Sunday, January 24, 2010





I.
Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock cofounded an organization of which she is now Executive Director, Faith Voices for the Common Good.  Dr. Brock is the only person recommending a sermon for this series that I don’t know personally.  I mean, we are professionally acquainted, and we’ve exchanged a few emails across the years, but we have never met; and I do not, therefore, have any connection with her other than professionally.
I first heard of her when the first book I wrote, And Blessed Is She, was nearing initial deadline at the publisher, and my co-author, Dr. Edwina Hunter, had prepared a chapter about Dr. Brock that included some of Rita Brock’s own reflections about herself and her views of preaching; then there was one of her sermons, and I was hooked. 
She has challenged me in many positive ways across the years and inspired me too.  I respect her tremendously.  Her interfaith concerns are timely and on target, and I was delighted to hear her speak so boldly against the Christian doctrine of the atonement, the idea that God couldn’t love humans until Jesus’ blood was shed on the cross in our behalf.  I heard her make her comments in one of the “Living the Questions” videos several of us watched together some years back at our midweek gatherings.  She called the doctrine of the atonement one of the greatest heresies that has ever been perpetrated against people seeking religious truth.
Dr. Brock’s latest book has the title, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.  This is how one blurb describes the content of her controversial book:

[It] restores the idea of Paradise to its rightful place at the center of Christian thought. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker offer a fascinating new lens on the history of Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, asking how its early vision of beauty evolved into a vision of torture, and what changes in society and theology marked that evolution.

Given her concerns as expressed in this book, I’m not surprised at the sermon subject she suggested to me:  the whole world as paradise.
The ancient Hebrews couldn’t figure out for the life of them why a good God, a Creator God, would bother creating plant and animal and human life only to be involved in the ending of that life, namely through death.  The ancient Hebrews who came up with stories to explain why things were the way they were postulated that something had gone seriously awry after God finished God’s creative work.  God’s original intent, God’s original dream if you will, was of a world where all people affirmed life as it had been given to them, and they did all they could do to make the most of what God had given them.  Everyone and everything lasted forever.  It was paradise.  The Hebrew word for “paradise” seems to have been borrowed from the Persians who, for a time, kept the Hebrews in exile; and in Persian “paradise” meant a walled-in wooded park in which everything is peaceful and beautiful.  
As God had intended it, again according to the sacred storytellers who tried to make sense of life for themselves and their people, once life had been created it was eternal life; death was not a part of the original created order.  At the outset, God had created life, but not death.  Evidently, God hadn’t thought about why there would need to be death in a world intended to promote and sustain life so beautifully as it went along in Eden, in paradise.   Death comes as an afterthought to the Creator; it was clearly not a part of the Creator’s initial design.
God changed God’s mind in the ancient poets’ understanding because human beings violated the one rule of Eden, earthly paradise--not to eat of the fruit from the tree in the center of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Doing that, eating that particular fruit, would be a sign that humans weren’t content being human and had set out to put themselves on par with the Creator.  That was a no no.
God retaliated by bringing the reality of death into what had been a deathless realm, and every living thing suffered.  Human disregard for God’s one rule brought death to all parts of the created order--not just to the humans themselves.  So, after humans failed to live up to God’s expectation, they were dismissed from paradise, and death would eventually come to them and all humans after them.  Furthermore, death would come also to the animal world and the plant world.  
Death and paradise are, at the outset, essentially opposites; at least, by the most ancient reckoning, there can’t be one if the other exists.  If there is paradise, there can be no death; if there is death, paradise has dissipated.      
As God became more and more angry with humans, according to the powerful ancient myths, God would take active steps to end life immediately for plants, animals, and humans--sometimes, all at once as in the Great Flood.  While the picture of paradise is inviting in this schema, the picture of God’s role in creating and then destroying a part of God’s own creation is disturbing beyond words.  
The truth, of course, is that there was never a time in the world when any living thing existed that would live forever.  Everything that lived was subject to death. This was not God’s punishment on any part of the created order.  Death is a part of life.  There’s nothing punitive about it.  It is a part of life’s essence and mystery.
The enemies are disease, natural disaster, war, random violence, drunk driving, and text messaging while driving.  These hasten death.  These take people out of this world before their time, before biological functioning has worn out on its own.  
So death was always a part of life in this world, and if this world is paradise then we’d have to say that death is a part of paradise.  Death and paradise are not enemies and are not mutually exclusive realities.  People can die in paradise, and paradise does not preclude death.  Death was not created by God after the fact to deal with unexpected, inappropriate human behavior. 
In terms of the story of how death invaded paradise in Genesis, chapter 3, we’d have to say also that there never was a time when God tossed humanity out of paradise as a punishment for their rebelliousness.  That’s merely a literary illusion and, actually, a brilliant one.  The truth is, there’s no way to exclude humanity from paradise as place because this place in which we live, on which we live, is the only place there is for beings like us--for now anyway.  
Here’s another little thing--maybe not so little.  Even though God, in the Hebrew mythology, created plants that would live forever on their own, once humans were in the picture the care of the whole of paradise fell to them.  I need some of those CANNOT KILL plants at my house.  God established an irrefutable bond, yeah an interdependency, between human beings and the created order. This is how it’s supposed to be in paradise.  God made no provision for humans without green thumbs like me.  
Outside of Eden, humans had to work hard, with no guaranteed results, in the hopes the plants would provide for them despite drought and flood.  Again, a powerful imagine, but in fact there was never a time when plants and humans could get by for long without taking care of each other.  
In an interview with UU World (Unitarian Universalist World), Rebecca Ann Parker said:  


One important part of the biblical vision of the world is that the world—this life—is good. And beautiful. Salvation is the experience of freedom and joy on this earth. In the midst of violence, hunger, injustice, and betrayal, this world can be the place in which one stands in the presence of God, of glory, beauty, and goodness.

My dear friends, I call that paradise.



II.
In Islam, heaven, the abode of God and the eternal abode of those who have properly embraced the Islamic faith, is also known as paradise. The Koran refers to heaven or paradise as jannah, and the widespread understanding of jannah is that there are levels of paradise for believers depending on how well they have served Allah in this world; righteousness is the key.  The highest level in paradise and, naturally, the one most Muslims are encouraged to try for for is jannatul firdaus.
Muslims have to believe in heaven to be able to go to heaven, jannah, paradise.  But the beauty over there in paradise is so breathtaking, and  the rewards so staggering that humans can scarcely imagine what it’s like.  Still, the teachings in the Koran about paradise are supposed to entice the unbeliever or the half-hearted believer to do whatever is necessary and thereby ensure that her or his name is added to the “approved list.”  
The only people who can go to paradise are those who have worshipped Allah alone.  An exception is made for those who lived before Muhammad was appointed by God to be the Prophet.  This includes the followers of great prophets such as Abraham and Moses and Jesus, provided they never worshiped any other entity as God.
There is no greater reward for a human being than to spend eternity in paradise, and as important as what Allah has said about paradise, one Islamic tradition has the Prophet Muhammad saying, “Never mind what Allah has told you; what he has not told you is even greater.” 
Once you get there, IF you’ve met entrance requirements, of course, you’re there for eternity.  No one can lose her or his status there, and who would want to?  Residents will be overwhelmed by both beauty and wealth in paradise.  According to the Koran, 

For them will be gardens of eternity; beneath them rivers will flow; they will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade. They will recline therein on raised thrones. How good is the recompense! How beautiful a couch is there to recline on!

