Pastor Kaye's Blog

Earth

This is the first in a sermon series on the four elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air.

Last week I told you about Matthew Fox’s prophetic dream in which a voice said to him, “There is only one thing wrong with humanity… they have forgotten a sense of the sacred.” And then we talked about being sacred beings ourselves and practicing seeing others as sacred. Now we’re going to expand our scope to talk about the sacredness of the four elements that, as Cait Johnson said, have grounded human spirituality: earth, water, fire, and air. In this post-modern era, most people have lost the intimate connection our ancestors had with creation. Perhaps an exploration of these elements will help us to recover a sense of how intertwined we are with all things, and with the Divine.

(For the full video version, click here.)

We begin with EARTH… soil, rocks, trees, animals, plants, and humans. earth

The Bible abounds with references to the earth, mountains, soil for growing, land for living and worshiping, fields for herds to graze, animals and plants. But there is one line that should never have been written about the earth, and that is Genesis 1:26: “Let us make humankind… and let them have dominion” over everything, basically. Our inclusive Bible changed the words to “be stewards of” –  their footnote says:

This passage, because of its traditional translation – “subdue the earth, and have dominion over… every living thing on it” – has been used to excuse human kind’s penchant for trampling the earth and subjugating its creatures. Unfortunately, the actual Hebrew is even more brutal, prompting traditional translations to soften the language somewhat. But this charge immediately follows the statement that we were created in God’s image – that is, to be like God – so surely the idea of stewardship and caretaking, not violation and destruction is inherent in that calling.

We have forgotten that earth is sacred. We have forgotten that we are interconnected. If we had not forgotten, perhaps we would have learned earlier not to over-farm our fields in what some are referring to as “suicidal agriculture.” The Dust Bowl of the depression years is returning in places like Oklahoma, but no one talks about it. We’re destroying entire mountains for coal in the Appalachians. Fracking is contaminating clean water and land. We’re killing the bee population with pesticides, poisoning our oceans with oil spills, and we’ve become a throw-away society ignoring the resulting problem of waste.  I could go on and on…

We’ve forgotten that we are sacred and earth is sacred. Fred Bahnson,  a United Methodist pastor and founder of a community garden in North Carolina calls the soil a sacrament. He says, “The earth itself holds the memory of the beginning of all things, the memory of God.” That’s a powerful statement. To think that all that has been, and all that will be, has returned to the earth; and that if they earth could speak, it would know everything that has ever happened. When we walk on the ground we tread on the generations, civilizations and history that has preceded us.

Journalist Kristin Ohlson said, “I was stunned by what I learned about life in the soil… that we stand on the surface of the earth, we’re atop a vast underground kingdom of microorganisms without which life as we know it wouldn’t exist.” We may not like bugs and worms, but we need them for our existence. They are part of the vast web that sustains life, and are also sacred.

Sallie McFague offers the metaphor of “body” to describe the relationship between God and the world, she reminds us of both scientific truth and a sacred mystery. “What if we saw the earth as part of the body of God, not as separate from God (who dwells elsewhere), but as the visible reality of the invisible?”

Awareness is the key to experiencing the Divine in the Earth. Not walking blindly through life, but with a recognition that the ground we walk on is full of life that sustains our lives and we must care for it. The paper we use comes from trees that were living, energetic things and we need to conserve and recycle. The animals are part of our spirit… can we imagine our hearts leaping with the deer, soaring with the sparrows, hopping with the rabbits, knowing they are our brothers and sisters? Can we be mindful of the food that we eat, the life that was given for our lives, the miracle of the plants grown from small seed and soil that sustain us and give us nutrients?

The ground we walk upon is holy. The trees and flowers we walk among are sacred. The animals are part of us. If we can take some time to re-ground ourselves (no pun intended) in the very basic elements of life around us, I believe we will also re-ground ourselves in God and the depths of the Spirit.

Love & Light!

Kaye

You Are Sacred

Theologian Matthew Fox was the last speaker at the Embrace conference we were just at in Portland. He said a number of things that struck me, but one of them was about a dream he had in which he heard a voice telling him that there is only one thing wrong with humanity – you have forgotten a sense of the sacred.

Given this definition, clearly all of life is sacred: nature, animals, creation, people, music, art, literature and so much more! And I think the voice in his dream must be correct. Humanity has forgotten a sense of the sacred. It is obvious in the way people treat one another and the environment.

(For the video version, click here.)

Or maybe we’re just like the disciples on the Emmaus road with Jesus after the crucifixion (Luke 24:13-35). They were so distracted by their own thoughts, the stories they were telling themselves about what happened, their own grief, confusion, fear and disappointment, that they completely missed the essence of the person who walked with them. They couldn’t see that Jesus was Jesus!

Aren’t we all like that? We get caught up in life, work, home, kids, parents, the news, and the stories we tell ourselves about all of those things, that we forget to recognize the sacredness of everything and everyone around us. Or sometimes I think we just plain don’t want to recognize it because clearly there are people around who can’t possibly be connected to God, they can’t possibly be sacred!

Sacredness is easier to acknowledge in the beauty, power and diversity of nature.

Sacredness is easier to see when life is good, we feel blessed and things around us feel more like a blessing than a curse.

It seems to me that it is hardest to see our very selves as sacred.  We are usually our own worst critic, and alight withinre harder on ourselves than on anyone else. Perhaps that is what it makes it nearly impossible to see any human being as sacred. We subconsciously think, “I’m not perfect, I can’t be sacred. And if I know that deep down I’m not perfect, then other people must be hiding lots of their own issues making them imperfect and not sacred as well!”

