And There Is More…

This week’s sermon.

The text is Mark 8:27-38.

“Have you been SAAAVED?”

People ask me that sometimes.

I say Yes, I’m a Christian. I’ve been baptized, confirmed, and ordained. I serve as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

And they ask me again, “But are you SAAAVED?!” They want to know whether I can identify a particular moment in time when I made a decision to “give my heart to Jesus.” Depending on the theological orientation of the person asking the question, they might also want to know if that decision was accompanied by baptism by immersion, falling down under the power of the Holy Spirit, or ecstatic speaking in tongues.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage or discredit any of these phenomena; many faithful Christians (including not a few Presbyterians) have experienced changed lives as a result of them. My only problem is when people treat these blessings from God as criteria by which one person can judge whether or not another person counts as “a real Christian.”

People who speak of being “saved” in this way typically think of salvation as a one-time event, but I think this conception falls short of what we find in the pages of the Bible. What I take away from my reading of the Scriptures is that salvation is not a one-time event, initiated by the Christian through an act of faith, but an ongoing process, initiated by Christ through an act of grace.

My favorite response to that question (“When were you saved?”) comes from the prominent 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Someone asked him, “Dr. Barth, when was the exact moment when you were saved?”

Karl Barth responded, “I was saved at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, in the year 33 A.D.”

When people ask me whether I’ve been saved, I want to say, “Yes, I’ve been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved, thank God, not by virtue of my own merits or pious experiences, but by the limitless grace of God that has been made known to me in Christ Jesus and never stops working in me to finish the good work that was begun at the creation of the universe.”

So, are we saved? Yup.

Salvation is a process: an ongoing process whereby we are continually growing in our knowledge and love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves. There is not a soul on this earth right now who can rightfully claim to possess the fullness of salvation. There is no one who has achieved (or received) perfect knowledge and love of God. No matter how good or wise we are, there is always room for us to grow. With God, there is always More.

Jesus talks about that very thing in today’s gospel reading. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And he gets the answers then being generated via speculation in the rumor mill. Unsurprisingly, these ideas conform to the religious concepts and categories of their time. “Jesus is a prophet,” they say, “like Elijah or John the Baptist; he is a messenger, sent by God, to tell the people of Israel something important.” And to this, Jesus says in effect, “Yes. You’re right. I am a prophet, I do speak truth to power, I am here to set God’s people back on the right track… but there’s more.”

So, he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter takes it to the next level, he says, “Okay Jesus, I get what you’re doing here. You’re a prophet, but not just a prophet; you’re more than that. I say you’re the Messiah: God’s anointed leader who will march into Jerusalem by the power of the sword, kick out those pesky Romans, and usher in a new Golden Age of purity and prosperity.” As Peter speaks, I imagine the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on. Glory! Glory, hallelujah!”

This is Peter’s idea of what it means to be the Messiah. This is his answer when Jesus asks him, “Who do you say that I am?” And Jesus says again, “You’re right: I am the Messiah… but there’s more.” I am marching to Jerusalem, not to conquer and kill, but to be killed. And our people will not receive me, but reject me. Peter’s definition of Messiah is entirely inadequate. There is more to Jesus than that…

And Peter, bless his heart, does exactly what any of the rest of us would do in his situation. Does he sit back and rethink his previously held assumptions? Does he thank Jesus for this valuable perspective and insight? No, he gets angry and rebukes Jesus for challenging his preconceived notions.

Don’t we all do the same thing? We don’t like it when people challenge our assumptions about the world. Jesus is like that neighbor kid who comes over to play and breaks all our favorite toys. That’s just who Jesus is. No wonder nobody likes him. No wonder the people rejected him and had him killed. No wonder his closest disciples betrayed him, abandoned him, and eventually denied they even knew him. Jesus doesn’t know how to play nice. He’s doesn’t leave well enough alone.

But what we fail to see is that Jesus does these things to us, not because he’s the mean bully from down the street, but because he loves us. Jesus loves us exactly as we are, and refuses to let us stay that way. He knows there is more to life than we have heretofore conceived. And he wants us to experience its fullness in abundance, but first he has to pry us loose from those old ways of thinking and behaving. He has to deconstruct our feeble, limited ideas about who he is and what he means.

The people said he is a prophet, and he is more than that. Peter said he is the Messiah, and he is more than that. Christians say he is our Lord and Savior, and he is more than that. Theologians say he is God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, and he is more than that. No human words or ideas can ever sufficiently sum up the totality of who Jesus is. Anything we can say about him, he is all that and more.

The journey of the Christian spiritual life is about following this Jesus, who is “all that and more.” Christian spirituality is about remaining continually open to these new depths and new dimensions of God that are being continually revealed to us in Christ. Our task, as believers, is not to plant our flag on a particular ground of theology and defend it against all comers. Our calling is to keep on following, to keep travelling forward into the next truth that Jesus wants to reveal to us.

I love this sentence by the famous Trappist monk and spiritual author, Thomas Merton: “If the you of five years ago would not consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”

Salvation is a journey. It is a process. It’s not about having the theologically correct answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s about letting Jesus ask us that question over and over again. It’s about growing in love and wisdom, outgrowing the answers we thought we already had. It’s about following Jesus, one step at a time, toward an unknown Promised Land.

Brothers and sisters, we are about to embark on a journey of discovery and discernment this week, as a parish. We have already completed the first phase of New Beginnings assessment program. Now begins the task of looking over the data and deciding together what we will do with it. We may find ourselves facing difficult decisions in the days ahead. We may hear Jesus challenging our assumptions about what it means to be the church.

Because being the church is not about the beauty of our buildings, the success of our institutions, the size of our bank accounts, the style of our worship, or the effectiveness of our programs. Church is about much more than that.

It was two years ago this week that my family and I first arrived in Kalamazoo, so I could begin this call as pastor of North Church. Within a week of our arrival, I made a point of sitting down with my predecessor, our pastor emeritus, Rev. Bob Rasmussen. Over lunch, I asked him, “What do you think this church needs most?” And I’ll never forget what he said to me. It was three words: “Just the Gospel.”

And that’s it. That’s what it means to be the Church. To follow Jesus Christ. To know and love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves. To let Jesus ask us that question, again and again, day after day, “Who do you say that I am?” That’s all there is to it.

We could have the rest of those aforementioned trappings or not. We could go back to being like Eliza Valentine and our first ancestors at North, a crowd of misfits, meeting in the woods, fending off stray cows with sticks, and we would still be the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Just the Gospel.” That’s all we need. I want you to remember that as we begin our process of discernment this week. And if you can’t hear that from me, then hear it from Pastor Bob.

On the surface, it might seem like Jesus is that mean kid who comes over and breaks all our toys, but deeper truth is that he loves us. And he does what he does in order to free us from the trappings that hold us down, the lies that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life he has prepared for us to walk in. Jesus loves us and stands in front of us, two steps down the road, beckoning us forward with the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What he wants from us is not a final answer, but another step forward in faith. He wants us to keep asking ourselves that question with the ever-present realization… that there is always more.

Christ our Mother

The text for this sermon is Mark 7:24-37.

[Editorial note: I didn’t realize until after I wrote this sermon that it’s Labor Day weekend.]

I saw a video this past week of two guys who believed their wives were exaggerating when it came to the pain of childbirth. The two of them were talking real tough as they walked into a hospital together. But while they were there, a doctor hooked them up to electrodes that caused contractions in their abdominal muscles of a comparable severity to labor contractions for just one hour. The result was hilarious (and the best part is that their wives got to see the whole thing). Let’s just say that, after all was said and done, those guys weren’t talking so tough anymore.

Obviously, I can’t speak from firsthand experience, but I trust the mothers around me when they tell me that childbirth is one of the most painful things a human being can experience in life. And I also believe those same mothers when they tell me that the pain is worthwhile.

What makes the pain of labor worthwhile is that it is pain with a purpose. It is meaningful pain. A mother willingly undergoes this suffering for the sake of the child, who she loves, and to whom she is giving the gift of life. I have seen this joy that redeems the suffering in my own mother, my wife, and in almost all the mothers I know. They tell me it’s worth it and I believe them.