Evidently, Muslims will not have to give up sex in heaven, in paradise.  Many Christians believe that in the next realm our bodies are entirely non-material, therefore precluding sexual involvement.  That alone, for some people, helps them decide on Islam instead of Christianity!  It’s a no brainer.
Among some Muslim extremists, those who are willing to become martyrs for their faith--as in becoming, say, suicide bombers--will be guaranteed admission to paradise.  To make them feel welcome, each of these suicide bombers, assumed to be male, will be greeted in paradise by 72 hot virgins, assumed to be female, all ready to give up their virginity...with him!
In Christian scripture, the word “paradise” only occurs three times though many would take “paradise” and “heaven” to be synonymous, in which case there is much more attention to the issue.  Still, it is compelling that “paradise” is used at all in place of the much more popular “heaven” and by three different writers, writing in very different times and places.
The oldest New Testament reference to “paradise” came from the pen of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Corinth. He was a bit cryptic in referring to himself when he wrote to them:


I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat (2 Cor 12:2-4 NRSV). 

Paul apparently believed in levels of heaven too--whether literal levels or as a way of referring to the degree of closeness to God.  This was clearly a visionary experience, but for some reason he makes reference to the “third heaven” as paradise.  This must have been the place closest to God where things were being spoken that mere mortals cannot be entrusted to repeat.  Paradise is clearly not of or related to what goes on in human experience in this world.  Paul was taken away from his earthly, temporal struggles and to another place, even if in a vision.
According to one Gospel writer, Luke, as Jesus was dying, his cross having been placed by the Romans between the crosses of two other Jews being executed for having offended the Roman government, one of them was sympathetic to Jesus’ cause and the other not. To the one affirming what he knew of Jesus’ ministry and message, Jesus said, “I am telling you today that you will be with me in paradise.”  Lots of scholars have challenged the more traditional translation of that verse into English, which went more like, “I am telling you that today you will be with me in paradise.”  
Again, the question is raised, “Why would Jesus or Luke use this word instead of the more frequently used ‘heaven’?”  There is no good answer to that question.  Some have said, picking up on some Roman Catholic leanings, that purgatory is the waiting room for people whose eternal fate hasn’t yet been decided; from purgatory, a soul might be condemned to hell or raised to heaven.  Paradise, some of these same people would say, is the waiting room for heaven, and it’s reserved for those who will without a doubt enter heaven; the thing is, no one hits heaven instantaneously.  There is waiting for one and all until permanent assignments are made.  
I ran across someone a few years ago who said that paradise was the place where Old Testament persons of faith were kept until Jesus came along, and what Jesus’ suffering and death did to make God like people in the future was applied retroactively so that the good people of the Old Testament could get to heaven too.  
In any case, it is clear once again that Luke’s Jesus conceived of paradise as place he would go to be with God after his earthly suffering had finally ended.  It was clearly not in the here and now.
The third and final place that the word “paradise” is used in Christian scripture is in the book of Revelation.  In that magnificent piece of dramatic literature, there are letters written by Jesus, now in heaven, to seven churches struggling on earth at the end of the first century when Roman Emperor Domitian, one of the true haters of Christians in history, is maiming and murdering Christians right and left for not worshiping him in addition to their worship of the God proclaimed by both Jews and Christians.  Everything in the book of Revelation is symbolic so the seven churches, each of which get one of these letters, actually represent the whole of the Christian movement.  The first of the seven, the Church at Ephesus, read this closing word in the letter addressed to it:  “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7 NRSV).  
The utterly brilliant writer or writers who pulled this great drama together, the book of Revelation, was/were thoroughly influenced by Judaism; therefore, we would know in a flash that “the paradise of God” made reference back to the original paradise of God, namely the Garden of Eden.  The “tree of life” in the paradise of God is the tree producing fruit that the risen Jesus now in heaven permits conquerers to eat.  Conquerers would be those faithful ones who refused to renounce their allegiance to the one God and that God alone regardless of the fate Emperor Domitian had in store for those who declined to bow down to his the idols he’d had erected to himself.  Even if Domitian put them to death, the book of Revelation saw them as conquerors. Whatever the wicked Emperor did to them was not the final chapter of their lives; indeed, life was waiting for them in the next realm, and they would be living out that future life in the paradise of God.  
The book of Revelation gives specific details of how grand and glorious the paradise of God is.  Not only are there gates of pearl and streets of gold, but also all human suffering, including the horrors through which Domitian put faithful Jews and Christians, would be over forever.  Ultimately, death itself will be defeated, and there is a transformed heaven or paradise and earth; Eden is essentially restored, and a deathless paradise once again, as in the beginning, is here, where mortals dwell.



III.
Well, my dear friends, regardless of what you believe about an other worldly paradise, this planet is our paradise.  The whole world is our paradise--not just those places that are immediately beautiful to the eye or peace-giving to the soul.  There is only one tree producing fruit we may not eat, and it is from the apathy tree in the center of the garden.  Apathy is what will kill us; apathy is what will destroy paradise, not the knowledge of good and evil.  Finally, we have seen that knowing all we can know and taking responsibility upon ourselves to name good and evil for the whole of humanity is not a matter of trying to take over God’s role, but rather, just the opposite, a God-given necessity.  Turns out that every act is good if it has to do with caring for the created order, in all of its parts, and this includes self-care. Turns out that every act is evil if it destroys human and/or plant and/or animal life.  It’s really not so complicated when we get down to the absolute basics is it?
I wonder how often and in what places in time and locale these principles have been adhered to?  Where have people known that this world is our paradise and acted to honor that fact and celebrate it?  I am convinced that such views have been held throughout history, but not always widely.  
It was easy among those religious and philosophical groups that promoted theories of dualism--that matter is inherently evil and spirit inherently good--to discount the value of the world itself and promote a spirit realm as the focus of an informed person’s true interest.  That this world is passing away is affirmed by hosts of people from a purely theological point of view and hosts of others from a purely scientific vantage point; therefore, some wondered why bother too much with it.  Because of these kinds of attitudes, some have not been antagonistic toward the created order, they have simply been nonchalant.  It’s temporary; let’s not worry too much about it or get too attached to it.
Then, as the great epic poem, “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton demonstrates, there have been those who read scripture in such a way that the loss of paradise is a justified punishment.  God is doing what God should do to punish errant humans, and whatever paradise becomes it is no longer an earthly experience.  Milton claims to have written the great work of literature to justify the ways of God to mortals.  
There have certainly been those pockets of people who have promoted Earth-abuse as the right of humans who were appointed by God Godself, they say, to rule over the created order--to dominate and subdue it.  I have one word for people who are really deluded enough to think they can whip the natural world into submission:  “Haiti.”
If we cannot show respect for our environment, for our habitat, chances are we will never be able to see this world--any part of it, much less the world as a whole--as paradise.  Even so, all parts of the created order are sacred, animate and inanimate.  The world just as it is, is paradise.  It cares for us--providing us air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, and little things like, oh, gravity that keeps us grounded and sunlight that keeps us warm enough to live.  
I like these worship thoughts used by mostly Cherokee natives worshipping at the Cherokee United Methodist Church in Cherokee, North Carolina.  These are largely the descendants of those few Cherokee natives who managed to escape the forced evacuation of their tribal homelands in southern Tennessee and northern Georgia and the herding of human beings all the way over to Oklahoma where the few survivors were forced to live on a reservation thanks to President Andrew Jackson openly and plainly violating the law of the land.  

