FOR PENTECOST, 2009

WHEN THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH COMES….

John 16: 12″I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The promises you just heard from Jesus began to be fulfilled on that Pentecost Sunday that we celebrate today and every year. Jesus promised to send us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who, he said, would “guide us into all truth.”

So, how do we know when the Spirit is guiding us, and how? I’ll begin with a story that tells us more about how and when the Spirit is not guiding us.

A woman from a lively, Pentecostal-type church happened to be far away from home, on vacation one Sunday morning. Wanting to worship with other believers, she went to the nearest church, in a big mainline cathedral across the street from her hotel. Everything about the service and the sanctuary were unfamiliar to her, and boring too, compared to the lively, emotional style of worship, music and preaching she was accustomed to. Nothing spoke to her until the pastor began preaching. It wasn’t the dry and academic style of delivery that spoke to her. But the Bible was the same, and the sermon had powerful, penetrating points about it, with which she agreed. To the first of the pastor’s zingers she said, aloud, “Amen!” Just like in her home church. The pastor looked stunned for a moment, and heads turned in her direction with quizzical expressions. Next point, and she couldn’t stifle another outburst: “Praise the Lord!” More puzzled expressions in her direction. The third time she let out a “Hallelujah!” an usher came up to her pew and whispered, “Ma’m, if you continue interrupting the sermon, we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied.

But with the next Bible quote she couldn’t contain herself and out popped another “Amen!” So the usher came over, took her by the arm and began escorting her out of the sanctuary. As they entered the hallway, she told the usher, “I can’t help myself; I’ve got the Holy Ghost infilling and anointing!” To which the usher replied, “Well, whatever your condition is called, Lady, you didn’t get it here! And if its the least bit contagious, please leave before anyone else catches it, too.”

With that story you have illustrated the extremes and pitfalls of our understanding of the Third Person of the Trinity, the One Who is both God and the Spirit of God, also called, in Acts chapter 16, “The Spirit of Jesus.” The Trinity has been compared to a fire, a union in three interdependent manifestations: if the Father is the flame, and the Son is the light of the flame, the Holy Spirit is the warmth of the flame. Each of these are separate expressions or experiences of fire. Yet there cannot be one without the other. That’s as far as I dare to go in comparing the awesome mystery and majesty of one God in a three-fold self-expression to something we can see and experience.

One extreme is in believing that the Spirit will always work in some dramatic, emotional, attention-grabbing way that will either make you deliriously happy or depressingly guilty. I’ve been in some worship services where it seems like we were being manipulated into feeling one or both of those emotional extremes. And if we didn’t feel such things, the Holy Spirit must not have shown up, supposedly.

But I’m just as concerned about the opposite extreme, that we will resist or deny or stifle or ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in our spirits and in our midst. Or think that there’s no need for the Spirit to work among the members of the church because we already have traditions, hierarchy, institutions and experts who can already tell us all we need to know and who can do all that the church is called to do, for us.

But all the things that we discern as God’s will for ourselves and the congregation require this one all-too-often overlooked element: God’s Holy Spirit. This year we discerned that our banner Bible verse calls us to “seek the peace and well-being of the city to which God has called us,” from Jeremiah 29. Do we think that this could happen only and entirely on human wisdom and our congregation’s very commendable skills in management? More like, the Spirit has given these gifts, and can use them. But without Him, they could become dead and empty structures awaiting His filling, like empty homes in which no warmth or light glows on dark winter nights.

So how do we know what God’s Spirit is doing and wants to do in us and through us? Well, to answer that question, how long do we wish to stay here this morning? We could spend a week talking about all the ins and outs of discerning God’s work and God’s will and still not cover everything. Besides, if we could nail it all down and come up with a complete check list to mark off, so that by the time we get to the bottom of it, we’ll know with 100% certainty that this the will of God and the work of God’s Spirit, so that there will be no room for disagreement or uncertainty, then that would mean that our faith was now in checklists, rather than in a living, loving, personal and relational God. Let’s not go there.

But Jesus, in today’s gospel passage, gives us two ways by which to discern the work and the will of God’s Spirit in our lives and the church, when he says, in John 16:14-15 “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he [the Holy Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.” That night over that Last Supper, when Jesus said these words, this was more than a matter of discerning whether or not to put air conditioning into the Upper Room. Knowing and following the Spirit’s presence and guidance would be a life-and-death matter in the days and years ahead when they would continue Jesus’ ministry without his physical presence around to guide them.

And yet Jesus says that it is better for them that He leave them, and that the Spirit continue in them the work that he began in the flesh. Otherwise, how would they carry out his mission “to the uttermost ends of the earth” if they were still relying on his presence in bodily form? How could Jesus make new disciples through his twelve disciples in the many different times and places of the world to which they and the gospel are still going? For you and I to be here, in this sanctuary, this morning, Jesus had to leave First Century Galilee and come back to the whole world in the person of His Holy Spirit.

But that still leaves begging the question, “How do we know what the Spirit is saying and doing in the world today?” Jesus gave his disciples at least the following two things to cling to: 1) that the Spirit would always point to Jesus, to honor him and bring him glory, and therefore not to any one or anything else; and 2) the Spirit would keep taking what belongs to Jesus and giving it to us. In other words, the nature and the results of the Spirit’s will and work will always look like Jesus. The Spirit will always guide us and gift us in ways that resemble the way Jesus guided and gifted his first disciples.