I was thinking about motherhood and labor pains this week as I read this Sunday’s Gospel. In these verses, there is a tremendous amount of maternal imagery that Mark uses. The first is obvious, as we follow the story of a mother, the Syrophoenician woman who would stop at nothing to relieve her daughter’s suffering. Her motherly love gave her the faith to defy the cultural, religious, and gender stereotypes of her time and stand up to Jesus, demanding healing for her child.

The second maternal reference is less obvious. It takes place a few verses later as Jesus takes a hearing-impaired man with a speech impediment aside to administer healing in private. After placing fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and touching his tongue, St Mark tells us that Jesus looked up to heaven, “sighed and said to [to the man], “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.””

The key word here is sighed. In the original Greek, the word is estenaxen. In other parts of Scripture, this word is translated as “to groan” or “to grieve.” One word study I consulted defined estenaxen as “to groan because of pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth).” Estenaxen is the Greek word that is used to describe the kinds of sound that an expecting mother makes in the delivery room. Now… I don’t know about you but, based on this working definition, I think it would be fair to say that our English translation (the NRSV) might be a little too conservative when it translates estenaxen in this passage as “sighed.” I would like you to imagine Jesus crying out with the same intensity as a woman in childbirth. This is an expression of deep, gut-wrenching pain that is undertaken for the sake of love and giving life.

Most immediately, the birth happening in this passage is that of the man who cannot hear or speak. Jesus says to him (and we can imagine him screaming it) in Aramaic: “Ephaphtha!” “Be opened!” Christ’s healing power is opening the doors of communication in this person’s life: allowing him to understand others and be understood by others for the first time in his life. This is no small miracle, especially for us as we read it today in this polarized society where the channels of interpersonal communication are being cut off by the barriers of race, class, politics, and religion. The ability to communicate is central to our identity as human beings, made in God’s image. Jesus gave this man that gift: the gift of humanity that can be seen and recognized by all. When I read the headlines from Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Houston, when I see videos of reporters being gunned down on live TV and photos of dead immigrant children washing up on the beach, I pray that Jesus will once again give birth to that kind of miracle in us today. Lord, open our ears to hear and our tongues to speak clearly because we have obviously stopped communicating with each other.

Speaking more broadly, I believe that Jesus endures the pain of childbirth for all of us in his passion and death on the cross. In this saving work, Jesus is our mother who gives birth to us, in a spiritual sense. This image of Jesus as a pregnant mother might seem strange or disturbing to us, whose theology has been shaped by centuries of sexism in the institutional church, but I assure you that it is thoroughly biblical and orthodox.

You don’t even have to take my word for it; look it up for yourself in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus did not shy away from referring to himself as a mother.

Writing about a thousand years ago, an English theologian and monk named St Anselm of Canterbury said:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; *
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride, *
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, *
in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; *
by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.

A few centuries after Anselm, another English monastic, a mystical visionary named Julian of Norwich, wrote:

Christ came in our poor flesh *
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; *
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.

Jesus is our mother, who suffers the pains of childbirth for us and for what he intends to be born in us. In the pain of our lives, we too are in the process of birth. St Paul writes to the Romans:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the whole creation has been groaning (there’s that same Greek word again) in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan (there it is again) inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

All of us, along with Jesus himself and the whole universe, are screaming with the pain of childbirth. The pain in our lives is not meaningless. I cannot and do not claim to know why particular instances of pain and suffering occur, why they take the form they do, or why they are so intense for some and so mild for others. Let me say it again: I know nothing of these things.

But what I do not know, I believe. I believe that our pain can be meaningful, that our pain, if we let it, can make us stronger, braver, more empathetic, and more compassionate toward our fellow suffering human beings (i.e. more like Christ himself). I believe that we will discover the meaning of our pain, not by looking back and asking “Why me?” but by looking forward and asking “Now what?”

I believe the meaning of our pain will become clearer as we hold onto each other’s hands, breathing together like pregnant women in labor in the same maternity ward at the same time, working with Jesus, our mother and our midwife, who is giving birth to himself in us.

“Therefore,” it says in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart… lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”


First Steps Toward Freedom

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

This is a slogan we often use in the recovery community. And I find that it is accurate. For those who are recovering from an addiction, or those who care for those in recovery, denial is often the first and greatest obstacle standing between the addict and sanity.

Before the journey toward freedom can begin, the addict first has to admit that there is a problem.

This is why the first of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Those who are able to honestly take this one step find themselves on the road to recovery and a new life. In the words of the Chinese sage Confucius, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” On the journey to recovery from addiction, that first step is the overcoming of denial and the admission that there is a problem.

As many of you know, I worked as a substance abuse counselor before I was ordained. During that time, I encountered a lot of denial in my clients.

Typically, this denial would take one of two forms:

  1. Outright denial. This is the voice that says, “There is no problem.” This is the addict’s first line of defense against reality. They minimize and hide their dysfunction for as long as possible. They are lying (mostly to themselves). Their families and partners are usually complicit in the lying: trying to survive and present to the world the image of normalcy (this is what we refer to professionally as codependent behavior). This is the strategy that most addicts and their families will maintain for as long as possible.
  2. Deflection. This is a more sophisticated strategy that addicts use when the situation has become so dire that it is no longer possible to deny that a problem exists. Deflection is the voice that says, “The real problem is not with me [or my drinking/drug use/gambling/eating/working/sex-life] but with [this other thing].” Deflection is what happens when someone says, “I only drink because my [partner/family/boss] stresses me out!” They blame society, the past, bad luck, or anything else they can think of to take the focus off themselves and their addiction. Most of the time, addicts have become so good at deflection, they’ve even tricked themselves into honestly believing what they’re saying. That’s what makes denial such a big obstacle for addicts on the road to recovery.

Now, I don’t think this logic of denial and deflection applies only to those people who struggle with the compulsive use of substances or behaviors that we typically think of as addictions. I believe that we are all addicts at some level. It’s just that some addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We find it easy to look down on those who are addicted to things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. But we admire those who have an addictive relationship with family or work; we call them dedicated, when in reality, their behavior is destructive to themselves and others. I’ve come to believe that political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism are also forms of addiction (see September 11, 2001 and the Holocaust as examples). These addictions are just powerful and dangerous as any drug.

We, as an addicted society, have learned how to maintain our denial over our dysfunction by deflecting the blame onto others. We say, “I’m not the problem; the problem is with those liberal/conservative, black/white, feminist/misogynist, rich/poor, gay/homophobic, Muslim/atheist people.” We look everywhere for the source of our problems. Every place but one… within.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shines the light of truth on a very similar process taking place in his own society.

It begins with the scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant and morally upstanding pillars of the community (I like to call them the Upright Citizens Brigade …improv comedy fans take note). These members of the “moral majority” are grilling Jesus about his disciples’ failure to observe proper handwashing protocol before eating dinner.

Now, I can’t totally fault them for this because, as a parent, I regularly (daily) have to remind my kids about the importance of washing hands before dinner. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual of handwashing was not simply a matter of religious observance, but also a matter of public sanitation. Historians have noted that Jewish communities in Europe, for example, were disproportionately unaffected by plagues because their religion required regular bathing and other sanitary practices, whereas the Christian religion did not. So, the handwashing thing really did serve an actual purpose.

But Jesus isn’t faulting them over their concern for public health. He’s less interested in what they doing and more interested in why they’re doing it. The real matter, for Jesus, is not having clean hands before dinner, but having a clean heart before God. That’s what Jesus is concerned about.

What Jesus sees in the scribes and Pharisees is an attempt to deflect attention away from the condition of their inner lives by focusing on the externals of religious observance. Moreover, they were doing this in a way that was specifically designed to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher, thereby preserving their own power-base. They weren’t really concerned with religious observance or public sanitation, just making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

That’s why I tend to be skeptical when I see preachers in the media with an ax to grind, bashing other people over the head with their Bibles. When I see that, I think, “Somebody’s deflecting.” There’s something they don’t want us to see (or don’t want to see in themselves), so they put all the negative attention on someone else in the name of truth and righteousness. It’s classic addict behavior.

But Jesus isn’t buying their act. He sees into people’s hearts, which is why he calls these religious leaders hypocrites and says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.

He shines the light of truth on their denial and deflection when he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”.

The problem, according to Jesus, is not what goes on around us, but what is going on within us. Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”

Again, it’s not about what goes on around you; it’s about what’s going on within you. The real issue is not the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but the log in your own. Recognizing this and admitting it is the first step on the path to sanity, recovery, enlightenment, and salvation.

