – is called to be a place where all are welcome, all are valued, all have purpose.   And in this God-paradigm, generosity, grace, vulnerability and humility are the standards.  God is still calling us to join the Jesus workforce—there’s still work to be done……still calling us to shift our counting and comparing thinking……still calling us to see people with God’s eyes, treat people with divine generosity….still calling us to give priority to the unwanted, to keep going out to where people are standing waiting for someone to empower them and off them meaning….still calling us to challenge the privileged, starting with ourselves…..still calling us to rejoice in grace and live in generosity.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Hear me Lord,
Forgive me Lord,
Please those years when I ignored you,
Forgive them Lord
Those that feel they can’t afford you
For those of you that have never heard George Harrison’s 1970 album “All Things Must Pass”, the one with the song “My Sweet Lord”, I highly recommend it. It is a popular album of rare spiritual depth. On it Harrison documents resentment, spiritual conversion, and ultimately, forgiveness. And that is exactly what our scripture deals with today.
So, we just heard Peter come to Jesus and ask Him, “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not just seven times, but as many as seventy-seven times?” In order to comprehend Jesus’ response we must dig into it a little bit. First, the Greek word we translate as “forgive” literally means “to release, to let go”. Second, when Jesus says we must forgive seventy-seven times he is referring back to Genesis 4:23- 24. (read it).  Jesus is saying that just as Lamech is avenged  seventy-seven times, we must forgive seventy-seven times. The Genesis passage is telling us how violence perpetuates, and Jesus is telling us how peace comes into existence.  The third thing we must know to understand Jesus here is the fact that the number seven suggested completeness to first century Jews. So, if we put all that together, Jesus is saying we must forgive or let go completely. And this is where Jesus’ notion of forgiving differs from ours. What is it to forgive or let go completely? It is to let go of it ALL, the whole thing, the old creation in its totality.
In alcoholics anonymous, they know how self-enclosing and therefore deadly it is to live in the past by holding on, by not letting go. These are people who have learned the hard way the following fact: the core reason we end up needing to forgive is because, mentally, psychologically, we live in the past. What neuroscience calls the “autobiographical self” is of the past. For example, everything I know of Chris Jewell is from memory. Every person recognizes his or her self simply and solely as their past. Our “I”, our continuity and our identity, is nothing but an abstraction from our memory, since what I know of myself is always what I was. (A. Watts) This living in the past is condemned by Jesus in the gospels. Consider Matthew 8:19, where someone approaches Jesus and says, “Lord I will follow you, but first let me go and bury my father, and Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead”. If Jesus worked in our churches he would get fired quick—he would not be tolerated. That’s why we worship him, so we don’t have to tolerate him, we toss him up on a pedestal and say “I can never be like that” and that allows us to effectively ignore him. We like that because it keeps us secure, it keeps us from having to change. If we really followed him we would have to put up with him—he would ask us to let go of that which we hold on to so desperately. But, anyway, what Jesus is really saying with His “let the dead bury their dead” statement is that we live in the past, and that causes us to miss living fully in the present. It causes us to interpret the new in terms of the old, and so we miss the new reality. In Christian theological terms, living in the old creation causes us to miss living in Christ, in the new creation, in the eternal now.
Members of AA know they might pay a heavy price by living in the old creation, especially since that old self or creation is alcoholic. So they have a saying, Let Go and Let God”. But alcoholics aren’t the only ones hurt by living in the past, or living in a resentful mind. The whole world is hurt by this—wars, divorces, these and many other things result from minds that hold on to resentments and judge others. And both our readings today all about that—how we pay the ultimate price when we judge, when we don’t forgive or let go of the past.
 In romans 14 Paul is warning his listeners not to judge, and Jesus as I said is telling us we should forgive completely. The fact is, we judge others, and we end up with resentments. Maybe if we look and understand what it is that judges, what it is that needs to be let go, maybe this whole process of forgiving doesn’t need to occur in the first place. Judgments, resentments occur because we grasp, acquire, hold on to experiences. I mean the mind, the self does this with both positive and negative experiences. Grasping or holding onto positive or pleasant experiences is how many of us get addicted to something, I take a drink, a smoke, a bite of cake, sex, whatever, and I hold onto, remember, that experience. And now, I want to repeat it, I want MORE. This becomes part of the architecture of the self. After all the self is born of an acquisitive process right? What is the self? The ideas, the memories, the conclusions, the experiences, both good and bad, the habits, etc.. as I said before all this is acquired, accumulates, builds up, hardens into a center and then we know it through memory and reflection.  So this acquisitive process or self holds onto positive experiences but the self also, and even more effectively, keenly, holds onto negative experiences. Contemporary neuroscience points out that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones. This is a little trick from evolution—for survival’s sake we encode negative information so we can protect ourselves from it in the future. Have you ever looked closely at this in yourself? I mean, I can have a great day—and then one bad thing happens, one person gets on my nerves, and then bam, that is what I remember of that day. Neuroscience acknowledges that this process of retaining experiences gets out of control and begins harming us. They acknowledge that we need a release—we need to let go. That is why so many of them are involved in the exciting new field of contemplative neuroscience—where they study the effects of meditation on the brain. Jesus was a few thousand years ahead of them.   This process of holding onto, clinging to, or grasping experiences is marked as a fundamental problem by the world’s religions. All of the world’s spiritual geniuses said that living in the past, in the old acquisitive self, which is the old creation, causes us great stress, great problems. Buddhism called it the clinging mind—in Christian terms it is the clinging mind that causes us to cling to the old creation, to the old self. Jesus knew we needed to be saved from this old creation, that living in the center of this old self causes us to have resentments, to judge, and then we are estranged from neighbor, and most importantly from God—living in the past causes us to consciously miss God—who is always New, always Now. God, the Spirit, can never be relegated to the past, turned into something static or dead, something known. God can never be anywhere but NOW, in each new unfolding moment, in each new turn of creation. God of course is even in what we call death, for that too is a new turning of creation.