About that first thing—the Spirit will always draw our attention to Christ, to honor and glorify him: in a moment we are about to share with one of our own her entry into a life of discipleship, in the footsteps of Christ. In talking with Andra Zerbe, I have sensed a genuine desire to follow Christ, to imitate him and to know him. According to today’s Scripture passage, that is the signature work of God’s Holy Spirit, evidence that He is alive, active and powerful in the world. Human nature being fallen as it is, I don’t think we would have the will nor the strength on our own to make that choice and follow through on it. If we are wondering where and if the Spirit of God is in this world, just consider your own desire and choice to follow Christ and to know him, to obey and honor him with your lives. We have some responsibility for that, but not all the power necessary for it. Everything that honors Christ, that lifts him up before the world and draws the world toward him is the Spirit’s work. So let’s ask ourselves that about any work or words or plan that we engage: does it honor Christ, or is just to honor ourselves? Does it point the world toward Christ, or does it just sell a church and its programs?

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To really honor someone we would imitate them. Which leads to the second thing—that the Spirit would take what belongs to Jesus and give it to us. Any direction in which the Spirit will lead us, personally or as a church, would and should look like Christ. It may even have a costly, cruciform shape. So in any choice before us, it makes sense to ask What is the Christ-like thing? Like the question that has often been posed: What Would Jesus Do?

I hope this doesn’t come across as some burdensome command: Do What Jesus Did, or else! Rather, I hope this is comforting and encouraging. Jesus is promising us that we can trust His Spirit to keep drawing our attention to him, and to keep doing Christlike things in us and through us. As he is doing for Andra, as we can tell by how she is willing to honor him and follow him in baptism and Christian life. And in the way he has gifted her with Christlike qualities and spiritual gifts for life and ministry. The Spirit has done it for us before; He is doing it even now. We can trust him to continue doing this among us. Can I get an Amen? Or a Hallelujah? Or a Praise the Lord?

THEY PROBABLY SAVED MY LIFE…

…the two guys who walked into the concession stand where I was working that summer and who started asking everyone, “Are you saved? Do you wanna know how to be saved?” I think I remember people getting up and leaving the picnic tables before they got to them, so I don’t recommend doing like what they were doing. But when they got to me, while I was working the cash register, I answered, “I used to think I was, but now I’m not so sure.” Because, four weeks after my response to an altar call, when I promised God everything, with great joy and certainty, I was not so joyful nor certain anymore. I had a few experiences under my belt to tell me that I was definitely not on the fast track to perfection; no halo was glowing around my head, and if I was disappointed in myself, how much more so must God be. Thirty six years later, I’m still not glowing with saintly perfection, and probably won’t be, not this side of the New Jerusalem. And I still have my moments of doubt. But like C.S. Lewis said, “As a believer, I have my doubts and they bother me; when I was an unbeliever, I also had my doubts, and they bothered me even more.” To my doubts about my status before God, the two witnesses (whoever you are, God bless you)pulled out their pocket Bibles and turned to the following passage from I John 5: 13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

“So does God want you to know if you’re safe and assured of his love?” The answer was unmistakably simple. Yes, according to John. And with that a wholly different way of life and faith opened up before me, one lived in confidence, based on God’s nature and power to keep his promises, not one lived in fear, based on my fickle nature and inability to keep promises perfectly. So here, below, is my message on this passage, and my attempt to reconstruct John’s reasons for assuring us of our assurance. Twenty centuries later, we’re still dealing with the same stuff.

A CELEBRATION OF ASSURANCE

What are we to think when we’re out on the street and we see that up ahead it has been blocked by police barricades, that blue and red lights are flashing atop police cars, yellow plastic tape has been drawn across the steps to the front doors of a bank building, police officers are standing around, some of them interviewing others, taking notes onto little notepads, while others are dusting the front doors with brushes while wearing rubber gloves? What are we to think? That your pastor has been watching too much CSI or Law and Order? Or more like, you’re coming onto the scene of a crime recently committed?

I’d vote for the crime scene, even though we weren’t there to see the crime. When I am watching TV, usually its America’s Funniest Videos or a fishing show on ESPN Outdoors.

Over the years that is how I have come to understand John’s First Letter, as evidence at the scene of a recent crime. We typically read I John for stirring, inspiring meditations on love, law and faith. And they are there. But I have to confess that two or three chapters in it also starts to seem like the thoughts about love, law and faith leave me feeling adrift on a sea of pious, positive platitudes with no direction or resolution.

Or I did until I came to suspect that what we’re reading in I John is also the aftermath to a crime scene. Then, when you read I John like a mystery novel, every reading gives you more clues into the criminals, the nature of the crime, and how John the writer helps the victims of the crime recover. Because that’s really what I think John is doing in his letter: guiding the victims of a crime toward healing and hope. The crimes: pre-meditated church-busting in the first degree, and aggravated spiritual abuse.

Here’s the first clue: Chapter 2: 19 “Many antichrists have come; They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” So obviously some group had left the church. In verse 26 John says, openly, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.” So obviously, the people who had left the church had been trying to lead the rest of the church astray. Or they were still trying to lead it astray.

Astray into what? Here are some other possible clues: 1) What am I to make of chapter 3: 6 “No one who lives in God willfully persists in sinning. No one who continues to persist in sin has either seen God or knows God,” but that some one, or some faction, lived in blatant immorality and tried to lead the church that way. In the verse before, John says, “Sin is lawlessness, but you know that Christ appeared so that he might take away our sins,” Could it be that someone, or some ones, were challenging God’s very laws?

Or what am I to make of 2: 9, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness,” but that these same people were hateful and spiteful toward others, maybe especially toward anyone who challenged or questioned them? Or what about 2:22 when John asks, “Who is the liar except the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” Either John is simply preoccupied with that issue, or more likely, his audience has actually been subjected to such teachings in their midst?