Many years ago, there was an essay contest for a newspaper in Britain. The prompt was: What’s wrong with the world? And it was the famous Christian author G.K. Chesterton who wrote the winning response. It read:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
G.K. Chesterton

Are we willing to admit that about ourselves? Are we willing to look deep into ourselves, past the mental fog of denial and deflection, to that place where we recognize that the real problem with the world is not what goes on around us, but what’s going on within us?

That’s a tall order. It’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be impossible for us to even begin this task, were it not for the grace of God leading and loving us to honesty.

The first of the Twelve Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted that we are powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.” But that is only the first step. It leads immediately to the next two steps: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” These three steps form the bedrock of our recovery from any addiction, whatever form it may take.

Here in the Church, we follow a similar path in our liturgy each Sunday at the Examination of Conscience and the Confession of Sins. In that moment, we pause and take a break from our denial and deflection. We cease from pointing the finger and look instead within ourselves:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done, and in what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

We say this prayer each week, not to wallow in guilt, but to rest in grace: God’s amazing grace, which is given to us free of charge. God is not interested in making us feel guilty, but in helping us face reality. This is why the very next thing we do is listen to the words of the Assurance of Pardon:

“Almighty God has mercy on us, forgives us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthens us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keeps us in eternal life.”

These words are spoken to us, this grace is given to us, not just so we can get our tickets stamped for heaven, not just to get us a second chance with God, but to strengthen and empower us on the road to recovery (which we in the Church have historically referred to as sanctification).

This journey begins, continues, and ends in God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we go from strength to strength, from glory to glory, being transformed, one day at a time, ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Level Up

super-mario-bros-pc-game-_imagenGrande1I am very much a product of my generation (the 1980s). I’m right on the tail-end of Generation X, not quite a Millennial.

The generation right before mine (my parents) was the first TV generation. They grew up watching television, instead of listening to the radio or reading books aloud. I remember my grandparents being scandalized by television: they thought Elvis Presley’s hip-gyrations were obscene (I’m thankful they didn’t live to see Miley Cyrus’ twerking).

The generation after mine (my kids) is the online generation. They don’t remember a time when the internet didn’t exist. Their experience of watching TV is totally different from mine as a kid. They never have to look at a TV guide or be home at a certain time to catch their favorite show, but my three-year-old already knows the difference between Netflix and Hulu (and has very strong opinions about which one is better).

My generation, on the other hand, is the Nintendo generation. We grew up slamming plastic cartridges into consoles and sitting almost motionless in front of screens for hours at a time, while our thumbs flew over the controllers at the speed of light. When Mom thought we’d had enough, she would send us outside to play in the fresh air (at which point we would simply run down the street to play Nintendo at a friend’s house).

When you grow up as part of the Nintendo generation, there are certain concepts that you just kind of instinctively understand in the marrow of your bones. Video games have shaped the way we look at reality. One such concept is the idea of ‘leveling up’ or ‘going up to the next level’.

In the Nintendo world, when a player completes a challenge (i.e. solves a puzzle, defeats an enemy, completes an obstacle course, etc.), she or he then moves on to the next challenge/puzzle/enemy, which is inevitably more difficult than all the previous ones. This is what we mean by ‘leveling up’ or ‘going to the next level.’ When you’ve successfully completed all the levels in a given program, then you can say that you ‘beat the game’.

[Notice that I didn’t say ‘win’. Nobody ever really ‘wins’ a video game because there’s no lasting reward. After all that effort: hours of stress and focus, all you really get is the bragging rights to say to your friends, ‘I beat that game.’]

Now, I want you to keep this idea of ‘levels’ and ‘leveling up’ in your mind as we turn to look at our gospel text from this morning…

Once again, we meet John the Baptist, who we previously encountered in our readings during the season of Advent. John is kind of an odd duck. John is a prophet (more like a monk, actually): he lives a simple, celibate life out in the desert, preaches to anyone who will listen, criticizes the culture around him, and invites people to take part in this cleansing ritual called ‘baptism’.

People would come to hear him preach and anyone who felt moved by what he had to say could come forward to be baptized. Their participation in this ritual washing was a sign that they wanted to commit themselves to the kind of ideals that John was talking about.

John represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the civil religion of his culture. For most of the people around him, being Jewish was just part of being an Israelite: it was the religion of their culture. John wanted people to take their faith seriously. He thought faith should be a decision that affected the way they lived.

John called his fellow Jews back to the roots of their faith. He wasn’t impressed by their appeals to cultural pedigree. He said to them:

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

John was a reformer, just like the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah before him (in the Old Testament) and Martin Luther and John Calvin after him (in the Protestant Reformation).

Jesus, on the other hand, represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ that was entirely different from John’s. While John preached a message of conversion (i.e. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”), Jesus preached a gospel of grace and inclusion.

Jesus’ ministry was one of acceptance toward those who were rejected and despised by polite, religious society. It was the “tax collectors and sinners” who Jesus chose to befriend. In the case of Zacchaeus, Matthew Levi, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears: Jesus’ modus operandi seems to be “forgiveness first, then repentance”. Jesus dared to assert that salvation begins, not with human effort toward moral goodness, but with the sovereign grace of God reaching out to embrace sinners.

This message certainly scandalized the Pharisees and Sadducees, who eventually conspired to have Jesus killed, but it also confused John the Baptist himself. Sometime after John was imprisoned and Jesus’ ministry got started, John sent a message to Jesus, wondering whether he really was the promised Messiah they had been waiting for. John had expected a powerful moral leader who would “baptize with fire” and carry “his winnowing fork in his hand… to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

John thought that Jesus’ ministry would look much like his own, but bolder and more effective on a large scale. What he saw instead was a gentle Messiah, a “Prince of Peace” who revealed the heart of God to the world as Love.

Just as John had represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the Jewish civil religion of the first century, so Jesus represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the message of conversion to the gospel of grace. Jesus’ message includes John’s (just as John’s message included the Torah and traditions of the Jewish elders), but went far beyond it. The Gospel of Christ is ‘the next level’ in the religious development of Judaism, which started with God’s covenant with Abraham, continued through Moses and the prophets, and concluded with John the Baptist.

When I look around at our society today, I give thanks for the many preachers like John the Baptist who call the people of our own culture to take their faith more seriously. Like John before them, these fiery preachers rail loudly against immorality and preach a message of conversion. You can hear their message pretty much anytime you tune the TV or radio to some religious programming.

These preachers are obviously having an effect (just like John): their parishioners talk about their conversion like a “line in the sand” that separates their old life from the new. People testify about overcoming various addictions and compulsions, leaving behind lives of crime and vice, rising above challenges and limitations… all thanks to their newfound faith. Make no mistake: this is a good thing and we should thank God for it. These people have ‘leveled up’ in their understanding of God, their commitment to faith, and in their overall quality of life. John’s message makes a difference.

However, I think it would be a mistake to think that the Christian journey ends with conversion. Conversion is only a beginning. There is another kind of ‘leveling up’ for those who continue to journey with Jesus and discover in the Scriptures and the Sacraments just how deep and wide God’s love really is.

Do we dare to believe that the love of God would still embrace us, even if we had never turned ourselves around or listened to John’s message of conversion? Can we picture ourselves as the sinners who Jesus loves unconditionally, before we even have an opportunity to confess or repent? Is it possible that we really are “saved by grace alone” as the Protestant reformers so boldly declared in the 16th century?

These are big questions that have the capacity to shake the Church to its very foundations, just as it shook the religious establishment in the time of John and Jesus.

The most amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus is that you ‘level up’, not by becoming a better Christian, but by being a really bad one. It is not our spiritual success, but our failure that reveals the deepest heart of God to us.

The moment when we truly see the face of God in Jesus is that moment when we collapse at his feet, dressed only in the filthy, tattered rags of our own self-righteousness. Salvation comes to us when the saint within us is finally killed off by our inner sinner’s failure to live up to impossible moral and spiritual standards. Those are the moments when Jesus comes to us, picks us up, and carries us to the next level of spiritual growth.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only system I know where you succeed by failing. I have heard it said that all religion is humanity reaching out to God, but the gospel is God reaching out to humanity. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian from the second century, said it this way: “In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God became human so that humanity might become divine.”

