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Rooted in Love: Growing in Love of God and Neighbor (and Self?)

2019-07-22

 

We say it almost every time we gather: At Plymouth Church our purpose is to grow in love of God and neighbor.

But what does that mean? And how do we do it?

That is what the rest of the summer is about.

Beginning this weekend and continuing right through Labor Day, our preaching and my Wednesday morning Bible study will be exploring what it means to grow in love of God and neighbor.

In this post, I want to establish some background for the series.

One way to gauge the importance of a story from the Jesus tradition is to notice how many times it appears in the 4 Gospels. Jesus’ baptism by John the baptism, his miraculous feeding of a multitude, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his crucifixion, his resurrection –all of this makes into all four gospels.

But beyond that, it is hard to find many elements of the Jesus story that merit mention in multiple Gospels. The birth of Jesus, for, example, is only recounted in two of the Gospels. The Story of the Good Samaritan is only in one.

When something occurs in 3 out of 4, it is important. And that is exactly the case with a passage we call The Greatest Commandment.

Mark 12:28-34

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Matthew 22:35-40

35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Luke 10:25-28

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

There is remarkable convergence between these three different accounts. All of them agree that an educated person (a “scribe” for Mark, a “lawyer” for Matthew and Luke) asked Jesus a question. (Only Matthew portrays it as contentious). For Mark and for Matthew, the question is about which commandment is the greatest; for Luke the question is about how to inherit eternal life.

The Gospel writers differ on who supplies the answer (Jesus does in Matthew and Mark but in Luke Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer who provides the right answer) and there are minor differences in the wording -but mostly remarkable agreement.

Mark: 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

Matthew: ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

Luke: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

Love God with all that you have got; love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says this is what matters most.

Theology can seem like an esoteric discipline with its own obscurantist discourse. But sometimes it is surprisingly simple.  For example: Richard Niebhur was a 20th century theologian in our tradition who taught at Yale and was, for my money, the superior Niebhur brother. In a little book called The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, Niebhur makes an argument so simple even I can follow it:

  1. Jesus said the meaning of life is growing in love of God and neighbor.
  2. The church exists to continue the mission of Jesus.
  3. The church is here to help people grow in love of God and neighbor.

Can it really be that simple? I think, just maybe, it can.

But in the coming weeks we will need to unpack some things:

-What does it mean to love God?

-What does it mean to love my neighbor?

-And Jesus mentions love of self. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Something we do all too well or not nearly well enough?

And just because it is simple to understand does not mean it is easy to do. There will be plenty to dig into  for the rest of the summer as we explore our purpose; as we grow together in love.

See you in church!

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Rooted in Creation: What the Angels Can Show Us

2019-07-15

 

EDITORIAL NOTE: This weekend, we will wrap up our Rooted in Creation Series and hear Mary Kate Buchanan’s very first sermon at Plymouth Church! In the meantime, here is text of my sermon from the Saturday July 13 and Sunday July 14. 

 

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

 

“What the Angels Can Show Us”[i]

I.

I once knew a woman who spoke to angels. And, she said, the angels spoke to her.

Betty was the organist at my first church. I was freshly graduated from The Princeton Theological Seminary, serving in my very first call. I was 25 years old. Betty, the church organist, was 88 years old. It did not take long for me to learn a couple of key facts about Betty. First: her organ playing? Surprisingly lively.  Second: she frequently carried on conversations with angels. She spoke to the; they spoke to her.

But I was not like Nikira or Mary Kate; I was not like the TiM Ministers of Plymouth Church. At 25 I was a special kind of immature. I was emotionally double-jointed; arrogant and insecure at the same time. So I never paid much attention to Betty’s talk of angels. I never occurred to me to ask her what the angels had to say.

Looking back now, I wonder what I missed.

 

II.

Our text for today comes from the Book of Revelation and…I get it. I know. Revelation is not your favorite book of the Bible. I know it is full of demons and dragons and pits of fire, like a bad metal album from the 1980’s. (Actually, I think “bad metal albums from the 1980’s is probably redundant). And I know you don’t like what people have done with the Book of Revelation –the blow dried TV preachers with their wild predictions and the Kirk Cameron movies with their cheap production and all the people who always seem so confident in their interpretations of this very odd book.

I get it.

But.

What if an angel is trying to show us something? Something we need to see?

