Archive for the ‘Luke’ Category

Luke 13:10-17

August 26, 2016

Trinity Church Saugerties

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Luke 13:10 – 17

“Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your name….”  The key words in today’s Collect are: church, unity, holy Spirit and power.

If we look around us, we have to admit this prayer is not being answered.  Far from being gathered together in unity, the churches are splitting apart; and if unity is a prerequisite for power, the Church is not showing God’s power forth among all peoples.  What is wrong?  Jesus gathered people to himself in unity and showed forth God’s power; why can the Church not do the same?

We can look for the answer in today’s Gospel reading.  But let me lead into it with this story.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by beliefs; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and that unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also, they think that the Church sees itself as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the Church, because they think it is all about beliefs — beliefs which they do not share.

The nones, I think, are looking for faith, not beliefs.  What is the difference?  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but let me try to distinguish between them this way.  Beliefs, whether true or false, tend to be about this world — things that can be proven, at least in theory.  Faith tends to be about things spiritual, linked more to hope than proof.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us as if we were sponges immersed in water.  We hope that at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

Suppose we look at the controversy in today’s Gospel, between Jesus and the religious leader, with this contrast in mind — the contrast between belief and faith.  Both men share a faith that God is real, and that God gave the ten commandments, which are sacred.  I call this faith, because it cannot be proven, yet faith commits itself to living as if it were true.

Then doctrine enters the picture when religious leaders start to interpret what that faith means.  In this case, the fourth commandment says to keep holy the Lord’s day and do no work on that day.  It was up to scholars to decide what would qualify as work; and what they taught became beliefs.  I call these beliefs, not faith, because they are about this world (that is, specific behaviors) and they can be proven by reference to the original human teaching.

So here we have Jesus and the religious leader in a stand off.  The leader leans more toward beliefs; Jesus toward faith.  This implies quite a difference between them.  Obedience will be a prime value for the leader; while for Jesus we might call responsiveness a prime value.  Belief implies an external authority (the teaching), while responsiveness implies an inner authority (conscience, for instance, or an intimate sense of God’s real presence in the situation).  Belief lends itself to a need to control others; faith lends itself to allowing self-determination.

If we transpose those two stances — belief in contrast to faith — to today’s churches, we see a similar divide, even hostility.  And the divisions have come about over such things as Anne Rice mentioned.  Times and issues change, but those two basic stances, belief and faith, seem perennial.  Very likely they account for the Church’s failure to live out the prayer in today’s Collect.

It’s very tempting to argue for one side over the other, especially Jesus’ side.  But that approach has been tried for two thousand years, and the result has not varied.  Is there another approach?

There is, and it depends on seeing value in both sides.  I recently read a study by the Public Religion Research Institute where they surveyed voters to discover how many of us lean toward authoritarian leaders and how many toward self-determining leaders.  The proportion varied according to how much we feel under threat.  If our sense of threat rises, we are more likely to want an authoritarian leader.

In Jesus’ day, his people lived in an environment of threat.  The Roman overlords ruled by terror.  They crucified “enemies of the state” by the thousands, both before and after Jesus’ time.  And the Romans’ tax collectors could be extortionate; so the threat of becoming destitute was also real.  In an environment like that, wouldn’t we all opt for stability of any kind, including the stability offered by set and inflexible beliefs?

So let us have compassion for the religious leader.  No doubt he was an anxious man, and Jesus would have seen that.  Would Jesus have wanted to put him to shame, as the Gospel claims?  Much more likely, Jesus would have wanted to heal the leader, who was crippled by anxiety, just as he had healed the crippled woman.

If this Gospel account of Jesus’ healing on the sabbath is distorted, why might that be?  Perhaps Luke was also anxious; for he was fighting his own battle.  After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, it was up for grabs who would get to define Judaism.  Luke wanted it to be Jesus’ community; the Pharisees wanted it to be theirs.  In other words, Luke might have relocated his own controversy back into Jesus’ day.

However it was, I want to call on the fourth key term in today’s Collect, the holy Spirit.  As long as we have beliefs — and we cannot live without them — differences will abound.  But maybe the Church’s power — including the power to attract the nones — does not depend on unity of belief and does not depend on agreeing to one polity.  Maybe the unity which is brought about by the holy Spirit is a unity of love.

You’ve heard the saying, “Listening is love.”  Suppose that we, moved by the holy Spirit, simply listened to those who believe differently than we do.  Listened with respect and appreciation.  Listened not to argue, but to understand, and at a deep level.  Listened not just to understand the belief, but also the environment that gave rise to that belief.

Sister and brothers, let us live not only by our beliefs, but also by our faith.  And we have faith, as the Gospel of John reminds us, that perfect love casts out fear.  So we need not fear to listen with open hearts to those who disagree with us.  This is the kind of faith that will show forth God’s power among all peoples.  Amen.

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Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

August 7, 2016

“Faith,” said Mark Twain, “is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  He’s mixing up belief and faith to make us laugh; but I wonder if he realized how important it is not to confuse the two.  The writer to the Hebrews does not make that mistake: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is conviction, not belief.