Maybe that is why Christianity had to make Jesus sinless… it was the only way they could make sense of his deep connection to the Divine. He was perfect, so he was sacred, so God loved him and he was one with God.

In his book The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield says, “To see with sacred perception does not mean we ignore the need for development and change in an individual. Sacred perception is one half of a paradox. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki remarked to a disciple, “You are perfect just the way you are. And… there is still room for improvement!” But it starts with a most radical vision, one that transforms everyone it touches: a recognition of the innate nobility and the freedom of heart that are available wherever we are.”

Then Kornfield shares this story:

In a large temple north of Thailand’s ancient capital, Sukotai, there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha. Though not the most handsome or refined work of Thai Buddhist art, it had been cared for over a period of five hundred years and become revered for its sheer longevity. Violent storms, changes of government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the Buddha endured.

At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia.  The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.

It seems impossible that people could just forget that there was a gold Buddha under that protective coating of clay, but it is really no different from forgetting that the essence of each human being is sacred underneath the layer of protection we accumulate through the years.

Thomas Merton describes what it is like to see the essence, the sacredness of another, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

I encourage all of us to set an intention each morning to see the sacredness in ourselves and in others. Notice how it changes our interactions, how it changes our hearts, and how it changes how we work, live and behave in the world.

Love & Light!

Kaye

Opening to Joy

Joy seems like it would be an easy conversation, but I’ve found that some folks get awfully defensive about the topic of joy – “how can we be joyful all the time when such horrible things happen in our lives and in the world?” I think part of the issue is simple semantics. Joy is confused with happiness. So, let me begin by defining the two.

Happiness is external in the sense that it is dependent upon events, situations, people, places, things or thoughts. And, happiness is often future oriented as in: “I’ll be happy when I have someone to love me” or “I’ll be happy when I find the right job” or “I’ll be happy as long as Uncle Harry doesn’t get drunk and stupid at Christmas.”

Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It can’t be bought or sold. It is not contingent finding-joy-in-the-journeyupon other’s behaviors. Joy is a deep inner feeling laced with peace, contentment and gratitude. Joy is a spiritual way of engaging the world.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In John 15, Jesus talks a lot about oneness and interconnectedness… I am in God and God is in me… I am the vine and you are the branches… as the Divine has loved me, so I love you. He’s describing not only his relationship with the Divine, but his relationship with others. It was the depth of these relationships which allowed him to live from a place of spiritual joy. It wasn’t about external happiness… Jesus didn’t have things to make him happy, he faced persecution and was misunderstood, but his spiritual stability and knowing, his experience of the Divine, grounded him in joy. So, he says he is trying to convey what he knows about God so that “my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete.”

I heard someone once say that instead of the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” perhaps it should be “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Joy” – that deep inner joy that rests in a knowledge of connectedness and love. We should live and move in the world with such joy that we show the world the spiritual life we live is beautiful, despite the tragedies and struggles. As Pope Francis says, “I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.”

I know part of us is thinking, “Yea, well, if I were Jesus that would be easy.” It seems like that kind of deep, internal joy is mysterious and elusive. And yet I would venture to say that most of us know someone who has achieved it on a more or less consistent basis. Someone you think of when you think of “joy.”

When I think of joy I think of an elderly woman who came to church occasionally with her family. I can’t remember her name or who her family was, but I remember how she looked. She always glowed and smiled, even when she was being wheeled around in a wheelchair. She looked like she had a great secret. I always had the feeling that she had found something that I hadn’t quite found yet.

Sandra Brown, in an article from Psychology Today talks about how she learned joy from her mother:

My mother had a lot of joy and I learned from watching her joy. Her pathological man ran off with her life savings forcing her to work well past retirement. It forced her to live simply so moved to a one room beach shack and drove a motorcycle. For cheap entertainment, she walked the beach and painted nudes. She drank cheap grocery store wine that came in a box, bought her clothes from thrift shops, and made beach totes from crocheting plastic grocery bags together. She recycled long before it was hip to do it. But what she recycled most and best was pain….into joy.

Anyone who knew her spoke MOST of her radiant joy. She had the ‘IT’ factor long before it was even called ‘IT.’ Women flocked to her to ask ‘How did you do it? How did you shed the despair and bitterness of what he did and grow into this? THIS bright shining joyful person? What is your secret?’

Somewhere along that rocky path of broken relationships with pathological men, she learned that happiness is fleeting if it’s tied to a man’s shirt tails. She watched too many of the shirt tails walk out the door with her happiness tied to his butt. In order to find the peacefulness that resides inside, she had to learn what was happiness and what was joy.

The transitory things of life are happiness-based. She had a big house and lost a big house when she divorced my father. She had a big career and lost a big career when she got ‘too old’ according to our culture to have the kind of job she had. She had diamonds and lost diamonds.

So she entered into voluntary simplicity where the fire of purging away ‘stuff’ left a clearer picture and path to the internal life. When stuff, people, and the problems they bring fall away there is a stillness. Only in that stillness can we ever find the joy that resides inside of us, dependent on nothing external in order to exist.

Her joy came from deeply held spiritual beliefs but it also came from a place even beyond that. Joy comes when you make peace with who you are, where you are, why you are, and who you are not with. When you need nothing more than your truth and the love of a good God to bring peace, then you have settled into the abiding joy that is not rocked by relationships. It’s not rocked by anything.

It wasn’t rocked as she lay dying four years ago in the most peaceful arms of grace–a blissful state of quiet surrender and anticipation. Those who were witness to her death still tell me that her death brought new understanding to them about the issue of real joy. Joy in all things….death of a dream, death of relationship, death of a body. Joy from within, stripped down, naked and beautiful.

