Mercy Meets Mary

Mercy Meets Mary
Easter Sunday: Acts 10:34-43; Col. 3:1-4; John 20:1-20
© David B. Batchelder – 2017

According to Ed Dowling, a Roman Catholic priest, “sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses. When we put them on, we see the awful person, sometimes even ourselves, a bit more gently, and we are blessed in return.”+

My prayer is that you leave today seeing your life and this world with this kind of clarity.

How many funerals or cemeteries have you been to in the last 12 months? Too many, I suspect.
When Mary comes to the tomb, she is first to arrive and discover the crime, which is the conclusion she reaches when she sees what appears to be vandalism. The tomb has been opened, and the body snatched!

So Easter begins with a misinterpretation of the evidence, a leap to judgement that her fading faith cannot resist. We will be gentle with Mary; we know how prone we are to imagine the worst.

Whereas Peter and the “beloved” disciple are confused – Mary is inconsolable. She sobs at the tomb. Her tears flow from the pool of her deep loss, a profound loss that is swallowing her whole.

Whatever else we want to say about Easter, it involves – perhaps even requires – that we face our losses, as well as the garbage our losses dredge up, especially self-blame and recrimination.
Loss, which seems to multiply as we grow older, magnifies the demons we spend so much energy fending off: our fears and compulsions, our shame and self-loathing.

We’re ready to pray like the 4 year old girl overheard reciting the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trash baskets, as we forgive those who pass trash against us.”

I think we can all understand how Mary can see Jesus without recognizing him. Between the two, seeing and recognizing, there is a world of difference. But, you know this, don’t you. It happens to us every time we say to ourselves, “I knew such and such, but I just didn’t realize.”

Well – why didn’t we? Is it because some insecurity got in the way? Were we too angry that we didn’t really listen and hear what was said? . . . or got distracted by the past we can’t help but replay over and over? Any one of these, or a combination thereof, can blur our vision so that all we can think about is what our loss has stolen from us.

It doesn’t take long to get caught in a death-spiral thinking the worst about a family member, a friend, even God and the church, and, especially, think the worst about ourselves.

The only power I have ever known capable of rescuing me from such a death-spiral is MERCY.

Mercy meets Mary in the garden when she could not see beyond her tears, and trust beyond her pain. It was a mercy that the gardener called Mary’s name breaking the stranglehold of grief choking her. The stranger she presumes to be the gardener meets her sorrow with a mercy that promises to do more than merely restore the past.

We cannot really live in the past; we can only exist. Every one of us has a future that can be newly made. You future and mine, whatever it holds, is not merely a projection of what has already happened. It is fresh and new, rich in possibility, funded and filled with the mercy of God.

Pope Francis says that “Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” Mercy is what resurrection looks like on the ground in life’s ditches.

Mercy is how resurrection reaches out and touches those who know they are near the edge of the abyss. I propose to you that Easter is the mercy of God rising up in the flesh of the bruised and broken. Resurrection power is never abstract. It is always incarnational. It takes root in blood and bone.

When it becomes available, you will enrich you life if you watch the new documentary,
“Voices Beyond the Wall: Twelve Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World.’’*

The film tells the story** of children saved by learning to put set their imagination to words in the form of poetry. In the winter of 2012, Spencer Reece, an award winning American poet and Episcopal priest, came to live at Honduras’ only girls’ orphanage for a year. The orphanage is named Our Little Roses. It is a home and school for abused and abandoned girls in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, a city where children bathe in brown, putrid river water, and scavenge for scraps at the city dump.

Reece knew the power of poetry in his own life. He was no stranger to brokenness. He spent time in a mental hospital with suicidal thoughts; he was estranged from his parents for 10 years; he knew the ravages of alcoholism. His published collection title Road to Emmaus includes the poems he wrote on his way to healing.

So Reece applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year teaching poetry to the girls. It was a challenge. He began by having them memorize a number of classic poems – like Emily Dickenson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” This helped the girls begin to find words to speak their own pain – which they did, in poems of their own, with the collection being published later this year.

One of the girls at Our Little Roses is Tania, who came to the home as a 4-year-old, badly abused. She was found in a well with a rock around her neck. Reece was honest with her about his own brokenness. After she heard him speak, Tania said, ‘It makes sense to me now why God brought you here. It’s because you understand us.’’’ As Reece tells it – “That was a pivotal moment in my own life.” “I felt ordained, anointed, and Tania was my priest.’’

There is a word for what took place between Reece and Tania; that word is MERCY. Reece and Tania were both being raised from death.

Today, many of the girls of that orphanage have gone to college and entered the community. One as a dentist teaching the university dental school. Another graduated from law school. Another earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. And there are scores of teachers, businesswomen and entrepreneurs who have broken the cycle of violence, abuse, and poverty. These are resurrection stories that reveal the power of mercy. Wherever there is mercy, the power of resurrection is at work.

Ann Lamott, who has known a great deal of brokenness and pain in her life, has written a new book Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. She says:

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering – or being offered – aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, . . . forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings to us the miracle of apology, given and accepted, [it brings us] to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten (11).

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says,++

I cling to the truth of God’s ability to redeem us more than perhaps any other. I have to. I need to. I want to. . . . To say, “Lord have mercy,” is to lay our hope in the redeeming work of the God of Easter as though our lives depended on it. Because they do. It means that we are an Easter people, a people who know that resurrection, especially in and among the least likely people and places, is the way that God redeems even the biggest messes we make.

The poems written by the girls at Our Little Roses, don’t sugarcoat the rage of knowing your family has deserted you. Joan Chrissos reported that when Aylin was 15,

she wrote a poem she titled, “Counting.” “You see,” she says, “every week, every day, every hour, every minute and every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock.”

In her poem, she wrote: I am the knife and the rock is my life. By the poem’s end, Aylin, arrives at forgiveness, a place that many in this world never reach in life: When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: I FORGIVE YOU.

Doesn’t that blow you away? That is the power of mercy, which is the power of resurrection, and it can work a miracle in you. Believe that! Never ever forget this: there is more mercy in God than sin in us.+++

Thanks be to God.

+ This is told in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Ann Lamott (2017) 12.

* http://www.voicesbeyondthewallmovie.com/

** In telling this story I have adapted material, and often quoting directly, from The Washington Post article by Joan Chrissos, “The priest who healed orphans with poetry” (April 3, 2017), and from the material on the website of Our Little Roses. Both may be found here:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2017/04/03/the-priest-who-brought-the-healing-power-of-poetry-to-honduran-orphans-in-the-murder-capital-of-the-world/?utm_term=.801125587818

http://ourlittleroses.org/

++ Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (2015) 160, 161.

+++ William Sloane Coffin Jr. Credo (2004) 85.

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Playing God

Sermon preached for the 4th Sunday in Lent – March 26, 2017
1 Sam. 16:1-13; Eph. 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

© David B. Batchelder – 2017

 

There is playing God and there is playing God. Can you tell the difference?
Here is a poem by by Glen Colquhoun (from the book – Playing God).

If you play God, play God at tennis.

A strict code of conduct is expected.
Clear lines must be drawn in the sand.
The ball will be either in or out.
At times there is talk of love.

If you play God, play God at chess.

All decisions must be black or white.
There are ways for him to be kept in check.
Bishops are available for consultation.
There is the possibility of mating.

If you play God, play God at cards.