That is John’s claim. John is the author of the book –not to be confused with John the Baptist or John the Apostle or John who wrote the 4th Gospel. (There are more “Johns” in the New Testament then “Sophias” in my son’s kindergarten class).

No, this John is his own person. He resides on the island of Patmos. It is, at the time, a sparsely populated, lonely little island way out in the Aegean Sea. John may be serving some kind of prison sentence, he may have been banished from the mainland, he may have booked a cabana on the beach to get away from it all. We don’t really know why he is there.

But John has some time on his hands. And so, yes, John has been talking to an angel. But this is not a private conversation. This is not for John’s own personal enlightenment. The angel has a vision for the church. The angel has a vision for us. So John talks to the angel. He sees some things. Then he writes it all down, he puts in the mail and to make a long story short it ends up in our Bible.

We say that “God is still speaking.” Maybe that goes for the angels as well. If an angel is trying to show us something, can we get over ourselves long enough to see it?

We have come all the way to the end –of the Book of Revelation, of the Bible itself. The whole thing concludes with this image of the New Jerusalem. The angel shows John the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God, bright as crystal. No nitrates, no poisons, just a pure life-giving stream. The river feeds the Tree of Life. It grows up on either side of the river bank, big and beautiful. It is cool in there in shade. The tree bears twelve different kinds of fruit—a staggering variety!—and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.[ii]

At the end of the book, at the end of all things, this is what the angel has to show us: life giving water that flows in abundance. Nothing in the New Jerusalem will lie under the curse. God will live in the midst of a healed humanity.

Are you seeing this? Are you getting God’s dream? Healing, wholeness, peace, shalom, not only for us, but for all of us and all of the nations and all of creation. An entire world made well.

That is what the angel can show us.

And there is just one catch: We have to be willing to see it.

 

III.

Why is John on Patmos anyway?  Forget what you have seen in the movies. So far as historians can determine, there is no widespread persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire when John writes his Revelation. No one is getting fed to the lions. No, if anything, John of Patmos seems to worry that his fellow Christians have it too easy. John worries that the church in his day has grown a little cozy, a little comfortable.

Biblical scholar David Barr suggests that in a time of peace and prosperity—a soaring stock market, record low unemployment—in a season of ease, John addresses his Revelation to a church that risks being “seduced by the glamor and luxury of Greco-Roman culture.”[iii]

Comfy. Complacent. All snuggled in to the status quo.

But that is what happens when you stop listening to angels.

The organist at my first church was perhaps a little eccentric. The Book of Revelation is perhaps a little weird. And you and I are—let’s be honest—a little too respectable, a little too sophisticated to be taken in by all of that.

I guess that is why we backed away from the angels. Little by little, step by step, we stopped seeing what they wanted to show us, stopped listening to what the angels were trying to tell us. Maybe we were taken in by the glamor, the luxury, the distractions offered by our empire. The angels grew quieter, their voices more distant. Our faith became less about what they had to say to us and more about what we had to say to ourselves. We scaled and shriveled and shrunk our faith, got it down to a size that we could manage. Christianity became another self-help system, another support group for coping with the stress of living with all of this bread and attending all of these circuses.

We got comfortable. And eventually we forgot that the angels are trying to get our attention.

 

IV.

But here is the problem: what if we no longer have the option of being cozy?  What if the world as we know it is about to get a lot less comfortable? What if this world—which has been so very good to so many of us—what if the world is changing for the worse?

As we have preached our way through this Rooted in Creation series, I have noticed something: it is hard to talk about the global climate crisis. The problem seems so overwhelming. And the bad news just keeps coming in.

Consider one small data point: In Anchorage, Alaska, they celebrated the 4th of July with an all-time record high temperature: 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It was hotter in Alaska than it was in Iowa. The climate is changing for the worse. And it is happening very fast.

What can we do in the face of a problem like this? Where would we even start?

Let me make one modest suggestion: What if we tune back in to what John is trying to tell us? What if we get over ourselves long enough to let the angels show us something?

If my faith is all about me and my comfort—if my Christianity mostly means a way to cope with my life while I am living it and then to get into heaven when I die—then my faith has nothing to say about the global climate crisis. If my faith begins and ends with me and my comfort, then I am already living in despair.

