Touching the Untouchable – June 26

Based on Matthew 8: 1-4

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 26, 2022 *

By Scott Elliott

 

I have a college story to start us off. It gets kinda heavy, so I want to start with a light note.  It may be hard to believe, but in college I was even more handsome than I am now. Nancy and I were together way back then, and everyone in our small on campus dorm knew we were a couple– a handsome one at that.  I also played intermural sports on campus and around the dorm so it was also obvious that I was pretty good at sports. I mention this to make the point that while it really should not have mattered at all, by all appearances in my youth I looked like a stereotypical heterosexual male.  And I pretty much was one, except for one thing.  I did not know it. I could not have imagined it, but despite the reality of my heterosexual-ness,  to a gang in the dorm I was Gay because I was in plays. To them being a drama major meant homosexuality– and we complain about science education today. Whether I was Gay or not should not have mattered, but to them Gays were cultural lepers who needed to stay away from their world or be crushed. It made no sense, but homophobia never does.

At first the gang made crude comments to me in halls. Then they began yelling and banging on things outside my dorm room. Eventually they became physically violent – shoving me into walls when they passed by. I did not fight back.  I didn’t turn them in for fear things would escalate. Things escalated anyway. When Gay-bashing epithet laden death threats were put in my dorm mailbox I took counterintuitive action. Actually, I kinda snapped, judgment-wise. I saw the gang playing touch football on the dorm’s lawn and asked if I could play. I joined the non-gang side of the field.

On the first play the gang leader lined up against me and at the hike threw a series of gut punches. I took the punches.  Then at end of the play as he walked back to the huddle I asked in my booming theatre voice why he had to cheat, was he afraid he couldn’t he win against a Gay drama guy playing fair?  With the gauntlet of fairness thrown and everyone watching, the gang had to play by the rules . . .  and they lost. In part because the Gay drama guy could play touch football pretty well.  After that no one bothered me or the other male drama major in our dorm. It makes no sense but, touch football took our untouchableness away.

I was fortunate. I could have been seriously hurt by that gang in football, on campus, in the dorm,  or on the streets of town. Gay bashers are a violent lot.  So, make no mistake about it, I was lucky. Their threats were very real.  After that other drama major in the dorm left for graduate school he was severely beaten by a student who perceived him at that college as Gay – even though he was also a heterosexual.  Which should not have mattered and also evidences the ridiculousness and rabid nature of hate and homophobia. Violence against Gays (and perceived Gays) has a long and sordid history in this country that continues to this day. In the past year some religious leaders in this area, and one from another state, have gone out of their way to confront me with ugly mean hateful words for just saying or writing things along the lines of this sermon– which, ironically, are grounded in Jesus’ teachings.  I know too that some religious folks in the area perceive me as an apostasy and/or Gay and think of me as an outcast.  To this day I remain a socially constructed leper to a gang of homophobic religious people.

But the confrontations I’ve had are nothing compared to the way in which LGBTQ+ folks are abused, bullied and violently treated by such ungodly gangs. Last year in America there were “at least 57 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means” 1   A few weeks ago was the sixth anniversary of the shooting in an Orlando LGBTQ+ night club that killed 49 people injured 53. Also a few weeks ago a gang of men were arrested planning violence at a Pride Parade in Idaho. This isn’t an out-of-state issue, a recent study noted that “State laws in Ohio also fail to adequately protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment.”  Polling in the report indicated that nearly 25% of LGBTQ+ high schoolers experienced bullying in school, twice that of straight students. It doesn’t seem to get better at college. In one Ohio collage 39% of the transgender students “experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive or hostile conduct on campus.” 2  Homophobic driven violence is still happening.  Some of the awful stories of violence against LGBTQ+ make the press, but most of the time they don’t, like my recent encounters, my college story, my friend in graduate school,  and many of your stories and countless others out there.  If you don’t seem to fit into gender boxes some in our culture want to put us in, there is reason to fear.