There is clear opportunity for cheating.
You might deal from the bottom of the pack.
Aces can be hidden up your sleeve.
The joker should be specially marked.

If you play God, play God at darts.

He will dislike their resemblance to nails.
An acceptable target must be provided.
There is a fine line he will not be permitted
to cross. Cursing should never be allowed.

If you play God, play God at monopoly.

Everyone will be expected to take turns.
He must sit at a table like everyone else.
You might refuse him a room at your inn.
He is certain to be feeling overconfident.

This form of playing God has to do with the mystery of God which includes when bad things happen to good people, when God acts unpredictably, holding a monopoly on power. We’re talking, in other words, about inexplicable suffering like the refugees who drowned this past week or the victims of the London terror.

Lurking behind the story in John 9 is such a crisis of faith. But, there’s another form of playing God that the Gospel brings front and center, which will occupy our attention this morning.

So – who’s playing God in John chapter 9 today? How about the disciples who have already
reached a conclusion on the morality of the situation before they ever put their question to Jesus. They’ve narrowed down the fault for the man’s blindness. Either he sinned or his parents.

Perhaps it’s the Pharisees who are playing God, conducting a “special investigation” into this so-called miracle – “so-called” because there are multiple reasons to doubt it’s authenticity.

FIRST – Was the man was ever blind to begin with? Affidavits from neighbors suggest a possible “look-alike.”

SECOND – God ordained the Sabbath for rest, which means the Sabbath is God’s day off. So whatever else it might be, being given sight on the Sabbath can’t possibly be a “miracle.”

THIRD – there’s the question of the one purported to have performed the act. He’s obviously a sinner because he’s a Sabbath-breaker.

WELL, the investigation is not without some urgency because the Pharisees must exonerate God from the scandal of doing work on the Sabbath, even the work of mercy. Here’s how they do it.

To start with, the Pharisees try to debunk the alleged act of grace, which can’t be grace if it violates the Sabbath. Then, they attempt to prove that the gift of sight could not have originated from God if it was performed by Jesus who, for most of the story, is cleverly unavailable for questioning.

To clear God’s name, the Pharisees interrogate the former blind man and his parents. They force on them an alternative set of facts which seem true enough to the Pharisees because they match a verdict already decided. At the center of the verdict is their certainty, reached without ever interviewing Jesus, that he (Jesus) must be a sinner.

Playing God, the Pharisees believe themselves free to tailor truth to fit their universe.
Or, to put it another way, by making themselves the authors of their own truth, the Pharisees presume for themselves a place reserved for God alone.

But there’s a problem when anyone tinkers with truth. They Pharisees must now defend it, because they’ve got so much invested in it. At risk is their place of privilege in the religion over which they have control.

This explains the Pharisees outrageous behavior making them adversaries of mercy, terrifying the frightened parents by their inquisition, condemning the man who has been blessed with sight, and slandering the giver of mercy.

How are we to explain why some people simply refuse to admit to truth?

Jesus says – in claiming to see, they are blind. They claim they are “in the know,” that they “have the answers.” But its obvious to everyone, except themselves, that they aren’t who they claim to be. Their speech is so terribly confused. Their words are utterly contradictory. They are undone by a tortured logic that only makes sense to them. And, what becomes clear for everyone to see is that they’re all about power rather than people.

Their words and actions prove that they are the ones who are blind, which means (according to Jesus) that they have placed themselves under judgement.

What’s SCARY is that it is possible to will ourselves to blindness?
We can choose not to see.
We can choose to ignore truth.
We are free to embrace a false reality, an alternative version of unfolding events.
And, as you know, there will always be a version available to our liking.
In fact, we are free even to make truth up, but not without becoming blind, says Jesus.

The Pharisees preferred to stay in the darkness of their fabricated world. In that world, they are indifferent to mercy. Their concern is for self-preservation. Self-preservation requires that they keep their system of rules in place (by force if necessary) a system which keeps everyone obligated to them.

This has been a stunning week of fabricating the truth. John Chapter 9 is instructive, if we have ears to hear.

A vigorous defense of falsehood cannot be achieved
without ruthlessness, as we see in the Pharisees,
without issuing threats, as are made by the Pharisees,
without the deliberate use of fear, a strategy of the Pharisees,
and without retaliating against the noncompliant, as the Pharisees do when they expel the man from the community.

Most damning, however, is the Pharisees’ refusal to see and acknowledge the grace of God staring them in the face. Having chosen blindness over sight, it’s inevitable that grace would become a problem. It becomes a problem because grace and truth belong to each other.

In this story, grace and truth combine in an act of pure mercy. I say, pure mercy, because Jesus restores sight to a man who didn’t even ask for it. There was no pleading for a miracle, no begging for help, no bargaining with God – “I’ll do this, if you do that!”

Jesus simply mixes a little spit and mud in a kind of primitive baptism that reminds us of God’s creation of the first humans. Applying the paste to the eyes, he says, “Go and wash!”

Grace, in this story, is carefree and careless. And, that causes some people, especially religious people, to become upset!

There’s another thing about grace you should know: It can get you in trouble! I imagine the man born blind had settled into a predictable life, perhaps even a comfortable routine of dependence. But, once his sight is restored, once he is able to see the truth of the world through the presence of God in Jesus, he’s in uncharted territory. He’s living a new reality made possible by the mercy of God.

God’s mercy is transforming because it confronts us and tantalizes us to a life we have not yet lived. Barely a disciple himself, the newly sighted man asks an urgent question of the Pharisees which they do not expect, and – therefore – are unprepared to face: “Do you also want to become his disciples?” This is the question facing us this Week 4 of Lent.

Saying “YES” to discipleship is to say “Yes” to mercy, mercy for our own undeserving selves, and mercy for all the undeserving others. It is a choice for truth, which is a choice for grace. It’s a choice to see the world as it really is, as God created it and is redeeming it in Christ.

Thanks be to God!

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Coming Home to Truth

Sermon preached for the 1st Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017
Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Rom. 5:12-19; Matt. 4:1-11

© David B. Batchelder – 2017

Do you agree? “We are forever vulnerable to being deceived. Yet we cannot live without trustworthy words nor can we be human without them.” Tom Long wrote this, (Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian) and we begin Lent giving it serious thought.

TRUTH TELLING resides at the heart of all our readings today. What we also see in these texts is the everyday treachery that lurks among those who spin truth, twist truth, deny truth, and devise alternative truth for one’s own ends.

You may remember that cultural satirist Stephen Colbert, several years ago, coined a new word – “TRUTHINESS.” At the time, it sounded outrageous. Truthiness is a quality someone gives to a statement that is based on a “gut feeling” without regard to the facts. “Facts matter not at all.” said Colbert in an interview. “Perception is everything.”

So we begin Lent with humanity’s beginnings in a story of evasion. Whatever you grew up thinking, the Garden of Eden myth less about temptation than it is about discerning truth and practicing trust. From the start, human beings have gotten into deepest trouble when confronted by truth they did not want to hear.

Now, don’t get distracted by all the talk about food. The Genesis story has nothing to do with “diet.” It about words, words with the power to bestow life or deliver death! And this is precisely what takes shape in the Garden. Deadly words are dressed up as the door to freedom!

Through the manipulation of words, the serpent successfully creates a deception having to do with God’s generosity. Divine benevolence is put under the suspicion that it is not as it was presented. Think about it: the first accusation of false intentions depicted in the Bible is made against God.