But there is another way. We don’t have to settle for these sad shriveled hopes. John just sent us a message; John just shared with us what the angel shared with him. And the angel says that God is not done yet. God is not ready to give up on this world. God is not finished with this creation. God has not consigned us to some sort of holy hospice care where all we can do is manage the pain until this thing is finally over. We don’t have to settle for some selfish solution where we hope to be part of the wealthy 1% who will have air conditioning and clean water.

We don’t have to give up. We don’t have to give in. God still has some dreams -for all of us; for our entire world. The river of the water of life will flow from the throne, clear as crystal. The tree of life will sink its roots deep into the well-watered soil and bring forth a beautiful harvest: twelve kinds of fruits to nourish the hungry. Tears will never stain the streets of that city.[iv] And the leaves of the tree will make all of us well.

It is a promise of healing, not for the lucky few, but for all the nations. It is a vision of life for all people and for all creation.

And we can be part of this vision. We can partner with God in making the world well.

It will begin—we will get better, our world will get better—it will begin when we are ready to see what the angels can show us.

Notes

[i] Although at no point do I directly cite him, this entire sermon stands under the influence of Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993). I believe the present climate crisis is a kind of judgement on the church: exposing the ways in which we have exchanged our prophetic birthright of authentic hope for a faith that mostly serves as a coping mechanism for the status quo. God gives us dreams and visions in the hope of provoking and awakening our hope for a world transformed.

[ii] “In John’s view, the new Jerusalem is the fulfillment of all human dreams for the community and security of life in an ideal city.” M. Eugene Boring. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), p.p.219-220.

[iii] See David L. Barr’s commentary in The Access Bible. Gail R. O’Day and David Peterson, General Editors. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.390.

[iv] If you get this reference, I love you and want to be your friend.

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Rooted in Creation: For the Healing of the Nations

2019-07-08

Martin Luther despised it.

My Sunday School teachers couldn’t get enough of it.

And hardly anybody calls it by its right name.

Buckle up, reader. This week we are in the Book of Revelation.

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Left Behind. Antichrist. 666. Mark of the Beast.

If any of these words mean anything to you, you may have grown up (as I did) in a church that taught dispensational premillennialism. It is a theological perspective characterized by the belief that 1.) Jesus Christ will return at any moment to usher in the end of history and 2.) The Book of Revelation predicts the end great detail.

(It is also the source of one of the greatest things to ever happen to Des Moines).

In 1970, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth popularized the great premillennialist pastime of scrutinizing the news of the day for signs that The End is Near. Somehow Lindsey was never discredited, even though the world made it through the 70’s. (Check out this article from The New York Times chronicling evangelical excitement about the 1st Gulf War as a sign of the end).

It seems to me that mainline Protestants have been content to leave Revelation to the end times aficionados.

But that is a shame. Revelation has something to say to us –especially as we ponder our relation to the creation.

Let’s start here: if you want to understand Revelation you have to know the correct name for the book. People tend to talk about “the Book of Revelations,” in the plural. And this connotes crystal balls and Nostradamus.

But that is not the name of the Book!

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” It’s singular. And the one thing being revealed is not God’s plan for history or some sort of prophetic timetable. It is a revelation of Jesus Christ.

The Book of Revelation exists to show us a side of Jesus that we otherwise would not see: the cosmic Christ who redeems the entire creation.

This particular passage consists of the first five verses of the last chapter of the book. It is part of the description of the New Jerusalem where redeemed humanity will share life with God.

My sermon is still very much under construction, so let me just throw out some random observations and two unfinished thoughts.

First, the random observations:

  • “The river of the water of life, bright as crystal.” The writer gets the connection between water and life.
  • “The tree of life” –a callback to the Garden of Eden?
  • “For the healing of the nations.” Such a lovely phrase. But “nations” is a loaded word in 1st century Christianity. It means “Gentiles.” It means “All people,” not just “our people.” Would it sound provocative to Jewish-Christian ears?
  • What might it mean to have God as our life?

And two unfinished thoughts:

 

The first unfinished thought consists of a quotation from David L. Barr’s Introduction to Revelation in The Access Bible.

 

“The historical and social context seems to be peace and prosperity and the great temptation is not to renounce the faith (as it might be in a time of persecution) but to be seduced by the glamor and luxury of Greco-Roman culture.”  