We have come to this holy place to worship our God;
yet sanctuary is not always built by human hands.  


Everywhere I go is a sanctuary, every place a place to worship God!

When we live as if this planet and all creation, even ourselves, is a sanctuary--a holy place full of the Creator's presence--we walk differently upon this earth.


I am always on sacred ground. I must move with reverence through all creation, and I enter this holy place now to worship Creator!

Creator made all that is, and proclaimed that it is good.

Creator, help us to discover in all you have made in nature, the good wisdom about the interconnectedness of all things, about balance and about living in harmony.

We are not above nature, we are part of Creation;
we live by the same laws as all of nature and need to learn from what God has made.


Creator, help us discover the power that lies in the wisdom and understanding of our role in the Great Mystery, and in honoring every living thing as a teacher.

We gather in worship of Creator, who has given us the power to be called Creator’s children, and the blessing of our place in Creation!

When I know my place, I respect the place of others--all my relations.

When we understand that humans are just part of the created universe, we have a better understanding of our place.

The Buddha had an interesting take on this theme:  “Not one or two, but all the beings--men, women, animals, birds, trees, rocks. All the beings in the world. One should create such a determination that `I will lead all of them to nirvana.’”
If the whole world is paradise, then my obligation and my privilege is to do my part to care for the created order.  From a purely selfish point of view, the more I take care of the created order, the more it can take care of me.  If I wound it or destroy parts of it, if I abuse it, ultimately such damage will hurt me and my loved ones.
American environmentalist and ecologist, Aldo Leopold, died about half way through last century.  He is the father of modern wildlife management.  He once said, 


A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise....To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. 

Unitarian Universalists adopted a “Statement of Conscience” in 2006.  It speaks to our concerns today:

Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. We will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

My dear friends, the mandate is clear.  This beautiful, this majestic world is our paradise.  Unless we wake up and realize that, we are going to be in more trouble than we are already.  Unless we live from here on out loving and caring for all aspects of  our world, “paradise lost” will take on a new meaning that Milton never imagined.
Amen.



Sunday, January 17, 2010


"Joseph in the Pit" by Shoshannah Brombacher


I.
We don’t have to strain ourselves today to get into our minds a realistic understanding of human anguish.  All we have to do is to let our minds connect with Haiti, and anyone who can think of Haiti today without automatically feeling compassion or concern is, at best, emotionally impaired; otherwise, they work for Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh.  John Killinger sent me an email yesterday and said he thinks an appropriate hell for Limbaugh would be having to listen nonstop for eternity to recordings of himself. 
While trying to come to grips with the devastation experienced by our sisters and brothers in Haiti--after all, there is just one human family of which all of us humans are a part--and moving to support them with our prayers and positive thoughts, let’s be clear on this fact.  God doesn’t send earthquakes at all, but if God did do such things, God wouldn’t send one to clean up dilapidated buildings and in the process murder innocent people.
The only thing that needs to be said about the earthquake in Haiti is that it is an incomprehensible tragedy, and in response to that natural disaster (not an ACT OF GOD, regardless of the “doctrinal insights” of insurance companies), we pray, we think positive thoughts about heroines and heros on the scene trying to alleviate pain and suffering, and we do what we can do to assist with tangible relief.
I have to tell you, though, it’s not just the idiots like Robertson and Limbaugh saying the kinds of heartless nonsense that predictably comes out of their mouths troubling me. Pat Robertson is being Pat Robertson, and no one should be surprised by his opportunistic idiocy.  Same for Limbaugh. There are more mainstream people weighing in on the situation--presumably to help people deal with such an unfathomable tragedy, and these people disturb me more than Robertson and Limbaugh because those two loudmouths intend to offend.     
I’m distressed by people who think that they are being helpful or faithful by blaming God, if ever so subtly, for the horrors with which our sisters and brothers in Haiti are contending.  The extraordinary sadness most of us feel in response to the suffering and losses of the people of Haiti is exacerbated for thinking people when they encounter some of the responses of well-placed “people of faith.”   
I stumbled across a prayer for the people of Haiti by the Dean of Duke University Chapel, Sam Wells.   It is a horrible prayer.  This is how it starts.

God of the living and the dead, we wail in grief at the pain and loss and horror and distress of our brothers and sisters in Haiti.  We do not understand your ways--that those who already suffer the most, now suffer so much more.  Lead us to repentance, that we who have sinned so much are punished so little, and they who already struggle have now impossible burdens to bear.