No longer do Adam and Eve contemplate the Garden as “GIFT.” With the serpent whispering in their ears, they become preoccupied with what has not been given them, and they wonder why?

The serpent keeps talking and it isn’t very long before “blessing” itself sounds to them like restriction and God’s “gift” becomes re-conceived as “burden. Instead of living by trust, Adam and Eve stake their well-being on a lie, believing in in a possibility that does not exist. And what exactly is that? It’s that they can live self-sufficiently, apart from God; that they can be the inventors of their own lives.

Genesis reveals humanity’s refusal to abandon the deception that we can become anything we want to be, by our own doing, without God, free of a limiting God who holds us back.A faithful Lent begins by renouncing word games that take what other people say and spin it to suit our liking.

In Matthew, Jesus enters the wilderness to face the spin-master. At his most vulnerable, Jesus is tested with the fictions we live by successfully exposing them for what they are. In each of Jesus’ temptations, words are used to trap.

Little has changed. We live in a world with a dizzying number of choices, All of them “gift-wrapped” in words. Can they be trusted? How do we know which ones best align us with baptismal life and our God-called selves?

You’ve probably figured out that this involves saying “NO” to some choices to which other people have said “YES” without hesitation. And you’re aware, I’m sure, that the “YES” you’re sometimes called to give will have even your friends calling you “CRAZY!”

For 40 days in the desert, Jesus is harassed and harangued by a voice saying, “You can make up yourself.” “You do not have to be nor need to be the person God intends.” “You have Other options.”

But in the wilderness of this testing, Jesus refuses to be someone else! He refuses to be other than the servant of God. He commits to the path of God for his life, a path paved with truth.

I‘ve always liked what Flannery O’Connor said (Collected Works): “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you ODD.”

Be forewarned sisters and brothers, the journey of Lent will increase your oddness, because Lent is about truth. Are you ready to make this journey?

I must tell you I have been waiting for Lent to arrive, actually longing for it because I need to help getting my life re-centered. I feel like I’ve been standing under a waterfall of words and I’m drowning because the words have no life in them.

I find in them so much fear and paranoia, meanness and hate they have a rotten smell and – yet – they keep coming and coming and coming – from the news, Twitter, on radio and television, and I feel rising within me, the temptation to despair.

Thank God for Lent, because the Lenten wilderness is a gift of time to reorder our lives in such a way as to give us clarity of mind and heart. Without this clarity, how can we resist the conclusion that and hope for neighborliness is in vain and the most we can do is withdraw into our shells.

“A gift of time to reorder our lives” – that’s what Lent give us. This reordering is achieved by grounding ourselves again in the practices of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.

Speaking of fasting, what have you had in mind? For advice, I checked in with Pope Francis who I am coming to regard as my pastor. Here’s what he said:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and trust in god.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

On the one side there is hurt, sadness, anger, pessimism, worry, complaining, pressure, bitterness, selfishness, grudge-holding, and too many words.

On the other side, there is kindness, gratitude, patience, hope, trust, simplicity, prayer, joy, compassion, reconciliation, silence, and listening.

Which do you want for you life?
You know, you could leave here today having decided, having made a choice for one course over the other – the path of God’s truth about life, your life, the life meant for human beings to live, the life that makes us neighbors to one another, the life that the Bible calls salvation.

Do you think you could do this? And, if you did, can you imagine what difference it might make? May God give us the grace and courage to try!

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Contract or Covenant

Sermon preached – February 12, 2017 on the lectionary readings for the day: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

© David B. Batchelder – 2017

In our Psalm today, we hear a deep devotion and loyalty to the law of God. In verse 24 of this 176 verse Psalm, the Psalmist proclaims: “Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors.” And in verse 124 – “Truly I love your commandments more than gold, more than fine gold.” How is this ardor to be explained? The answer is found in our first reading from Deuteronomy where Moses calls God’s people to follow the law as the path of life.

On the banks of the Jordan River opposite the promised land, Moses appeals to a people once enslaved in the land of the pharaohs. He says, “I have set before you, life and death. Choose life!”

Today’s scriptures invite us to think about the significance of choice which is a privilege and a responsibility, a “blessed” burden of freedom given to us all at the dawn of creation. What we read in Deuteronomy is the honoring of this human privilege by God.

God is always generous, eager to pour forth “life” as we willingly embrace a pattern of living that goes with the flow of grace. God will not undo the disasters we humans choose for ourselves. God does not spare humanity the consequences of our folly – not because God cannot – but because God will not violate how God has made us.

In mercy, therefore, God offers “life” as a gift. If this “life” were imposed, it would no longer be “gift.” For one indispensable aspect of gift is reciprocity in the exchange. One gives and another gratefully receives, thereby completing the circle of relatedness.

This explains why the structure of God’s relationship with humanity has always been – and remains so to this day – covenant,” not “contract.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But the scar of sin which has blighted all creation, is that human creatures have the hardest time with one critical aspect of covenant – trust.

Because we “trust” so poorly, we prefer to have things in writing. We want guarantees. We want leverage to be sure that what has been promised gets delivered as advertised. In short, because we favor certainty over trust, we prefer contracts to covenants but, in so doing, turn gifts into rewards and entitlements.

The Law of Moses was meant to show God’s people the path of life. Instead, it became an albatross of death. Religion, itself, becomes a curse, rather than the blessing God intended.

Such is the state of things, when Jesus arrives. In fact, Jesus arrives in order to reveal once again the heart of the God who makes covenants of grace, not contracts of requirement.

Let me ask you something: When you heard the Gospel read moments ago, is there anyone here who did not fidget just a little? I think its because we’ve all been affected by the distortion of religion as requirement. Most of us have picked up the message that if you do this, then God will do that. But if you fail here, God will punish you there. That’s “contract.”

What Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount is translating the language of covenant
for a people who have been living the distorted of contract. Because sin has re-wired our minds to think primarily in terms of reward and punishment, covenant language has gotten twisted and turned into a means of control favoring the strong and marginalizing the weak.

No where is the more apparent than the section on divorce.

I don’t have to tell you that, for a marriage to work, there has to be TRUST. When I married my son John to his beloved Helen last December, I did not ask them to sign a contract; they made a covenant. But, what happens when covenants fail?

In Moses time, wives were summarily tossed aside as personal property no longer wanted by their husbands. There were no guardrails to protect the ones with fewest rights. So Moses required a “certificate of divorce” which was a small step among ancient cultures towards equal rights. This meant that a woman with a “certificate” could prove that she was not just “off the street,” thus opening the option of remarriage.

By Jesus’ time, however, Moses’ limitation on indiscriminate divorce had become so abused in a social and religious patriarchy, women were still mistreated. So in the first century world, divorce was abandonment with little ceremony.

Largely lost from view was the fact that the relationship of marriage cannot be meaningfully lived with a contract mentality. God created us and this world for covenant. So when Jesus speaks of divorce, he refuses to endorse the cultural norms in a male-dominated culture that devalues women as second class, and he reframes the question in terms of covenant.

As with all Jesus’ words today, about anger against neighbors, about taking from a neighbor what is not ours, and about using oath-making as a way to avoid the truth, Jesus calls his disciples to covenant life in community and away from contractual arrangements of self-interest.