This morning I’d like us to think about the difference between faith and belief.  Sometimes they mean the same thing, but often they don’t.

Let me give you a sad example of what can happen when faith and belief are taken to be the same.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by teachings and creeds; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also that the church stands as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the church, because they think it is all about beliefs, which they, “know ain’t so.”

This is an example of how wrong beliefs can keep many bright young people away, which harms the church.  Now I’ll give you an example of how wrong beliefs can harm all of us.  Often these wrong beliefs were instilled in childhood.  For instance, in my family, my parents came of age when the great depression hit.  By the time I was born, in 1938, they had taken on the belief that poverty was always just around the corner.  We never lacked for anything; nevertheless I grew up believing that we were about to become poor and as a consequence, my family never spent money easily or joyfully.

Others may grow up believing that the natural human state is to be ill.  No matter how healthy they are, they fear that, unless they are taking some medication, a sickness will overcome them.  You can add to the list.  It may be that a person believes themself to be unlikeable, and goes through life fearing rejection.  Or I might believe that I am unlucky, and go through my days fearing loss or failure.  It’s common to believe the world is basically dangerous.  Wrong beliefs are legion.

These examples show how wrong beliefs can keep us from engaging with life.  They engender mistrust or fear.  So we shrink back from exploring what the world has to offer in all of its fullness and beauty.

The antidote to wrong belief is faith.  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but we can distinguish between them.  You noticed the letter to the Hebrews did not link faith to belief, but to “things hoped for.”  Faith is not hope about things in this world, but about things spiritual.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us like a sponge in water.  That at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

How does all of this relate to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel?  It relates directly.  Speaking of that eternal reality — the “kingdom” — he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  “Do not be afraid.”  Our take-away from this reading is that faith will free us from fear.

Jesus drives this point home with his next words.  “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Clearly he is not speaking literally.  If we sold our possessions it would not free us from fear; just the opposite.

Metaphors speak with more force than explanations.  Jesus is pressing us to ask, “Am I clinging to my possessions for my security?  Do I fear losing them?  Does my identity depend on them?”  Jesus says, “sell.”  He means: make a mental shift — from belief that my life depends on what I possess, to faith that, as the letter to the Colossians says, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Sell means shift from fear and distrust to assurance and conviction, from threats to hope.

Faith is not like a room: either you are in it or you are not.  Faith is a journey.  We progress toward faith, toward when we can ‘sell’ our possessions and give alms.  Gradually and increasingly we inhabit Jesus’ kingdom, even as we continue to walk in this world.  Progressively we live — less and less by beliefs, and more and more by faith.  Bit by bit our treasure builds up in heaven, side by side with our hearts.  And the farther we progress the more we leave fear behind.  Let’s close with this from today’s reading, it’s both a true belief and a true faith: “God is not ashamed to be called [our] God; indeed he has prepared a city for [us].”

Luke 10:38-42

July 19, 2016

17 July 2016

 

Someone once said, “The great man makes every man feel his equal.”  How can that be?  What makes a person great is that others are not equal.  The great person stands out!  But if we think about it, the essence of a great person’s greatness lies in the way that person makes others feel as if they are on the same level.  Jesus’ followers must have experienced him that way — not just great, but truly great in that way.

In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus being, not just a good teacher, but a great teacher.  He was giving instruction concerning one of life’s defining challenges.  That is: finding a proper balance between freedom and responsibility.  It’s one all of us have struggled with.

Let me go back.  This wasn’t the only time Jesus had taught on the antithesis between freedom and responsibility, for it’s the central issue between a life well-lived and a life half-wasted.  Remember the parable that starts out, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me…’”?  Jesus went on to tell the story we call the “Prodigal Son.”  Jesus did not try to spell out how we should live — where responsibility should end and freedom begin or vice versa.  He just gave two examples, both extremes.  The younger son overindulged in freedom; the older son in responsibility.

As a great teacher, by telling this story Jesus called our attention to a matter of vital importance for us, but he did not try to instruct us.  He did not put himself on a level above us, in a teacher-student relationship.  He trusted us to be able to find our way between those two extremes, no doubt learning by trial and error.  Also, as a great teacher, he knew that if he tried to instruct us, we would only memorize his words.  That is, when we had to negotiate our way between freedom or responsibility, we would look outside of ourselves for the answer — look for some policy or law.  He knew that true learning has to arise from within, from our own inner struggle and the wisdom we acquire from that struggle.

The story in today’s Gospel reading speaks to that same matter: freedom vs. responsibility.  The difference is this.  The story about the two brothers dealt with living our external lives — our lives in the world.  The story of the two sisters deals with living our spiritual lives — we might say choices of the soul.  Martha feels her responsibility as Jesus’ hostess, and there’s a lot to do to serve a party of friends.  Mary feels her freedom to enjoy Jesus’ presence, and does not worry about how the work will get done.  If we read this parable as symbolizing two spiritual choices, the contrast is between being busy with religious duties or being silent and still, simply contemplating Jesus’ presence.

It has probably become clear by now that Jesus was not describing two sets of people — two brothers and two sisters — but he meant them to stand for desires we all experience within ourselves — the desire to be responsible and the desire to be free.  We can identify with each of the brothers and each of the sisters.  We have those tendencies within ourselves.