Wells’s prayer clearly says that God sent that earthquake as a punishment for sin; his supposed faith perspective is to acknowledge that we humans don’t understand why God allows such horrible events occur.  I don’t know what to say to or about people who still believe that God is the weather woman or the weather man.  It’s stunning how much the “one God” looks and acts in their eyes like Zeus, lightening bolt in hand, running around atop Mount Olympus in a world that formally rejected monotheism.  
What is more disturbing than theological misunderstanding is lack of compassion, which--wonderfully--is scarce.  As a matter of fact, the outpouring of concern--tangible concern--is something that heartens us.  In our country, some of those hardest hit by our devastating and entirely unnecessary recession have found ways to send a little money to try to ease the anguish of the Haitians.  
Many of you know already that, for some reason, this tragedy put me to thinking about the devastating Lisbon, Portugal, earthquake of 1755, and the response of Voltaire to it.  His most compelling response to a tragedy that troubled him for the rest of his life, though he didn’t see the earthquake firsthand, was his poem, called simply, “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster.”  I am drawn to his wisdom and specifically to segments of Voltaire’s now famous, heartfelt response BOTH to the tragedy itself and to religious folk who tried to set the disaster in a theological context using shallow platitudes lacking compassion and ultimately casting God in a very bad light.  This was the basis for our discussion at this past week’s midweek get together.
  Voltaire was one of the most well known of the Enlightenment playwrights and philosophers, not always a set of skills that pair up nicely--although it’s not unheard of.   Voltaire (pen name for Francois-Marie Arouet) came to be a tireless crusader against political tyranny (“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”) and religious dogmatism (“Of all religions, Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”).  Voltaire had a great sense of humor, a tendency to be quite scrappy, and profound compassion for all of those who struggled and hurt.
  When the Lisbon earthquake hit on November 1 of 1755 (All Saints’ Day for the Roman Catholic citizens), many thought the world had come to an end, as was the case in Haiti on January 12.   Mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, was appealed to by many as the one whose views had to be embraced in the face of such tragedy.   Leibniz was famous not only for establishing calculus (independently of Sir Isaac Newton), but also for his seven philosophical principles that led him to the “irrefutable” position that this world is the best of all possible worlds; therefore, if we humans ever feel that things are less than dandy, the fault is clearly in our MISperceptions.  There is no place for compassion in such a worldview.  The bottom line is that everything is ultimately good if you just get your thinking straight.
By late yesterday, the death toll in Haiti had passed the 200,000 mark.  There is no way to see good in this tragedy, now or when in a few years we look back on it.  Only those people who have ever lived through such a living hell can come close to imaging what it was like to have witnessed it and what it is like to be living in the aftermath where “carnage” has become the key word.  
Anguish, in my mind, is profound human pain that cannot be alleviated.  There are those in Haiti who will survive it all.  They will get themselves together, somehow, and they will go on with life.  But as long as they live they will never get past the sights and sounds of seeing their loved ones swallowed up before their very eyes by the earth itself.  That pain, my dear friends, will never go away.  You know that’s so.
A Canadian journalist, pointed out that the death toll may be especially high for children, who would have been at school in the late afternoon when the earthquake hit. Sophie Perez is the Director of CARE Haiti.  She told a reporter:  “There are many children trapped. It's horrifying.  The slums on the hills have also completely collapsed. We've heard of landslides, with entire communities being wiped out.”
From Voltaire’s poem:

Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:  
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"? 
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived 
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?




II.
The sermon series that begins today is kind of an outgrowth of the previous series in which I let you give me my sermon subjects for three and a half months or so.  I decided that I’d ask some of the people most important to me personally who are also prominent in the theological world to give me sermon subjects that they think must be preached today even though most preachers will not tackle them.  Well, I have my work cut out for me, and I asked for it!  But I will be a better person and a better preacher for having taken on the challenge. 
This week’s sermon subject was given to me by Dr. E. Carson Brisson.  Carson is the brilliant Associate Professor of Biblical Languages at the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, where he is also the Registrar.  Carson and I became friends during our doctoral years at Southern Seminary, and among the most cherished and the most valuable times during those demanding years were the hours Carson and I set aside for coffee and discussion.  Spouses were not included at these regular meetings when Carson and I would talk, cuss, and discuss.  Actually, I’ve never heard Carson cuss.  He’s much more of a gentleman than I!
Carson had been a missionary to Israel between his master’s study and his doctoral work.  I was intrigued.  He speaks and reads modern Hebrew, and he reads biblical Hebrew.  Add to these skills a healthy dose of historical and contemporary theology, his pastor’s heart, and his literary leanings in general, and you have one of the most gifted people teaching in theological education today.  I knew the subject he came up with for my sermon series wouldn’t be easy, and indeed it hasn’t been.  Carson challenged me to address the subject of “soul anguish” based on an episode from the life of Joseph.
Most folks who know about Joseph remember him as the kid, or perhaps the young man, who got from his father a beautiful coat of many colors.  Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber along with Tim Rice wrote a popular musical titled, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.”  Unfortunately, the coat that ended up having a part in causing Joseph so many problems may not have been so colorful after all.  I think it was my college Old Testament professor, Ben Philbeck, who brought to my attention that the stunning thing about the coat may not have been its colors, but rather its long sleeves. 
The thing that made the coat such an item to be envied was not its color or colors, but rather its length and its sleeves.  It wasn’t the kind of garment that working people wore.  It was a garment worn by royalty.  
Here’s a fun little aside.  Dr. Claude Marionniti points out that the reference to such a garment appears in only one other place in all the Hebrew Bible, and that is in the story of one of the Tamars.  This particular Tamar was the daughter of King David, and the reference is in 2 Samuel 13:18a.  “Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.”  We will have to get Dr. McDaniel to come back one of these Sundays and talk to us about whether there’s any possible feminine overtones to the garment Jacob chose for his son.  Maybe the brothers’ resentment wasn’t just about their father’s favoritism, but their father’s acceptance of his son’s slightly less than masculine ways.  
Another possibility is that the coat Jacob gave to Joseph was indeed a woman’s coat, but not just any woman’s coat--rather, the coat of Jacob’s beloved late wife, Rachel, who had died giving birth to the last son in the family, Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin.  Rachel had died near Bethlehem giving birth to Benjamin, and she was buried there--making her the only one of the matriarchs and patriarchs of ancient Israel, I believe, not buried in the sacred Cave of Machpelah.  A Jewish scholar once told one of my fellow pastors in Baltimore, John Roberts, that the coat Joseph was wearing was his mother’s coat.  Perhaps, he looked so much like the woman Jacob had loved more than life, Jacob asked him to wear the coat in honor of his mother.
What in the world was father Jacob saying to Joseph and his eleven brothers when he gave Joseph, the next to youngest in the clan, a robe like one worn by royalty or a robe worn by Joseph’s late mother?  Well, he was making it clear to the whole family that Joseph was his favored son, and he evidently expected everyone in the family to treat Joseph like the special kid he was.  I assume this also meant that outdoor work was off limits for Joseph.
Now, in a culture that usually favored firstborn sons over all other children, how do you think this fatherly act was received by the other brothers?  You’re exactly right!  Not so well!  It bred resentment, and it was the kind of resentment that festered.  The longer the brothers saw Joseph running around in his long-sleeved garment, the more angry they became.  The brothers decided that they had to do something to express their anger, and they didn’t want to irritate their aging father who might reallocate inheritances!
Some of the brothers were more angry than others, but there was enough anger in the air that you didn’t need Dr. Phil around to tell you that something bad was on the verge of happening.  As you may know, I don’t think there’s ever any need for Dr. Phil, but who am I to question someone Oprah knighted?
We mustn’t fail to point out that Joseph enjoyed the position of honor established for him by his father.  He had dreams about his brothers bowing down to him as if he were indeed some kind of royalty, and instead of keeping that to himself or taking it up in therapy, Joseph freely talked about his dreams when the family was gathered for meals and such.  This only fueled the fire of frustration and resentment.
Alright, so resentment runs thick, and there are various plans discussed.  Some just wanted to beat him up.  A couple of them thought about just killing him and getting it over with.  It wouldn’t have been the first incidence of fratricide among the ancient Hebrews.  
Thankfully, the most extreme scenario wasn’t enacted, but the hotheaded among the brothers came close.  Once, when the brothers had been away from home for a while herding some of the family’s flocks at a distance, Jacob sent Joseph to make sure all was well with them, and this is what happened according to one of the writers of the book of Genesis:

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (Gen 37:18-21 NRSV).
 