This morning, as we welcome several new members into our church community (two of whom are being baptized), I want to invite you to reflect again on the meaning of this sacrament:

God accepts us, claims us, saves us, cleanses us, and washes us clean in the waters of baptism. This happens long before any of us has the capacity to say or do anything to influence God’s opinion of us. The love of God in Christ is absolute, unconditional, and universal. I invite you to meditate on your own baptism today, whether you remember it or not: Imagine the water of grace surrounding you, washing you clean, and hear in your heart the voice from heaven speaking to you, just as it did to Jesus:

“You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

The Adoration of the Outsiders

Ethiopian Biblical Manuscript. Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, there was a big to-do about this book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. I won’t get into the particulars of the plot, suffice to say that it provoked a lot of big, emotional reactions from people everywhere.

On the one hand, a lot of church-folks were offended by the ideas it presented, which didn’t exactly mesh with what we had learned as kids in Sunday School. On the other hand, a lot of folks from outside the church were really excited about the book because they thought it revealed a picture of Jesus that was bigger than the one presented by traditional Christianity.

I even had one friend who said, “I knew it! The Vatican has known about this stuff all along, they’ve just kept it hidden and locked up in some secret vault so that the rest of us won’t find out about it.”

Well, I don’t think I’d put much stock in that particular theory… or in the book’s ideas about the historical Jesus (The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction after all), but I do find the whole phenomenon extremely fascinating from a sociological point of view.

During the peak of the book’s popularity, Jesus Christ was once again on the cover of popular, secular magazines. Books were being written (and read) about him. For a brief cultural moment (and not for the first or the last time), everyone was talking about who Jesus is and what he means to the world. It was a really interesting thing to behold.

And here’s what stood out to me in that conversation:

People feel drawn to Jesus. They want to be connected to him somehow, even if they never darken the door of a church or call themselves Christians. Jesus means a lot to people. There are few, even in the non-religious world, who speak negatively about Jesus or the things he said and did. Most secular criticism is directed, not at Jesus himself, but at us Christians (and what we have done in his name).

In this morning’s gospel reading, we read about a group of people, the wise men, who also felt drawn to Jesus. Like the readers of The Da Vinci Code, these people came to encounter him from outside the bounds of conventional, orthodox, institutional religion.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

To begin with, these wise men were not Jewish. The text of Matthew’s gospel simply says they were “from the east”, which probably means they came from Persia (the part of the world we now know as Iraq and Iran). They wouldn’t have known anything about the Bible or Jewish customs. They had probably never been to a synagogue service in their life.

So then, how did they come to be aware of this miraculous birth?

“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

They were astrologers. They studied the stars and interpreted their movements as messages from heaven. We have astrologers today who do similar work, but most of it is for entertainment via 1-900 numbers. In the ancient world, astrology was generally accepted as a form of science. Kings and generals would have depended on the predictions of astrologers for guidance.

The message these particular astrologers were discerning from the stars was that something significant was happening in the Jewish homeland. A royal baby was being born. Matthew doesn’t say why, but something in these astrologers’ hearts was stirred enough that they felt compelled to go and pay their respects to the new baby.

So, they did what any reasonable person would do: bring gifts of congratulations to the royal palace in the capital city: Jerusalem. These wise men, Persian astrologers, felt drawn to Jesus, even though they had no idea where to go or what to do when they got there.

King Herod and the Jewish leaders, on the other hand, didn’t fare much better. Even though the astrologers had gotten a little turned around, at least they were aware that something important had happened. The astrologers’ arrival woke the Jewish leaders up to what they had forgotten or neglected in the midst of their own self-important agendas.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”

The astrologers’ questions sent the theologians and seminary professors scrambling for answers. As it turned out, the answer they were looking for was in a tiny, little, forgotten village:

“They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

The arrival of these outsiders and their questions woke the Jewish religious scholars up to those parts of their own country and their own faith that they had neglected for too long. At this point, Herod and the religious leaders have an opportunity before them. Their eyes have been opened to the Messiah’s birth. They now have the chance to step outside their own selfish, little worlds and become part of what God is doing on earth. Is that what they do?

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”

Instead, there is a reactionary pushback against this news of the Messiah’s birth. The powerful ones are secretly plotting and scheming, not so that they can be part of what God is doing in the world, but so that they can keep their power and maintain their privileged positions in Israel. Those who have power want to keep it, even if that means going against the very essence of what defines them as a people. They would do anything, even kill the Messiah, to maintain their illusion of power and control.

Herod is so delusional, so drunk with power, that he even starts ordering these foreign wise men around like they were his own subjects or property:

“Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.””

The irony here is that he is the one who is dependent on them. He would have no knowledge of this situation if it wasn’t for their pagan, foreign practice of astrology. Yet the wise men are the ones who respond with open hearts and minds. They came to pay their respects because they felt drawn by the heavens. All these secret, back-door deals combined with biblical hermeneutics and seminary professors probably seemed pretty strange to them. In the end, it seems like they (rightfully) disregarded everything Herod and the religious scholars had just taught them:

“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Does the text say that the wise men set out to follow the biblical scholars theologically correct directions? Or does it say that they went back to following what they already knew?

The answer is the latter, of course. The wise men basically took the Bible and theological training and threw it out the window. They didn’t know about all that Jewish stuff, nor did they want to. They knew about stars. So, when they set out again (probably more confused than when they arrived), they went back to working with what they knew.

One might think that such pagan backsliding would lead the wise men down the path of sin and deception. Surely, they would be lost forever in the desert, never to find the newborn king.

But that’s not what happened. The text tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Get this: by following what they knew, they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be.

They set out on this journey in search of Jesus, and lo and behold: they found him (in spite of the so-called ‘advice’ given by powerful figures and religious leaders). And what was their reaction when they found him?

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Their hearts were more open than the hearts of those who had spent their lives studying this stuff.

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

Despite their unorthodox methods and status as religious outsiders, the wise men ended up exactly where they were supposed to be: with Jesus. Their faith did not look anything like conventional Jewish faith, but it proved to be more real and more authentic than the faith of those people who were supposed to have all the answers.

I wonder whether the same thing might be true in the world today?

It seems to me, based on what I saw during The Da Vinci Code’s popularity, that there are a lot of people in this world who feel drawn to Jesus, but want nothing to do with the church or institutional Christianity. To be honest, I can’t blame them. We Christians have a lot to repent for when it comes to representing Jesus to the world. We have often attached his name to our own projects and agendas, but rarely have we acted in a way that is consistent with his Spirit. I think that is what it really means to “Take the Lord’s name in vain”: When we talk about him, but don’t act like him.

Meanwhile, those wise souls who are diligently searching for truth and love in Jesus are driven to look elsewhere because the church has done such a poor job of pointing the way to him. In those circumstances, I am not at all surprised that God is willing to reach out take hold of people’s hearts using things like astrology, science, philosophy, or other religions. I have met atheists who have a closer relationship with God than some Christians (even though the atheists would never use that name: God).

The good news in this is that God is willing to reach out to us human beings using any means necessary. As my seminary roommate was fond of saying, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” Only God knows those hearts that truly seek after God. And, as Jesus himself promised: “Those who seek will find”… he never says they have to seek God in a particular way.

The challenge given to us then is this:

Are we open to what God is doing in the world? Are we open to the fact that God might show up in the least expected way, or in the least expected place? When we encounter others who might be seeking God in ways that seem foreign or unorthodox to us, do we have the faith to trust that God is working in their lives (as well as ours) to bring us all to that place where we can worship Jesus together?

Just like the wise men, these outsiders have precious gifts to bring to the table. Will we work with them and help them to open their treasure chests so that these gifts can be offered to Jesus and shared with the world?

God is inviting us Christians to open our hearts, minds, arms, and doors to those outsiders to the faith who bring unconventional gifts to the table and seek God in unorthodox ways. The question that God sets before us is not “Do we approve of them (or their strange methods)?” or even “Do we welcome/accept/tolerate them in our midst?”

The question is: “Will we travel to Bethlehem with them?”

Will we seek Jesus together as companions in life’s journey? Someone else’s journey might not look exactly like yours and that’s okay. Will we be open to the gifts that others bring to the table? Will we let those gifts challenge our structures of privilege and power? Will we let them change the way we think about church and “the way it’s always been” or the way we think it should be done?

These outsiders come to us, not because we have something they need, but because God has led them to us and called all of us to seek Christ together.

So then: Let’s get going.