Both sisters are necessary.  It is a question of balance.  On the one hand, as followers of Jesus, like Martha, we have responsibilities that accrue to our faith.  For us these would include: keeping our worshiping community vital, which means church attendance at the very least.  Also, we need to maintain some form of spiritual study; it could be reading the Bible or a spiritual classic.  Lately I’ve gotten a lot of good out of reading Henri Nouwen’s books.  Also, we have the sick, the friendless, and the needy to care for.

On the other hand, as followers of Jesus, like Mary, we also have freedom.  I can choose to let my responsibilities go for a while and just indulge myself.  It’s as if my dear friend, Jesus, calls and says let’s go out for a cup of tea.  I think to myself: well, I’ve got a lot to do, but why not?  He’s such good company!  I’ll have such a good time!”  So I exercise my freedom to choose, and off I go.  Jesus knows how prone we are to busy ourselves with the responsibility-side of being his disciple; so in the parable he emphasizes the importance of quiet contemplation — the choice Mary made.

Why might he do that?  What makes the quiet, contemplative side of our spiritual life the better choice?  We live in a time when violence is on the rise exponentially — mass killings, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate speech.  Shouldn’t we be like Martha and be doing something about it?  It may not be obvious what I as an individual could do, but shouldn’t I be doing something?  If I follow Mary’s example am I not burying my head in the sand?  If Jesus were here today, would he still say, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

I think Jesus would have stuck to what he said, and here’s the reason.  All of us must be agonizing over the attack in Nice.  It’s the most recent evidence that the world, as we have known it, is changing even as we watch, and in more ways than we can number.  We are asking ourselves, “What can I do to make this world a more just and safer place to live?”  The answer is not “nothing.”  None of us is helpless.  Let me suggest a four step process.

First, we might recall Jesus’ words, “…you always have the poor with you.”  In other words, he is asking us to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important.  To set to work to restore the world is highly important, but not urgent.  Sometimes we make the mistake of seeing something as urgent which is not, but we deal with that — the urgent — and short-change what is really important.  So we do not, for instance, run out blindly and join the Salvation Army.

Second, we want to act in a way that is effective.  Not a week goes by, at least recently, when we haven’t woken up to another mass killing.  Whatever we do to restore some safety and justice to the world, we want it to count.  So when am I at my most effective?  Isn’t it when I am acting from the whole of myself?  I’m less effective if I’m copying some role model, even Jesus himself.  What is my unique combination of aptitudes, strengths, resources, experiences, desires and concerns?  If I can center myself — not in a how-to book, not in someone else’s example — but in myself, then I have the best chance of making a difference.  The difference I make, plus the difference you make, plus the difference others like us make can add up.

Third, we do what Mary did.  We sit down face to face, so to speak, with Jesus.  Gradually we realize that what that paradoxical quotation said is true.  We are sitting with a great man and he is making us feel his equal.  Not his lieutenant, not his copycat, not his passive follower, but a fully empowered person in our own right.

Fourth, we make a plan and we act.  Do not be misled.  To “act” may mean finding a way to pray about it; or it may — if I’m prone to judgmental, punitive thoughts — mean changing the way I think.  I’ll close with something Mother Theresa said.  Mother Theresa is one of those rare persons in whom there is no distinction between the spiritual and the worldly — an inner stillness and an outer busyness.  She said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.  It is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.”

Let me sum up that process.  First we remind ourselves not to panic — the problem won’t go away.  Second we do a self-assessment so we can take effective action.  Third we turn away from our busy Martha side and do as Mary did to feel empowered.  Fourth, we turn back to our Martha side and we get busy.  Amen.

Luke 9:28 – 36

May 3, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, Luke 9:28 – 36

THE TRANSFIGURATION

Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an object.  God can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.

 

Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.

Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

February 8, 2016

TRANSFIGURATION

Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an objectGod can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.

Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

 

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.

Luke 16:1-13

September 22, 2013


Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?’ He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”<!–

This reading from the Gospel of Luke has sown a lot of confusion over the years. If Jesus means the rich man to represent God, and surely he does, how is it that God commends dishonesty?

Let me run down the story again. The rich man learns that his manager was “squandering” the rich man’s property. In Greek this is a dramatic verb, calling to mind one who throws something to the winds, not caring at all where it lands. To give an extreme example of what that might look like, think of Kim Kardashian’s ten million dollar wedding followed by her two month marriage. We would accuse such a person of carelessness with their assets, even naiveté, rather than deliberate wrong doing.

Next the rich man learns that his manager has actually and intentionally done wrong. In that short period of time while the manager still had authority — between when he had to hand over his account book and when he would actually leave office — the manager, in essence, robbed the rich man of 35% of his accounts payable.

He did this, of course, in order to prepare a place for himself in the community. Knowing human nature as he did, he was counting on the hand-washes-hand principle: I’ll take care of you, you take care of me. When the rich man learned of this latest transgression he commended him; or the word can also be translated “praised” him. The rich man may also have had him arrested; but he could not help admiring the manager’s ingenuity.