In college being in drama for me meant being abused and threatened. It was awful, to use a phrase from last week’s sermon, it was unnerving. But I did not have to endure it long or relatively much. What if I were Gay?  How many folks in our community would think it fair to treat me even more violently and meaner than I have been for LGBTQ+ justice work? Or like I was in college? If it is not right, or unfair, or ridiculous to harass a drama major or a clergy person who opposes injustices, why isn’t it just as preposterous that loving someone of your own gender makes a person hated? Why should being made LGBTQ+ by God make anyone unacceptable and outside a norm?

Such norms are constructed by our culture, they’re certainly not God’s norms, nor are they universal cultural rules. LGBTQ+ s areconsidered acceptable elsewhere. And this is not new – or a liberal plot. In the 1950s “[a] survey of 190 societies around the world reported homosexual practices were considered acceptable behavior in approximately 70% of them.”3 In the 1950s!

Why in the 21st Century are LGBTQ+ unacceptable to some and treated as socially constructed lepers in America?  Homophobic people connected to churches across this country might answer the Bible condemns homosexuality. That’s what a number of religious elites might claim, the Dr. Dobsons and Pat Robinsons of the world, as well as not so famous hateful religious people we’ve probably all encountered.   And it is pretty interesting how obsessed they are with this claim, you might think it was at the heart of the gospels, but it’s not even in the gospels.  Jesus did not say a word about homosexuality.4

It is interesting, though, that the gospels report  Jesus opposed divorce and asserted remarriage after a divorce is adultery. 5 So why don’t we hear ranting and raving about the divorced by the religious elite who hate LGBTQ+ while thumping their Bibles. Why are there anti-LGBTQ+ bills in legislatures but no bills to keep the divorced from marrying again so the state does not sponsor Biblical adultery?  The short answer is that our culture is not ancient Israel. Our culture accepts divorce and remarriage as a part of our norm. Ancient divorce rules no longer apply. We decided such rules have no place in our culture.

And it’s not just biblical prohibitions against divorce. The Bible has numerous prohibitions meant to apply only to ancient Israel that we don’t follow. And we don’t hear LGBTQ+ haters thumping their bibles about those other prohibitions. How many of us are wearing mixed fibers today? 6 How many of us men shaved today? 7  How many of us have eaten pork or rabbit or shellfish? 8 How many have touched pigskin playing football?  If we have done these things, applying ancient Israel’s biblical standards we are unclean, like lepers. But we are not in ancient Israel, so we don’t enforce them.

Pat Robertson and James Dobson both shave, but they and their churches and many others oppose homosexuality on the basis of the same types of purported prohibitions that they violate by shaving! If shaving is not prohibited any more to them,  why is homosexuality? The Bible and ancient Israel’s laws do not make LGBTQ+ wrong in our day and age. 9  Religious people opposing LGBTQ+ are just picking and choosing verses they want to enforce on others. If they were not picking and choosing they’d be going after the divorced, the pork eaters, the clam chowder makers, the people in cotton-wool blends and all men who shave. One of the many ironies of bible thumping against LGBTQ+ is that not one word of the Bible was ever meant to condemn homosexuality in our culture. 10 Not one word.

You may be thinking of verses that have words you are sure condemn homosexuality. But, guess what? The word homosexual is not in the original versions of the Bible, or even the King James Version. 11.  See “[t]he scientific study of sexuality is barely a century old.” 12  To read the word homosexual into the Bible is anachronistic, it’s like translating “scroll” to mean “laptop computer” Ancient Israel of course knew about same gender sensuality, but not homosexuality. 13 Homosexuality relates to relationships. This is not semantics, verses in the Bible that deal with sensuality were never intended as prohibitions against loving consensual relationships, let alone made with the awareness of the laws of science.  Moreover, the texts most relied on by homophobic religious folks are specifically tied to the land in Israel. We. Are. Not. In. Israel.