Another brother, Judah, agreed that they couldn’t kill their own flesh and blood; instead, they could throw him in a pit, kind of a holding cell, and then sell him as a slave to some Midianite traders who from time to time passed through where they were herding.  Bingo!  That was it!  Everyone was in, and, sure enough, that’s exactly what they did.  They sold their brother to traders for twenty pieces of silver--pocket change, really.  
Dr. Brisson points out that they didn’t just toss him into the pit, but rather that they violently threw him toward the pit until he was in.  What kept them from doing more initial harm than they did was the fact that they didn’t want to lose money on damaged merchandise.
I have to say I’m not sure this was really a benevolent alternative.  Selling someone into slavery?  There was absolutely no guarantee that Joseph would live to tell about it.  In other words, while not killing him on the spot, they were still putting him into a situation where he would very likely be killed.
They killed a goat, presumably for dinner or religious sacrifice, and they dipped the coat or robe in the blood.  They carried the coat home to their aging father who adored Joseph and told him Joseph must have been killed.  All Jacob could do was agree, believing his son had been devoured by a wild animal.  Jacob was anguished.



III.
Years later, there’s a famine in the land where Jacob and his eleven sons lived.  Some of them had to travel to Egypt where supplies might be available to keep them alive, and they did.
Completely unbeknownst to them Joseph, while he had had some tough times and some close calls, had overcome the evil inflicted on him--in an exterior way anyway.  I don’t think most people can ever get over the anguish of utter betrayal by someone or someones whom they deeply love.  
Joseph had been a model slave and ended up being trusted by one overseer after another until the real higher ups started to take notice of him, and he became something like the CFO of the whole nation of Egypt.  He was to them what Timothy Geitner is to us, kinda sorta.  By a whole slew of unimaginable turns of events, some of the brothers end up in Joseph’s office trying to buy supplies to take back home so their family will not die from the drought-induced starvation.  They didn’t recognize him, but he knew who they were.  Pay back time!
Joseph could have had any number of awful things done to his jealous brothers, but he realized when he saw that them, despite what they had done to him and the mental anguish they had caused him that could never be taken away, he did still love them--maybe not enough to do family picnics with, but enough that he didn’t want them to starve to death.  
Oh, don’t get me wrong.  He messed with them plenty and got to see them sweat, but he never had any real intention of doing anything other than making sure that they and his beloved father had food.  In the end, there would be a big reunion, but those details are for another sermon.
For now, I point out to you that when things were getting settled and the brothers thinking back through all the details, including why things happened the way they did, which seems to be an inevitable human quest, they had an interesting insight into the whole ordeal.  
What they decide is that selling their brother into slavery and lying to their father didn’t get them into the really hot water they’d gotten into.  It was something more compelling.  This is Dr. Carson Brisson’s insight:

In Genesis 42:21, the brothers say to each other that their misfortune comes upon them because "we saw his [Joseph's] anguish, when he pleaded with us (Hebrew verb emphasizes repeated action so "pleaded and pleaded and pleaded"), and we did not listen."  Their deepest crime, so to speak, is that they did not listen, when, taking the language literally, Joseph cried out his "soul anguish" to them.

Isn’t that brilliant and, at the same, time disturbing?  Carson’s insight is brilliant, and what he shows us is deeply disturbing.  
So here is their helpless brother, helpless away from his father’s direct supervision and protection and maybe looking a little sissified to boot; he has become to them a symbol, and in that moment and for years to follow most of those brothers thought of him no other way.  He was the object of their father’s favoritism.  He was not a human being with needs and hopes and flaws; he was a reminder that their father loved them less than he loved Joseph.  And, you know, that was NOT Joseph’s fault.  Jacob was certainly at fault for playing favorites, and Joseph didn’t help his situation as I said earlier; but he couldn’t help that fact that his personality or his resemblance to his mother or whatever it was caused Jacob to flaunt his love for Joseph, exceeding his love for the other sons a little bit, not a lot.  
Lots of siblings are always ready to notice the slightest suggestion that a brother or sister is getting better treatment than they, the watchful siblings, think they are.  As a firstborn son, I can tell you that sisters and youngest brothers definitely have it better!  I was loved by my parents, no question about it, and they worked hard so that I might have the opportunities that I had as a kid growing up in Halls Crossroads.  But my Dad in particular made no bones about the fact that whoever said it has to be the same for all kids in the family was wrong.  
My Dad operated under the assumption that girls essentially do no wrong, which was a nice bonus for my sister who was and is a wonderful person, but who certainly used her elevated status in Dad’s eyes to get me in trouble plenty of times.  Argument and logic had nothing to do with any of the situations.  If she began reporting something about me with a little tear glistening in her eye, I was a goner.  If she started an argument, well no need to address that because Dad said she would never have done that.  As far as my younger brother goes, let me just say that the rules of the house when I was growing up completely disappeared except for one.  Never talk back to Dad or Mom.  My brother slipped up there once; otherwise, he lived rule free.  My brother didn’t learn the meaning of the word “curfew” until he had kids of his own!  
I’m kidding about feeling less loved, but I’m not kidding about the details I just gave you.  In any case, Mom and Dad made the right choices for Kim and Greg because they’re the greatest.
I don’t know if Joseph’s brothers ever came around to saying that about him even though his connections in Egypt saved their lives, literally.  And I don’t know if Joseph ever said that his brothers, except for his baby brother Benjamin maybe, were the greatest.  In any case, their issues were resolved, and they were able to become family again--not just in name only.
The story Carson gave me to tackle in today’s sermon has ended up being a passage that haunts me.  Sibling rivalry is only a relatively small part of the story.
I don’t believe that God punishes people period--not through natural disasters and not through sad or otherwise unpleasant turns of events.  So I don’t agree with the brothers’ assessment that God caused or allowed bad stuff to happen to them because they refused to hear their brother crying out of the anguish of his soul.  What I do believe is that we make ourselves less than what we ought to be, less than what we are capable of being, less human to the detriment of others and ourselves when we turn a deaf ear to people crying out in anguish all around us--sometimes as nearby as in our own homes and sometimes a great distance away, but hearable nonetheless.  Many of the world’s tragedies come about because people who could help refuse to listen to the profound anguish out of which others are crying, begging for some kind of help.  Sometimes, the help they need will cost us something like a contribution to the people of Haiti through a credit card company or a supposed relief agency that won’t keep a chunk of the money for themselves.  Often, the help people need would cost us nothing, though; we just don’t want to be bothered.  
There are times when we don’t want to be bothered because we feel that we are tapped out; more often, sad to say, many of us refuse to hear because we’re either glad the people are suffering, or we have been duped into embracing an anti-compassionate spirit by the people we allow to influence us.  
When I was in college, I heard two of our amazingly talented music majors sing a spiritual that I’d never heard before, “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”  Mercy, mercy, mercy.  I can still hear the blending of Beth Huling’s and Ronnie Myers’s voices and get chills.  The words they sung were compelling too.  For 35 years, their song has stayed in my heart.