Including and Transcending

Mark 1:1-8, NRSV

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever experienced yourself (or some part of your life) as completely and totally unacceptable? Something that, if it were known publicly, would cause you so much shame that you’d probably just go ahead and spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed, eating Cheetos? I think we all do.

We all have some parts of our life that we think about and go, “If anyone ever knew about this, they’d never speak to me again!”

A lot of the time, we don’t even like to think privately about the fact that these parts of ourselves exist.

And, even though we believe theologically that God knows everything and God’s love is unconditional, a part of us is still terrified that even God would look away in from us in disgust if such a thing became known.

And so we hide… whether we’re under the bed eating Cheetos or covering ourselves with fig leaves like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, we ashamed and afraid of being exposed, so we hide these parts of our lives.

Looking at our gospel text this morning, the narrator (who is named ‘Mark’ by tradition) opens his story with the announcement that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

But the story is not just Jesus’ story alone: Right here, at the beginning, the narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the story of the gospel includes parts of all different stories.

First of all, there is the Jewish story. This is not surprising, especially since Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. So, it makes perfect sense that the story of Jesus would have a particularly Jewish feel to it: Jewish memories of the past, Jewish hopes of the future.

We can see Mark intentionally including those elements in the way he tells Jesus’ story:

For example, there is his use of the word Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ (Christos in Greek) is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah). The English translation of both of these words is Anointed. It refers to a part of the ritual for crowning kings in ancient Israel when a prophet or a priest would pour olive oil on the head of the new king. This anointing was a sign that the person in question was God’s choice as leader. In Jesus’ time, this idea had developed into a national hope for a coming king who would liberate the Jewish people from occupation by the Romans. So, by calling Jesus the Anointed (i.e. Christ, Messiah), Mark is including the Jewish story (with all of its memories and hopes) in Jesus’ story.

There’s another way that Mark makes this connection:

It’s not with Jesus himself, but with this other important figure: John the Baptist. When Mark introduces John, he spends a great deal of time describing what John is wearing – “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

These are all very important visual cues that Mark is giving his readers, but we 21st century people are likely to miss them, since we’re not from the same culture as Mark’s readers. However, we can get an idea of what he is talking about: If I were to use visual cues to describe a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney, who do you think I would be talking about? Santa Claus!

We recognize those visual cues because they are deeply embedded in our own culture. In the same way, Mark is giving his audience visual cues about John the Baptist by describing what he is wearing. When he says that John is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey,” people in his culture would immediately recognize that as the prophet Elijah, whose return to earth was supposed to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

Mark reinforces this idea by quoting a verse from the book of the Jewish prophet Malachi:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”

That’s all that Mark quotes, but if we kept reading in the book of Malachi, we would quickly come to this verse in the same section – “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Again, we encounter this idea of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed king. Between these visual and verbal cues, Mark is actually laying it on pretty thick that John the Baptist is Elijah, so when John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” Jewish readers would get really excited, because that means that the promised Messiah is about to come. And we, as Christians, believe that’s exactly what happened when Jesus appeared on the scene.

So again, Mark is including these Jewish memories and hopes in his presentation of the Christian gospel. The Jewish story is part of Jesus’ story.

But wait, there’s more:

Mark doesn’t just include the Jewish story in Jesus’ story, he includes the Roman story as well. This is really surprising. After all, the Romans were pagans who didn’t worship Israel’s God at all. Also, they were foreigners: an invading army that was occupying the lands of Judea and Galilee. One would certainly not expect the story of the Jewish Messiah to also include the memories and hopes of pagan foreigners, but it does.

Mark begins Jesus’ story by calling it “the good news” (euangelion), which is also where we get the word “gospel” from. The term was not initially a religious term, but a Roman political one. An euangelion was an imperial proclamation that a royal child had been born, that a new emperor had ascended the throne, or that Caesar was victorious over his enemies.

Also, Mark refers to Jesus with the title Son of God. These days, we’re used to that title being applied to Jesus, but in Roman times, it was a title reserved for Caesar alone. By using the terms euangelion and Son of God, Mark is intentionally including elements of the Roman story in Jesus’ story. He’s saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for the Jews; it’s good news for the whole world.

However, even as the gospel of Jesus includes elements from these other Jewish and Roman stories, it also transcends them.

First of all, using Roman imperial images to refer to Jesus sets him up as another authority figure who will compete with the power of Rome. When the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were making the dangerous and subversive implication that “Caesar is not.” That, to a large degree, is why the Roman Empire perceived Christians as a threat to national security and subsequently hunted and executed them.

The Caesars of Rome had a particular agenda that they were advancing: the Pax Romana. Their goal was to achieve world peace through conquest. They would impose Roman order over the face of the entire world under the leadership of Caesar. The dangerous claim of Christians is that they would achieve the same goal, but Jesus (not Caesar) would be the head of the global household. Also, the Roman vision was “peace through conquest” but the Christian vision was “conquest through peace.” The harmony of creation would be restored, not by imposing order from without, but by nurturing peace within. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) reigns in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples by the power of God’s love, not by the power of the sword. The story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Roman story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends the Jewish story. The Jewish idea of the coming Messiah was that of a revolutionary leader who wields political and military power to liberate the Jewish homeland from foreign occupation and usher in a Jewish golden age of national security, prosperity, and fidelity to the Torah of Moses.

But the gospel of Jesus is much bigger than that. The gospel of Jesus is not just a Jewish story; it includes the Gentiles and all the nations of the world (even the Romans). So, just as it was with the Roman story, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Jewish story.

When it comes to our lives, I think the same principle applies. The Christian gospel includes, but also transcends our personal stories.

Nothing is left out: all that you have, all that you are, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you’ve made happen is part of what God is doing in your life.

This is a message of total acceptance. You are loved and accepted, radically and unconditionally, by God. God loves you, not just in spite of your mistakes, faults, character flaws, quirks, and wounds, but with them. God loves you, just as you are. Full stop. No exceptions. God’s love for you is an act of free, radical, and sovereign grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it or lose it. As the theologian Paul Tillich was fond of saying, “All you can do is accept that you are accepted.”

Like you hear me say every week: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a powerful truth (which is why I make a point of saying it every week). If we were to let the significance of this truth sink into our souls, it would change the way we live our lives. I dare say that it would even change the world.

The story of Jesus’ work in your life includes all parts of your own personal story. Nothing is left out. Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that!” Nothing ends up on the cutting room floor, as it were. Total acceptance. Total inclusion.

And just like the Roman story and the Jewish story, even as every element of our personal stories are included in the story of the gospel in our lives, every element of our personal story is also transcended.

Nothing is left out. Just as Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that,” Christ also looks at every part of your life (no matter how good) and says, “Let’s work on that.”

God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way. When I was a kid, there were recruitment videos for the U.S. Army that called soldiers to “Be all that you can be.” But Christ is calling us to be more than that.

One of my favorite hymns in our new hymnal is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The second verse of that hymn addresses this subject of transcendence and transformation directly:

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

By including, but also transcending, all the various elements of our personal stories, Christ is calling us to a destiny that is bigger and more magnificent than we can possibly imagine. Just like the Transformers, there is “more” to us “than meets the eye.” Jesus is calling us up into that “more.”

What does it look like? Well, the answer is complicated.

We know that each person is unique. We believe that each person is made in the image of God. Therefore, it stands to reason that each person will reflect the image of God in their own unique way.

Christ is calling you to be more than you are now, but never calls you to be what you are not. God’s calling on your life will not look exactly like God’s calling on someone else’s life. Whatever you’re called to be, you’re not called to be exactly like them.

It’s like stained-glass windows in a church: each one is different from all the others; each one is hand-crafted by a master artist. But when the sunlight shines through them, it is the light of the one and only sun.

In the same way, our lives and callings in Christ will look very different from one another. We come with our own unique gifts and struggles. When the light shines through us, it shines differently, but it is the one Light of Christ: including and transcending all the various parts of our personal stories and making them part of the one Great Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Your Story Isn’t Over Yet

Back when I was a substance abuse counselor, my clients would sometimes come to me when they were working on the “Higher Power” part of the Twelve Step program. They heard that I was a member of the clergy, so they would say, “I want to read the Bible, but I don’t know where to start.”

For these people so early in their recovery from debilitating addictions, many of whom had lost jobs, families, health, and freedom in pursuit of compulsions that now made them feel ashamed of themselves, I could recommend no better place to start reading the Bible than at the very beginning: the book of Genesis.