To rub salt in the survivors’ wounds, these teachers seemed to have claimed to be, “in the light,” a phrase John uses several times. And they claimed to know God, from all the times that John says, “Anyone who claims to know God must keep his commands” or “anyone who claims to know God must love his brothers and sisters.” I take it they even claimed to be prophets, because John says, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” I take it they even claimed to be sinless, because of the times John says, “If we claim to be without sin,” as in, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

And if we should ask, How can they claim to be sinless, to know God and to be in the light even while they’re living in blatant immorality and are hating and brow-beating everyone who challenges them or disagrees with them? I think they had this answer: “Because we have knowledge. Special knowledge, a unique revelation of mysteries and secrets given to us as prophets.” Special knowledge that permitted them to live in sin but still claim to be sinless and to know God. It also seems that they resorted to their claim of special knowledge because of—and here’s a more circumstantial piece of evidence—because of all the times that John uses their words “know” and “knowledge” against them. Twenty-six times in John’s letter I find the word “know,” as in “by this we know,” or “so that you may know.” Then there are many uses of “knowledge” and “knowing.” What am I to think of that except that John is using their language against them, to tell his friends what they really need to know, that isn’t at all a secret?

Now any one of these things alone doesn’t stand as a clue to what happened to John’s friends. But put them together and a case begins to emerge that makes sense of the letter. I encourage you to read I John and see if the clues fall in place for you too. And how that might help you better understand the letter.

It also fits with what we know of church history. People who deny that Jesus came in the flesh, who claim to be saved by possession of secret knowledge that the rest of us ignorant uninitiated common people don’t have, secret knowledge that makes everything permissible to them, sounds weird and hard to believe, but actually it was quite common then. All the church leaders of the first few centuries had to deal with it. And its quite common yet today. Salvation through possession of secret knowledge is what books and movies like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, celebrate. Mormons have successive levels of secret knowledge revealed in their secret temple rituals. A number of big-ticket Hollywood stars have put Scientology on the map. That’s another popular reboot of this tendency.

That approach to salvation, through secret knowledge of divine mysteries, is called “gnosticism,” from the Greek word, “Gnosis” for knowledge. You find that same word “gnosis” or knowledge in words like “agnostic,” “diagnosis,” and “prognosis.” If you’re wondering what the problem with gnosticism is, consider what it seems to have done to John’s friends. After their encounter with it, they seem to need a lot of encouragement and reinforcing. That’s what John gives them in his letter.

Now the reason I just spent 6 minutes building up a case for a gnostic invasion and division of John’s church is to explain why John would say to his disciples, in chapter 5: 13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Because they didn’t know anymore if they had eternal life. Not after what they had just been through. Because they didn’t know the allegedly saving secrets. And because they had probably just been treated to soul-numbing, spirit-crushing displays of sin and hostility within the church by people who claimed extraordinary spiritual authority, because of their secret spiritual knowledge, and yet who lived like crooks and libertines. It wrecked their congregation and constituted spiritual abuse. But John is saying, all you need to know, to know that you have eternal life is to trust in God through Jesus Christ. That’s all the knowledge, or gnosis, you need for eternal life.

John’s disciples weren’t the only believers to need a reminder of the assurance of God’s love for them. They weren’t the only ones to come out of crisis and confusion wondering if God still loves them. Or does the trial we’ve just undergone prove that we are outside the realm of God’s favor and grace?­ This is what we naturally wonder about whenever we are knocked down by disaster or disease, by lack or by loss: Why did God do this to me? Or why did God let this happen? Does he love me no more? Am I beyond the pale, outside the reach of his grace?

Some well-intentioned people live without an answer to this question, and surely it must bother them. Some would even say that we’re not supposed to have an answer to this question, so that a healthy amount of fear will keep us on the straight and narrow path, supposedly. Otherwise, if we know that God’s favor and our destiny are secure, they ask, won’t we use such assurance as a license to do evil? Shouldn’t there be a stick of fear, as well as a carrot of assurance, to make us good and keep us that way? That’s what my Muslim friends have asked. They say that such knowledge of God’s favor and our eternal destiny is only for God to have, and that its prideful for anyone to claim to know that we’re eternally and safely redeemed. A lot of Christians believe that way, too.

If so, I hope they didn’t get it from me. That’s not the kind of life which John is offering to us in this letter. Not to people who are probably already wondering if God has hung up the phone on them. Think long enough about what he says, “that you may know that you have eternal life,” and a vision of another world, another universe, another entirely different approach to life begins opening up before us. Not a world nor a life driven from behind by the fear of punishment and rejection—that is childish. Its where we begin our moral reasoning as toddlers. We obey because Mom and Dad are bigger and more powerful than we are. We fear that if we misbehave, Mom or Dad will punish us. Or abandon us. Or they won’t love us anymore. But that fear doesn’t always help us do better. Sometimes toddlers act up, unconsciously, just to push their parents, to see if its true, if they will leave or stop loving us if we keep whacking our baby sister on the head. They have to learn that, while that’s wrong, Mom and Dad won’t stop loving them. But a life lived only out of the fear of hell is hell already, compared to the peace and assurance that God offers us.

While goodness based on fear is better than no goodness at all, it still falls far short of goodness born of confidence and assurance, a good drawn out of us by a holy love and desire for God and for everything God would give us. Instead of living in an infantile, servile, immature fear of punishment, the gospel invites us to grow and mature in love and confidence. And so John says, in this same letter, “Mature love casts out fear.”