Come, ye disconsolate, where e’er ye languish.
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish.
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

My dear friends, we mustn’t let the likes of Rush Limbaugh convince us that compassion for the Haitians is wrong.  We must hear them in their soul anguish crying out to us.  And there are many others that we must hear also, hear enough to respond.  There are those, for example, who have been led to believe that God wills such horrors as the Haitian earthquake, and in their anguish of soul they are crying out to us asking if that is so.  Are you compassionate enough to listen and answer?
Heaven cannot make the pain in Haiti go away today or in the years ahead for those who survive.  Heaven doesn’t heal in that way.  Heaven heals by offering to all strugglers regardless of why they struggle the unconditional love of God.
Heaven cannot make the pain go away completely for the one who has believed for a life time that every horror she or he has witnessed or experienced was sent by the God.  Heaven heals by offering to all strugglers regardless of why they struggle the unconditional love of God.
People are crying out in the anguish of their souls.  Do we dare to hear their repeated pleas?



Sunday, January 10, 2010





I.
Almost a year ago, Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States.  The inauguration kept up with his election in terms of excitement and the making of history.  As we all know by now, both his supporters and his enemies--especially the racist ones, he is the first person of color to occupy the Oval Office.  
This past year has been a rough year for President Obama and many of his constituents, including many of us.  Economic woes are only some of challenges that have come to him.  We all know that he didn’t inherit a rosy picture or a land in which everything’s coming up roses.  But not all of the problems that linger are the fault of his predecessors.  I question some of the calls he has made, and he certainly has a largely inept staff whom he seems to trust more than is justified.  I was especially confused about why he was so drawn to cabinet appointees who didn’t pay their taxes.  Oh well.  
It wasn’t a very good year, 2009, for many people even though the stock market made some remarkable rebounds.  Unemployment and its many tentacles still destroy the quality of life for many of our citizens.  The notion of health care reform, which was supposed to mean health care for all, fragments us rather than uniting us.  The ongoing realities of terrorism maim and kill some of us and keep the rest of us on edge.  
Had President Obama remained fixated on his impressive election results, which were something to remember with justifiable pride; and if he had gotten up every day thinking only of that glorious inauguration day of his, this past year would have been an even worse year for us--and for him.  Thankfully, Obama is a hardworking president, very diligent indeed; and he had to get up every day, and all too many times, in the middle of the night, and operate a far, far distance from his historic and exciting rise to prominence and power.  Had he tried to live in the past instead of in the painful and perilous present, the results would have been disastrous for all.  
I use President Obama’s plight to try to make a point that applies to all of us.  We can’t live well in the present, and we certainly can’t move appropriately into the future, if we’re hanging onto the past.  We more often, I think, hear people who are hanging onto a negative past told to let it go and move head, but what I’m saying today applies to a good past, even a glorious past.  We cannot be who need to be today, and we certainly can’t confront the challenges and opportunities of the future if we hang onto what was.  If we remain fixated on the way things used to be, we are absolutely doomed personally or communally.  
I’ve performed lots of weddings across the years, and when I have the opportunity to work over a period of time with a couple to plan the ceremony that is “just right” for them, my goal is to make that wedding a high point in their life together.  I want it to be so memorable that they can look back in the years ahead to their beautiful, formal beginning and be encouraged.  Even so, my dear friends, it’s more than obvious that if a couple thinks the best day of their life together was their wedding day, they have a problem marriage on their hands. As wonderful as the beginning was, it was just that:  the beginning.  While none of us would minimize the importance of getting off to a good start, life well lived may love the memories, but it concentrates on today and appropriately anticipates the future.  “Kiss today goodbye, the sweetness AND the sorrow,” sings the character from “A Chorus Line.”  Even the sweetness in our past isn’t supposed to keep us from living in the present.  
Researcher and writer, Karen Lawrence, published an article last year in which she reported her findings that preoccupation with the past takes up mental storage space in certain key areas of the brain and possibly contributes to a waning ability to store and retrieve new memories.  This information has a lot to do with healthy aging.  It’s not that all reminiscing is bad, thank goodness!  Some is good.  In fact, those older adults who do tend to reminisce are less likely to be depressed and more likely to possess better mental health than those who do not, but the types of remembrances matter. Glorifying the past or reflecting on negative experiences from long ago do not contribute to healthy aging.
There is no indication in this research that anyone is benefitted by forgetting the past altogether--especially the wonderful events in the past.  Who would want to rob someone of her or his high moments?  Speaking at St. Andrews University in Scotland in 1922, Sir J. M. Barrie, whom you may know as the creator of the memorable character, Peter Pan, remarked, “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”
What happens to the great athlete who moves up through the ranks and eventually is signed to play pro ball, but who after the pro draft decides that it can’t get any better than it already has been and so tries to coast to retirement?  Well, it’s obvious that that athlete will fade away into virtual anonymity, losing both face and money.  And if that is what the person consciously choses to do, as long as she or he doesn’t live the rest of life as if defeated or cheated, that’s a perfectly acceptable choice; few people who make it big, though, really want to let go of the fame and the related opportunities so quickly.
A student goes as far as she or he can go in an academic field and one day walks across a stage to receive a doctoral diploma “certifying” that this person has gone as far as anyone can go in the study of this particular discipline.  What’s next?  Anything?  Or does everything after such recognition pale or diminish in value?  Do you pop a doctoral diploma on a wall somewhere and gloat for the rest of your life?  Well, some do--gloat and nothing more.  Others, however, see such an opportunity as a beginning, a springboard into other challenges?  Maybe a dissertation will be an impetus for a book, or at least the discipline of having written a dissertation will prepare this gifted person to write a book.  Another possibility is that the person now carrying the title “doctor” in front of a given name may actually put the knowledge gained in doctoral study to work making a positive difference in the world and may never get any recognition again.  The point, after all, is not recognition.  There’s nothing wrong with recognition, but the point of it all is affirmation of life.  How do I move beyond a significant achievement or rite of passage or honor and keep making life matter in the present?
Sometimes, people retire or, in this horrible economy with a staggering rate of joblessness all around our country, get downsized out of their job, and they find out that their job had been the most important thing in their life.  The problem, or the major problem, with this attitude is that these people never find any meaning in life to match how they self-identified and invested themselves in the jobs that are no more.  That’s not how life is supposed to work, my fellow workaholics!  The loss of income is not something most of us can be unconcerned about, but we should learn to live in such a way that when even the greatest job in the world becomes a thing of the past, we still like who we are and still  find ways to love life.  
Moving on, getting beyond, a negative past is important, but so is getting beyond a good past.  In order to live well, we have to learn how and to be willing to let a good past go.  It doesn’t matter if the great love of our life is in the past and not the present.  It doesn’t matter if the great book we wrote or the great song we recorded is in the past and not the present.  It doesn’t matter if the country we love had better days in the past than it’s having in the present.  It doesn’t matter if we detest the empty nest because we loved our child-rearing years.
Relationship coach Larry James said it in strong language:  “It is certifiable insanity to conjure up your own reality based on the past and relate to it, rather than to relate to the present which is the only reality.”