Many details are missing from this story. For instance, Jesus doesn’t say if the manager was arrested; nor whether the manager’s scheme did, in fact, earn him a place in the community. Put this down to Jesus’ great economy as a story teller. He only gives the details that will support the underlying point he wants to make.

What is that point? What I will suggest seems to me to be the only way to pull all the parts of this passage into one coherent whole. Also, it is consistent with Jesus’ statement of what he was put on this earth to do. He said, “I have come that they may have life and life more abundantly.”

If the rich man in the parable represents God, then the manager must represent you and me and everyone. God gave us life and put us in charge of it. To say God gave us life means that we came into being, because God shared God’s divine life with us. We have it in trust, so to speak. The trouble is, we are careless, spendthrift even, with that life. Not wicked, just heedless, spending it any old which way, not keeping accounts.

Jesus’ story says to us: you cannot go on forever this way. You may not be keeping proper accounts, but one day God will ask you to account for how you managed the assets entrusted to you.

In the story the manager impressed God, not by being dishonest, but by being ingenious. It reminds me of a news article I read years ago. On New Year’s Eve, several banks on the San Francisco peninsula were robbed. How? The thieves had replicated the front of the night deposit box — the same metal, same design: identical! They positioned the false fronts directly before the actual depositories. So all night long bar and restaurant owners were dropping huge sums right into the thieves’ pocket, so to speak. Before dawn the thieves collected their deposit boxes and drove them away. You have to admire their ingenuity, even as you would happily put them in jail.

There can be no doubt that Jesus is chiding his disciples here. He draws their attention to the manager’s ingenuity and the energy the manager invests in using that ingenuity for his own ends. Jesus is looking for this same energy and ingenuity in his disciples, us! But with two differences. First, the manager was driven by fear, while we have nothing to fear. We must be driven by love. Second, we are not to direct our energy and ingenuity toward our own limited ends — what he calls “dishonest wealth” — but toward our eternal ends — what he calls “true riches.”

This should not sound as if we are meant to earn our place in heaven. Putting it that way makes life into a matter of straining after an external reward that will come in the great by-and-by. In reality, God simply intends for us to enjoy, to the fullest extent possible, the divine life within us, our true riches, right here and now.

Let me go back to the story of the two bank depositories, one real and permanent, the other contrived and temporary. You could say we spend our day to day lives making deposits. We manage our assets — our time, our minds, our abilities, our health, and all we possess — and we deposit the profits. The question is what is the nature of those profits?

Suppose the profits look like self-indulgence in its various denominations? Those profits can only go into the contrived and temporary box; and in time a thief will wheel them away. Suppose the profits go into the real and permanent box? What would they look like? They would look like finding joy in each moment, being grateful for all that life brings, the good, yes, but also the bad and the ugly. They would look like care for the sick, the friendless and the needy. They would look like time spent in prayer and worship. They would look like a heart open in forgiveness.

In short, with this parable Jesus is not saying, “Work harder.” He is saying, “Use the same energy and ingenuity the manager used, and open yourself to the joy of your God-given life, right here, right now. And keep opening. You have no idea how deep you can go, what joy you can find.”

Luke 14:1, 7-14

September 1, 2013

We prayed in today’s collect that God would “increase in us true religion.” If a religion is truly doing its job, it should be pointing and prodding and luring us to a place of unbridled joy. Jesus sometimes called that place the kingdom of heaven and the church is fond of calling it eternal life. The Dalai Lama calls it genuine happiness and the Hebrew Scriptures call it the Promised Land. Whatever metaphor we use, it refers to a state of inner freedom that we can enter here and now and that is not interrupted by death.

That being said, doesn’t today’s Gospel strike you as odd? Listen to these tips for success in life. See if you can spot the one that is NOT by Dale Carnegie.

1. Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.
2. Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.
3. The Person who succeeds is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.
4. When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

The last was from Jesus, which is strange, for we don’t usually think of him as teaching how to “win friends and influence people.” Typically, Jesus teaches how to get ahead in eternal life.

Actually, that is just what he is doing here, but in an artful way. Jesus watched his fellow guests at the dinner party, and could see that they were not free. At that crucial choice point in life, where we have to choose between success and genuine happiness, they had chosen success. It’s a fatal choice, spiritually speaking, because success depends on outside forces, external events, other people, things we cannot control — my place at the banquet table, for instance. In short, by vying for the places of honor, the dinner guests opened themselves up to humiliation. Bondage, not freedom, followed — bondage to fear or anxiety.

Jesus has compassion on the dinner guests and wants to show them the better choice, but he has to put it in terms that will mean something to them. So in his little parable he makes it sound as if God, the eternal host, also has a banquet table, also sorts the more successful from the less successful. God’s yardstick for success differs, of course, but Jesus’ story suggests that some of us will be of greater value in God’s eyes than others. Jesus has God say, “Friend, move up higher,” which implies that some must sit lower.

Jesus is luring them, using their own values. He used ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ language, because the dinner guests are still in bondage to other peoples’ opinion. To change their behavior he has to promise them a reward they would understand, such as, “then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” Public opinion being the fickle thing it is, that’s a dubious reward, but it mattered to the dinner guests.

