Sermon: Sunday, February 14, 2016
The Rev. Dr. Jack E. Skiles
The church liturgical season of Lent has arrived!? I?m sure that this is less than exciting for 99.9 percent of us.? Lent began last Wednesday.? I began last Wednesday in Florida, where we had gotten away for a week of rest and relaxation along with our son and his wife and most importantly, perhaps, our granddaughter.? But, an awareness of Lent began to dawn on me in our layover back to Indianapolis when we stopped in Atlanta, Georgia.
Atlanta?s airport busyness is certainly to be compared to Chicago O?Hare?s. Both airports are crazy busy and filled with the world?s peoples.? I love the diversity and energy.? I get excited dodging people in the super wide aisles that can scarcely contain the crowds.
I saw in Atlanta only one person with the mark of Ash Wednesday ashes.? It was a 30-something businessman with a suit, standing, waiting to be called into 1st class seating.? I went looking up and down Terminal B for another so marked person and I did not find it.? And, then I remembered that I was in the South.
In Chicago, that windy city?so named not because of the wind but because New York City journalists thought that Chicago journalists used too many words?there is a huge Catholic presence from traditional European countries such as Italy, Poland and Ireland, and of course there is a huge Latino population as well.? Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent marks greater Chicagoland in significant numbers.
As I was in Atlanta and could observe that Ash Wednesday did not easily mark many people that I was seeing, I could not help but ponder the infamous words of the southern plantation owner, Rhett Butler saying, ?Frankly, my dear, I don?t give a damn.?? That quote was, incidentally, voted the number one movie line of all time in 2005 by the American Film Institute.? Many people are perhaps a bit vague on their Gone With the Wind trivia, but the line is uttered by Rhett Butler in frustration after having sought Scarlett?s love for over a decade and he is throwing in the towel, no longer trying to win her love and affection.
Here is my early Lenten confession: I am throwing in the towel in regard to traditional religious belief around so many ideas about God. ?I confess that I am a privileged white male with patriarchal advantages who believes there is more than one pathway to God.? As many of us have worked in these past months with the Black Lives Matter movement with people of many faiths and of no faith at all, I get more than a little fidgety when I hear the words ?confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead and you will be saved.?? I think, ?Hey what about my Jewish friends?? They are not confessing the Messiah-ship of Jesus.? What about my Islamic friends from Turkey?? Are they not saved by God?s love?? What about the little kids in the many orphanages in China?? They are not ever likely to hear the news about Jesus?? So much of their lives have been abandoned and are they just doomed to eternal abandonment?? I just cannot bear to hear antiquated religious verbiage tossed around in such a way that continues to injure and promises eternal suffering to good people who just happened to be different than me or us because of life?s natural variances, such as into which family we were born and in what area of the world.? Religious exclusionary statements need to be stopped!
This Lent, for me, is going to be about giving a lot of things up.? To a large degree it is going to be giving away, no, not giving away as in giving to Good Will, I am going to be actively trashing in the rubbish dump of religious history as much negative and harmful theology and really dumb religious beliefs that are at best childish and at their worst harmful to relationships and people that I (we) love and care about.
My devotion this Lenten Season is to up my game and to make faith something that is more credible, life affirming, and worthy of being dedicated to.? My faith, your faith ought to be something that people can not only see in action but it also ought to be something that can be easily stated, talked about and explained.
I grew up on the Four Spiritual Laws made infamous by Campus Crusade for Christ and Bill Brighton.? The four laws were built around the premise that we feel separated from God, teaching that we are separated because we are sinful by birth and only a saving relationship with Jesus Christ will keep us or anyone else from the eternal fires of God.
Although these four laws were given their current form in the last half century, they are faith belief statements that have long found favor in a majority of orthodox Christian faith systems.? They are based on this one premise that God?s love can only be appropriated out of fear and that the only bridge over the great chasm of death and suffering is through a belief that Jesus died for our sins and we ought to feel very bad that Jesus had to do that.
I wish we could stand Jesus in front of us and ask him how he feels or thinks about this atonement based, fear driven religious perspective.? I know that it has profitably driven mainstream Christianity for a very long time.? But, it does not take a trained religious sociologist to look around outside the churches of the world and realize that such fear driven reasons no longer drive the masses of people to join our faith communities.? And, I don?t think most of those people beyond our walls know that most of us have probably changed from the faith perspectives that we had in years past.
Jesus and the gospels that tell about him are infamous for how often they contain the phrase, ?Fear not!? ??Fear not? is actually the most repeated biblical text?103 times! ?Now, to be truthful, there are multiple groups of messages in the Bible, both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the so called Old and New Testaments.? There is plenty of fear-based theology and believing about God and God?s people.
