Archive for October 2009
Pentecost XX October 18th 2009
Isaiah 53: 4-12 Psalm 91: 9-16 Hebrews 5:1-10 Mark 10:35-45
We Can’t Have Christ without his Kingdom
Some explorers were trying to be the first to get to the North Pole with their dog sleds filled with supplies and equipment. They would take off at six A.M. in the morning, go at top speed all day and until the evening. You know, “Mush, you huskies!” That’s how they made the dogs run. And in the evening they would take out their compass and sextant to check their progress, (because they didn’t have a GPS, a Global Positioning System, in those days,) and to their surprise, they would be father from the North Pole than when they had started out in the morning.
The question to ask is why?
They discovered that they were on an ice-flow that was heading south faster than their dogs could run them north!
I read this story in a book about family systems. The point of the story was that individual effort could not succeed if we didn’t take account of the system. Larger invisible social forces also play a role in our lives, as for example: millions of houses have had foreclosures. The people involved were not all irresponsible. There are thirty million Americans unemployed. They are not lazy. There are social forces larger than any individual operating in our lives. Like, it is one thing to paddle your canoe up a river against the current and quite another when you are going with the current. In that case you’ll say, “Look at how successful that fellow is, how strong, how decisive, how skillful!” But no one points out that he is paddling his canoe with the current. He could pick up his paddle and do nothing and he would still go forward: as Luke Skywalker says in Star Wars, “May the force go with you!” Meanwhile the poor fellow paddling against the current could work until he is blue in the face and still be going backward. As the saying goes, “If hard work made you rich, every mule in Latin America would be a millionaire!” But your labor for the Kingdom will not be in vain!
When Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand, he was proclaiming a new system, a new order. He was making the space in our old human order for a new order that new persons could participate in. It is not the order of this world and because we go to sleep, become blind and deaf as those North Pole explorers, the order of this world creeps into our churches, and before we know it our lives begin to be lived according to our human order and not according to the Kingdom of God that Christ proclaimed.
The language we use for it is “backsliding”. But when using that word, we usually think of someone starting to drink again, or going back on drugs, getting caught up in pornography; or someone who stops going to church, stops praying and reading the bible. But a whole church can backslide and lose sight of its mission, can think that we need members to save our church, rather than becoming disciples, sent out by Jesus to save the sorry folks, who are blind as bats, deaf as doornails, and laden with heavy burdens of debt, un-forgiven debt.
Now the same way that we look at the order or system, we can look at debt from an economic point of view. Individually we sin and need forgiveness, but we also become debtors and we need to get out from under all our debt, especially from those credit cards, reducing our desires and saving more. It is so hard to pay off those credit cards! In our system people make money with their money and some keep loaning money and paying interest for it, that is, some make money with their money; the money of others costs them dearly. They pay for their money. That’s what interest is.
Back in St. John’s one of the deacons kept praying that her sons “would not be the tails but be the head.” I thought that expression must have come from Africa. But reading the last chapters of Deuteronomy (28:13 and 44), it’s in there – it’s in the Bible. There it says that the debtors are the tail of society and the creditors are the head. It says be a lender of money and not a borrower or you will be the tail of the dog and others will be your head, wagging you whichever way they want.
Jesus would talk about the Kingdom of Heaven or the new order in terms of a new wineskin. The new people were the new wine and they belonged in a new order, a new wineskin. When new wine is poured into a new wineskin, when the wine expanded it would stretch out and you would have no problem. But when you put new wine into an old wineskin that had already stretched as far as it could go, then it would burst, and all your new wine would spill out over everything and be lost.
Jesus said the same thing by speaking about old and new cloth. If you sewed a new patch on an old garment, the new patch would shrink in the wash and tear from the old garment, because it had already shrunk. Jesus was saying that the new person filled by the Holy Spirit also had to be in a new order, that is, the new Kingdom that he was proclaiming and introducing. When Jesus proclaimed this new order, he established it, and our churches confess Christ, but often we are slipping in and out of his new order and are backsliding into the old order.