And to those who would say that such assurance of salvation is prideful, and leads to feelings of superiority, because we made the right choice of faith and they didn’t, I would say, Yes, unfortunately that can happen. But when it does, its because we don’t really understand either the nature of God and the depth of God’s love, nor the nature and depth of our need. The assurance of God’s love for us does not rest on us and our being deserving of it. Anyone who claims to be more deserving of God’s love than the thief on the cross who simply said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom,” understands neither the kingdom nor the cross. They know neither God nor themselves very well.

Our assurance of eternal life rests upon God, God’s love, God’s nature, God’s will, and God’s Word. And as John points out, if we don’t believe that God is capable of loving us and accepting us unconditionally, simply because we reach out for it by faith and grasp it by trust, if we don’t believe that God can finish what he began in us and bring us safely all the way home, and that God really wants to do that, whatever the cost, then we’re calling God a liar.

That still doesn’t make it always easy to trust in God’s love and God’s power to do what he says he will do and bring us safely into his kingdom. Not when disaster, death or disease, or when lack or loss can feel like evidence that God has turned his back on us. So John’s words require of us two things: 1) is courage, the other 2) is love.

The theologian Karl Barth defined faith as “accepting that we are accepted” by God. John, in his letter, is calling bruised, confused and broken people to accept, contrary to the recent evidence in their lives, that God accepts them, loves them, and that they are eternally secure in Christ, as long as they stick with him. That’s all they need to know to make it home, safely. To do so, to accept their acceptance after having been divided, defeated and demoralized, is either foolish, or courageous. I prefer “courageous.” So John has urged on us the courage to accept that we are accepted by God, whether life looks that way or not, whether we even feel that way or not. That’s what I would add to Karl Barth’s definition of faith: accepting that we are accepted, yes. But also having the courage to accept that we are accepted, even when the evidence of life seems to say otherwise.

That’s what “the lord of the pots and pans” had to learn. That’s what Brother Lawrence called himself, because he was the chief cook and dishwasher in a French monastery during the 17th Century. His testimony is recorded in the devotional classic, Practicing the Presence of God. That’s what Brother Lawrence did. He lived life as a constant running conversation with God.

His deep and constant spiritual discipline made him all the more aware of his sins and shortcomings. So for four years he said he was deeply troubled by the possibility that, at the end of his life, God would not accept him into paradise. But his anxiety lifted when he finally surrendered to the logic that God could be counted upon to do the most loving thing with him. Again, because of who and how God is, not because of who or how Brother Lawrence was. From then on he said he would simply place his faults and sins before God in honest confession and trust God to live up to his word, to forgive and to cleanse him.

But sometimes that’s very hard to do on our own. For very long, that is. And that’s where love comes in. As a pastor, I see this all the time, but rarely am I at liberty to tell all the stories I see about how someone’s love helps pick someone else up when they’ve nearly lost all hope or strength for the journey. That’s what we do with all our visits and cards and phone calls of encouragement and support, isn’t it?

So I’ll turn to fiction instead. John Bunyan demonstrated the need for this courage, and the strength we find through being loved, three centuries ago in his classic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. He seems to have known the words to the hymn, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Because that’s the plot of the story. The main character, Christian, encounters many “dangers, toils and snares” on his way home to the Celestial City. Pilgrim’s Progress is not only fantasy; its also, in some ways, autobiography. Bunyan had his own struggles with doubt, depression, persecution and guilt, all of which are reflected in his book.

One of the dangers Christian has to face by himself is the fire-breathing dragon, Apollyon, a symbol of Satan, the Accuser, who nearly overcomes him with accusations of his sin and failures. They are more true than not, Christian has to admit. But by clinging to the sword of God’s Word with his last remaining ounce of strength, he sends the fiend fleeing, wounded and bleeding. So he survived, by the skin of his teeth, by showing the courage to accept that he was accepted, in spite of the half-true accusations that Apollyon was flinging at him like flaming arrows.

There are other trials which he survives, but only with the help of friends. Christian would have succumbed to public ridicule in the public stockade of the City of Vanity Fair if his friend Faithful hadn’t endured it with him. After Faithful is executed at the stake, another friend, Hopeful, joins him on the journey.

Then they are both captured and locked up in the dungeon of Doubting Castle by the Giant Despair, where they are both beaten, starved and taunted. Again, Christian nearly gave up all hope and surrendered to despair. But Hopeful says to him, “My brother, Apollyon couldn’t crush you, nor the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And remember how you played the man in Vanity Fair. Don’t forget I’m in the dungeon with you, a far weaker man by nature than you are. This Giant has wounded me as well as you, and cut off the bread and water from my mouth. And, like you, I’m deprived of light. So let us exercise a little more patience, and bear up as best we can, and keep on praying.”

By the end of the journey, it is evident that neither Christian nor Faitfhul could have made the dangerous journey without the other. Their loving support gave each one of them the courage to accept that they were accepted by God, when their enemies and their setbacks kept suggesting otherwise. Critics of Pilgrim’s Progress have asked where God is in the story, he never really shows up anywhere to help, when the dangers are so terrible and the journey is in his honor. But I think Bunyan was making a point: by making God seem absent, Bunyan helps all of us who have felt at times like God was absent, though he never really is. But that absence also highlights how God shows up instead in the timely appearances of friends who help Christian get through and survive the “many dangers, toils and snares” in their path. Indeed, their loving support for each other was sometimes all the proof of God’s acceptance that they had. That rings true for me; it is how I have most often experienced the sustaining grace and the unconditional acceptance of God: through the unconditional love of others, who lent me some of their courage when mine was failing.