Next he adds something that must have left them scratching their heads. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It is the opposite of what they used to believe, but at least they now have the security of knowing what it takes to get ahead, what it takes to succeed: act humble.

Jesus takes this paradox even further in his instructions to the host. “When you give a banquet,” he says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, Jesus motivates them out of their own set of values: an external reward, something to earn, a token of success.

Shall we take this at face value? That some of us will receive a warmer welcome from God than others? The more good works we do in this life the greater success we’ll earn in heaven? Jesus certainly makes it sound that way.

Thinking about that question, I recalled how Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, made the news this summer. I wonder: could that be what motivated him when he challenged Wonga — a reward in heaven? Wonga is England’s leading payday lending company, which dominates the market, and charges an annual 5,000% interest. Welby plans to put Wonga out of business by offering legitimate credit unions, which charge only several percentage points of interest, free office space in the thousands of churches of the Church of England. Was Welby motivated by the hope of keeping his mitre, his staff and his exalted position when he gets to heaven? I’ll come back to this is a moment.

If Jesus means what he seems to be saying, Welby’s action would put him miles ahead of the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind at God’s banquet table. What chance do they have of doing something grand for God? Intuitively we reject this idea; we know that cannot be right.

So what might lie behind the things Jesus has been saying to the dinner guests? We need to look at what he says when he is finally speaking to them straight: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This has nothing to do with external rewards, even from God. It has to do with our own, inner freedom. If I am busy pushing my way to a higher place at the banquet table — it could be called the table of ‘my standing in the community,’ or the table called ‘my reputation,’ or the table called ‘my assets’ or ‘my credentials’ — if that is what I am doing, my thoughts must be about my self and the threats or challenges that self faces. I’m about as free as an armed guard. Whereas, to be exalted, as Jesus means it, is to reach that pinnacle of unbridled joy. This is the only and true reward, one which is not bestowed, but rises up from within; and one which cannot be taken away, and which we can only reach with free hands.

What does humbling ourselves have to do with reaching that pinnacle? Think of the Beatitudes, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit are not full of themselves, not stuffed with set opinions; not self-certain, like a former governor of California who once famously said, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” Rather, one who is poor in spirit is open to the present moment, open to learning, open to new possibilities and free to create. Small children, for instance, are poor in spirit. In other words, to be poor in spirit, as Jesus means it, is to be humble.

Have you ever tried to press like poles of a magnet together? It cannot be done. So too with genuine happiness and success; if you chose the one you cannot have the other. On the other hand, if you choose genuine happiness you will be drawn to humility. Let me show how this works with a final reference to Justin Welby.

God gave each of us gifts for love and service, gifts that never before came together in this unique configuration in the history of the universe. When I am not worried about success, I am like an orchestra conductor and I can freely choose how to use my gifts to serve the world. Think of the exaltation in that! The unbridled joy!

When Archbishop Welby learned of the loan sharking, he brought to that moment a background in banking, he brought his position of power as the head of the Church of England and a peer of the realm; he brought tremendous courage and a strong passion for justice; and he brought a sense of identity with the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. He used it in a way that brought him unbridled joy; and that joy did not come from his worldly power or position. Any of us can share that joy.

Luke 13:10-17

August 26, 2013

Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night, just thinking about things, and quite a few thoughts can go by before, suddenly, I realize I am awake. It’s always amazing to me that I can be awake and yet, for a while, not aware that I am awake. At first there are just thoughts, then there are both thoughts and awareness of having those thoughts. Two levels.

I am going on about that, because you may have had that experience, too. It seems to me like life itself. We start out in life, just going along. We are not really aware that we are living. Then something happens — it could be a death or falling in love — and suddenly we are aware that we are alive and we have no idea why we are alive, or what we should be doing with our life.

Dante’s Divine Comedy starts out with just such a realization. “Midway in the journey of life I found myself lost….” That was his turning point when awareness set in — the second level opened up. The book goes on, and even a child can read it as a fascinating story. However, for those who have begun to wonder what life is all about, it can serve as a guide to the spiritual journey, or call it the journey of inner discovery.

The Bible has the same purpose. As the Bible tells it, our journey is from slavery to freedom. Think of the Book of Exodus. The journey is from bondage in Egypt to being their own people in the promised land. Jesus, like Moses, has that same mission — to bring us from bondage to freedom. We can see it in today’s Gospel.

On one level, Luke is telling a healing story. He heals a woman on the Sabbath and the religious authorities try to make him stop, because he is breaking the law. They are just following the rules; using no judgment. The law says that work may not be done on the Sabbath; and when Jesus healed the woman he was ‘working’. Case closed. This kind of behavior turns up all too commonly in human affairs. In the Episcopal Church some priests refuse to give communion to people who have not been baptized. Why? Canon law forbids it and that’s reason enough.

Notice, though, how Luke gave the story a twist. True, it was about a healing; but even more it was about bondage and freedom, about a second level, for he had Jesus say to the woman, “you are set free from your ailment.” This makes the contrast evident: while the woman was set free, the religious authorities remained in bondage — bondage to the law. Bondage is any circumstance that keeps us from making our own, genuine choice or decision.