What does the new order look like? Jesus is the Lord of this order and it is the place where Jesus reigns. We confess that Jesus is the Lord of it when we confess the Apostles’ Creed. In the Black tradition, we say, “King Jesus.” He is the Son of David, the peculiar King. What kind of a king writes poetry and plays the harp, then dances naked before the Ark of the Covenant in the procession bringing it into Jerusalem? His wife saw him from a window and rejected him afterward.
Like David, Jesus is our sovereign king, but do not let your hearts be troubled and neither let them become afraid, he is a suffering servant king. In his exalted position Jesus says, “I am over you, so I am your servant and the servant of all.” Now the word “servant” is just the old word for a slave. When the Europeans first saw the Slavic serfs in the Middle Ages, they had been beaten down so low, they started using the word “slave” for “servant.” (The word seems to have Latin roots, too.)
Now when we belong to God and enter the reign of God, we become the people of God’s possession. To become great is to become a servant. Moses was the leader back in the Old Testament and he knew that God was the King and he was the servant of God, Ebed Jahwey, in Hebrew. He did not lord it over others and he was not a tyrant over others. We all become servants and Jesus is not only our servant, but our suffering servant, our Melchizedek, which means, our King of Righteousness in Hebrew.
So James and John, the sons of Zebedee had it all wrong. They were thinking in terms of the old order. “Let us sit at your right and your left in your glory?” They wanted honor, status, and power – and they did not realize that they were heading south on that old ice-flow, farther way from the glorious suffering that the new order is made of. It makes you drink the bitter cup. It makes you go through the baptism that tests your metal.
At home we used to joke: “Are you a man or a mouse?”
“Shut up and pass the cheese” we’d answer.
Just go through the trial of loving and taking care of someone stricken with Alzheimer’s. They not only no longer recognize you, they start saying embarrassing and violent things sometimes. You love them for who they were. It is a cup of joy, but also one filled with suffering. Just be part of an aging and cantankerous old congregation. It is a cup of suffering. Let us be faithful and fill our cups with patience, loving kindness, and be gentle to one another. A fellow had a fight with his wife and she was later in a car accident. How he wished he had said, “I love you,” before she left! Getting old makes us have to cope with so much that we often become too edgy with others. But a faithful community is a cup filled with joy.
Now I’m not saying that you won’t see that joy through a whole lot of tears. But our tears do not only wash out our eyes, but also our soul, like the rain washes out our old days and makes them fresh and new. Ah, you just see and feel how thankful the grass is for all the rain.
So our Lord did not come to be served, but to serve and to lay down his life as a ransom for many. We confess Jesus with our lips, but like James and John, we don’t get it. Like, I’m a man. I want to be served! If I get rich, I’ll have people work for me! We just don’t get it. The same thing happens in the church. If I come to church I want it to serve me. John F. Kennedy would have said, “Ask not what the church can do for you; ask what you can do for the church!” God nudges us to do something for the kingdom, some mission, and we say, “Let the pastor do it” or “Let George do it!”
But look at Jesus. He says, “I’m going to serve you” and “I’m not a tyrant, who wants power over you. I will be your slave and I’ll be the slave of all people.” When Jesus humbles himself that way, we dare not step on him, but allow him to open our eyes and ears, and especially our hearts, so that we humble ourselves.
We can’t change the system, the way we used to say. Things are much more complicated than that. One theory speaks about a life-world and two systems, a political and economic system. The two systems are there for the life-world and not vice versa. That gets complicated. We need to pray for the in-breaking kingdom. We need to ask Jesus to come and open the space in our human order for his new order, the reign of God. They say that Michelle’s mother, Marian, is wearing out her knees praying for her daughter and Barack Obama. We all need to, because the new order breaks in with our change of hearts. When we see our greatness in our helpfulness – when we give up the power with which we try to control others and live by trusting each other, it breaks in among us.
Have you heard of the couple front? A husband and wife go everywhere together; never is one seen without the other – and people say, “See how they love one another.” No way. He does not trust her, so he never lets her be alone or out of his sight!