 

The second unfinished thought: this is a vision of our hope. And it is so large—so grandiose—that I wonder if we hope for too little. Maybe Revelation means to raise our sights.

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Rooted in Creation: Consider the Lilies

2019-07-01

 

“The only Commandment I ever obeyed — ‘Consider the Lilies.”

                                                                                                -Emily Dickens

This week our Rooted in Creation series continues with an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is, among other things, an invitation to stop, listen and learn from the creation.

The lilies are trying to tell us something.

Matthew 6:25-34

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

This text is part of Jesus’ longest and best-known sermon –the Sermon on the Mount. It comes early in Matthew’s Gospel. After the birth narrative, we hear a little about John the Baptist. Jesus is baptized by John, driven into the wilderness for a season and then launches his public ministry –preaching, teaching, healing and calling his first disciples.

By the time we get to chapter 5, Matthew’s Gospel feels like it is building some momentum. And then Matthew—who is very interested in exploring the continuity of Jesus with the Hebrew Bible—tells us that, like Moses before him, Jesus goes up to the mountain to deliver a new law to the people. And, like Moses on Sinai, Jesus does more than merely present a new law; he forms a new people. The Sermon on the Mount is constitutive of the people of God.

In this section, Jesus speaks to our anxiety about acquisition. Why do you worry about your life?

It is hard to add much to the words of Jesus. But in the spirit of our Rooted in Creation series, let me make two related comments.

First, this passage invites us to recognize all the ways we have bought in to the Myth of Scarcity.

(I owe that phrase to Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful essay The Liturgy of Abundance; The Myth of Scarcity. You can read it here).

The Myth of Scarcity is that belief, ingrained in us from the moment we are born, that there simply is not enough –not enough money, not enough resources, not enough for everyone to get their fair share.  From our earliest age, deep in our bones, we are brought up to believe that there simply is not enough.

 

Our belief in scarcity makes us afraid, and fear can make us do some ugly things.  We grab as much as we possibly can.  We hoard and hold on to as much as we possibly can.  We learn to be ruthless –not because we want to be, but because we think we have to be, because we truly believe that we do not have a choice.  So we turn a blind eye to suffering, refuse to share our stuff, or even consider the needs of others. After all, there may not be enough for me and for mine.  From family life to the federal budget, so many of our decisions are driven by fear; so much of what we do is determined by our deep belief in scarcity.

 

And the environmental impact of our belief in scarcity is especially pronounced. Our belief in scarcity leads us to hoard our resources and harden our hearts against those who have less than we do.

 

But notice (and I am still cribbing from Brueggemann here) how often the Bible speaks, not of scarcity, but abundance: Long before Jesus preached these words, when Israel wandered for forty years in desert places, God fed them with manna from heaven and water from the rock –abundance in a barren place.  And in John’s Gospel, we have the story of so much water being turned into so much wine. A little later in the Gospel according to Matthew, five loaves and two fish will become a feast for thousands (with a fridge full of leftovers to boot).

 

Again and again, in the face of some need, Jesus will answer in an overwhelming way; Jesus will go above and beyond and then some; Jesus will provide far more than is necessary.

 

Can you hear what the Spirit is trying to say?  Maybe scarcity is merely a myth. Maybe, in the economy of God, there is always enough, more than enough, abundantly more than enough. Maybe we do not have to worry after all.  Maybe we can learn to walk a little softer on the earth.

 

Second, note the way that Jesus gets to this insight: Consider the lilies! He explicitly invites us to notice God’s abundance in the creation.

 

Why does this matter? The theologians who most influenced me (John Calvin, Karl Barth) tended to take a dim view of “natural theology” –that is, the attempt to figure out the truth about God through reason alone. Calvin and Barth insisted (in very different ways) that if we try to read our theology off of nature we will, inevitably, make God in our own image and more or less stumble into idolatry.

 

But!  Calvin also believed we could see the truth in creation if we look through the lens of Scripture. (This blog post goes into more detail if you are interested). If we are shaped by the stories of God’s abundance, we will start to see signs of it all around us. Little by little, we will learn to let go of our fear and lean into God’s gracious provision for us and for the entire world.

 

Creation is speaking loud and clear about God’s abundance. But you have to be ready to notice it.

 

Having begun with Emily Dickinson, I will conclude with Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

 

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”