The so called people of God of any religion have always been worth fearing, incidentally. Christianity in the first 3 or 4 centuries grew because people fell in love with this idea that God is as close to us as the air we breathe.? They found God through this Jesus of Nazareth and his followers who had love feasts, meals where like the feeding of the four or five or twenty thousand there was always enough for everyone and especially so for the masses who did not ever have enough.? Sharing and a moral order were found in the midst of those early Christian communities that said God is like this, God is here, this is God?s full presence.? This is how the world was always intended to be?the great diversity of people sharing meals.
And then, Christianity became centralized and politicized and power-ized and Christianity, as everyone knows, as a corporate body, has participated in and led and fed horrible atrocities.? Christianity is not unique in this but we who claim the name live in the shadows of some horrible stuff.? It is easier to confess to these sins than to act as if we are separate from them.? Appropriate confessions let others know that we are honest and perhaps trustworthy.
I spend a lot of my meditation time seeking to make a distinction between the things that Jesus most probably said versus what later Christianity said about him.? I care about what Jesus developed that called people to form such lasting relationships with him.? And, mainly what I come away with is some really difficult stuff?like loving my enemies or loving our enemies.
Surely it was not the tough stuff that attracted people to Jesus?!? First, I suspect that what gained Jesus such a following was how he positioned God and religion as being desperately on the side of the most needy.? It was popularly thought in Jesus? day that if you had great wealth it was a sign that God was blessing you.?? Jesus turned this on its head.? It is not easy for us today to conceptualize that 90 % of the people of Palestine, Jesus? Israel, were the most needy and were being forcibly, oppressed by a foreign military, the Romans.? That?s 9 out of 10.?? In this room today the numbers are probably reversed with 9 out of 10 of us being very well off. As Christianity grew in popularity and became accepted by the more rich and powerful, the message of Jesus got consistently watered down to something that could be easily had whether rich or poor?eternal salvation in four easy steps rather than a faith that sought to bring shalom, the peace that passes all understanding, fairness, equity, and justice to the least of those in all our societies.
Let me be perfectly clear, I believe that God loves and cares for each one of us with a deep and abiding depth that can scarcely be fully comprehended.? I believe that our relationship with God is personal and deserves time and dedication to probing its fullness and richness.? Everyone deserves to rest comfortably and unreservedly in the bosom of God?s everlasting tenderness and concern for us whether wealthy, middle class or poor.
Further, it is not about deserving or not deserving God?s love.? I was raised to believe that I did not deserve such full and abiding love because I was bad?, to the core?., simply because I existed and it was further confirmed by my bad behavior and my thoughts.? Oh, my thoughts were killers in this regard.
Jesus and the best parts of early Christianity came teaching that God simply and fully values all.? All.? Not just Jews.? But, everyone.? Just as we are without one plea, my thoughts and actions do not keep me or any of us from the loving presence of God.? God simply fully loves, especially when we are not doing well and God loves especially so our enemies and we are called to so love them as well.? Being fully valued by God is what enables us to love as unreservedly as God loves. God has never been separate from and angry with human kind. ??I suspect that we, many of us, often feel separate and alone from God; but, we need to correct that.? Sometimes our feelings lead us astray.? God is always closer than close.
Jesus did not live and die to heal a breach between humans and God but to reaffirm the longstanding bond that has and always will exist between us and God. Jesus did not die to save us from our sins but I would rather us ponder how Jesus lived so well that he was killed because it threatened, it challenged the power politics of his day that much. He was feeding thousands and encouraging them to find power from each other in faith community.? ?He died not because God wanted him dead as a sacrifice, that is archaic and blasphemous if we believe God is good!? Jesus died because he got caught in a web of dangerous power games?between Roman Imperialism and Temple politics and his growing popular movement?that he could not escape from. But his truths that he championed certainly did escape death, and his truths, his love, his dedication, his community, his willingness to stand firm in the face of death resurrected his spirit and it will not die.
We want some good news.? The people we interact with daily want some good news.? The best news I know is that we are each eternally and personally valued by all that is Holy and sacred in this Universe.? It remains a phenomenal mystery how it all works, but what we do know is that life still does not work well for billions of people.? But, you and me, we have the loving ability to make so much better for so many.? It is not our job alone.? I even believe that God is with us with resources of novelty, inspiration and hope that will lure us to do and be more than we?ve ever perhaps dreamed.? But, it takes us stepping out and living and loving boldly, especially for those who need it most.
It is not a tough formula.? Loving those most at risk.? Loving our enemies.? Not building walls.
Leave here and be strong for those who are weak.? Be weak, risk vulnerability, and discover the power that comes with love and caring that is born out of vulnerability.? The spirit of the Living God who has loved us from the beginning will love us beyond our end in these lives.
Let us leave this place and love with an abandonment of the idea that we cannot make difference.? Throw it away.? Leave it here.? Go and live and love knowing that God is fully filling you with what you need and allow your life, our lives to expand to new visions and bright horizons.? Lent is about living the love of God fully and unreservedly.? Be the change that you want to see in others.
It is the way of Jesus of Nazareth that can and will make ultimate differences in our lives and the world.