God weeps with a broken heart whenever we turn God’s gifts into entitlements and rewards for fulfilling religious requirements. Commentator Tom Long writes:

When a marriage becomes the very arena where people are destroying each other, we should ask how can the safety, nurture, and honor of the marriage partners best be preserved? This will mean viewing with compassion the people and their relationships, not merely defending the institution of marriage as such. Marriage was made for humanity, not humanity for marriage (Matthew. Westminster Bible Commentary, Louisville, KY, 1997, 60.)

If we can summarize our Gospel teaching, a teaching Jesus himself embodied, it would be this: we are called to be a community that is both truthful and trustworthy. We are to be a community that is passionate, but not controlled by passion. Everything about who we are and how we live is to be enriched and disciplined by honoring covenants.

In Corinthians, we see how far church members have fallen from this calling. They have allowed their passions to erode trust and corrupt the truth. The result is disorder, chaos, and conflict “Rethink your partisanship, dear Corinthians (Paul says) which has led you surrender your loyalty to Christ for lessor allegiances.”

“Surrendering loyalty to Christ for lessor allegiances” – think about it. We are living in a time of idolatry which has contributed to the current disorder, chaos, and conflict and which plays into the hands of the current administration.

How can Christians claim to follow Jesus Christ if a particular version of patriotism is set above loyalty to Christ? . . . set above a version of nationalism, free market capitalism, or some political ideology?

Were Paul writing a letter to American Christianity, I believe he would say, “You are still mere spiritual babies who must be bottle-fed, because you are behaving as if these ideologies and economic systems mattered more than what God has done in Christ to take you by grace and make you God’s field, God’s building.”

Here is what I believe:

If this country devolves to the point where it is no longer able to function as the democracy our founders envisioned, it will not be because of another religion or some racial minority.

It will be because the still large number of those who say Jesus is their Lord, bear such little resemblance to their self-proclaimed Lord in his graciousness and mercy, his willingness to reach out across differences and open his heart to strangers, his going out of his way to protect the weakest, and his devotion to God above everything else even when tempted by the devil to save himself and be handed the kingdoms of the world.

It will be because so-called “Christians” have put country before Christ turning patriotism into piety, and national identity into a god.

When Nicholas Kristof last September asked the question, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?” – do you really think Jesus would choose American Christianity? Do you? Would Jesus join West Plano? I don’t know.

I do believe, however, that he’d be looking for people living life as “gift,” in “covenant,” people striving to be both truthful and trustworthy with one another and with the world.

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Christ Above Patriotism: Prayers of Intercession

The following intercessions were crafted for the Sunday liturgy of Word and Sacrament at West Plano Presbyterian Church for February 5, 2017. These prayers were inspired by the lectionary readings for the day: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

© David B. Batchelder – 2017

For your church – everyone who professes Christ as Lord,

that it might give its allegiance to you alone,

above patriotism,

above the economy,

above any nostalgic memory that might hold it captive.

Liberate your church

from partisan politics disguised as theology,

from contentiousness disguised as moral debate,

from ideologies of any kind that masquerade as your Divine will.

Help us follow Jesus, the Christ, who in life and death,

shows us the heart of true devotion to you.

God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For this country, but not it alone;

for all our citizens, but also for those living on American soil;

for those with roots going back many generations,

but also for those recently arrived by plane, boat, car, or on foot.

Pour out your blessing equally,

without regard for who is more or less deserving,

that we might become a people bound by our common humanity,

working together for the common good,

loving neighbors as ourselves;

God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For our President and those who govern with him;

that they might exercise power without partiality,

make decisions without prejudice,

lead with a vision of justice and peace for the whole creation,

all nations, all religions, all races;

God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the weakest among us, the poorest, and most neglected;

for all those governments see as problems rather than people – especially refugees;

for all suffering sickness, loneliness, fearfulness, and anger,

and those whose needs we have spoken here,

we ask your mercy and grace,

that each may receive what you long to provide.

Make this congregation – and all who claim your name –

channels of your compassion and kindness, mercy and help.

God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For all those we name as enemies,

those we consider bigots or hold in contempt,

everyone we believe we’d be better off without –

grant them, who are all also made in your image, your blessing.

For them – as for ourselves – we pray,

that you meet us at the deepest point of our resistance

and work a miracle of change.

Only by your grace can be break free of the past

and embrace a future transformed by your grace.

And – where are not yet willing, soften our stubbornness with your love.

God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

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“Christian” or Christ-like?

Sermon preached – January 20, 2017 – West Plano Presbyterian Church

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Micah 6:1-8; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Matt. 5:1-12

© David B. Batchelder – 2017

God is convening a courtroom trial. In the first verses you heard read from Micah, God issues a summons to creation, to the very mountains and hills that surround Israel that inspired the psalmist to pray – “I life up my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help.” These very same hills are called as witnesses for God, the plaintiff.

The “accused” is the people of God – YES! the very same God chose, loved (still loves), and upon whom God has poured out mercy!

We’ve all watched enough television of the Perry Mason and Judge Judy sort to know that the purpose of an opening statement is to tell the court something about the case they will be hearing.

In Micah, God’s opening statement begins as follows:
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”

If you have any memory of these words, it is most likely because they are a structured part of Good Friday’s Solemn Reproaches. The Reproaches of the Cross made their way into the Christian liturgy in the 8th and 9th centuries on the day when the church attends most intently the unjust death of an innocent Jesus at the hands of those he came to love.

Scholars tell us that this speech – “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” – is a rhetorical device of very ancient origins commonly used by parents, anguishing over their ungrateful children.

What follows next in Micah is testimony against the accused:

For I [GOD] brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Thus, begins a rehearsal of God’s benevolent acts towards Israel, similar to what we find in Psalm 78.

Then, there is a pregnant pause in the text. We know this because the editors of our Bibles put a space between the verses. We also know this because there is an obvious change of speakers. No longer is it God speaking. It is an individual speaking for the whole community, asking a question and remembering the answer.
                        “With what shall I come before the LORD,
                        and bow myself before God on high?”

The ungrateful people of God return to contemplate the part they have played in their relationship God, a God who is pure grace, whose continued blessing has been bestowed beyond an any deserving.

Next to come in this text are a number of possible responses God’s people might make to this blessing: What if the people increased the number and quality of sacrifices to this God? Would this please God? How would God like us to offer calves just a year old? – the speaker wonders. What if we set fire to 10,000 rams with so much oil it flowed like a river?

You should recognize this kind of thinking. If some is good, a lot more is even better! Then, the speaker really gets carried away. “What if I sacrificed my first born to atone for my sin? Surely God would be impressed with such devotion?”

This may sound rather silly but, in its mocking exaggeration, it reveals an important truth. God doesn’t give a damn about grandiose displays of ritual and extravagant outpourings of devotion. God does not want ceremony. God wants righteousness.

So the speaker takes the tone of chastisement: “God has told you, [over and over dear mortals], what is good; [so don’t act as if you don’t know]. What does the LORD require of you but to DO justice, and to LOVE kindness, and to WALK humbly with your God.”

Two triads – do, love, and walk – justice, kindness, humility – words that also made their appearance in the prayer offered by Rev. Paula White at the Jan 20th Inauguration, a prayer that included this petition:

Gracious God, reveal unto our president the ability to know the will, your will, the confidence to lead us in justice and righteousness, and the compassion to yield to our better angels.