Brene’ Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, talks about how shocked she was when, while studying vulnerability, she discovered that joy was one of the emotions that her research participants named as leaving them feeling the most vulnerable. In fact, she said she’d argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel.

Can you think of moments of deep joy that might leave you feeling vulnerable? These things were named in her book:

  • Standing over children while they are sleeping
  • Acknowledging how much we love someone
  • Spending time with parents
  • Watching parents with your children
  • Getting engaged
  • Going into remission
  • Falling in love
  • Having a baby

Her “research participants consistently described both joyfulness and gratitude as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us… Participants described happiness as an emotion that’s connected to circumstances, and they described joy as a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

She said, those who were really willing to lean into the joy found themselves filled with gratitude for the person, beauty, connection or moment that put them in touch with that spiritual depth. Just to be clear, the moment did not cause the joy as much as reveal it.

But because feeling joy brings a feeling of vulnerability, many folks find a way to shield themselves from the vulnerability with what Brown calls “foreboding joy.” She points out that when we’re young our joy is pure delight bubbling out of us, but slowly, even without our awareness, this shifts and we become less exuberant, less enthusiastic about the little things and much less likely to show – or even feel – that pure, wonder-filled, awe-filled joy. It’s as if we become afraid of this feeling.

Have you ever had a week where everything was going right but you hesitated to enjoy that. Our less-than-rational thinking says, don’t get invested in this good feeling because certainly everything is going to fall apart at any second.

So we temper the joy, the lightness. We’re afraid to truly give in to the joy, to open ourselves to it, because then we’re vulnerable to being let down or being hurt. It seems we actually turn away from, or close off from the opportunity to feel joy.

Brown said that 80% of the parents she had interviewed had moments where they had stood over their children when they slept and thought, “I love you so much I can barely breathe,” and in that exact moment been flooded with images of something awful happening to the child.

What’s the answer? Brown says, “Gratitude.” It was gratitude that became the antidote to foreboding joy. When we are given the gift of a moment to touch the deep spiritual joy that resides within us, instead of succumbing to feelings of fear, we should open to gratitude. Be grateful for the moment, for the catalyst that helped us reach that place of spiritual abundance. Steep ourselves in thankfulness.

Jesus came to show us love, to help us understand our true relationship with the Divine and one another, SO THAT OUR JOY MIGHT BE COMPLETE. God doesn’t want us to respond to the beautiful moments in life with fear. Connection to the Divine Essence reveals to us that beneath our suffering, fear, and grief, joy is waiting. Joy that heals, comforts and strengthens us for another day.

Julia Cameron says, “I invite joy to bless my life… [I] follow the lead which joy sets.” Perhaps this should be our daily affirmation to ourselves: I invite joy to bless my life. I will follow the lead which joy sets.

Love & Light!

Kaye

A Birth into Hope

I only really remember two things Dr. Henry Young, my process theology professor in seminary, said. One of them was, “When you don’t know what to preach, preach hope.”

Easter leaves us on a spiritual high, a willingness to see things anew and to have hope hope-herothat there will be second chances, better tomorrows, and life after the many metaphorical deaths in our lives. Sadly that high ended quickly for me as I walked into a few hospital rooms in the two days after Easter where good news was sorely lacking. It seemed I’d barely had time for jelly beans and Easter ham when I was cast back to The Day of Tears (aka Good Friday).

(For the video version, click here.)

Easter is draining for pastors anyway, but I found myself in a funk with little emotionally and spiritually energy. I just didn’t have it in me to figure out what to preach. Over the years I’ve learned I can’t force it, so I didn’t do much of anything on Monday and Tuesday except recover from Easter, make visits and phone calls, and yard clean up.

Despite the small respite, I still wasn’t sure what to preach on Sunday. Henry Young kept echoing in my head… “When you don’t know what to preach, preach hope.” With my soul dwelling back in the Day of Tears, I wasn’t feeling very hopeful, but OK Dr. Young, here goes.

Walter Brueggemann in the Prophetic Imagination says four things about hope:

  • Hope is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts.
  • Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion
  • Hope dares to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question
  • Hope is subversive!

1 Peter is subversive. It was written to Christian Churches who were being harassed by the locals, or perhaps the people were subject to ostracism by their families. But doing something new threatens the status quo and can be seen as subversive. 1 Peter 1:3-9 says, don’t give in. Remember that you now have a new birth, “a birth into hope” (the NRSV says a “living hope”).  This hope, based on the resurrection, is a hope that gives life. It is a hope that no power can destroy, tarnish or mar. In the Easter story we discovered the end wasn’t really the end. Light overcomes darkness and life overcomes death.

Hope is subversive because it reminds us that today is not all there is and it gives us the courage to stand up and to speak up. Change has never ever happened without hope. Hope powers social justice movements to make the world better. Just think about Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Harvey Milk and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Three of these five were assassinated because their message of hope was subversive. But even death could not destroy the hope that continued to energize these movements.

Hope is also essential to daily living. What would we do without hope on a daily basis? It is the spiritual force behind getting through each and every day. We can do without a lot of things, but we cannot do without hope.

Albert Nolan wrote, “What matters in the long run, though, is not only that we are hopeful but that we act hopefully. The most valuable contribution that a Christian can make in our age of despair is to continue, because of our faith, to act hopefully, and in that way to be an encouragement to those who have lost all hope.”

As Easter people, hope proclaims that the powers-that-were did not have the last word. They took a good man down, but his spirit rose up in the people. That could not be controlled. We not only draw hope from this, but we become a source of hope for others. In fact, we are called to be carriers, agents, prophets of hope. Ones who believe that we will rise up, whatever struggles we face – personally or communally. We will rise.