I told my clients to pay special attention to the story of Jacob. I tell them, “Genesis (Jacob’s story in particular) is one of the only books I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gives up on them. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, chances are that you will be able to read about the people in the book of Genesis and feel a whole lot better about yourself.”

As for Jacob, here’s his story:

He lied to his own father and cheated his brother Esau out of everything that was rightfully his. When we encounter him in today’s Old Testament reading, he is a fugitive, on the run from the law and a brother who has sworn to kill him. Even after having this visionary experience of God, Jacob would go on to another fourteen years of lying, cheating, and stealing from his own extended family in the foreign country to which he flees (and from which he will once again flee after another bout of deception).

All in all, Jacob comes across as a pretty bad guy. If I were God, I wouldn’t bother with such an untrustworthy character, who more often than not chooses the wrong thing, even when presented with every opportunity to do the right thing. Fortunately for Jacob, God has much worse taste in people than I do.

Just like the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, God is content to let the good and the bad grow together in Jacob, accepting him as he is for the sake of what he might be.

God shows up in the middle of Jacob’s dream while he is on the run. Like a drunk who got kicked out of the bar at closing time and missed the last bus, but is too ashamed to call home for a ride, he lies down to sleep outside and cuddles up to a rock for a pillow.

If anything, one would think that this would be a prime moment for God to stage an intervention. One can imagine the Almighty appearing to Jacob in his dream and saying, “Jake… what are you doing, man? I mean, come on… look at yourself! You’re sleeping outside; you’ve got no place to go. You have no job, no home, no blanket, and a rock for a pillow! You seriously need some help and if you don’t stop destroying yourself and ruining life for everyone else, then I can’t be around you anymore.”

Sadly, there are plenty of parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and children who have had to have that very difficult conversation with someone they love. Some of us have even been on the receiving end of that kind of tough love.

From a human perspective, it’s sometimes necessary because each of us has only a limited amount of resources in time, money, and emotional energy. Everyone has a breaking point when they just can’t handle any more trauma.

But God isn’t subject to the same kinds of human limitations we are. God quite simply has no ego to bruise. The reservoir of divine love is literally bottomless. I’m inclined to believe that divine omnipotence is rooted, not in the ability to dole out eternal hell and punishment, but in the ability to take it.

That’s why God is able to show up in Jacob’s dream entirely un-phased by Jacob’s penchant for self-destruction. There is no “my way or the highway”, “shape up or ship out”, ultimatums, or threats of hellfire and damnation. God wants Jacob to know only one thing:

“All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

To sum up, God is saying to Jacob: “I’m not done with you yet. Go ahead and do what you need to do and go where you need to go, but we’re going to put a bookmark here and come back to this because your story is not over yet.”

For a surprising number of the folks I’ve worked with, whether they are homeless or unemployed, divorced or destitute, chemically dependent or mentally ill, convicted by their conscience or a court of law, these are the precise words they most long to hear: Your story is not over yet.

Sometimes, all it takes to unleash great potential is for another person to look at us with more faith, hope, and love for us than we have in ourselves. That’s what Jacob needed. Before Jacob could believe in God, he needed to know that God believed in him.

Jacob’s response is one of amazement: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Although there’s no evidence to indicate that this is the case, Jacob (or someone very much like him) easily could have written Psalm 139, which we also read this morning. He ran as far and as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but still couldn’t outrun or out-sin the infinite love of God. Here is the song of Jacob’s heart:

Where can I go then from your Spirit; *
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,”

Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.

Jacob would certainly nod his head in agreement with these words from St. Paul:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On the night when he had his dream, Jacob had given up on himself, so he naturally assumed that God had as well. Perhaps he assumed that he was so far outside God’s good graces that no prayer would help him now. Maybe he had even stopped believing in God’s existence altogether. The text doesn’t say. What is clear, however, is that God is last person Jacob expected to encounter as he lay down to sleep.

It would still be several years before Jacob’s heart would turn and his life would start to turn around. In the intervening years, he would go through multiple marriages, lost jobs, false accusations, intolerable in-laws, house full of kids, and enough relationship drama to rival anything one might see on Reality TV.

In fourteen years’ time, Jacob would find himself once again alone in the desert with nothing left but the shirt on his back. On that night, he and God would have it out for real this time and Jacob would be changed forever.

But for now, Jacob isn’t there yet. This isn’t the big moment when all becomes clear and everything changes for good. This isn’t the moment when Jacob finds what he’s been searching for finally gets his life together. He’s still a lost soul for now.

All Jacob has for now is this hunch that came to him one night in a weird, foggy dream: the hunch that his story is not over yet, that he is loved, that God is still with him, and isn’t finished with him yet.

The Deeper Yes

I find it to be a matter of common sense that you and I live in a fragmented world. We’re divided and scattered. Relationships are broken: between nations and neighbors, between races and religions, between partners and parties. Why, we’re even fragmented within ourselves: doing what we don’t want to do and unable to do what we most deeply want to do, as we heard St. Paul say in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Romans. We’re fragmented. Things are complicated. We don’t quite know what to make of it. We’re lost and we need to find our way again. We need to get our bearings, so to speak. We need context: we need to understand where it is that we are, how we got here, and how we can get to where we ought to be as individuals, as families, as communities, and as nations. This is the state of our generation on planet earth: fragmented, lost, Paul calls us “wretched.”

Into this maelstrom, enter Jesus. To quote Paul once again: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And Jesus shows up in our gospel reading this morning with his usual wit and insight that cuts to the core of who we are and lays our souls bare for the healing. Here, Christ the great physician (Doctor Jesus) is practicing a kind of spiritual surgery in order to get inside us and expose what we are so that we might become what we ought to be.

And his surgeon’s tools, the scalpel and forceps he uses to simultaneously wound and heal his patients, are twofold: Questions and Stories. Anytime Jesus asks a question or says “Let me tell you a story…” smart people will head for the hills because they know it isn’t going to be pretty. And in today’s passage, Jesus does both. He asks his listeners, “To what will I compare this generation?”

He’s making a comparison: using the rhetorical art of analogy to provide insight and context. He’s showing us how to recognize the patterns of thought and behavior that we have become so unconsciously accustomed to by force of repetition and reinforcement by societal values.
And here is his comparison: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”.

Children sitting in the marketplaces. Can you imagine anything more out of place? What if the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street had an annual “Bring your kids to work Day”? What would it be like to have kids playing games and chasing each other around the trading floor? What would it be like to have a bunch of whiny babies throwing temper tantrums on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives? It would be chaotic and disruptive. They would constantly be under foot. Nothing could get done.

“Children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”. According to Jesus, that’s the fragmented state we’re in as individuals and as a society. We’re tripping over ourselves, getting in our own way, and disrupting the divine plan with all sorts of mindless chaos and petty selfishness.

Jesus said that we’re “calling out to one another.” What is it that we’re calling out? “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”.
That’s an interesting one to me, especially in this consumerist, hedonistic, entertainment-addicted society. The world is always “playing the flute for us” in one way or another, isn’t it? We are bombarded with advertisements from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night. Every single product and service promises a long and happy life, but none can actually deliver on that guarantee. Sensationalist media headlines are specifically designed to get our attention and provoke a reaction from us. They force our emotions out of us by making each new experience faster, funnier, sexier, scarier, or more intense than the last one. They keep us on the hook. The world plays the flute and we are expected to dance like puppets.

What else are we, as a society of “children in the marketplace” calling out to each other? “We wailed, and you did not mourn.”

This one is the mirror image of the last disruptive cry. Once again, the world is trying to provoke a reaction from us, trying to throw us off of our spiritual center of gravity. But this time, they’re using pain instead of pleasure, the stick instead of the carrot. If you follow current events (from either the right or the left), you’re probably familiar with this “wailing” tactic: there’s no such thing as a small problem in Washington. When is the last time you can remember either Republicans or Democrats sitting down together around a piece of proposed legislation and saying, “I guess we have a few minor disagreements about this bill” or “I’m sure we can figure out some kind of compromise”? Does that ever happen? No. Every little problem is an apocalyptic crises. Every opponent is a demon and every ally is an angel. It’s all just another form of sensationalism and manipulation.