In this congregation are many stories of courage: courage to face disease, to face the losses of life and of family and friends as we age, the courage to face things like unemployment or to emigrate to a new country, to travel and serve in other countries, even to start a new church, or to join a new church. In each of these stories of courage no one knew what the immediate outcome would be. But it has to help knowing what the long-term outcome is: eternal life. All we need to know about that is “tis grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.” Not because of who we are, or how we are, nor what we have done, but because of who God is, how God is, and what God has done. Do we dare to believe that? It makes all the difference in the world, this world and the next.

AN “EXTREMISM OF LOVE”

THOUGHTS FOR MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DAY, 2009

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Should a wrong turn down an unfamiliar side street lead you to a dead end, there’s nothing remarkable about that. But when the road back turns out to be a dead end as well, along with any side streets, this may be no ordinary road you have taken. It may well be that you have entered… (for those of you who remember the show) the twilight zone.

Science fiction from a television show, long ago? More like current events. In Gaza and Israel, in Sudan and Darfur. Moving forward with the same old same old, with more of eye for an eye, or make that a head for an eye, is getting people nowhere but further down a blind alley. But with decades and even centuries’ worth of hurt and pain and scores to settle, there’s no going back as though nothing happened.

How does one forgive when it is impossible to forget? Where does anyone go when there’s no going forward, and yet there’s no going backward either, once a dead end has become a box with no exit? As in Israel and Gaza today, where extremists in Hamas are locked in mortal combat with extremists in Israel. Those who fire rockets at Israeli schools and homes, and who blow themselves up on Israeli buses, are easy to recognize as extremists. But just because someone wears a uniform and carries out the official policy of a recognized government does not mean that they are innocent of extremism either. I don’t know what else to call the invasion of Gaza, or the genocide in Darfur, or the targeting civilians with nuclear weapons, but extremism as state policy.

There was a television special a few weeks ago about religion and violence. A scholar on it said something that made sense to me: that the biggest, most transforming spiritual breakthroughs have happened in such moments of deadlock, when people got a God’s eye view of their propensity for violence, and for the predicaments it had gotten them into, and when they looked desperately for a new way out when there was no way forward or backward. The only way left was to look upward, for help, and inward, to name and to claim their own responsibility for their part in turning a dead-end into a box.

Some would say that this is what gave Islam its power, when Mohammed achieved something that most people in 7th Century Arabia thought was impossible: stopping the cycle of feuding and honor killings that for centuries had set the tribes of Arabia against each other, and uniting them into a powerful force. Of course, their neighbors weren’t always thrilled that their aggression got turned outward, against them.

Israel’s most formative early moments were also breakthroughs to reconciliation, as when Jacob, his family and servants, were caught between his uncle Laban to the east, and his brother Esau to the west. Jacob and all his flocks and people could not stay with Laban, because they were too many. War was threatening to break out over the competition for grazing lands and water holes. Going west toward his brother Esau was his least bad option. Esau, whom Jacob had defrauded of his birthright, and his blessing. Esau, whom Jacob had treated with contempt, whom Jacob had left with death threats ringing in his ears. But for his family to survive, Jacob could only go there on Esau’s terms, penitent and disarmed. Seeing his brother the next day, and getting a welcome he knew he did not deserve, Jacob said those powerful, famous words to Esau: “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

This was a formative event, not only for Jacob, but in the history of Israel. In that moment of reconciliation, God revealed himself to Jacob and to all Israel as a God who works for the reconciliation of the world to himself, and to itself. Israel would always carry this reconciling sense of God in its spiritual DNA.

It would be no surprise then, no departure, no new thing, really, when Jesus would later teach, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” because the God of Jacob had already revealed himself as the God who makes reconciliation possible in even the most hopeless of conflicts, and as the God who may even make himself known through our adversaries, our enemies, our critics and our victims.

Which has gotten me to wondering about Israel and Gaza: how did their two faiths, born as they were in the fires of forgiveness, become deadlocked into a self-accelerating grudge match? And what would the transforming spiritual breakthrough for Israel and Gaza, the Israelis and the Arabs, look like? Then it occurred to me: Duh! It has come already. It was Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Jesus served notice to this very effect through his inaugural sermon in Nazareth: that a breakthrough of reconciliation with their hated Gentile neighbors was about to happen in Israel. Back home after his first forays into public ministry, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, the 61st chapter: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to preach good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners, to restore sight to the blind….to proclaim the year of God’s favor…” In short, God is about to usher in the promised, prophesied, world-reconciling kingdom of God. When he went on to say, “This day is this passage fulfilled in your presence,” he was saying, in effect, “And I am the one who will usher it in.”

Today many would call Jesus’ provocative statement, in that Nazarean synagogue, “extremist.” It was indeed an extreme claim to his lordship and to our loyalty, the kind of claim that makes the world duck for cover, fearing that suicide bombing is next, or a rocket propelled grenade.

Yet the initial response that Jesus gets is favorable. They’ve heard about his wonder-working ministry, his authoritative teaching, and his power over evil spirits. They have probably even heard other sermons like this, in which other people also said, “The kingdom of God is now here.” Maybe even from other preachers and leaders, who said, “And I am the one to usher it all in.” We know of several warriors and preachers in First Century Palestine who claimed in one way or another to be the Messiah, or at least to be ushering in his kingdom.

But that claim was always followed by the next one: that Israel’s humiliation will be avenged, that Rome will be to Jerusalem what Jerusalem now is to Rome, and any Gentile who gets in the way will wind up as buzzard bait. But not Jesus. He confronts this expectation head on when he goes on to say, “No doubt you will quote me this proverb: ‘Physician, heal yourself.’”

Which always struck me as a strange thing to say to his home town relatives and neighbors. Why, “Physician, heal yourself?” Isn’t that like, “Walk the walk before you talk the talk?” Or “Clean up your own act before you start pointing fingers?” Or “take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s?” What does that have to do with anything, especially since we’ve just read that the people of Nazareth approve of him and his teaching?