Based on Presidential actions this week, and reviewed in light of this text from Micah, one is left to wonder if the prayer was offered as a substitute for the real thing,if praying for justice and righteousness was meant to soothe those of sensitive conscience so that they would be less alarmed, less distraught, less alert to Executive Actions that are blatantly unjust in their treatment of the stranger – who we are to welcome, neighbors – who we are to love, and the destitute – who we are to regard as Christ in disguise, but who – as of yesterday – we have detained in U.S. airports.

At that same Friday Inauguration gathering, another prayer was prayed or, rather, it was more of a reading.mIt is our Gospel for the day.

The Beatitudes form the first portion of the Sermon on the Mount which is the first, the longest, and most carefully structured speech in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s church is a young, diverse, growing community of Jews and gentiles. To fulfill Jesus’ vision of a new community, these new Christians must be taught and formed in what it means to be Christian. So we see Jesus, like Moses among the Hebrews, ascending a mountain to teach the people.

Though Matthew’s Jesus is clearly “Moses-like,” Jesus has no equals because only Jesus announces and ushers in the dominion of heaven. All those who belong to God’s dominion are pronounced “BLESSED.” Those upon whom blessing is pronounced are by all appearances – the “les miserable” of the earth. Some would argue that these persons are twice cursed!

They bear the burden of grief and heartache, gentleness and meekness. They thirst for righteousness. They lay no claim to pride. And they suffer being maligned and persecuted.
Yet, o bear this apparent “burden” is to be “blessed.”

To be so blessed has nothing to do with our emotional condition. These blessings are prophetic declarations of divine favor that those who are turned down, turned away, shut out, walled out are privileged with god’s special devotion.

It is no small irony that these beatitudes (or a version of them) was read at the beginning of a Presidency that – in its first week offered no comfort for the Standing Rock Sioux, no mercy for the meek of Syria who have been branded “outcasts,” and showed no purity of heart as it considers reinstating blacksite torture chambers to combat terrorism.

Just days ago – a group of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith leaders stood together on the steps of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., to speak against the president’s actions curtailing the acceptance of refugees from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen.

Rev. Jimmie Hawkins – a Presbyterian – said “now is the time for the faith community and the nation to assist refugees and asylum seekers who are the “most vulnerable population on our planet.” . . . “Rather than follow our most basic instincts of fear and hatred, we must send a message of hope and healing, of peace and justice to those fleeing desperate situations.”

Contrast this with what another religious speaker at the Inauguration said, the Rev. Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son), who, himself proposed a ban on Muslims in 2015. The ban for him, (quote) “is not a Bible issue.”

It would seem, as we watch unfolding events, that it is now possible to be a “Christian” without being Christ-like. It is possible for Christians to think themselves so wise, they are no longer living, what Paul terms, the foolishness of the cross.

What I propose to you is that, in the beatitudes, Jesus does not show us what it is to be a “Christian.” after all, when Jesus lived, there were no Christians – only followers of Jesus.

The beatitudes are about what it means to be like him – like Jesus – which is now where the argument about Christianity must be made. Whatever one says about being “Christian,”the most important question is what actions, words, and deeds are most LIKE JESUS, who – when comes to each of us says, FOLLOW me, – – follow ME.

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God’s Insanity

Sermon preached January 22, 2017 – Isaiah 9:1-4; I Cor. 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

© Text – David B. Batchelder – 2017

© Image credit – Heidi Batchelder – 2017

The scriptures you have just heard from today’s lectionary arrive on the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity after an election revealing a huge divide among those who pray in Jesus’ name, without which Donald Trump could not have been sworn in as the 45th President of the U.S. just 2 days ago.

According to scholar Kristin Du Mez in her essay, Militant Evangelical Masculinity and American Politic, the 81% of Evangelicals voting for Trump

traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates the least of these for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Having replaced the Jesus of the gospels with an idol of machismo, it’s no wonder many have come to think of Trump himself as the nation’s savior. . . In the end, many evangelicals did not vote for Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.

Du Mez chairs the Department of History at at Calvin College, a school trying to be faithful to the Reformation whose 500th Anniversary we celebrate this very year.

So, forty-eight hours after beginning a new Presidency, our gospel today invites us to watch Jesus as he begins his ministry. And, five days into the week where Christian disunity is the subject of special prayer, we listen today as Paul laments the disarray in the Corinthian church.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul laments a church suffering from self-inflicted wounds because it is divided its loyalties between personalities. Members of Christ’s body have attached themselves to one favorite figure or another – Apollos, Cephas, or some other. In surrendering to lesser allegiances, the Corinthians have stripped themselves of a higher dignity and squandered God’s gift of unity in Christ.

God’s purpose of unity has been no less abused outside the church in the culture, than inside the church itself.

In a society captivated by the coveted status of “celebrity,” we could have easily adapted this Corinthian text to – “I belong to Clinton,” “I belong to Bernie,” “I belong to Trump.”

Look where it has brought us both in Christianity and in culture. Paul’s appeal to the foolish Corinthians is as much a prayer: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing. They know not the danger they invite. They know not how a crack in unity can become a chasm putting asunder what God has joined together.”

Paul tells the Corinthians: “Be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And – so have we been hearing recently from many of our elected leaders, except from the one upon whom has been bestowed the greatest responsibility. The one who possesses the greatest advantage to work for unity, has adopted a personal and public manner that deepens division, alienates, rather than reconciles, offends, rather than heals.

“You will know them by their fruits” cautions the Bible; “do not be deceived.”

In Paul’s mind, what’s at stake in all this is nothing less than the Gospel itself! For Paul concludes our reading today by telling the Corinthians that the way of Christ is counter-intuitive. The Jesus way will seem foolish, impractical, even impossible. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The cross is God’s insanity and it is scandalous! It elevates humility revealing an all too prevalent obesity of arrogance, thereby exposing the folly of overconfidence in the self. The scandal of the Gospel makes plain that the path to life is not a matter of winning, but trusting. It is about strength through vulnerability, empathy, and compassion. Such other ways of relating, currently being modeled at the highest level, such as throwing your weight around, embarrassing others in public, belittling and bullying, such ways will sometimes get you what you want, but at a price. The cost is paid in mistrust and alienation, and – because this toll is revealed over time – getting what you want by intimidation can deceptively seem like a good deal at the time.

If we believe that, we are fools! For Paul, it is better to be Christ’s fool, than a joker agitating division, unawarely flirting with violence, hardly aware of its trail of victims.

It is to such victims that we see Jesus come first as he launches his ministry.

Galilee is the last place anyone would choose to start a spiritual revival. It has an ethnically mixed population with Syria lying to its north, Phoenicia to its west, and Samaria to its south.

Because its situated along international trade routes, it sits at the intersection of commerce, cultural diversity, and religious pluralism.

So Jesus begins his ministry in a place where he is part of a racial minority, and in a place about as far from Jerusalem – the center of his faith – as you can get.

Matthew is quite aware how controversial it is for Jesus to begin a revival in Galilee, how starting to preach in such a place will surely add fuel to skeptics. But Matthew argues that beginning in Galilee actually enhances Jesus’ credentials as God’s anointed one.
Matthew’s argument rests on our text from Isaiah, the one we read each Christmas Eve, except that today we began at one verse.

