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