I think what the proverb really means is not, “Clean up your own act before you clean up ours,” but something more like, “Possession is nine tenths of the law, and relations are the other tenth.” Or “What’s mine is mine.” “The medicine is only for the physician.” Just like God’s kingdom and the Messiah is for us alone.

But Jesus goes on to say, “Remember when that drought and famine struck the land during the ministry of Elijah? And he made oil and grain to replenish itself for the widow of Zarephath, who hosted him? And only for her? She was a Gentile, by the way.”

“And when Israel was at war with Syria, and yet the Syrian army commander, Naaman, came to Israel looking to be healed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha? There were plenty of lepers in Israel wanting to be healed at that time, but only Naaman was. And by the way, he was a Gentile, too.”

Yes, we are God’s physicians, Jesus is saying, with the medicine of God’s kingdom in our medicine chest. But its not for us alone. Prepare to share. With your adversaries. Talk about extremism: Jesus has just confronted them, their attitudes and their assumptions, with all the subtlety and finesse of an oncoming Mack truck.

And that’s why the home crowd suddenly soured on Jesus worse than the Metrodome crowd ever did for Coach Childress and the Vikings. Sharing God’s kingdom with the Gentiles was the last thing on their mind. Especially after all they had suffered at Gentile hands. Rome had its own form of official state imperial terrorism and extremism. That’s why they suddenly went from applauding to appalled; that’s why all of a sudden they rushed him to the top of the hill to pitch him off a cliff. Jesus touched a raw nerve of anger and hurt that had long festered into racism, tribalism, bigotry and a zeal for vengeance. Like with Hamas and Israel today. They were too reactionary to recognize that, with Jesus, God was providing a way out of the dead end that had become a box with no exit. Another word for such boxes is “coffins.”

Which makes you wonder again: How is it that a faith that was formed by breakthroughs of reconciliation could become, at that moment, such a hateful and exclusive club? How is it that the faith of Jacob could become the fuel for the kind of extremism and terrorism that Jesus experienced? How is it that the descendants of Jacob could become a lynch mob, ready to kill one of their very own?

That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr., wondered about in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Here’s the story behind that letter: When Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and put in solitary confinement, he had a lot of time on his hands. Someone managed to smuggle into him a local newspaper. In that paper Dr. King read a full page ad taken out by the local ministerial association of Birmingham, Alabama. It spoke to the recent demonstrations that Dr. King had help to lead and organize against the segregation of schools, businesses and public facilities in Birmingham. In that full page ad, the local body of ministers, from most mainline denominations, said something to the effect of, “We’re with you, Dr. King and all you marchers and demonstrators, in the goals you wish to achieve. But not with the means you use. They are, in a word, extremist. Cool it. Be more patient, wait, negotiate, and integration and equality will eventually come in their own good time.

Fortunately, someone had also smuggled in a pen. With that pen, in the margins of that same newspaper, King wrote the classic, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he dealt with the criticisms I just mentioned, such as that of being extremist.

What really seemed to break Martin’s heart was that these critiques came from fellow clergy in his beloved Christian church. He wrote to his fellow clergy: “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?

“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church…..” King went on to say: “There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”

Disturbing words, these. Dr. King’s question, What happened that the church became so domesticated to an unjust social order? is similar to the one I just posed: How did a faith that was forged in miraculous breakthroughs to reconciliation between previously implacable enemies become a cheering squad for bigotry and tribalism?

To those who labeled King, his movement and his methods “extremist,” King said, If its extremism you’re concerned about, let’s talk about fire hoses being turned on unarmed citizens who were exercising their right to free speech and freedom of assembly. If its extremism you’re concerned about, what do you call police dogs lunging at the bodies of young children and their grandparents?

King went on to write: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

And with that brilliant insight, Dr. King turns the table on us in a way not unlike that of Jesus, when he told his hometown friends and family that the kingdom of
God has come, but that he and his kingdom are not their exclusive property or privilege.

They both turn the table on us and ask, not How might we avoid extremism? or How might we deal with extremists? but What kind of extremists will we be?

If we were looking for salvation from extremism in a polite, post-modern, relativistic luke warm tolerance whose gospel is to say that everything is equally true, that everything is finally one, and therefore the details of our differing beliefs and faiths and values don’t matter, neither Jesus nor Dr. Martin Luther King give us that option. To those who fear that any serious, exclusive commitment to one faith or one set of values constitutes extremism and is therefore setting the stage for suicide bombs and tank shells, both King and Jesus counter with a call to an extremism of love that says that I will prove my commitment to my faith not by my readiness to kill you who disagree with me, but by my readiness to die for you, whether you agree with me or not. A kind of loving extremism that can honestly admit, “Even if our values and beliefs cannot be reconciled to each other, we can be reconciled to each other.”

Besides, anything short of this extremist commitment to love—not just tolerance, but love– will never stand up against the brutal secular faiths of nationalism, militarism, fascism, racism, or the worship of wealth. It wouldn’t even recognize them for what they are: extremist religions as well, only under the guise of respectability and popularity. In spite of their secular costumes, they demand as many human sacrifices as did the Inquisition or the Crusades, or jihadist terrorists today. And finally, such a luke-warm, relativistic faith would never give people the power to forgive, when it is impossible to forget. That, I propose, is the ultimate test of our commitment to Christ and his kingdom: when the boxes we get into can be broken open and transformed into open highways; when we can forgive and be forgiven, even when we cannot forget.

That includes forgiving ourselves.