II.
When I speak in terms of letting go of a good past, I don’t mean that you should forget about it or pretend that it didn’t happen.  I don’t mean that at all!  If you achieved something, it should be celebrated and remembered fondly.  What it was, likely shaped who you are, or at least led to opportunities that have come to you, for the better, and that is worth keeping in mind as each new life chapter unfolds.  “Live in the present,” wrote Thoreau.  “Launch yourself on every wave.  Find eternity in each moment.”
One of the films that I absolutely love is “Finding Forrester.”  Sean Connery plays a celebrated novelist, Forrester, who wrote one novel and stopped.  Again, that’s fine if that’s all you want to do, and you invest your present energies and talents in some other project that brings you contentment and happiness, but such was not the case with Forrester.  A tragic death in his family froze him and kept him from writing any more, at least for the eyes of others.  The last thing he could remember that had meant anything to him was that one novel.  
Rob Brown plays the promising developing writer, Jamal Wallace, who hides his writing gifts behind his basketball skills.  Each has a good past, and I don’t mean that life had been ideal for either of them.  Eventually, each will ruggedly dare the other to live in the present.
There’s another angle to this not letting go of a good past.  Some people are so happy with the way things were during one phase or era in life that they can’t believe life could be so grand again so they functionally stay in the past by refusing to admit that anything has changed.  These politicians who are changing parties evidently don’t believe this, but there are those who consider themselves Republican or Democrat because that is what they’ve always been.  They decided at some point long ago to affiliate with a party, and they haven’t thought anything more about it since.  They are Republican period, or they are Democrat period; and they will always be because that is what they decided to be long ago.  What if the essential commitments of the party changes, though?
There are Republicans today who enjoy calling their party the political party of Abraham Lincoln.  Well, my friends, if you look at the commitments of the original Republican party, today’s party has very little to do with what was.  Some of those who make the Lincoln connection know better, and some don’t.  I would like to think that if someone were running for office whom I strongly felt could attempt the kinds of changes I felt necessary in my state or my country that I’d vote for that person regardless of the party with which I may currently, formally affiliate.  
An unwillingness to admit that most individuals and institutions change over time is to live as an ill-informed person.  Sometimes, that can be quaint.  Sometimes, though, it can be problematic or destructive.  
Mahan Siler was a pastoral counselor who left full-time counseling several years ago to become a full time pastor in Raleigh.  Mahan was married to the same person for years and years as far as I knew so I was stunned one time to hear him say that he had been married five times or seven times.  I don’t recall the exact number of times he tossed out as he was preaching.  “That many times!” I thought to myself.  That’s even more times married than my Uncle Paul was married, and I think Uncle Paul set the East Tennessee record.  Someone in Hollywood, I’m sure, has him beat.  Anyway, Mahan explained that since people change with time, he and Janice had realized the need over the years to restate their commitments to each other in light of what was going on in their lives as they grew individually and together.  
I thought that was both sensitive and brilliant.  It’s certainly not like those couples who want the most general vows I can come up with so they don’t have to worry about committing too much.  I’ve had several grooms, no brides that I can remember, who wanted to say in their vows, essentially, “Yeah, I love you, and if that ever changes I’ll get back to you!”
I hope you know how dramatically, how fundamentally, mainstream Christianity has changed since Jesus walked the dusty roads of Nazareth.  In ten years of preaching most every Sunday morning in this pulpit, I hope I’ve been able to convince you that Jesus was a first century Jewish carpenter.  If I haven’t, something is badly wrong somewhere.  Those basic facts are vitally important for several reasons--one of which is that Jesus never heard of a religion more or less named after him.  He and his earliest followers were Jews.  He didn’t go to church; he didn’t renounce the Torah.  
Same with his closest followers who kept his concerns alive after Rome had executed Jesus.  They did not see themselves, as Jesus had not, as existing over against Judaism.  More than anything else they were like yet another of those theo-political parties within Judaism--Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Jesus Jews.  That isn’t really the way it was because some from each of those groups were followers of Jesus, but still I think it’s a decent comparison.
Jesus and his earliest followers, before and after his execution, were Jews who wanted to polish up some things about ancient Judaism that they didn’t think were being taken account of by their contemporaries--namely that the world had changed since all of those commandments and rules had been written.  There were several hundred years of thinking about God that needed to be taken into account, not to mention how societies using the ancient documents had changed from those that originally produced the written materials they came to regard as scripture.  
Jesus never asked anyone to believe anything about him as a way of establishing or guaranteeing a right relationship with God.  In fact, when pressed by a detractor to summarize that load of laws Jewish purists were trying to abide by, Jesus said, “Well, that could be tough, but if pressed I’d just remind you what has already been written in the ancient teachings:  Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself.”
The earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians; Jesus never heard such a word, nor did anyone tell him there would be a religion built around him!  He’d have been shocked and frustrated.  This is not what Jesus wanted, and he’d have no part of it.  He had no part of it either.
The earliest followers of Jesus were called Jews.  As people continued to be drawn to what Jesus had taught, the book of Acts says that they finally got a name of their own:  the followers of the way--meaning either God’s way or Jesus’ way of understanding God and ministering in God’s name.  
Early on, those who wanted to be followers of Jesus simply acknowledged that that was what they wanted to do, and they did so.  There was no doctrinal list of points to affirm.  You were a follower of Jesus by virtue of your choice to be; it was all quite un-institutionalized.  You know, if you’re a follower of Jesus you don’t have to make a todo about it; if you are, those who know you will see it.  “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Ever hear of that.  Not, “They will know we are Christians by our creeds, by our creeds.”  Not, “They will know we are Christians by our size, by our size.”  Not, “They will know we are Christians by our fights, by our fights.”  Not, “They will know we are Christians by our tithes, by our...”  Let’s leave that one alone until we get some more pledges in for this year!  “They will know we are followers of the way because we love each other and those whom we set out to serve.”  That is how people know what we’re committed to; they see what we’re about.  They notice what our values are.  They take note of how we invest our money, and what we really care about.
My dear friends, as followers of Jesus came to be called “Christians” and as the religion built around Jesus institutionalized, the basic character of what it meant to be someone openly and faithfully influenced by the teachings attributed to Jesus changed.  Suddenly there were a whole slew of doctrines to affirm and a church hierarchy to honor.  The higher ups began to say that God spoke and blessed through them--not directly.  There were institutional responsibilities, and, lo and behold, Jesus got lost in the mix.  Instead of being the example of how to live and the central figure in learning how to embrace God, Jesus became a shadowy figurehead whose name got thrown around a lot, but whose essential concerns got tossed.
There was a good past there--way back.  Jesus before the sages and the ages got a hold of him was a remarkable person.  But the institution that built up around his memory became flawed.  How can I claim to be truly committed to the teachings of Jesus today unless I let the past go, even the good part of it, and find out what Jesus’ ministry and message mean for the modern world and require of me as someone trying to honor the God of love the way he did?