Lenin said, “Trust is good; control is better!” In the political system, you need control. But that kind of power and need for control causes havoc in relationships. So become more trusting. We need control at times, of course. You have to control a child, when it could run into traffic.
But Jesus gives up his control over us and says, “I’ll be your slave and the slave of all people. Now you can sit in the council of God. You come and sit on my throne and I will sit on your lowly stool.”
In our prayer this morning it says, “All of God’s greatness pours into goodness” lifting up all the people of the earth. “Shape us into willing servants” we prayed. Our hearts say, “Thank you God, for not hearing us! We didn’t mean it!”
You certainly know what happens to us when we give up our power: we get trampled under foot. We become rugs that people clean their feet on. We get walked on, treaded on, trampled into the ground. What do they say in Texas? “Don’t tread on me!”
But that’s our baptism and we soon get overwhelmed. “Help us Lord, the water has come up to our neck and I’m about to go under and drown!”
But did you think you would escape death? Does Bethlehem think it can escape death? No way! But if we go down doing God’s mission, helping the people that God loves, then the power of God and the Holy Spirit becomes unleashed and lifts us up into the renewal of Christ’s glorious resurrection. In this sense, we can say, “May the force be with you!” In that glory there is no left or right, no up and down, but just an unbroken circle full of helpfulness and service bringing life, abundant life, love, and blessedness. Amen.
 Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the people in earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, whom with you and the Holy Spirit we worship and praise, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The DUAL of
(P • ~Q) v (~P • Q), that is,
(P and not Q) or (not P and Q) ,
(P v ~Q) • ( ~P v Q), that is,
(P or not Q) and (not P or Q).
De Morgen’s laws are essentially duality principles.
1. (P • ~Q) v (~P • Q)
2. ~ [(P • ~Q) v (~P • Q)]
3. (~P v Q) • (P v ~Q)
See my post on the duality of the “XOR” and “IFF”, that is, the exclusive “or” and the “if and only if”, where I derive the two definitions of the strong “or” from one anther.
Pentecost XVIII – October 4th 2009
Genesis 2: 18-24 Psalm 8 Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 Mark 10:2-16
Can a Church Be Born Again?
This sermon will be about women and children but also about why Jesus features children and why we have to become like children to enter the Kingdom of heaven and you will see that goes for our church, too. Usually, however, the matter of divorce smacks people right in the face when hearing these lessons, so I do not want to fail to speak about it.
Many of us condemn ourselves, because we are divorced and we have to realize that if our hearts condemn us, Jesus is greater than our hearts and we do not live our lives under the law, but under grace. Look at the woman taken in adultery, whom Jesus comes upon as men are getting ready to stone her to death. Jesus says, “He who is without sin, throw the first stone.” And they all go away – and Jesus forgives her. He probably thought, “Where is the man? It took two to commit adultery. Why are these men stoning only the woman to death?” I realize I’m claiming to read Jesus’ mind!
When Jesus treats divorce, he speaks into the heart of our human condition. Meanwhile the Pharisees are asking abut divorce to test him. Herod had just divorced his wife, a Nabatean princess, in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. John had just gotten his head cut off because he took a stand against Herod’s divorce and the Pharisees may have been hoping that Jesus would hang himself by taking the same stand as John.
But Jesus championed the vulnerable and the oppressed of the day, the women and the children. A man could just write a letter of divorce and send his wife packing, should she offend him in any way. Now adultery would be a real reason, according to Matthew, but the offense could just be that he did not like how she cooked his dinner, that she did not obey his authority, or merely that he found someone more beautiful. Different rabbis argued that each of these issues constituted an eligible offense.
In Rome divorce was rampant, but the woman also had the right to divorce her husband. The Jews were more Patriarchal, only the man had the right to divorce, and adultery could only dishonor the man; women and children had no rights in the first place. At most, it was an insult to the wife’s father. But Jesus taught that it had to be mutual. The man, who marries another and divorces his wife in such a hard-hearted way, also commits adultery against her. He gave the woman standing, too.