It has happened before. Within five years of delivering his home town inaugural sermon, the kingdom movement that Jesus started had claimed its first convert from among the Gentiles, and, all the more hard to believe, from within the ranks of the Roman Army: Peter’s friend and disciple, Cornelius.

When Dr. King penned his Letter From a Birmingham Jail in the margins of that newspaper, within my living memory, the racial situation in America seemed nearly as bleak then as does the relationship between Israel and Gaza today. Yet in only a few days, our first African-American president will be inaugurated. Yes, the church broke Dr. King’s heart with its foot-dragging and its fearful conformity. And yet King’s own movement was based in Jesus’ mission, birthed by the church, and fueled by the same reconciling love that brought Peter and the first gentile convert, Cornelius, together.

So, lets not despair of any miracles of forgiveness. Our God can still work miracles of reconciliation, when we look upward for help, and inward to name and claim our own responsibility for getting ourselves into dead ends that have become boxes without exits.

You know, I have often marveled at how Jesus’ friends and family got so far as to be able to trundle him up to the top of the cliff, only to watch him turn and walk out from among their midst unharmed. They did not part to let him pass because on the way there he converted them to a polite apathy and indifference about all things religious, but because the fire of divine love in his heart was hotter than the fires of hatred in theirs. He met brute force and overcame it with the same kind of loving, righteous force that struck a police officer in Birmingham, in the course of those same demonstrations that landed Dr. King in jail. This officer was escorting nonviolent civil rights protesters into a police van, to take them to jail. As they filed into the van, their hands cuffed together, singing hymns, the police officer looked at them and said, with tears in his eyes, “You are better people than I am.” There you see demonstrated the power of that creative and life-giving extremism of love that Dr. King called for. The world also saw it in that synagogue in Nazareth, and on that cliff top long ago.

Obsessing About “OBSESSION”

It came in the mail, unsolicited and unwanted. Like 90% of my mail. And I was about to pitch it out. Again, like 90% of my mail. But then I noticed the title of the CD in the little square mailer: Obsession. Someone had told me about, and that I should expect to get it, based on the fact that I live, breathe and have an address. A few people minus some of those qualifications may have gotten it, too. And it came at the height of this year's fall election season. Just a coincidence? Maybe.

So I watched it. Not the happiest hour of my life. It wasn't so much what it had that bothered me. I'm not aware that this "documentary" contains any doctored facts or footage. Its what it didn't have. Like some of the things I address in my review and response to Obsession, which you can download at Download Obsession.doc. Basically, its my attempt at formulating an Anabaptist Christian response to terrorism of any kind, religious, economic and more. By "terrorism" I mean any attempt to brainwash and blackmail us into acting a desired way through the use of terror. By that definition, "Obsession" may itself be a form of soft-core terrorism. I'd be interested in knowing what you think.

Pastor Mathew Swora

Emmanuel Mennonite Church

 

WHY I ENDORSED NO PARTY, NO CANDIDATE

November 4, 2008. A group of fifty-plus pastors recently made news when they threw down the gauntlet before the Internal Revenue Service and delivered to their congregations endorsements of a presidential candidate and a political party. I haven't gone on to their websites to see just who they recommended from the pulpit. To me, that's beside the point.

The point is that such recommendations are not what the pulpit is for. At least not the one which God and the church I serve have entrusted me. I hope I never forget what that pulpit is for, every time I stand up there with the authority granted me by God and the congregation. The congregation includes people who are Republicans, Democrats and independents for reasons that I understand and respect. It also includes some people who will not vote at all, never have and never will, again, for consistent reasons of faith that I understand and respect. All of them have called me to be pastor to all of them.

I am responsible to them, and to God, for everything I say from the pulpit. Eternally so. I had better be very careful, therefore, about what I say there, and not abuse that right and responsibility.

Our faith is about God and the kingdom of God. Both of those subjects are much wider and deeper than any political candidate or party or platform can ever be. It should be of no surprise, then, when one party, candidate or platform corresponds with the kingdom of God in some issues and areas, but ignores it or betrays it in another. Nor should it be any surprise when their opposing candidates, parties or platforms pick up on other aspects of the kingdom of God that their competitors ignore. That makes voting- who to vote for and even whether to vote—a dilemma for any citizen whose primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God.

Nor should it be any surprise when one citizen of God's kingdom is drawn more to one candidate or party than another, because of their proximity to kingdom values they hold most dear, while another disciple is drawn to another candidate or party because of their proximity to other kingdom values they hold equally dear. And yet their kingdom values are nearly identical, when seen in the whole. For me to tell one fellow citizen of God's kingdom that his or her candidate, party, or vote are wrong because they are different from mine, is not only to elevate my set of pressing kingdom priorities over theirs, it is to challenge their maturity and sincerity as disciples of Jesus. I had better save my authority to do that for those very rare occasions when it is obvious that someone is flouting and violating their baptismal vows to Christ and the church. Unless my Christian brother or sister is actively espousing the platform and candidacy of, let's say, a white supremacist or an Islamic jihadist, I don't think our differences between political parties, or candidates qualify as differences over which I am going to take my Christian brother to task, not even indirectly, by an endorsement from the pulpit.

Even if my preferred candidate should win, that is not where my victory lies. Or if my preferred candidates and party loses, that does not make me a victim. And if I should find and endorse a candidate whose policies and platforms conform to 90% of my faith-based beliefs, how do I know that this candidate, once elected, will not violate and betray his promises and policies? How do I know that he or she will not fall, through pride, to the original temptation of Adam and grasp at powers and titles that belong only to God? Then what becomes of my endorsement from the pulpit? How would I answer to God for aiding and abetting that recurrent tragedy of hubris and fall? It is literally the oldest story in the world.