Verse one, not read on Christmas Eve, mentions two places no one would remember were it not for the ancient memory of the pain and shame they suffered. These places are named for 2 of Israel’s tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali. You’ll find them on northernmost frontier of the old kingdom of Israel in what is now Galilee.

Here’s what happened: Around 732 B.C., Assyria invaded Israel and these two towns were the first to suffer military occupation.

The Assyrians annexed Galilee for itself, the way Russia did Crimea. Because this happened a full decade before the rest of Israel was conquered, the rest of the nation had 10 years to watch these regions suffer.

But this text from Isaiah announces that the past is not a period. Because the past is never final, it cannot not doom the future, nor limit the possibility for new life.

This is a stunning announcement, far more profound that some slogan like “Make Israel Great Again!” Though the prophet’s words sound preposterous, they proclaim a God who actively engages, and partners with, the world God made.

So here – in the most disreputable and stigmatized land he can find – Jesus begins to announce God’s new reign. Those first to be exploited are first to experience liberation and healing. And, from among these scorned, Jesus calls four to follow him.

And, by the end of our reading, Jesus’ movement among the marginalized takes off! We see Jesus crisscrossing Galilee with people of all kinds bringing him the sick, the needy and those in pain.

What is clear from Matthew, is that anyone looking for Jesus will need to start in the places of greatest heartache. And, for any choosing to follow Jesus, it will mean adopting patterns and practices that favor forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and sacrifice.

Keep reading in Matthew and you can’t miss it! Jesus devoted himself to building community – not an empire – that obsessed Caesar and has preoccupied every ambitious world leader since.

On the steps of the Capitol building Friday, we heard a speech that sounded to me like a pep rally to rebuild a faded empire. Look again at the text of that speech and contrast it with Jesus’ words about God’s new reign in Matthew.

In Matthew, Jesus warns his followers against wanting to be first, because, in God’s kingdom, the first will end up last, and last will be first.

When Jesus discovers how infatuated his disciples have become with greatness, he tells them that greatness comes, only through serving others.

When Jesus’ successors became fearful for their “protection” and prosperity, Jesus told them not to be anxious and to seek first the kingdom of God. Then, he showed them how to trust loving others as the path to new life.

Jesus never talked about “winning,” but he did talk about “losing,” losing our lives for the sake of his Gospel in order that we might find them. The nearest our Lord comes to talking about winning is when he asks, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world, but lose his or her soul?”

It is the soul that is now at stake, each one’s own, and this nation’s – placed in jeopardy by a vision that is pure selfishness.

However “good” Friday’s news may have seemed to some, I must tell you that it has
nothing to do the Gospel announced by Jesus regardless of how many times our Savior’s name was invoked at the podium.

I will pray for my new President and his chosen ones, but I will hold up his policies to the light of the Gospel. I am a “Christian” before I am an “American.” For when Jesus calls us to discipleship, he said, “Follow ME!”

God so loved the world, not this nation only. Therefore, if we do not consider those living beyond our borders as well as those within our borders, we cannot expect god’s favor.

After all, it is this Gospel from Matthew where Jesus tells us: “I was hungry and thirsty, sick and a stranger, naked and in prison; whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did so to me.

As an act of her patriotism, my daughter Heidi marched in Washington D.C. on Friday.
In the throng, were many signs. This one caught her attention, and mine:
“MAKE COMPASSION GREAT AGAIN.” Amen and Amen.

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What are you looking for . . . in 2017?

Sermon preached on January 15, 2017 – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany                           [Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians. 1:1-9; John 1:29-42]

© David B. Batchelder – 2017

What is it you’re looking for . . in your life? . . from God” . . a church? . . this church? January brings us face to face with a year we cannot predict, with more than the usual turbulence leading into it. How have the events of this past year influenced what you are seeking for your spiritual, emotional, social, and physical well-being? Are you able yet to put it into words?

 
Many of us – perhaps most of us – will need something from God, and each other, we could not have named a year ago. In the world now unfolding, the question of today’s gospel is a timely one: “What are you looking for?”

 
Three and one half weeks ago, Seattle’s Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church (where I’ve worshiped a number of times) put into words what it believes people will long for in this new year. It may not be true for everyone, but for those wanting a world with more love, justice, mercy, and peace, St Mark’s is prepared to offer the following; listen as I read a portion of their statement and ask yourself, is this what I’m looking for from God and from a church community?

Saint Mark’s Cathedral Parish reaffirms its commitment to respect the dignity of every human being, strive for justice and peace among all people, and seek and serve Christ in all persons. . . . We believe our nation can do better, and we pledge to work toward that better vision here and now. We commit to being a network of activists, in God’s name, joining others who similarly pledge to actively pursue justice. Here’s how we will engage this work:

(What follows are 12 commitments; here are 5.)

We will listen.
We will listen to those with whom we may disagree as we seek safe and sacred spaces for hearing each other’s stories, pains, fears, and hopes. We will foster such dialogue so that our children might learn the meaning of the diversity and pluralism that is America’s best future.

We will lift up truth.
We will strive to replace fear with facts when it comes to public discussions about immigrants, refugees, Muslims, racial diversity, and national security. Our times require a moral compass, and truth-telling is an important part of this.

We will reject White Nationalism.
We will name racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia as sins. We believe all people are made in God’s image, and we affirm diversity as a gift, blessing, and opportunity for our nation.

We will love our neighbors by protecting them from hate speech and attacks.
We will identify, report, and confront hate speech and behavior — against all ethnic and religious groups, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and all marginalized groups. Our church stands as a sanctuary and safe haven for people threatened by those who would attack them.

We will defend religious liberty.
We embrace Muslims as fellow Americans and stand with our local mosques in congregational solidarity. We will denounce the defamation and banning of Muslims, and will seek to disrupt any attempt to require registration of Muslims.

My question is simple: is this what you are looking for? Let me also ask, does this sound like the Jesus we meet in the Gospels? And, if it does, are we prepared to follow him?

 
At the Inauguration this coming Friday, we will hear a vision of our society and the world. I invite you to think about the world you’d rather live in. There is the world as envisioned by Jesus of Nazareth and the world being squeezed into existence by fear and paranoia.

This year, we will have choices that will ask us to wrestle with values, commitments, loyalties, and fundamental principles. So what are you looking for? The path to the world of God’s imaginating and Jesus’ empowering is what we are presented with today in John. In this time following Epiphany, Jesus is calling his disciples – all disciples – to a path and pattern that is distinctively like him in all that he is: his life, loyalties, and allegiances.

 

In the Prologue of John’s Gospel, read here a couple of weeks ago, we heard this:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Having set forth this relationship in poetic verse, the Gospel now begins to reveal it in narrative. We watch as Jesus emerges from the background and steps into the lime light. The “true light which enlightens everyone” comes out of John the Baptist’s shadow to begin building his community of disciples.

Notice how the Baptist takes great pains to point beyond himself to the coming one who ranks ahead of him, the one upon whom John sees the Spirit descend.

Evidence points to an early time when John, not Jesus, was believed to be the Promised One. Today, John goes on public record with some astounding claims concerning Jesus. So we are not surprised when two of John’s followers transfer their spiritual interest to Jesus -particularly after John declares Jesus to be the “Lamb of God.”

Such a title as this would not be lost on readers of this Gospel, especially since – in this Gospel – John (not Matthew, Mark, and Luke) places Jesus’ crucifixion on the very day Passover lambs were sacrificed.