If you saw the film, “Hannah Arendt” earlier this summer you saw an extreme case of bondage. It showed actual footage of the testimony of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who had been responsible for organizing the mass deportation of Jews to the extermination camps. He says he was simply “doing my job, my duty.” He was obeying orders, obeying the law.

In the Gospel story we want to say to the religious authorities, don’t follow the law; follow your heart! But as a general principle, following our hearts is scarcely better. Think of Herb Brooks, the U.S. men’s hockey coach for the Olympic games in 1980. What if he had followed his heart? If you saw the movie “Miracle,” you saw how merciless he was in his training. His team would be up against the Soviets, and the Soviets had won almost every competition, including the Olympics, every year since 1954. Brooks was convinced that the Soviets dominated the international competition because of their peak conditioning. So Brooks ignored his heart, pushed his team through the intense suffering that top conditioning required, and won the Olympics that year. Some called it the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Freedom, then, comes neither from obeying the law (or any external pressure) nor from obeying our hearts (or any internal, emotional pressure). It comes from following Jesus. This takes some explaining.

When I say not to obey the law or any external authority, that does not mean become a scofflaw. It means use your own judgment; accept personal responsibility for what you do. Law and tradition are usually excellent guides, but they can never be our master, for God intends us to be free to make our own decisions and choices as wisely as we can.

When I say not to obey our hearts, this is more difficult. Often our hearts are filled with fear, and fear can be an almost irresistible tyrant. Or the tyrant could be anger or greed. It’s hard to act wisely and accept personal responsibility when an inner voice is screaming: run! or grab! or strike! Afterwards we say, “I couldn’t help myself; I had no choice!” But we always have a choice.

How is following Jesus any different? It’s different, because this does not mean copy Jesus. It means, just as Jesus was authentically who he was, I need to be who I am. I need to follow his method, not try to repeat his choices. He had his way of serving the world, I must find mine.

Jesus’ method had three supports. First was his knowledge of the Bible; second was his practice of the presence of God; third was his own life experience. As far as the first goes, his knowledge of the Bible, he surely knew the passage from Jeremiah that we heard today. God told Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb God knew who he was and what God had created him to do. Jesus knew that applied to him, too, as it does to all of us.

Second, to practice the presence of God is to pray, however we may do that, as long as it’s regular. Jesus practiced a kind of soaking prayer where he simply rested, as Deuteronomy puts it, “in the everlasting arms.” As a result he knew that, like Jeremiah, God knew who he was; God had a plan for him, and God would reveal it as events unfolded. I doubt that Jesus knew that plan when he started out; and he certainly did not have control of the process; in fact, he couldn’t. He could only move with events, not against them; and that is the secret of freedom: to move with events.

What does that mean? Life unfolds, moment by moment, and we can choose to accept what comes, even embrace it — the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus chose to accept and embrace rather than flee or fight or grab or hide. These last are not choices; they are reactions. Jesus was able to make authentic choices. He didn’t know how God would use those choices, any more than we do.

I can give you an example. One Sunday I was celebrating the Eucharist and out of the blue a woman keeled over. Suddenly everything was different. The whole congregation, including me, was frightened. I didn’t know what to do, but I tried to move with events. I asked the medical practitioners in the congregation to help her, and started the rest of us saying the Lord’s Prayer together. We kept it up, growing gradually calmer, until the EMS team arrived. I still do not know if I made a good decision or blew an opportunity; but I didn’t worry. I moved with events.

Let me conclude. Here, this morning, we are following Jesus’ method. First, we have gathered for the liturgy bringing our own life experience with us. Second, we have increased our knowledge of the Bible by hearing the Scriptures read. Third, we have practiced the presence of God by taking into our bodies, into our very selves, the life of Jesus in communion. We will walk out of here slightly freer people than we were when we came in; for the move from bondage to freedom is not an event, but a life-long journey, and we are on that journey.

Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan

July 15, 2013

The background for the parable of the Good Samaritan is this. Long before Jesus’ day animosity existed between the Jews and the Samaritans, and it continued in Jesus’ day. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, while the Jews worshiped on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Samaritans who came to the Temple in Jerusalem were not allowed beyond the outer court, that is, the Court of the Gentiles. Even their offerings were treated as if from a Gentile; furthermore, no Jew was allowed to marry a Samaritan. In fact, the very word ‘Samaritan’ was a term of contempt.

Now, in today’s Gospel when the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus saw an opportunity to give one of his greatest teachings. Let us remember that Jesus was addressing his own people, Jews. They all knew the law, which the lawyer had recited correctly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” So far so good, but did they know how to apply the law? Interpret the law?

Knowing how to apply the law is exactly what we prayed for in today’s collect. We prayed that we may “know and understand what things we ought to do.” For instance we ask ourselves, how shall I spend my discretionary time and my money? More specifically, a friend of mine is questioning whether she should ask her son to move out until he stops using drugs. Our national church questioned for years whether we should stop consecrating gay bishops. I mention these things to let us see that we have a lot in common with the lawyer.