III.
Christianity was much more fractured early on than we knew until very recent times, but we know it’s terribly fractured today; that is abundantly clear.  When I define myself as a Christian in the modern world I have a lot of sorting out to do, and part of what I’m required to do is to affirm the good part of the Christian past I can affirm--and not all of it is affirmable by anyone who lives by the values and commitments of Jesus.  Having done that, I must figure out what I do embrace and how it can be best expressed and otherwise lived out in the present.  
I can’t live in the past--even those days of Jesus walking on Earth, actively ministering to the strugglers he encountered.  As much as I admire Jesus and as much as I have been inspired and challenged by the teachings attributed to him, I can’t live in the past; that would be one sure way to fail completely on my quest to be a follower of the Way.  
Whatever branch of Christianity you may have grown up with, if any, I can tell you that that too must be let go.  Maybe you can reaffirm it today, and maybe not.  But when you say that you’re a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Southern Baptist or an American Baptist or an Episcopalian or a Lutheran or a part of the Disciples of Christ denomination or the United Church of Christ denomination, you cannot make such a claim with any meaning unless you have recently taken the time to find out who that denomination is today.  Every Christian denomination in the world today has adherents who think there are those within their denomination who are not truly Presbyterian or Baptist or whatever.  I said EVERY denomination has that kind of infighting going on.  The creedal groups may come closer to some kind of uniformity than others, but the truth is that there are many ways of interpreting the creeds spoken by these groups.
In many cases those who thought of themselves as one of these types of Christians ten or more years ago couldn’t agree at all with who the leaders in those groups say they are today.  Even if you had an absolutely magnificent experience being connected to one of these Christian denominations long ago, you have to let the good past go in order to be serious about your spirituality today.  Now, you may well hear a description of what your denominational group is about today and say, “Well, I still agree with enough of that to be one of them,” and that is all just fine until they come to you and say, “It’s all or nothing.  Either believe it all the way we are stating it today or get out.”  And many individuals and churches because of such dogmatism have had to do just that.   
The Apostle Paul believed that he had a good, yeah a glorious past, but he had to walk away from two branches of his past in order to become an effective minister.  He was an extraordinarily devout Jew--so much so that when the followers of the Way showed up on the scene, he believed that he had to fight against them, and he did.  He was proud of his elite Jewish heritage, but had he held onto it stringently he would never have been able to embrace Jesus’ brand of Judaism, which poised Paul, though once a vitriolic persecutor of followers of Jesus, to become one of Jesus’ followers himself.  He wasn’t about to renounce Judaism, but he had to see it in a new light in order to be able to become a follower of Jesus.
Then, having submerged himself fully in the way the Jewish followers of Jesus understood Jesus, Paul had to leave that good past behind too in order to have the teachings of Jesus make sense to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish folk Paul felt called to bring into the fold.  Again, there was nothing wrong with Paul’s past as a follower of the Way, but the Gentiles over in the Mediterranean world where he went to spread the good news couldn’t come to faith as Jews.   
At my ordination service, back in the summer of 1975, my pastor who preached the ordination sermon, Jerry Hayner, used a text from a letter Paul had written to the young congregation in Philippi he’d had a hand in establishing.  “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”  
Something begins, and it begins well; but it rarely ends up just like it began if it’s healthy and lives.  The love you and your significant other share after ten or twenty or fifty years together is almost certainly a different kind of love than the kind you began with.  It’s much stronger.  It’s more buoyant.  The first love was wonderful.  It was real; it was determined, but it has traveled long journeys with the two of you, and had it not changed along the way, the relationship never would have lasted.  You don’t laugh at the first love and say it was nothing, but you let go of your good past in that regard in order for your love to grow.  It’s a necessity.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians, “I’m confident that God who began good work through you will see it to completion.”  It’s a process.  It’s going to take time.  It’s going to take some hits.  It’s going to be challenged.  How they would go about living out God’s confidence in them would, without a doubt, change over time, but God would keep working through them until the job was done.  They don’t look back and laugh at how naive they were at the beginning; their determination and zeal helped get them going, but it would take more than that to finish the work.  They had to let go, eventually, of simplistic notions of how to live out the love of God; they had to let go of a good past in order to be mature catalysts of God’s love.
Good memories are gifts as we’ve established, but if memories hold us hostage we’re sunk in terms of living meaningfully and productively in the now, in the present.  Paul had a word about that too.  
Sports fan that he was, if not a jock himself, Paul used an imagine from the world of racing to make his point in this regard.  This also was in his letter to the Philippians:

Not that I have already reached the goal [which for Paul at this point was his identity as a follower of Jesus]; but I press on to make it my own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God.

Paul says he has to forget what lies behind in his case.  We don’t always have to forget, but we always have to let go--no matter how good or how wonderful or how earth shattering.  Life in the now, living out God’s love in the present, necessitates letting go of even a good past--and not just once, but routinely.  
The people who need what we as a church have to offer today can’t relate to how the church used to be, what it once was, how well this or that was done.  They may respect it and you for your role in helping make the church what it was.
What matters, though, is who we are today, and in order to discover that and live it out, we let go of the past.  I’d say we don’t forget it, but we’re surely not preoccupied with it or limited by it.  So we run in the present, straining forward toward the future and all if its promise.
Amen.