When the world isn’t playing the flute for us, it’s wailing at us. It wants to provoke a reaction in us so that we’ll keep on playing these little games and sending our money to the big shots on Wall Street, or in Washington, or in Hollywood. Their game is simple: if we play, they win.
So, what’s the solution? Don’t play. That’s what Jesus said. He said: “John came neither eating nor drinking”.
Here Jesus is speaking, of course, of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. John was a prophet: the greatest of prophet who ever lived, according to Jesus. John was kind of like a monk: he lived a very simple, ascetic life in the desert and people would come to be baptized and listen to him teach.

The thing about John the Baptist is that he didn’t play the world’s game. He said “No” to the flutes and “No” to the wailing. He didn’t participate. He boycotted. He was a resistor. He was a fiery preacher who wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He criticized the religious establishment and he called out political leaders.

And what did the dominant powers-that-be do to him? They demonized him. They arrested him. In the end, they killed him.

His experience reminds me of the Civil Rights movement: people marching in the streets, speaking truth to power, boycotting the bus system, sitting in at lunch counters. They said “No” to racism, segregation, and inequality. Like John, many were arrested and some were killed. They too were demonized with the worst possible insult one could think of in the 50s and 60s: “Communist.”

If St. John the Baptist had lived during the 1960s, they would have called him a Communist too. John said “No” to the world’s childish games and they said, “He has a demon.”

Saying “No” is an important step in the prophetic ministry. We have to do it if we ever hope to regain our moral and spiritual footing in this life. We have to say “No” to what the world is offering in order to say a deeper “Yes” to what God is offering us instead. And what is that deep “Yes” that we are called to say with our whole hearts?

Jesus shows us: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Notice the dichotomy with John’s ministry: “John came neither eating nor drinking” (he said “No”) but “The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite name for himself, it really just means “human being”) came eating and drinking” (Jesus is saying “Yes”).

Jesus, if you remember, got his start by working with John in his ministry. John baptized Jesus and Jesus’ message, in the early days of his ministry, is almost indistinguishable from John’s: Both of them baptized people and told them to “repent and believe the good news, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

But then a shift began to happen after John was arrested and killed. Jesus branched out on his own and took the movement in a new direction. As John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.”

Rather than disengaging from society and staying out in the desert, Jesus ventured back into the city streets. He got involved in people’s lives, loving without judgment. He scandalized the dominant powers of this world in a different way: by practicing such open acceptance, he defied their nicely defined ideological categories and the boxes into which they so conveniently put people and God.

As a result, they reduced him to the lowest common denominator and called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Ironically, they couldn’t be more right. The reality of God’s love in Christ was far deeper and broader than they could imagine. Jesus envisioned a community where all people would be welcome at heaven’s table, not just those who passed theological or ethical muster. This was more than the powers of this world could handle. They just couldn’t imagine sharing heaven with such pathetic riff-raff.

During this time, the disciple’s eyes were gradually opened to the truth that this Son of Man is also the Son of God. The Church, after reflecting on this reality for centuries, came to affirm that Christ is both “fully human” and “fully divine”. The theological term for this is Incarnation – the belief that God has taken on flesh, that through Christ, God is present with us in the very stuff of this universe. Therefore, the stuff of this universe is sacred. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Source from which all things come and the Destiny toward which all things are going.

In Christ, the universe itself finds healing and wholeness. Our broken world is fragmented no more. We are free to eat and drink once again, having overcome the clatter of this world’s childish wailing and flute-playing. We are now able to approach life with new eyes, the eyes of faith, strengthened by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, which point us back to the deeper truth of hidden wholeness beneath the fragmented surface of the world. All things come from Christ and return to Christ by way of Christ.

With that knowledge, we are able to put our worried minds at ease and our weary souls at rest, as Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Reclaiming Repentance

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Repent is one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian religious vocabulary.  The sound of it typically conjures up images of wild-eyed, Bible-thumping preachers screaming about hellfire and damnation from atop a soapbox on a street corner.  Even those who know better still tend to associate repentance with feelings of guilt and shame over past failures.

Jesus uses that word in this morning’s gospel reading when he says to the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  I don’t think he was trying to lay a guilt-trip on his listeners, nor was he trying to frighten them into becoming disciples.

When Jesus uses that word, repent, he is inviting his listeners into an experience of expanded consciousness.  The word repent in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) is metanoia.  It literally means “to change one’s mind.”  Jesus is trying to get his listeners to think differently, think bigger, think outside the box.  Specifically, Jesus is inviting us to change the way we think about three things: God, ourselves, and the world.

First, Jesus is inviting his listeners to think bigger, think differently about God.  In the world of first century Judaism, people thought of God as being far away.  Moreover, they thought there were certain things that people needed to do or think in order to get God’s attention.  They thought God had to be appeased by certain rituals or impressed with good moral behavior and theological belief.  This is what groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees did with their time: they worked hard to get God’s attention/approval.

All of this is pretty consistent with what I call the human religious instinct.  In just about every human culture, on every continent, in every part of history, people have had some kind of belief in a Higher Power (e.g. God(s), Brahman, Tao, etc.).  Likewise, they have also had some kind of system in place for contacting, relating to, garnering favor with, or even controlling their Higher Power(s).  This is how religions are born.  Some scientists have even done studies that indicate our brains might be hardwired for forming religious beliefs and rituals.

One of the really interesting things about Jesus is that he takes this whole human religious enterprise and turns it on its head.  All religions present us with a way to find God, but Jesus presents us with a God who finds us.

He says in today’s reading, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Other English translations read, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Think about that: at hand.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Think about those words: “The kingdom of heaven/God (i.e. the place where God lives) is at hand.”  Later on, Jesus would take this idea even further and say, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

This is a radical, prophetic, and mystical shift.  If it doesn’t blow your mind, then you weren’t really paying attention.  This turns the whole human idea of religion upside down.  God is not far away, God is close.  How close?  At hand.  Within you.  Taking a hint from Jesus, St. Augustine of Hippo says that God is closer to you than your own heart.

The other part of this is that there is nothing we have to do (or can do) to get God’s attention or gain God’s approval because we already have it.  Theologically speaking, this is called grace.  Grace is the unmerited favor, or unconditional love, of God.  Grace is God’s basic orientation toward the world.  It can’t be earned any more than a baby can earn the milk that comes from its mother’s breast.  It’s just there, free for the taking, because that’s just who God is in relation to the world.

This is how Jesus changes the way we think about God: he turns the whole human religious enterprise on its head by presenting us with a God who is close by and accepts us as we are.  The importance of this shift cannot be overstated.

As one might imagine, this change in the way we think about God would naturally have a profound effect on the way we think about ourselves and the world.

Under the systems and institutions created by our own human religious instinct, membership in the community of faith is intentionally kept exclusive.  There are certain things one has to do, think, or say in order to be let into “the club.”  The privileges of membership are reserved for the few who prove themselves worthy.  There is always an us and a them, insiders and outsiders, the saved and the damned.  This is the way that our human religious instinct has trained us to think, but it’s not the way that Jesus thinks.  To him, there is only us, there are no outsiders, no one is damned, and all are destined for salvation.  This is the good news that Jesus preaches.

And he doesn’t just preach it, either; he practices what he preaches.  For Jesus, the community of faith is not exclusive but radically inclusive.  They literally let anyone through the door of this party.

Jesus demonstrates this first of all in his ministry of table fellowship.  Sharing a home-cooked meal with someone in the ancient near east was a powerful thing.  It meant that you accepted this person as is, with no strings attached.  So, it was quite the village scandal when Jesus gathered a reputation for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” in the towns where he traveled.  The religious leaders of his time were constantly up in arms over the bad example he was setting by his willingness to accept and love all people unconditionally (even the losers, rejects, ne’er do wells, freaks, geeks, and criminals).

Another way that Jesus demonstrates the inclusive nature of his ministry is in the calling of his first disciples, which was also part of today’s gospel reading.  Look at this text with me, if you will.  What kinds of professional or spiritual qualifications does the text say that Andrew, Simon, James, and John had before Jesus was willing to call them to be his disciples?  Does it say anything about an interview process?  Do they have to attend classes first?  Does the text of Matthew’s gospel say anything about how often they went to synagogue, prayed, or studied their Torah?  No, it doesn’t.  Jesus just calls them and something within them responds, feels drawn to this person.  As I once heard someone else say, “Jesus doesn’t choose the qualified; he qualifies the chosen.”  That certainly seems to be the case here, even when it came to Christ’s apostles.