When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus realized that the lawyer did not know how to apply the law. So Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, otherwise known as the parable of how to apply the law. He started his story off with a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jew like themselves. There is a wild, deserted stretch along that road, and sure enough the man was mugged. The first passer-by, a priest, might have helped him. That he did not help, we cannot attribute to purity concerns. Nothing in the law prevented the priest from helping. The second passer-by, was a Levite. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who served as assistants to the priests in the temple. Nothing in the law said a Levite could not help the man.

Jesus used these two figures as examples, because, being associated with worship, we would expect them to have a greater regard for the law than the ordinary person. And the law was clear, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

So far the story is not very interesting. We all know that we cannot always trust even those we look up to, to do the right thing. But then the story does get interesting. Jesus’ hearers would have expected him to say next that an ordinary Jew passed by and did the right thing. No! It was a despised Samaritan, a man outside the pale.

The scholar Amy-Jill Levine calls attention to an important detail at this point in the Gospel. Jesus pointedly asks the lawyer, not what do you hear in the law, but “What do you read in the law?” He is calling attention to the word for ‘neighbor’ and the word for ‘enemy.’ In written Hebrew they are identical, because as written, Hebrew leaves out vowels. They do not sound the same, but they read the same. And in Jesus’ eyes they were the same: that is, both deserving of the same care and attention, the same loving kindness — enemy and neighbor.

How was it that Jesus understood so well how to apply the law — while the lawyer and, no doubt, many of his own followers did not? It is a question of where to turn when we are in doubt about how to “know and understand what things we ought to do.” Jesus turned to two places. The first was the very law the lawyer had recited. Actually that is a composite of two laws; but they can be taken as one.

Jesus also turned to Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, where Moses is giving his last address to the people of Israel. Speaking to the people about keeping the law, Moses said, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” In other words, there is the letter of the law, objective and external; and there is also the meaning of the law, internal and perhaps even illogical.

Let me give you a real-life example of what Moses was describing. This comes from the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. This is the story of a woman who suffered from heart disease and chronic angina. Up until she had surgery, she had been able to keep most of the pain away by means of diet and meditation. But from time to time excruciating pain would shoot through her heart. She started to pay attention to the circumstances when this would occur. It turned out that whenever she acted without “observing the word that was very near her, in her mouth and in her heart” the pain flared up. After a while she noticed that she felt the pain when she only thought of acting without doing that. She did not use that biblical language, of course, but it amounted to the same thing: when she went against those values that lie within, too deep for words, her heart gave her great pain. The surgery ended that; and she commented that losing her ‘alarm bell’ was the only thing she regretted about the surgery.

So when Jesus did not “know and understand what things we ought to do” he turned to two places. First, he turned to what is written in the law. Next, he turned to what is written in his heart. Authority outside of himself and authority within.

We could think of them as two poles. At one extreme we consult the outside authority, and let it govern. That authority could be the Bible, or church teaching, or civil law. At the other extreme we can act straight from the heart, follow our gut. Seen this way, as two poles, we have a continuum. We consult the Bible, church teachings, tradition, civil law and whatever other external authorities bear on the question, and we consult our inner wisdom. Where we fall on that continuum from inner to outer, outer to inner, marks our level of maturity. One extreme is no better than the other; neither “do what feels right” nor “do what is ordered.” Maturity lies near the middle. Consult both; but in the end the decision needs to come from within.

Some people may be forced to depend on the law, on the external authority, because the Word has not yet taken up residence in their mouth and heart. In other words, there is no second pole. For that second pole to exist, we do have to open ourselves to it, for the Word does not force its way in.

Opening is another word for prayer. If we spend time reading the Gospels with an hungry heart and if we spend time in meditation, then seepage takes place. From the page to the mouth and the heart, the law seeps into us. Authority shifts ever so gradually from outer to inner. As God’s living presence becomes more real, more alive in us, we feel less and less dependent on a paper God, a written law. At that point we consult the written law as a wise guide, not as a master. In its place we have the personal experience of God’s wise presence.

Let me sum this up. When the lawyer gave Jesus the correct answer, by reciting the law, he consulted only one pole, the written law. When he asked Jesus his second question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus knew he was missing the second pole. The lawyer had no inner authority to consult.

Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan and then said, “Go and do likewise.” He did not only mean help anyone whom you find in need. Jesus had a deeper teaching than that, a much harder one. He meant: see as the Samaritan sees; or see as I see. That is, see the neighbor and the enemy as one, see with the same loving eyes.

This is not so much a parable about ‘who is my neighbor?’ but about developing that second pole — what Moses, speaking poetically, called the mouth and the heart — that is, the inner authority. So this is not so much the parable of the good Samaritan as the parable of how to apply the law.

Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

July 7, 2013

This morning I want to talk about happiness, genuine happiness. To do that we’ll go through the Gospel reading and ask four questions. In the end we’ll discover that not only do we long for genuine happiness but that is God’s desire for us also.