Love & Light!

Kaye

The God we know in Jesus

After Friday when we remembered the betrayal, beating, crucifixion and death of Jesus, we now find ourselves at Easter with an amazing story of life after death… my question of the day is:

Who is this God we know in Jesus? Who is this God we experience in the life and teaching of Jesus?

  • Not a God of judgment
  • Not a God who requires right belief or perfect action
  • Not a God of human blood sacrifice
  • Not a God of punishment
  • Not a God of anger

BUT

  • A God who wants to bring wholeness
  • A God who offers second chances
  • A God who forgives and heals
  • A God of love and grace and mercy
  • A God who brings new life after death

Having a relationship with this God is transformative. And that is the goal of the spiritual journey… inner transformation that is then expressed outward and transforms the world.

(For the video version, click here.)

The story of Jesus that brings us here is that everything that could go wrong did. And yet, what was perceived as the end was not the end. In the surprise of Easter morning there is life beyond death… define it or understand it however you will. What is clear to me is that there was some significant experience of Jesus after his physical death for people to be transformed from those who deserted him to those who spread his teachings.

We all experience tragedies, chaos, and loss. We experience times when everything that could go wrong did and the rug is swept out from under us. We’re not quite sure how to go forward… if we can go forward. This is when we are laid bare and raw. All the protective layers we had have been broken through and we’re cracked to the core. But it is at our core where we find our fire and light. It is at our core where we find that the Divine has not left us, but is piecing us back together into something new.

 

Perhaps we have made mistakes or decisions that haunt us. Having a relationship with the God of Jesus means that we trust in a Spirit who will come to us and say, in the words of Susan McCaslin, “I destroy your blunders and pasty efforts and blow them to smithereens to make all things new.”

Perhaps we have experienced loss that has left us empty and bereft and stuck… having a relationship with the God of Jesus means opening up to the Spirit who will gild that pain with light, and will lift the weight of despair with the knowledge that LOVE NEVER DIES because we are all ONE. Everyone who has always been, and everyone who wiviceroy-butterfly-lgll ever be, is connected to us.

I do believe that we can help or hinder our own transformation. To open to transformation means letting go. Letting go of guilt, anger, grief, beating yourself up, shame, fear. Letting go is scary because we don’t quite know what might be required of us.  It means once again trusting in the God that we know through Jesus to take what sometimes feels like the very little we have left and bring creative, life-giving energy to it.

Believing the God that we know through Jesus means believing that we shall rise. Out of the tragedies, the devastation, the losses, the many small and large deaths (real and metaphorical) in our lives, we shall rise.

We can’t give up… suicide is the most extreme way of giving up. But we can’t give up by closing down and shutting off, by turning to bitterness or anger, by allowing despair to rule our lives. If we lean into the pain and open to the pain we instead allow the creative love of God to work within us helping us to find our way to better tomorrows. And I believe with all my heart that there are better tomorrows. That there is new life. That we do rise from the ashes of our lives.

Amen! Alleluia!

Kaye

Love Fearlessly

Have you ever taken time to contemplate your death? Robert Fulghum, in his book, From Beginning to End, talks about how, from time to time, he pays his respects to his own final resting place. One night he even took a blanket up to the cemetery and lay on his grave in a “man-in-a-coffin” position. He closed his eyes and contemplated dying. It has become a sacred practice for him. He said, “Visiting my grave has the reliable capacity to untwist the snarls in my mind and soul, especially when I get angry about small things or lose track of what’s important. On one visit, I realized that if I died that day and my wife were to put an honest epitaph on my headstone, it would say, ‘Here lies a jackass – too pissed off to live long.’ How I’d hate to die mad.”

(For the video version, click here.)

If you knew tonight were your last night on earth, what would you do? I think (or at least I hope) most of us would gather family and close friends around us, express our love and appreciation for them and for the times we’ve shared, ask forgiveness for mistakes or words we regret, and try to leave in a manner that is loving and healing.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of people die, and I’ve been part of the family process of planning more than 80 funerals. This may sound odd, but I believe there is a way to die that is healthier and more healing than others.

Our death is the last lesson we have to offer the world.

What I’m about to say is essentially true about life in general, but I think it is especially true when the end of our life is drawing close. We can think of it this way, we all have one bucket of energy to spend each day. Some people, when in the process of dying, spend all their energy denying their dying, and fighting for survival, so much so that they never take the time to do all those things we just listed as important. I think there is a superstitious sort of feeling that “if I talk about dying then I’m going to die, and if I don’t talk about it, then I still have a chance.” Those folks tend to stay on the surface and don’t share their deeper thoughts, hopes, dreams, sadness, and love with the ones surrounding them. Basically, that shuts everyone else out, because then they can’t share what they are feeling and experiencing either.

On the other hand, those people I’ve seen “die well” have opened their hearts to those around them. There may be fear, but there is also acceptance, and they choose to spend their “bucket of energy “ in loving, healing ways. They talk about what is happening with them and how they are feeling, they show care and concern for those they love, they talk about death and what they are thinking and feeling about it. They give others permission to feel and to be close instead of shutting them out or holding them at arm’s length. They give love through being open and vulnerable.

Jesus taught the world an amazing lesson through his dying process.

At the end of his life, Jesus took his one bucket of energy and chose not to spend it trying crossto stay alive by fighting, running or denouncing what he’d taught and lived. His death was consistent with his life. He maintained his integrity by continuing to offer his heart, his love, his forgiveness, and his hope.