In the centuries since then, the Christian Church (in its better moments, anyway) has tried to embody the same kind of open inclusivity in its community that Jesus demonstrated in his.  In the early days of the Church, the big controversy was over the question of whether or not to let Gentiles (non-Jewish people) join the Church.  This might not seem like such a big deal to us, but I assure you that it was to Christians in the first century.  The debate got so heated that it almost split the Church.  They fought about it for a long time, but eventually landed on the side of inclusivity, saying that their faith would be a global faith with room for “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”

In more recent times, we’ve seen Christians reach out in the name of our inclusive faith to bridge the gap between denominations and religions.  We’ve worked hard to make room in our congregations for people from every race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and disability.

Right now, at this divided and polarized point in our nation’s history, when the spirit of community seems to be breaking down at all levels, the inclusive gospel of grace is one that people particularly need to hear.  In spite of the fact that people in our age are more electronically connected than ever, we have never been more spiritually isolated from one another.  We, the people of Christ, have been called to carry his subversive, disarming gospel to the nations.

We are called by Christ to repent (metanoia – “change the way we think”) about God, the world, and ourselves.  The gospel of Christ calls us to let go of our efforts to get God’s attention by doing, thinking, and saying the right things.  Christ calls us to rise up out of our polarized, divisive, and tribal consciousness shaped by the human religious instinct.  We are called to be a light to the world and show them by our gracious living that there is another way to be human.  We are called to lift up every voice and preach the good news of salvation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”


The Heartroots Revolution

411px-Sacred_Heart_CurrierThe famous author and Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson tells a great story about something that happened to him when he was growing up in Montana.  Eugene used to have to deal with a bully named Garrison Johns.  Garrison used to pick on him and take cheap shots.  All along, the adults in his church kept telling Eugene to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  When Garrison found out that Eugene was a Christian, he started calling him “Jesus-sissy.”  Finally, the day came when Eugene decided that he’d had enough.  He was walking home from school with Garrison beside him, hurling his usual barrage of jeers and jabs.  I’ll let Eugene Peterson tell the rest of the story in his own words:

Something snapped within me. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it – he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again – blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. “Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!” A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them, although nothing compared with what I would, later in life, read in the Psalms. I said to Garrison, “Say Uncle.” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out in me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, “Say, I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.

          (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 134-136)

This story is a great example of a Christian doing the right thing in the wrong way.  We Christians are famous for that.  Ironically, it seems like we tend to be at our worst when we try to do something really big and beautiful for God.

Take, for example, the story of the Roman emperor, Constantine I.  Constantine was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian.  He legalized Christianity and ended centuries of persecution against the Church.  That was a good thing, as far as Christians were concerned.  However, he also started the process of merging church and state into one institution, a state of affairs that would eventually lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials.  From Constantine’s point of view, he was establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth in the form of a Christian government.  But when that government (and its successors) started to operate, it started to look less like the kingdom of heaven and more like all the other kingdoms of the world.  In the end, the Roman Empire became just another superpower, but with the name of Jesus tacked on it.

That’s part of the problem with us humans: we assume that our ways are God’s ways, that a good end justifies bad means.  We think that, in order for right and good win to out over evil, we have to use power and violence to force our will (or God’s) on others.  But that isn’t how God works in the world.

We’re talking a lot about authority and kingship today.  First of all, we’re wrapping up our six week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve covered the first five already: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; and the promotion of social righteousness.  This week, we’re looking at the final Great End of the Church, which is the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  We’re going to talk about what it means to “exhibit” “the kingdom of heaven.”

Today also happens to be Ascension Sunday, the holiday when we celebrate Jesus returning to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, as it says in the book of Acts.  The meaning behind this image is the sovereignty of Christ as ruler over all creation.

So the subject of kingship is our central theme today.  You might have picked up on this theme in our first reading from the letter to the Ephesians where the author talks about Christ, who is seated “at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  Obviously, this is an image of supreme authority.

Based on what people tend to experience from the corrupt powers and authorities of this world, one might imagine a person with supreme authority to wield it like an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus.  His idea of kingly authority is very different from most others’.  In our gospel reading, Jesus described his idea of what God’s kingdom, God’s ideal society might look like as it becomes established in the world.

It doesn’t look like an invading dictatorship or a hostile takeover by a competing corporation.  There’s no violence and coercion in this kind of kingdom.  Jesus said the coming of God’s kingdom is like “a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.”  A little later, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

According to Jesus’ model, the kingdom of God is a growing thing.  It works slowly and subversively beneath the surface of society.  I especially love the image he uses about the kingdom being like yeast that leavens a loaf of bread.  For those who might not know about bread making, yeast is alive.  It’s a little microscopic organism that causes bread to rise once the yeast has infected the entire batch.

Did you get that?  God’s kingdom is like a microbe: the smallest kind of life-form.  It’s the exact opposite of dominating power and overwhelming violence.  The various authorities of this world depend on violence and power to preserve order and get things done, but Jesus’ kingdom of God seems to work on the exact opposite principle: smallness and weakness.  The greatest way to exercise power, according to Jesus, is by exercising service and mercy.

Jesus seems to have had some very upside-down ideas about kings and kingdoms.  I would daresay that Jesus also seemed to have some very upside-down ideas about life itself.  When Jesus first shared these radical ideas, he wasn’t just talking about a new system of government; he was talking about a new way to be human.

Jesus’ vision for the transformation of the world was a grassroots vision.  In fact, the term grassroots isn’t even sufficient to describe it because it doesn’t go deep enough.  We might have to make up a new word for this: how about heartroots?  Jesus’ vision for establishing the authority of the kingdom of heaven on earth is a heartroots vision.  It’s not imposed from the outside or above, like a bureaucratic dictatorship or an invading army: it changes the world from the inside out.  Like a mustard seed or yeast.

Few of Jesus’ followers, even among Christians today, have ever accepted his teaching about nonviolence, service, and mercy in the Heartroots Revolution.  By most accounts, these crazy, impractical should have been dismissed long ago, but they weren’t.  For some reason, they continue to chase, disturb, and haunt us to this day, slowly transforming our hearts from the inside out… just like yeast slowly leavening a batch of bread dough.

I believe that we are called to be like that yeast in Jesus’ parable.  In contrast to the violent and coercive way that power is exercised in the governments and corporations of the world, the citizens of the kingdom of God use the gentle skills of presence and persuasion.  We work our Heartroots Revolution from the inside out.

We’re kind of like mothers in that way.  They say a mother’s work is never done.  I’ve certainly been reminded of that truth this week as my own mother has been staying at my house and helping me take care of my kids while my wife is out of town at a conference.  Her help has been most appreciated.

But the real work of motherhood happens as her unconditional love and deeply held values shape the persons and perspectives of her children.  That’s how God works in the world as well.  That’s what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Unlike the young Eugene Peterson, God will not pin us to the ground and punch us until we agree to follow Jesus.  God doesn’t work through violence and coercion.  Neither should we do so as citizens of the kingdom of God.  We will not establish God’s kingdom by forcing our will on others through direct violence, or the threat of violence, or behind-the-scenes manipulation.  The arrival of the kingdom of heaven on earth is not to be equated with the success of our country, our political party, our business, or our church.  God’s vision is bigger and deeper than those things.  God, like a mother who will neither forget nor forsake her children, works the Heartroots Revolution from the inside out, moving slowly and patiently across time.  We Christians show ourselves to be citizens of God’s kingdom when we work in the same way: when we show up to work or school each day, consciously carrying the Holy Spirit in our hearts and letting our words and deeds act like yeast, leavening the loaf of our community with faith, hope, and love.  That’s what God’s Heartroots Revolution looks like.

I want to send you out this week with that image in your mind.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, think of the Holy Spirit living in your heart, leading you to act like an undercover agent, infiltrating the dark systems of this world with the light of love.  Let Jesus be your model for how to do this.  To the best of your ability, say and do things the way you imagine him saying and doing things.  If you’re not sure what he would do, try picking up a Bible and reading from one of the gospels.  Maybe one of those stories about his life will spark your imagination.

May your life, like Jesus’, exhibit the kingdom of God to the world.  May others look at you and hear through your words and deeds the message that brings us together and carries us into the world each week: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  Be blessed and be a blessing.