After years of healing and teaching and walking the roads of the Holy Land, Jesus has finally accomplished what he needed to do. He can now head for Jerusalem with all the risks that he knows that will entail. He could not have turned toward Jerusalem any sooner. The first question is this: Why not until now? Until now his disciples were not yet prepared. Only recently had they been ready for that fateful question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for all, had replied, “The Messiah.” Jesus did not need to hear more. Those words told him that his disciples had finally reached the point where they were fully committed to him. So now if he, Jesus, should die, his mission would not die with him. He can go to Jerusalem.

The second question is this. Jesus sent out seventy disciples: What is significant about seventy? Moses, you may remember, had appointed seventy elders to help him oversee the whole of the people of Israel. Seventy signaled to Jesus’ disciples that their mission also extended to the whole people of Israel; and ultimately to all people everywhere, even to our own day.

Third question: Why did Jesus use the image of a harvest? Harvests, as even we non-farmers know, involve urgency. When the grain ripens, laborers must gather it quickly lest rain wets it or birds eat it and the harvest is lost. So too with people. Many people wait and wait for their lives to be fulfilled and grow desperate waiting. Jesus wants his disciples to realize how urgently help is needed.

A modern day example will show us why Jesus impressed his disciples with the urgency of their mission. Archbishop Anthony Bloom was a well-known spiritual leader in the Russian Orthodox Church. In his book, Beginning to Pray, he tells this story of his own “harvesting.” Anthony was born just before World War I, the son of a Russian diplomat. He spent his childhood in Persia, where his father was posted; but the Russian revolution turned him and his family into refugees. They finally washed up in France. With no money, the family could not stay together, and Anthony’s childhood was rough and violent.

He started working at age 12 to pay for his schooling, and eventually became a medical doctor. But as he himself wrote, until he was in his late teens he hated everything to do with God. By this time his father had been able to bring the family together under one roof, so that outwardly Anthony’s life seemed smooth and happy; but inwardly Anthony felt his life to be hollow, empty, stale. He gave himself a year to find out if life had meaning, and if not, he would commit suicide.

Months went by. During Lent the leader of his Russian Youth Organization persuaded him to attend a lecture by a Christian priest. Anthony went under protest, determined not to listen; but he could not help himself. He went. What he heard enraged him. Fairytales! Garbage! He went home and opened the family Bible to see what it really said. Since he expected it to be a complete waste of time, he counted the chapters and chose the shortest of the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark.

As he read along he became aware that he was not alone. Across the desk from him, most powerfully, was a presence. He became absolutely certain that it was Christ, and that certainty never left him. Now he knew from first-hand, personal experience that Christ lived and that he, Anthony, had been in Christ’s presence. He could no longer call the resurrection a fairytale. His search for the meaning of life had found an answer in genuine happiness. Thoreau wrote of people living “lives of quiet desperation.” As a teenager contemplating suicide, Anthony did not appear desperate, most people do not; but Jesus reads the heart and he knows the urgency of our need.

We’ve asked why then, and why seventy. We’ve asked why speak of a harvest. Here’s the last question. How could the image and urgency of a harvest apply to religious people? After all, the people in these villages were people of faith. Were they not already happy? Already fulfilled? You have probably reflected, as I have, that religion can serve as an inoculation against spiritual experience. Jesus’ greatest challenge was to make those with perfectly good eyesight actually see. Or those with acute hearing actually hear. Or those filled with the traditions of a perfectly good religion actually feel their hunger and thirst for God’s living presence.

Could the same be true in our own day? Might we, also people of faith, be missing out on something because we believe we have it? Here is a brief fable says maybe so! One day a hound looked up and saw a fox. She leaped to her feet and gave chase, baying full voice. The other hounds heard her, saw her race off, and joined the chase. After a long while the other hounds began to tire and drop off. The first hound never slackened her pace. In time she followed along alone. What happened to the others? They had never actually seen the fox.

We could put it this way. Jesus’ mission, and the mission he passed along to the seventy, was to point out the fox. In his day and in every generation religion can be a matter of seeing the chase and hearing the cry and joining the throng; but never actually seeing the fox. Jesus knew that seeing the fox, that is, actually experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit, as Metropolitan Anthony did, lies within the reach of every person. Nothing stands in the way of anyone – not age, not education, not health, not personality.

Two things, however, are vital. It is vital that we be told that there is a fox to be seen. Jesus did that during all the years of his ministry. That is the job he gave to the seventy — to tell people there is more to religion than beliefs and ritual, and even right action; there is coming face-to-face with the living God. Second, it is also vital that we be open to the possibility that we have not yet seen the fox; that even we — baptized, confirmed and ordained — have something to seek.

In sum, then: God desires genuine happiness for each one of us. Our religion is meant to serve us the way the seventy were sent out to serve. That is, to alert us to the possibility of encountering, personally, the living Christ – the possibility of finding genuine happiness – the kind of happiness that cannot be increased or diminished by circumstances. Our religion is not that fulfillment; Scripture is not that fulfillment. The seventy are not that fulfillment. But we know we have Christ living within us when we are filled with loving kindness toward others, with compassion for the sufferings of others, with joy at the joys of others, and with empathy for the feelings of others. That is genuine happiness and we can only find it in loving service to others.