Jesus isn’t pictured as grasping at life or seeking to extend it any longer. Instead, even as his life is draining out of him he is still portrayed as giving life and love to others. In the gospel of Matthew, he offered forgiveness to the soldiers, and hope to the penitent thief. In the gospel of John, Jesus is pictured as giving comfort to his mother.

It doesn’t really matter if these events really happened or not. They are part of the corporate memory of a life that understood love and compassion as the highest value – higher than mere physical survival.

As John Shelby Spong said, “Jesus was bearing witness to a life power present in him that death could not overcome.”

Jesus did not cling to his life, because he was not afraid of death. He did not cling to his life, because he experienced oneness with the Divine and knew that the death of his body would not take that away. He was free to be fully himself – loving and healing the world – and to give his life instead of running or fighting, because he had no fear and so death had no hold over him.

This is what people saw in Jesus.

Centuries of people have grieved the death of an innocent, beautiful life. But we remember the example he gave us of how to live well and die well. We remember a fearless love.  A man who consistently loved throughout his life and loved until the end.

Shalom,

Kaye

Birth of a Nation

(Sermon 5 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)

For the last 5 weeks we’ve explored the concept of Matthew as a liturgical document developed to follow the Jewish liturgical year.

All four of the Gospels place the beginning of the Passion narratives – the beginning of the death and resurrection of Jesus – at Passover.  The celebration of Passover begins just two weeks into the Jewish liturgical cycle and celebrates the birth of a nation as Moses frees the Hebrews from over 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

(For the full video of the sermon, click here.)

For Matthew, the corresponding story is how Jesus shares the Passover meal with hispassoverdisciples and he takes us all the way through the crucifixion and after-death experiences of Jesus. Then the cycle starts over again and we see how the chapters of Matthew line up consecutively with the major Jewish holidays and the Jewish liturgical cycle.

While this is only a theory, I find it a very compelling theory once one has examined the evidence.

For now, we’ll take a look at the two Sabbaths leading up to Passover (Mt. 24-25), Passover itself, and how Matthew transforms it the story of the Last Supper. This, then, ushers in the whole final chapter in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and is perhaps the birthing point of something different, the birthing moment of a new movement eventually to be dubbed Christianity.

In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about signs that will occur to signal the end of times:

  • the destruction of the Temple, how no stone will be left one upon another
  • wars, famine and earthquakes, which are the labor pains of the new age
  • Noah and the flood and how people must remain vigilant as they don’t know when the end will be.

In Matthew 25 Jesus tells parables of judgment

  • the bridesmaids waiting for their bridegroom
  • the servants who were entrusted with money to hold for the landowner
  • the story of the sheep and goats who are separated at the day of judgment based on who had fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, visited the prisoner, and clothed the stranger.

I’ve never quite understood the parables of the end of the world and of judgment that we find in Matthew 24-25. They never meshed for me with the God that Jesus proclaimed.

However, if we understand that in the synagogue they were listening to the stories at the beginning of their liturgical cycle, which included the stories of Noah and the complete destruction of the world… and if we understand that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t future conjecture (in the year 85 CE, when Matthew was written it had in fact recently happened – about 15 years earlier) and the fear and horror of that war and destruction was still fresh in their minds… and if we understand that the Hebrew Scriptures predicted the end of the world before the coming of the Messiah, then we can understand these passages differently.

Matthew uses chapters 24 and 25 to set the stage for the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. The Last Supper story (in Matthew 26) was the gateway into that knowledge.

In Matthew 26, what Christians think of as the institution of communion, are clearly pieces of the Seder meal that is shared on the Jewish Passover.

Passover is 8 days long and begins with a Seder meal and the re-telling of the story of Moses freeing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. A Seder meal consists of many symbolic foods that relate to the Moses story, as well as a number of blessings, but there are two pieces that would look really familiar to any Christian. Early in the Seder meal unleavened bread is blessed and broken, and four glasses of wine are drunk during the meal, including one at the end that is blessed and then drank.

Also within the ancient Exodus story is the lamb that is sacrificed, its blood put on the doorposts of the Israelite’s homes so that the angel of death will pass over those houses during the last plague that killed the first-born of every family – human and animal alike. For Matthew, Jesus symbolically becomes the new paschal lamb, banishing death in a different way.

Birth of a New Nation

I imagine it was hard to put Jesus into a box and label what or who he was. Instead they used concepts and stories that they knew and painted an interpretive portrait of Jesus, thus sharing their “truth” of what they’d experienced in Jesus.

You’ll recall how Matthew re-frames Jesus as the new Moses. Note the similarities below:

Moses

  1. Saved at birth from Pharaoh
  2. Power over water (split the Red Sea)
  3. Went up mountain to get laws from God
  4. Moses face shone because he had “seen” God
  5. Spent 40 years in the wilderness
  6. Had three major crises in wilderness
  7. Fed multitude with manna
  8. Moses saves the people from slavery in Egypt
  9. Passover celebrates story of Exodus which marks the beginning of the nation of Israel

Jesus

  1. Fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s genocide
  2. Power over water – in his baptism and walking on water, calming storm
  3. Sermon on mount and transfiguration
  4. Jesus face shone at transfiguration
  5. 40 days in the wilderness
  6. Three temptations in wilderness
  7. Feeding the 5,000 and 4,000
  8. Jesus is the Messiah
  9. Last Supper is a Passover meal, it is the doorway to the passion narrative and thus marks the beginning of Christianity

This Last Supper makes the connection between Jesus and Moses one more time. Set at the Passover meal, we remember how Moses freed the Hebrews to become their own people, to develop a religion and a culture all their own. He freed them to form a covenant with God to follow the laws in exchange for being God’s people.