Jesus presents us with an invitation to discipleship that is makes its appeal at a deeper level than mere curiosity. What are you looking for? is a “gift” in the form of a question. And – this question – calls us to take a step in grace. It is a step in grace because it raises our consciousness about what’s going on deep inside us. Immediately following the question is an invitation – “Come and see.”

With these simple words – “come and see,” grace beckons us because what will come about (should we accept) is a shifting of our attention through a practice I like to think of as “pondering.” In pondering, we become more spiritually self-aware of ourselves, but not in a kind of self-absorbed obsessive kind of way that becomes narcissistic.

We become more aware of ourselves as creatures with whom God is earnestly engaged, desiring for us the rich life for which God made us, and for which God redeemed us in Christ.

One piece of advice for us all this year: be prepared to struggle. Our text from Isaiah reveals the prophet’s wrestling with God’s call. In Isaiah’s poem, we hear the servant express doubts and raise questions. The “call” to come and see engages us with who God is and what God is doing in the world. It means embarking on a path we have not been before. But we are never alone. In Isaiah, God responds to the servant’s doubt, not with answers, but with presence, with the assurance of God’s strength: “Do not worry about the future, I will bring it about.”

To be a member at Seattle’s St Mark’s is such an calling to come and see, and wrestle with the God who loves us and will never let go of this world. The very first commitment made in st. Mark’s statement sounds like it was inspired by today’s Gospel:

We will go deeper in faith.
We commit to read, study, and live the words of Jesus. The prophet Micah’s words provide a mantra for us as people of faith: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” We must seek both courage and humility as we respond.

May God grant West Plano Presbyterian Church to do the same in response to the God who desires to give us life that really is life.

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Unexpected Hope

Sermon preached for 2nd Sunday of Advent (Dec. 4, 2016)                                                   Isaiah 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

© David B. Batchelder – November, 2016

This past year culminating in November has for me (and for many) exposed the danger of presumption. We heard over and over again experts talk about presumptive party nominees leading to a presumptive election result. So we were all stunned Nov. 8th – none more so than the winner.

The comparison I want to make is not between the President-Elect and John the Baptist, but with the shocking effect of John’s radical preaching falling on the ears of an elite who acted as if their place of superiority and privilege was guaranteed. Such presumptiveness is what earns the Pharisees and Sadducees showing up at the Jordan John’s stinging rebuke – “You brood of Vipers!”

However you voted, we were all equally surprised when the votes were counted. People in numbers larger than we ever imagined declared themselves ready for change, any change, anything other than the status quo. And – they’re willing to take a risk embracing it.

I think we’re all still coming to terms with this truth about our society. And – for me – it has tuned my ears differently this Advent as I study familiar scripture readings. For the camel-hair-clad prophet standing in the river is, himself, calling for change. He’s wet in the water with penitents willing to forsake who they’ve been and how they’ve lived for a holy righteousness and coming day of God’s judgement, as John is preaching it. John’s looking for repentance and this repentance must show itself in different living.

How different are we talking about? And – what exactly is the nature of the difference expected by John? Its hard to say from this reading in Matthew. Matthew is more concerned to contrast those he generally describes as “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea” who are seeking his baptism with the “many Pharisees and Sadducees” who also show up – for baptism? . . . out of curiosity? . . . to conduct surveillance? . . . or policing? You decide!

The purpose of Matthew’s comparison is to zero in on a spiritual cancer to which to the privileged and powerful are especially susceptible. What john inherited from the prophets including Isaiah is a bias against presumption and its noxious sense of entitlement. What makes this malignant is that such a disposition breeds complacency and leaves one unprepared for god’s unpredictable presence – a presence that is sweeping in its breadth and width – like fire, says John – that has the power to leave nothing in its path unchanged.

Our Gospel today brings us both warning and watching. I want to say this carefully: As John warns the religious “right” of his time, so Matthew warns his own church (and us) against any Christianity that so presumes its place; it takes its own understanding of the faith for granted as the complete version, the true rendition, the correct interpretation turning faith as relatedness-WITH-God, into a belief-system-ABOUT-God and what God wants.

“CERTAINTY” about what I believe God wants for me is one thing; having that same “certainty” for others – much less a whole society – is quite another as many are now prepared to protest.

Thus, we move in today’s Gospel from warning to watching. There is another coming after me” John says, “more powerful than I.” “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and FIRE.”

In John’s imagination as the last of the Old Testament prophets, this coming one will bring judgement and separation. John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, he will clear his threshing floor” gathering the wheat and burning the chaff.

As it turns out, these words do not describe Jesus’ ministry, do they? Jesus did NOT go about judging sinners, he welcomed them. Jesus did NOT sort the wretched from the righteous, he formed a community, that became his own body, a body he sent to serve a world claimed in love by God. I am hoping that those Christians viewing this election-result as an act of God don’t treat it as confirmation of a judging and separating Jesus.

There’s another view of Jesus that Christianity takes seriously as it applies our reading in Isaiah to the one born of Mary. In Isaiah 11 we find another botanical image. Whereas John the Baptist speaks of an axe being laid to the tree, Isaiah speaks of unexpected hope from a tree already cut down – a shoot from a stump.

Against all odds life emerges from a line of descendants long thought dead. The coming one is endowed with God’s Spirit equipped with all the attributes we’d want in anyone to whom we would trust our lives.

What’s significant, I think, is how this endowment fits the community’s need for keeping the peace. Wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, are special gifts so that Jesse’s shoot can avoid judging by appearance and hearsay. Righteousness and justice are his special capacities. Worthy of particular mention is how those most often unable to attain justice will be the beneficiaries. “He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

This Isaiah text is a favorite one – especially with its images of an animal kingdom no longer ruled by natural instincts of predator and prey. These creaturely depictions convey the blessing of life-changing righteousness establishing a justice that is truly “just.” Such equality of justice for all regardless of social standing makes it possible to build a community of welcome which is what Paul is helping the church at Rome become when he says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

When Paul composes this letter, he was writing from Corinth to a church he’s never visited but one entangled in a government policy change as Roman rule passed from Emperor Claudius to Nero. Under Claudius, Jews were expelled for inciting riots, perhaps in reaction to the proclamation of the Gospel. Gentile believers would have been happy to see the Jews banished. But under Nero, this policy was relaxed and Jews, including Jewish Christians, began returning. Now the tensions between Gentile and Jewish Christians were again present in the church., particularly those tensions having to do with adherence to the law of Moses. Paul is speaking into this situation with the intent and hope of reconciling differences and forming a new unity of mind and heart centralized in the person of Jesus Christ.

Our reading comes at the end of pastoral guidance on sensitive matters.
Here, Paul’s call for welcome is anchored in a Christology, that is, understanding of Christ as the WELCOMING ONE. On the basis of God’s welcome in Christ, Paul issues the blessing of hope with which our epistle reading concludes:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Having talked with a number of you these past several weeks, I know that many of you are struggling with the changes underway as a new government is formed. Some of you are distraught; some are taking a wait and see approach; others are more positive.

What I want to say from our scriptures today is that this unexpected season of social and political tumult is no less a time for hope. I say this because our “hope” is not dependent on whether a particular man and his cabinet are judged qualified. Our hope rests in a God who can bring life from a dead stump.