Divorce is part of our human brokenness and Jesus says that it is not how God intended our creation to be. A marriage made in heaven is still a little bit of paradise on earth. Both can be naked together and they are not ashamed. What a powerful bond sexuality becomes with one another, when it issues out of love and respect and reenters love and respect, where both partners trust each other and can count on each other. There is this one person with whom you can be safe; a person with whom you can bring up anything and with whom you can share a life of love together; later even sharing your memories. You go through life together sharing everything, with this precious person at you side.
The woman does not belong to the man, but with the man, because she is taken from his side and it is not good for a man to be alone, he needs his partner at his side. Jesus also points out that the woman is more important. She is stronger than the man. Have you ever read Ashley Montegue’s, The Natural Superiority of the Woman? Jesus says, “A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one.” We would say, “A woman leaves her father and mother and cleaves to her husband.” Jesus turns it around.
Now it is not one half a person and another half person adding up to one. Men and women multiply, so you have to use multiplication. One whole person multiplied by another whole person make one whole person. That means that single people can be whole as well. But let’s not put down marriage. Marriage in Hebrew is Beulah, and Beulah-land is filled with happy marriages.
Back to the strength of women: mostly despite the greater public visibility and voice of men, in reality the man revolves around the woman, like a satellite around a planet, like the earth. She brings life into the world; the man as a warrior, is supposed to have virtue because he can take life away, unless he has learned the lesson of Jesus, to be able to give life too.
The word for virtue in those days was “manly”. Vir means “man” in Latin. To be a man meant that you had virtue and favor. To be a woman, well, it meant you had none. “Don’t be womanish! Don’t be a sissy!” “Sissy” stands for sister. They also believed that to speak to or relate with children destroyed your manliness. It weakened men and made them unfit for battle. That’s why the disciples want to protect Jesus and keep the children away.
We often want to have the sentimental pictures of children coming to a sweet Jesus with long flowing hair, like our Sunday School pictures. But you have to think they were probably sick, sniveling, whining and crying children, the ones the mothers want Jesus to heal. Jesus has to straighten out his disciples to accept the children even as men and as leaders. Jesus always turns what we consider important up-side-down. Imagine a man teaching Kindergarten! Jesus would not look down on such a man. Jesus not only touches the poor children, he takes them up into his arms. How do we knock the false values of our society in the head today, the way Jesus did back then? I ask you?
Of course, not all marriages are made in heaven. If only they were, what a safe place for children and all living things this world would be! For a marriage made in heaven Jesus has to be really present in the partners. Some couples living together, however, do not have Christ in their midst, but a devil. That gives them a marriage made in hell. Jesus did not want a man and a woman to stay together to destroy each other. Like, divorce is bad, murder is worse. You can become an accomplice to your own abuse in a marriage and Jesus did not want that. So you divorce. As Luther says, “Sin boldly, but more boldly still, believe!” Ah, children often become the victims, but that is our sorry brokenness. Where you continue to live your life in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus, the past is a bucket of ashes, and Christ raises you up into a new life.
Don’t forget, however: you never have a wonderful marriage handed to you on a silver platter. You need to do the work of the soul, get over some of your selfishness, surrender to God and offer yourself and your marriage to the will of God. Couples need to push and pull each other into heaven.
But you have to get through the sticking points in your marriage to the good stuff – and no matter how many times you marry, you will have to get through those same issues. It’s like you have a honeymoon, then you go through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land, the promised marriage, which is so helpful to us human beings.
We certainly need God’s grace and forgiveness to make these breakthroughs. We truly need to forgive ourselves and each other not seven times, but seventy-times seven times, because we get to the edge of our growth and get frightened, and then we go back into our garbage can existence, like Oskar on Sesame Street, and we miss out on the wonderful life in the garden, the quality relationships filled with mutual love and concern.
Someone recently argued that polygamy in Africa was better than our monogamy. I think of the Mormon who has eight wives talking about polygamy with a reporter. Trying to quote one of his wives, the reporter wrote, “His better one eighth said….” We often say a man’s better half, but I have already explained that a man and a woman are not half persons, but need to be whole persons. What would a man think if we had polyandry, like in Hawaii in the old days, when a woman could have eight husbands! He would have to wait his turn, night after night, to have a chance at his wife’s bed, and he might discover, he was not at all her favorite! Can we walk a mile in a woman’s shoes or in our children’s shoes? Those small feet are precious!