In the Last Supper meal, Matthew switches the focus to Jesus… when you break bread and drink the wine at this meal “remember me”(Jesus not Moses). It is not the blood of the lamb smeared on doorposts that ushered in a covenant with God, now Jesus’ blood (in Matthew’s interpretation) becomes the Covenant.

But this new covenant is not about following the laws. The new covenant Jesus offers is a different kind of freedom from a different kind of slavery. Following the teachings of Jesus led to freedom from slavery to institutional rules, ego, fear of God and punishment, fear of exclusion, and perhaps most of all fear of death.

If we need to cast Jesus in a Savior role, this is what humanity was saved from, and to.

  • Saved from a blind life of obedience to rules … and saved to a faith-based in personal experience of the Divine, Oneness with the Divine.
  • Saved from a life of divisions and oppression, of who’s in and who’s out… and saved to a life where there is a place for everyone at the table. Every life is sacred.
  • Saved from a life of fear of hell and death… and saved to an understanding that our essential selves are more than our bodies and exist within the Divine essence. Death of our bodies is not the death of our spirits, our energy, our love and goodness.

Sadly, the institution church through the ages has replaced this non-violent, compassionate, wise Messiah who gave everything he had in love, hope and joy, and who wanted, really, to save us from ourselves, with a Savior whose only role was as a human sacrifice for a God who demanded punishment and restitution, to save us from a sin that was based in myth, and has held humanity hostage to fear, sin and death. (I know that was a really long sentence… deal with it.)

And then the institutional church simply replaced the Jewish laws with Christian laws and required everyone follow them, as well as certain belief structures, in order to be acceptable to God and achieve eternal life. But what Jesus taught was that eternal life, the kingdom of heaven, is available right now and is within each of us. Oops. The church has forgotten to mention that.

The rules, the belief structures, the notion of being saved from Original Sin have nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with controlling people and perpetuating the institution. Because, you see, if people would come to understand the essential message of Jesus… love God, love one another as you love yourself, and that the “Way” he taught was to recognize our oneness with God and God’s oneness with us, there would be little need for a church. Or at least not church as we’ve known it.

Search the depths of yourselves, know the truth that you are light, and you are love, and it will change your life and change the world. That was the power of Jesus that had to be destroyed.

Blessings,

Kaye

Restoring the Light of God

(Sermon 4 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)

Following Spong’s premise that Matthew is a liturgical document corresponding to the Jewish liturgical year, we have traced the connections chronologically through the major Jewish festivals for the last 4 weeks:

  • Shavuot or Pentecost
  • Rosh Hashanah
  • Yom Kippur
  • Sukkoth or Booths

Learning about these Jewish festivals with their symbols, traditions and liturgy, we have seen how Matthew has tailored his Jesus stories to fit the synagogue’s cycle of readings by identifying connecting stories, symbols, themes and scripture.

(For the video version, click here.)

Today we turn to the next major festival – Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

Here’s the story of how Hanukkah came to be celebrated… a long, long time ago… about 175 years before Jesus, the Syrian Empire had taken over Jerusalem and the surrounding land. Antiochus IV, the Syrian Emperor wanted to Hellenize the area and so encouraged the worship of Greek gods and goddesses, as well as built an arena for Greek games. Eventually, the Jewish people were no longer allowed to practice their religion. The Syrians took all Jewish symbols off the walls and desecrated the Temple by placing a pig’s head in the Holy of Holies on the “mercy seat.” Finally a group of Jews decided to fight back. They were called the Maccabees – they were small in number, but very determined. After seven years of guerrilla warfare, the Maccabees finally drove the Syrian army out of Jerusalem.

As the story goes, when the Maccabees walked into the Temple, theyhanukkah found only enough oil to light the menorah (lamp) for one day – but miraculously, that small amount of oil lasted for eight days, which is exactly how long it took to get new oil. The Light of God had returned to the Temple. After the Maccabees and the Jewish people cleaned up the mess, they held a, eight-day celebration to rededicate the Temple to God. The word “dedication” in Hebrew is “Hanukkah.”

Today, the celebration of Hanukkah still lasts eight days, in honor of the miracles that occurred so many years ago. They light eight candles on the hanukkiah (one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on) and eat latkes (potato pancakes) and other foods fried in oil, like special jelly donuts.

Certainly, if you were a Jew celebrating Hanukkah during the early years after the destruction of the Temple, you would have known this history inside and out. Matthew uses the story of the transfiguration to tie the Jesus’ story into Jewish history and tradition. As a devout Jew, you would understand all the references to your great prophets and scripture when you heard the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. When Matthew tells you that Jesus went up the mountain and his face shone and his clothes became radiant, you would think of Moses and how he went up the mountain and his face shone when he gazed upon God. And, you’d think of the priest Joshua (by the way “Jesus” is Greek for Joshua) in Zechariah whose priestly clothes are made new and radiant by God. When you heard that both Moses and Elijah were with Jesus, you’d understand that Moses was in the company of the Father of the Law and the Father of the Prophets. Then you’d hear that Jesus sort of “one-ups” the two of them as God’s voice comes from the clouds and says, “This is my Own, the Chosen One, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him!”  Jesus was the completion and the fulfillment of the law and prophets.

Just this last week, I was told that if you are trying to teach someone something new, you need to use 75% of what they already know before you and add 25% that they don’t know. Or if the person is really smart, maybe you can use 50% of what they already know and add 50% of something they don’t know. It seems to me that the author of Matthew was pretty smart this way, because he kept using material that the Jews knew in order to teach them the something new that they experienced in Jesus.