To forgive is to let go of all of the old creation, of the old self—it is to be reborn. It is to see beyond the old acquisitive, accumulating self. Jesus, as a first century Jewish mystic knew about letting go—of going beyond self. He meditated, he practiced His spirituality. Modern neuroscience is confirming that meditation is one way, and the most effective way, of letting go of the past, of transcending the self. So many of Jesus’ teachings are concerned with this. Consider the story of the rich young man—Jesus tells him to, in a sense, get rid of, let go of his possessions. We tend to go with a literal interpretation and think he is speaking of material possessions. But there is another level to this--Jesus is saying let go of all you have acquired, accumulated,  he is saying we should let go of the process that is the acquisitive mind, let go of the old creation and come join the Christ, the New Creation.  Human societies have always been acquisitive, built out of the acquisitive process of each of us. Our culture takes it to a whole new level. That is why Jesus is so counter-cultural, more now than ever before, he is saying let go of that. Let go of the very process that your society, the old creation is built out of. Wow. No wonder we couldn’t let him stick around too long—He wanted to change us from the foundation up.  Consider the statement in Revelation-21, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away. Let go and see the New heaven and the new earth! I will close this morning with some more George Harrison, this time from Sgt. Pepper: “when you’ve seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there”. When you forgive, when you let go of the old creation, you let go of what you know, the old consciousness, and that is bound to feel scary, it might feel like a part of you is dying, but by dying to the old you have peace of mind, you allow a new creation, a new consciousness to come into being. Let It Be So.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Tough Love

Tough love 090714                                                                                                                                                        Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
When I was visiting Kay in the hospital the other day, we got talking about her puppy, Edmund.  She said he needs some ‘tough love’  to get him out of bad habits and into good ones.  Like his namesake in the Chronicles of Narnia, he needs to experience some transformation through pain!
But the tough love I want to talk about isn’t just about redemption.   It’s the very nature of the life of Jesus followers.  Love is tough, in the sense of strong AND love is tough in the sense of difficult.
Both of our texts today speak to those people who were trying to figure out how to live together in community as Jesus people…..both are about relationships, being part of something bigger that themselves.  St Paul sums up all the relationship stuff in the ancient, and modern, Jewish commandment, love your neighbor as yourself.  This church stuff is all about that, love your neighbor as you love yourself.   Last week Ken shared with us a bit about who IS our neighbor, and then this week I read that while that one Jewish commandment occurs once, ‘love the stranger’ occurs much more often… people we don’t know, who may be culturally, religiously, racially, obviously different from us…’s tough to love THAT neighbor.
But here in this place we get to practice that love, week by week, day by day, together on this journey.  Look around.   Lots of familiar faces, lots of ‘strangers’… we begin tough love.  And here we get some guidelines from Paul and from Jesus…..
Paul says to pick up the weapons of light, we might say tools, spiritual practices, and he has several:
Do no harm
Wake up—be attentive, intentional about your spiritual life—get practical, get real
Live in light—keep an eye on what could be, not wallow in what is—be transparent and have integrity
Put on Jesus—if you’re wearing a cardigan or a jacket, take it off.   Now put it back on and imagine it’s the example of Jesus and the love of God embracing you….what difference will that make as you look and act Love?
And Jesus has another one of his own in today’s gospel.
Live at peace with one another—deal promptly and properly with conflict.   My, that’s love that’s tough. But TL takes its time, isn’t hasty.   TL allows space for all to share their point of view.  TL encourages us to grow together through tough times.  Imagine a world that practiced that kind of love!   Then, as Jesus says, that really would reverberate through the universe.
THIS can be a place of Love that is tough strong so we can learn how to love tough difficult.   We know life is tough, especially for you young parents and families.  But here we can build a place where Love Wins when we share together, worship together, be together, love together.
Let’s make it happen, tough as it may be…make this a place of learning to love, so that beyond this place we can live out love supported by one another.
Do no harm; in fact work on reconciliation                                                                                                                          Do good; love, even when it’s tough                                                                                                                                       and wear Jesus; wrap yourself in the example of Jesus and the toughest of all loves, the love of God. 
Communion:  “It’s interesting that Jesus chose bread and wine.  They’re two things that once changed can’t revert to their original form.  You can remove lettuce from a salad, and it’s still lettuce, but bread can’t go back to being grain, and juice can’t return to the grapes.  It’s a total transformation. And in each case, there’s an agent.  Yeast in the case of bread, sugar in the case of wine.  In the eucharist, I think the agent is the Spirit” (Sister Judith in Atchison Blue by Judith Valente)
 the table where we meet for our family meals, and this table, can be holy places, where we gather not just to take in food, but to know others more intimately, to share an experience that God has in mind for the whole world.  All are invited, neighbors and strangers; come today to be refreshed by God’s grace, feasting together so we know we are not alone, that the agent of the Spirit might transform us into more of what God dreams for us to be.