The old words for Psalm 8 say, “Out of the mouths of infants, babes, and children, you have fashioned a bulwark, a defense against your enemies.” Children come into our world completely dependent and full of trust. The bulwark or defense against doubt, cynicism, skepticism, and faithlessness is the consummate trust that little children have. It is this trust that Jesus championed, as well as their zest for learning, their curiosity in seeing everything for the first time, and wanting to grow up. We have to be filled by trust, be tender hearted – it’s all right to be tough minded, but we have to have tender hearts and open minds of children to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
A congregation needs to become a safe place filled with these wonderful attributes of children so that we can say “Our Father” and be the children of God and then eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor any heart imagined the beautiful things that God has prepared for those who love him and are called to his purpose!
Yes, we become children, children of God. But take one more step. To become a child a church has to become a mission. Bethlehem has to start over again the way it first began for it to enter the kingdom of heaven. Ah, we have to gather everyone together breathlessly, to grow together in God’s work and to do God’s mission. An old church puts fund-raising into the forefront. Fund-raising helps a little, but it is only a band-aid. We have to become a mission again and be carried by the marvelous vision of the wonderful things that could happen to us, if this church came alive here on this street in West Oakland, if it started over again. When this church started, it did not have money and it is not about money, but about throwing ourselves completely, like children, on the resources of God’s love and mercy.
Look at the heroes of CNN, the news channel for the year 2009. They fed the homeless, they healed the sick. One fellow was a bartender, who saw so many people wasting their lives on barstools, and he thought, “We can turn wine into water!” He started a project to dig wells to bring clean water to those dying of putrid and contaminated water in the villages of Africa. And they did not have to leave the country to go to Africa. Another fellow helped homeless veterans and another opened an orphanage for 48 homeless children. We need to search for what God wants Bethlehem to do in this place. It always starts small. What about the community garden? It would give us a way to reach out to this community. This is the vision that Pastor Megan Rohr placed before us and in it I for one could see our way to real mission. If we trust in God and not in money and what not, but I mean completely depend on God, Bethlehem, like a child, could become a mission and start to grow again! Amen.
Communion Blessing: God gives us the grace to become the children, who enter the kingdom of heaven!
Reading the final chapters of Deuteronomy was very rewarding. It is one thing to read the scriptures when one is young and quite another when one has some self-knowledge and experience. In the latter case, a much deeper understanding can be won.
In chapter 27, the use of only unhewn stones for the altar of God can be related to justification by faith, in which we can do nothing for our own salvation: it has to proceed by God’s hand alone. We are the living stones, which God alone must shape and fashion to God’s purpose. We don’t reinvent ourselves the way politicians do who want to use their artificial public images for power purposes. We surrender in Luther’s completely passive way to God, who justifies our margins and creates us by God’s Word. Using computer and word-processing metaphors, makes me want to say, we are “word-perfect” divine expressions, but Luther has it right: we are sinners and saints at one and the same time.
In the Tao te Ching, in chapter 57 and elsewhere, the uncarved block is like this unhewn stone. The state and intelligence of God’s created nature is still far superior to ours, by which we disrupt nature from its harmonious course. In Taoism, wu wei or no action is much like the passive righteousness in Luther’s justification by faith. Doing no action in the force of tao, the way, is accessing God’s divine action amongst us. In chapter 48, the Tao Te Ching has the lines:
In the pursuit of the way one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all,
And when one does nothing at all, there is nothing
left undone (108).
And chapter 47:
Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,
Identifies without having to see,
accomplishes without having to act (107).
The paradox involved is that faith, according to Luther, is “a mighty, active, restless, and busy thing, which immediately renews the person, gives a second birth, and leads the person into new ways and into new being. It is impossible for this same self not to do good works, continuously, [spontaneously] without interruption.” Thus this human inaction is really God’s continuous creation doing the humanly impossible through those who have completely surrendered to God, like a leaf, blowing in the wind (the Wind of the Holy Spirit).