Remember Matthew is being written in the 9th decade of the first century, about 15 years after the destruction of the Temple. Up until this point, Jews had believed that God dwelt in the Temple. This presented them with a new question: where is God now?

Matthew’s answer is Jesus. The Light of God is now found in Jesus.

Have you ever felt drawn to someone because you saw some of yourself in them? Maybe they had the same sense of humor, or a similar hobby, or had similar experiences? Or maybe it was something you couldn’t define, you just felt a pull toward them?

Here’s my theory of the day… the light of God clearly shone in Jesus and people were drawn to him because the light in them recognized the light in Jesus. Like magnets drawn to each other. People recognized in Jesus the Truth of their very selves. Jesus said to the people, “You are the light of the world!” Yes! Yes! We see that to be true because something in us feels that truth when we are around Jesus, and when we hear his teachings and his stories.

OK… so here is sort of silly example. When my Creative Worship group talked about seeing the light of God in people, my friend Chris told us this story. She had recently been to the grocery store and came out with a cart just piled high with groceries. She parked her cart next to her car, and as she started to load all the bags into her car an old guy got out of his car and came up to her. He explained that he was just waiting for his wife to finish shopping when he saw that she had so many groceries to load up and he just thought he’s come over and help. Chris was completely touched with this show of kindness. The guy could have easily just kept sitting in his car and done nothing. Chris experienced the light of God in him.

So, let’s take this theory one step further. We’ve all had stuff like this happen, right? How does it make you feel? It always makes me feel like I’d like to do the same for someone else. Seeing the light of God in someone else puts us in touch with the light of God in ourselves, and hopefully we then let our own lights shine by being compassionate, caring, helpful, generous, understanding and kind. This is how the light grows.

The Light of God, which the Jews had thought existed only in the Temple, was now recognized in Jesus, and taught us to grow and be the light ourselves.

Shalom,

Kaye

 

Food for the Soul

(Sermon 4 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)

Following John Shelby Spong’s premise in his book Biblical Literalism, that Matthew is a liturgical document corresponding to the liturgical year, we have traced the connections chronologically from Shavuot (Pentecost), to Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur over the last three weeks. The next major festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar is Sukkoth (also known as Booths or Tabernacles). It was an eight-day harvest festival beginning five days after Yom Kippur, and was the most anticipated and joyous festival of the Jewish year.

(For the full video version, click here.)

sukkoth

In addition to the harvest-oriented material in Matthew 13, we hear the echoes of the rituals and traditions of Sukkoth in our own Palm Sunday celebration. In Jesus’ time, Sukkoth began with a procession around Jerusalem and into the Temple. In their right hands Jews would carry a lulab – a bundle of leafy willow, palm and myrtle branches tied together. And in their left hand they would carry a box with sweet-smelling leaves and flowers and citron fruit zest. As they paraded around the town, they chanted Psalm 118 which included (what we think of as Palm Sunday phrases) “Hosanna! Save us, we beseech you! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The Hebrew scriptures also dictate that Jewish families build a temporary shelter next to, or close to, their house for the eight days of the festival. This booth is to remind them of their ancestors who were essentially homeless nomads following Moses for 40 years in the desert. At least one night of the festival a meal is to be served in the booth.

The harvest stories (the sower, the weeds and wheat, and the mustard seed) and Kingdom of Heaven vignettes (the Kingdom of heaven is like leavened bread, a treasure in a field and a pearl of great price) in Matthew 13 correlate to the days that Sukkoth was celebrated in the synagogue.

It seems that Matthew essentially transformed the harvest festival – a celebration of food for the body – into a celebration of food for the soul- that which celebrates our deepest hunger. The message of Jesus was so important it needed to be shared! The parable of the sower was about planting the message of Jesus in “good soil” so that it would bear fruit. And the parable of the mustard seed recognized the reality of how small they were as a movement, but foreseeing it growing into something huge.

Almost two thousand years later, that tiny mustard seed of a movement has clearly grown and thrived. So, let’s turn our attention to the treasure and the pearl of great price… the value of Jesus’ message. How often do any of us actually consider the value that Jesus’ teachings and life have for each of us?

I spent a few days in Phoenix this week with my brother, Gary, trying to help my dad work through some issues and begin thinking about the future. The night before we came home Gary and I sat in the hotel bar to debrief. At one point he looked at me and said, “I don’t like your God.” Really? What about my God is it that you don’t like? Because I probably don’t like it either. He thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t expect life to be easy, but your God doesn’t seem to be helping us any…”

It seems to me that people are confused about what the treasure of knowing God is. You see, the value of knowing God – not merely believing, but knowing – is to understand that God is not a magic genie, but a deep abiding presence that changes everything.

What Jesus taught and lived is that knowing God has nothing to do with following rules, or believing the right things. Knowing God doesn’t mean reading the Bible, going to church, and giving to charity. You can do all those things without truly knowing the Divine. Knowing God means discovering that the secret to life, fulfillment and wholeness is, and has always been, within us. Knowing God means experiencing the Oneness Jesus talked about – “I am in God and God is in me” – and that Oneness is experienced as unbounded love. Not believing in unbounded, unconditional love, but knowing it, being it, living it.