But I won't run that risk as long as I only endorse Jesus as king of our lives and our world. He has already proven himself beyond the tempter's grasp.

But that doesn't mean that the pulpit is entirely non-political. If I have the politics of God's kingdom right, then there should be enough in my preaching about love, life and peace to make politicians of all stripes and parties concerned. I preach a kingdom which will outlast and replace all the regimes, parties and nations of the world. While the kingdoms of the world organize themselves around a shared identity that they are for, and enemies that they are against, I preach a kingdom whose only enemy is enmity, whose loyalty oath erodes and supercedes all other loyalties. Wherever and whenever there is any element of idolatry in any political party, platform or candidacy, the preaching of the kingdom of God will necessarily be political.

Whatever the results of today's election, I will pray for the winners, that they might resist the tempter's offer and humbly serve the common good. I will also pray for the church, that we might model that heavenly kingdom which alone will endure after our worldly ones have gone the way of all flesh. And I will pray for myself, that my ministry ad conduct will be pleasing to earth's rightful king. His is the only endorsement I care about. His kingdom is the only one I will unreservedly endorse.

Pastor Mathew Swora

THE FOLLOWING IS A PAID POLITICAL ANNOUNCEMENT…..

 ….paid for by Emmanuel Mennonite Church, through its TypePad subscription (about $5 a month). It is political in that it has to do with our public, as well as personal, lives. Any other similarity to the recent political events in either Denver or St. Paul is either unintentional or rhetorical. It is brought to you by a party that will not, and cannot, be represented on this November's ballot. Any party or politician who tells you otherwise, overtly or subtly, is either lying or sincerely mistaken. That party is the Kingdom of God, and its standard bearer is Jesus of Nazareth. No human political party, no worldly government, and no office holder, however noble, honest and self-sacrificial (and there are many) can fully represent the platform of the Kingdom of God, nor take the place or do the job of the Prince of Peace in bringing us true justice, security and peace. Yet we of the Kingdom of God party applaud and support the efforts of any party or politician who seeks honestly to do so in ways similar to those of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. But do not let the mythic, almost messianic, language emanating from either Denver or St. Paul, or from any other political convention this year, fool you into thinking otherwise.

The platform of the Kingdom of God party, as stated by its standard-bearer, is “to preach good news to the poor….proclaim freedom for the prisoners….recovery of sight for the blind….to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4: 18-19) until God makes “all things new” and the “kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” Jesus of Nazareth, our party's standard-bearer, has already won the election by voice vote outside Jerusalem, when he rode humbly and peacefully into town on a donkey, to the acclaim of the poor, the powerless, of children and infants. He was enthroned in the glory of self-sacrificial love on the cross of Calvary, was coronated by God at the empty tomb, and took his throne at his ascension to heaven. We're awaiting the final inauguration celebration when he returns, at which point, we expect all human governments to give way to his.

In the mean time, we of the Kingdom of God party declare and demonstrate our primary loyalty to Jesus and his government by living and loving as he did. While some governments may consider this primary loyalty to be treason of the highest sort, the expression and fruits of this loyalty should give no government or leader any reason for fear, unless their rule depends upon our acquiescence to, or participation in, violence and evil. In which case, we will resist and witness to the kingdom of God by continuing to live nonviolently in love, peace and justice, whatever the cost to ourselves.

As for all the other human parties and politicians, we wish them well inasmuch as they seek to align their policies and platforms with those of the Kingdom of God, even while we understand and expect that human institutions can only approach the platform and policies of God's Kingdom in the crudest and most conflicted ways. Why should they do any better than we who claim this allegiance? And why should we, who claim this holy allegiance, expect the world to do our jobs? To them we offer our prayers, our blessings and a loving respect that is identical for the most powerful president to the poorest pauper, a loving respect which is based not on ideology but on our common humanity, as creatures made in the image of God.

To all parties and candidates we issue also this warning: Do not invoke the name of God without also genuinely seeking to do the will and the work of God (see the Kingdom of God platform above). Otherwise, you are using God's name in vain, a commandment with a terrible price for breaking (Exodus 20: 7). In the spirit of the prophets of ancient Israel, it would be better to be secular and godless in your rhetoric, while seeking to do justice and mercy, than to use religious and pious rhetoric, while seeking war and exploiting the poor.

As for the ballot this November, we issue no endorsements, knowing that our candidate and his policies can never be fully or fairly represented by any human political institution. We will simply pray for all the parties and persons involved, and, after the election, will respect, love and pray for whoever takes office. We will also cooperate with every policy and platform that conforms with the Great Commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31),” and will take any such law and regulation as the starting point of our obligation to love our neighbor, and not the end of it. But be fully aware that, for us in the Kingdom of God party, the neighbors whom we are to so love includes our enemies.

We will not expect of any office holder or government the full measure of things which they and their parties have promised, and which only Jesus has demonstrated the ability to deliver. We accept, with some sorrow and grace, that all efforts to do good within our worldly kingdoms, however much they accomplish, are also fraught with bedeviling blindness, dilemmas and contradictions. We all are only human in a fallen world.

Therefore, we will trust your choice, and each other's choice, when it comes to dealing with the difficult dilemmas of whether to vote, and who to vote for, this next November, and will not limit our citizenship in this or any other nation to the pulling of a lever on Election Day. Instead, we will strive ever “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8),” every day, before and after November 4, 2008. That is our political platform in this time of transition, between the day of Christ's ascension and the day when all the world, and even his enemies, have become his footstool.

Mathew Swora, pastor

Emmanuel Mennonite Church, St. Paul, MN