Our deacon in St. John’s used to always pray that her sons be made the head and not the tail and I was surprised that the expression was biblical. It comes up in Deuteronomy 28:13 and 44. It refers to the class of creditors, who are the head and the debtors, who are the tails: those who make money with their money as the heads and those who buy their money with debt, as the poor tails of our capitalist society.
Luther usually uses the word “the true corpse,” instead of “the true body” of Jesus Christ our Lord, when he deals with communion. In the curses over Israel, should they be disobedient, it says, “your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away” (Deut. 28:26). Jesus continually uses the expression, “For where the corpse is, the vultures will gather,” (see for example in Matthew 24:28). I believe that Jesus turns the corpses as food for the birds and animals around and goes spiritual with it. The idea is that Jesus carries the cross on which he will die, and he and his followers, in a sense, are already dead, and they are the food for all who are hungry, thirsty, or needy in any way. When someone dies, the family can claim the corpse, but the dead has no claim upon it anymore. It and everything the person possessed, are free for the concern and taking of others. Thus his body is food indeed and his blood is drink indeed. (I like the way Moses’ song has the words, “you drink fine wine from the blood of grapes” (Deut. 32:14).)
For those who refuse to obey the One true God, Moses describes their bottoming out in the curses of chapter 28 very graphically. I kept asking myself, “How low can you go?” while reading the passages of Deuteronomy 28:54-57. If you don’t diligently observe all the words of the law that are written in this book, you will be reduced to cannibalism and even worse, no matter how refined and gentle you may have become! I believe Jesus was totally immersed in Deuteronomy and he could have had these passages in mind when many of the disciples took offense at him. The Savior wanted to answer and overturn the scenarios of the cursed at even their worst, (if you’ll excuse the rhyme).
In chapter 29, verse 18, turning away to the gods of the nations means turning away from the reign of the Kingdom of God and the Messiah, God’s Christ, to be somewhat redundant from the Hebrew to the Greek: “the anointed one” is the meaning of “Messiah” and “Christ.” There is a real place and need for the nations, but in them our hearts have to belong to God and they have to submit to God. (See Psalm 2.)
I do not yet understand verse 29 of chapter 29. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.” I think that kind of a conception is part of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, but I cannot yet explain it.
The beautiful passages about “the word being very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to observe” (Deut 30:14, see 11-14) made me write this blog today. I studied early modern European history and the way the word (the writings and literature) contained the classic civilizations of Greece and Rome and could challenge the life of society in the Barbarian “Dark Ages” – until the European civilization could overtake them; in the same way, the Kingdom of God and the Christ are contained in the Word, until God’s will is done on earth as it already is in heaven. Every sermon should spell it out and bring some aspect of it to life. The Word will not return empty.
Finally, the way Moses and Aaron angered God by “breaking faith with him” (Deut. 32:51) could have something to do with the sacred lots, which may have contradicted the command of God. If Deuteronomy 33:8 has such high praise for the Levites, why does it mention the Thummim and Urim with their testing God at Massah and their contending with God at the waters of Meribah? Did the method of divining interfere with their living trust in God? Was it that they took credit for the water gushing out of the rock or that they said, “Let’s see if God can make water gush out of this rock” mistrusting God?
Going back to Exodus 17:1-7, it seems that all of Israel was putting God to the test and even Moses and Aaron became caught up in their disloyal and selfish doubt. Was God really in their midst and could God produce water out of the rock for them to drink with that old rod of Moses? This is the way, it seems to me, that Moses and Aaron broke faith with God in what transpired at Massah (meaning “test”) and the waters of Meribah (meaning “the quarrel”).
 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated and with an introduction by D.C. Lau, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1963), page 118.
 Ibid., page 108.
 Luthers Werke, Weimar Ausgabe, vol 10, part 3, page 285, lines 24-30. For Luther’s full quote see my website: Increasing our faith and Luther’s developing notion of faith. Or see Peter Krey’s, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron, (Berkeley: GTU Dissertation, 2001), page 167, footnote 177.