When we reach that place, we move beyond our fears and insecurities to a place of compassion, courage and justice. We move beyond our judgments and grudges to inclusiveness and forgiveness. Our egos move aside and stop ruling our actions. This is a treasure beyond measure and a pearl beyond price. Why? Can you imagine what this world would look like if everyone could live in this place of pure unbounded love? There would be no war, no greed, no prejudice, no hunger, no poverty, no hatred, jealousy or pride. There would be no condemning or judging, envy or shame. To learn to live this way is priceless, because when we all meet in that place there is peace, there is care for all, and we find value in ourselves and in each other. That is “way”Jesus wanted us to find in our spiritual lives… KNOW God… then we don’t need rules or parables or belief structures.

Bishop John Shelby Spong has said, “Perhaps we need to confront the possibility that Christianity has not failed, as our critics constantly assert: the reality, I believe, is that Christianity has never been understood and thus has never really been tried.”

Blessings,

Kaye

Unbounded Love

(Sermon 3 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

Two weeks ago we began our Lenten series which is examining the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We have covered:

  • The Sermon on the Mount told in conjunction with Shavuot or Pentecost.
  • The miracle stories, and John the Baptist confirming that Jesus was the Messiah, told in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah

Now we move on to the next High Holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, Yom Kippur, which takes place merely 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. Those 10 days are considered the Days of Awe, or the Days of Repentance. TYom Kippurhis is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and make a commitment for the coming year to be better.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In the time of Jesus, the ceremony for Yom Kippur was much different than it is today. What many people don’t realize is that the rituals, symbols  and language of Yom Kippur have shaped much Christian language and much of our atonement theology.

In the time of Jesus, when the Temple still existed in Jerusalem, the Jews gathered for one long 24 hour day to meditate on their sinfulness in the knowledge that God was a forgiving God. This was not motivated by any concept of “original sin” but by the self-knowledge that we know we can be better human beings than we are. As Jews believed they were created in God’s perfect image, it was therefore their goal to try and attain that perfection with which they were created. A lamb and goat became the symbols of the human yearning to participate in the perfection of God.

On Yom Kippur a perfect lamb, without blemishes, scratches or bruises, was slaughtered. The Jewish high priest, after undergoing extensive cleansing rituals himself, took some of the blood into a place in the Temple called the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred part of the Temple, the home of the throne of God. Only the high priest was allowed in there, and only on Yom Kippur. The high priest would then smear blood on the “mercy seat” (aka God’s throne) so that through the blood of the perfect lamb the people now had, symbolically, a way to enter into the perfection of God.

Then a goat, a perfect one, was brought before the high priest. Spong explains, “He would grasp the goat by its horns and pray aloud confessing all the sins of the people. It was believed that as he prayed those sins were transferred onto the goat.” The goat was then driven out into the wilderness carrying away the sins of the people. Hence, the term “scapegoat.”

You can perhaps see how these rituals have manifested in Christian language and thought. However, that is not the intent of this message today.

To return to Matthew and its correlation with Yom Kippur, we turn to chapter 12, which Spong says, “presents us with a conflict between religious rules and human fulfillment, and it opens to us a new way to look at and to interpret human sinfulness.” The chapter begins with three stories of Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. First, he breaks them by allowing the hungry disciples to “work” by gleaning grain in the fields on the Sabbath. Then he does more “work” and heals the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath. And, finally, Jesus heals a man who was blind and mute.

Spong suggests that the question Matthew is really addressing with these stories is: “Where does holiness lie?” Does it lie in always following the rules? Or does it lie in addressing human need with compassion? Do the rules of the Sabbath take precedence over our fellow human beings, their well-being and their wholeness? And, let’s talk about that last healing. At the time of Jesus, being blind and mute were considered punishment from Satan (Beelzebul) for sinfulness (either of that person’s life or their parent’s lives). Healing that man presumed a certain authority, and yet Jesus wasn’t a religious leader! He was lacking the credentials to do what he did… so who the heck was he anyway? Maybe Jesus was working for Satan?

Basically, Jesus responds to the challenges of the religious leader’s by essentially saying, “You idiots. How can you confuse something good with something bad? Why do you look on the work of the Spirit and call it the work of the Devil? Nothing can fix that in you. Your distorted way of seeing is too deep. You are living in total darkness and don’t even know it.” Specifically, Jesus says, ” [A]nyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…”

In the context of Yom Kippur – a time of self-reflection on one’s sinfulness and mistakes, a time of repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, and receiving it because God is merciful – the religious scholars were completely blind to the presence of God among them. Spong suggests that the unforgiveable sin is only such because one can’t be cleansed of a sin they don’t even acknowledge they have!

Just after this passage, the religious scholars and Pharisees demand to see a miraculous sign from Jesus. Have they been sleeping? Did we not just have all those signs a few chapters ago where the blind saw, the lame walked, the dumb spoke and the leper was cleansed? Jesus says, “You are an evil and unfaithful generation and the only sign you’re going to get is the sign of Jonah.” Where on earth did Jonah come from?

What we don’t know, as non-Jews, is that the book of Jonah has traditionally been read on Yom Kippur.  And the interesting parallel here is that Jonah didn’t believe in God’s compassionate, unbounded love for the Ninevites any more than the Jews believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done with the authority of the Spirit in an act of love and compassion. According to Spong, Jonah confused “his vision of what was holy with God’s vision of what is holy” as did the Jews who didn’t like Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. Both Jonah and the religious scholars wanted to put boundaries on God’s love in accordance with their own boundaries.

Are there boundaries to God’s love and compassion?   No.

Are there boundaries called synagogue (church) rules that can actually dictate who is in God’s favor and who isn’t? No.

Are there boundaries called sin – present and past – that enable us to judge who God loves and doesn’t?  No.

God’s love is unbounded. Any limits placed on it are human limitations devised by egos too small to understand the expansiveness of the Divine.

Lenten blessings,

Kaye