Let us, therefore, the church of Christ endowed by the Spirit, be a new shoot of righteousness in our society, faithful to Isaiah’s vision of impartial justice, faithful to John’s repentance bearing good fruit, and faithful to Paul’s ethic of welcome.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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The Triumph of Mercy

Sermon preached on Reign of Christ Sunday – November 20, 2016 –                           Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

© David B. Batchelder – November, 2016

How strange that we should journey all year long through the liturgical calendar,
only to wind up again at Good Friday,
at the cross, at Jesus’ death.

Jesus is nailed to the wood and being taunted.
Bullies show no respect, not even for the dying.
Jesus is not alone.
But its not his disciples who are with him.
They have scattered.
His two companions are there only because
here is no escape being executed alongside Jesus.
They are criminals for whom deportation is not an option.
Side by side, they can only watch as spectators gawk and scoff.

We listen to the chatter and are horrified; not an ounce of compassion.
There is no mistaking the sense of dreadful inevitably.

I’ve been listening this week to the voices of a diverse and divided America.
It’s a mixed bag, and its toxic.
Among many, there is a sense of dread.
Among those overlooked by pollsters,
there’s a defiance that showed itself in the voting –
“We’re fed up and won’t take it any more!”
And – then – there are those who like the onlookers in Luke
continue to heap abuse as an exercise of their “free speech” –
– which of course, isn’t “free” at all
especially if you calculate the cost
of the PAIN being inflicted and the FEAR incited.

What usually goes unmentioned in such a conversation as we are having here,
is the steep price paid by the verbal abusers themselves –
an accelerated rot in their hearts.
Luke wants readers to see that here, on the hill called Skull,
we are not only watching humanity in decay,
but the degradation of the whole human race.
Its all there to see in its multi-varied ugliness.

The scavenging of personal belongings before Jesus has yet died.
The cruelty inflicted on the condemned
in a kind of grotesque anti-eucharist
where the one who offered himself as new wine
has wine-gone bad-forced between his lips.
By such actions, the imago dei, or image of God, is defaced.

But the inhumanity is mostly in the speech.
And why not?
Words make powerful war-heads when armed with hatred and bigotry.
It scarcely matters whether they’re spoken or written as we have seen this week
The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted
more than 700 complaints of hate speech or crimes
against blacks, Muslims, Latinos, and Gays.
It is impossible to “love your neighbor as yourself” and not care about this.

My own family is multi-racial and will joyfully become even more diverse
when John and Helen are married.
But it seems that now, after this election,
the restraints are off and I wonder, what have we wrought?
What perversity has now become legitimated?

I feel like I – this preacher who makes a living with words –
should have said more, done more during the campaign season
when so many wannabe presidents filled their speeches
with “locked-and-loaded” words tipped with poison.
I confess to you, I have been so stunned this year –
I think I just chalked it up to political theater.
But now I realize I’d been tasered into stupefaction.

So there is it, all of it in Luke,
the kingdom of darkness making its advance –
an alliance of deeds and words both – make no mistake about it.
It should come as no shock, therefore, that the remedy and the rescue
should also come with words.

The Guiltless One,
upon whom has fallen an unjust-justice
is completely powerless . . . or so it would appear.
But he speaks and his words pierce the torrent of derision:
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Given the flow of the narrative,
Luke intends us to connect these words of forgiveness
with the change of heart in the one thief on the cross.

For the scene shifts from mockers on the ground
to the criminals hanging just above them.
One of them dissents from the chorus of scorn.
He disavows words he now regards
as unfit for the truth of Jesus’ innocence.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“Today, you will be with me in paradise,” says Jesus.“You will be WITH-ME.”

What we witness in this exchange has a name; it’s called “MERCY.”
And, the most compelling expression of this mercy is FORGIVENESS –

Forgiveness even though
it has not been earned,
there is no deserving,
and nothing is received in exchange –
like a proven willingness to repent,
a promise to reform,
a swearing on a stack of Bibles that it will never happen again.
ARE YOU O.K. WITH THIS?
. . . because what we see in Jesus is what his kingdom is about.

What exactly was it that put Jesus on the cross, condemned to death?
How would you sum it up?
Was it his LIBERALITY with forgiveness?
Even on the cross Jesus continues to dispense LIBERALITY –
Does Jesus’ LIBERALITY make him LIBERAL?
What would you call opening the door to paradise for someone
just before the clock strikes midnight?

“Mercy is God’s identity card.” said Pope Francis recently.

Let me ask you something.
Can you remember a time in your life, a person (anyone)
who reached out to you when you did not deserve it;
when (in fact) you’d behaved like a donkey’s rear-end;
when you were “dug-in” on your point of view,
certain you were right,
and that you had been wronged,
and the other was to blame –
and, in that reaching out, what was offered you by that person
was a window opened to a future free of your indignation, your hurt,
your wounded ego, – in other words – you could be free of the past?
That, my friends, is MERCY!
And such mercy is carried on the wings of forgiveness.

Mercy always entails some risk
because it acts towards others –
not on the basis of a past we already know and with which we are familiar.
Mercy acts on the basis of a future that could be, but cannot be
if I don’t take the risk and break the cycle of an “eye for an eye.”

That is why mercy and forgiveness flower from faith in god.
We trust in something yet to pass
in the hope that life can come from death.

Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury)
spoke to the World Federation of Lutherans and said –

To forgive and to be forgiven is to allow yourself to be humanized by those whom you may least want to receive as signs of God’s gift; . . .To deny the possibilities of forgiveness would be to say that there are those I have no need of because they have offended me or because they have refused to extend a hand to me.

What Jesus reveals from the cross as the Crucified-Shepherd
is that the character of his kingdom is forgiveness and mercy.
His kingdom is anti-bullying.
There is no bombast and no name-calling as some pundits and commentators have done          labeling Millennials “Cry-Babies because their greater acceptance of a multi-racial and        religious society and willingness to be less judgmental has them fearfully alienated from      the newly elected government.

In Jesus’ Kingdom, there is no degrading of the “other”
even when the other is considered an “enemy.”

Jesus’ kingdom is a realm of non-violent speech
that insists on telling the truth that is sometimes hard to hear, so hard (in fact)
that some refuse to hear,
going so far as to shut it up! . .
which is what they thought they’d done in nailing Jesus to the cross.

But mercy flows out from the cross to the whole world.

Forgiveness is there for the waiting,
even before the asking,
to be received as release from a past that cannot be changed,
and opened to a future that can be changed.

So I say to you that I want to change the “change.”
I am determined to help change the change                                                                                       if the “change” to be given us by this election means
the marginalization of racial minorities,
casting suspicion on Muslims,
further erosion of respect for others,
an acceptance of fabrication as truth,
and the harmful harvesting of our planet’s resources
at the cost of my children and grandchildren.

As I look back on my life, I regret that I stood watching
when I should have been walking with others,
sat silent when I should have spoken out,
urged patience when I should have taken up the protest.

I want to be on the Jesus kingdom side
in the coming social upheaval already underway.

If I err, if I make a mistake and have to say “i was wrong, I’m sorry,”
it will be because I erred
on the side of mercy,
on the side of forgiveness,
on the side of welcoming the undeserving as did Jesus to the thief beside him.

This is our king, sisters and brothers!
His reign will not force itself on you;
rather, it beckons you to live to the fullness of your God-given humanity
a humanity that cannot survive without forgiveness and mercy.
May God have mercy on us all!

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