Every verse relied on to claim homosexuality in America is prohibited can fairly be interpreted in a loving way to say nothing about it. 14. There is a hateful way to read it, but it is not necessary (or Christ like to do so). Many of the prohibitions in Bible were created for reasons that existed in ancient Israel, which are not applicable to America. Which is why you don’t hear Dr. Dobson, Pat Robertson and other homophobic Christians advocating that all Americans must live by the verses that are anti-shaving, anti-pork eating, anti-clam chowder, anti-mixed fibers and anti-divorce. The same reason there’s no reason to apply those verses, is why there is no reason to apply purported anti-homosexual texts from ancient Israel in America.

If all that was not enough to do away with homophobia for church goers, in the story we heard today from Matthew 8 (v 2-4) Jesus models how his followers should deal with those the culture names and oppresses as unclean. A leper, who was outcast by the social constructs and scriptures of ancient Israel, told Jesus “‘[I]f you choose you can make me clean.’” Jesus’ response was to stretch out his hand, touch the outcast and state authoritatively “‘I do choose. Be made clean.’” Jesus ignores the social constructs of his day – and scriptural prohibitions against lepers. Jesus does this by recognizing and claiming the culturally unclean as clean. He touches the untouchables and declares them touchable. That’s powerful healing for outcasts.   This should not surprise us. Jesus taught us that loving God and others out ranks every other commandment. All of them. Jesus touches the untouchable in violation of norms and scripture because loving others requires that! For Jesus,  Love must wash away any and all constructs that make another unclean, whether a person is a leper literally or figuratively. No one is unclean. All are goodly and Godly made.

 We are called to do as Jesus did, not just hear his stories and praise him. To do as Jesus did includes affirmatively taking away social constructs that make people outcasts. To follow Jesus, we need to choose to make the culturally unclean clean. We need to touch the untouchables and declare them touchable.  We need to reject norms that outcast others and we need to go out of the way to embrace those who are outcast by any part of the culture.  Loving our neighbor includes declaring our culture’s unclean clean and welcoming them just as they are fully and equally into the community of God.

 This is Christ’s community not the culture’s.  Jesus himself calls us to such a daring reaching out, welcoming and open community. The Book of Acts evidences the early church did just that when an Ethiopia Eunuch, an LGBTQ+ person, was sought out and invited and welcomed into the church. The Book of Acts even notes that God codified this with a command to Peter that no one is to be called profane or unclean.  If churches can welcome Pat Robertson and James Dobson who shave; if churches can welcome Donald Trump and others who’ve been  divorced and remarried; if churches can welcome theatre people  like me; then churches can welcome all the other lepers our culture creates – including every LGBTQ+ person (each of whom is goodly and Godly made).

As Pride Month comes to a close I wanted to make it clear that the radical open and affirming nature of this church is very Jesus like, very Christian and has Biblical anchors …  and Christ calls us to it. No matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here, as a goodly and Godly made person. And you are loved and matter much.  AMEN.

END NOTES

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008

1 https://www.hrc.org/resources/fatal-violence-against-the-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2021

2 https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-stigma-discrim-oh/

3 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2001-05) (“homosexuality”) online edition at www.bartleby.com/65/ho/homosexu.html.

4 Goss, Queering Christ, Cleveland, Pilgrim Press (2002),197.

5 Mark 10:10-12.

6 Leviticus 19:19.

7 Leviticus 19:27.

8 Leviticus 11:6, 7, 10-12.

9 Cf., Goss, 204; Wilchins, 31.

10 Goss, 186-203; see also,  Helminiak, Daniel, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, San Francisco: Alamo Square Press, (1994), 13, 14.

11 Boswell, 114.

12 Helminiak, 32.

13 Ibid., 33.

14 All seven texts usually to claim homosexuality in America is prohibited can be read to not prohibit it. Here is just a very quick overview of interpretations that contradict those verses being used as anti-homosexual. Let’s begin with Leviticus 18(22) and 20 (13) which prohibit a man to “lie with a male as with a woman.” Of course, literally read only “to lie “is at issue, no word of sex is mentioned. Even if we interpret “lie” as referring to sexual matters both chapters 18 and 20 assert the laws are intended to apply only in Israel to Israelites. (Lev. 18:2-3; 20:2)) We are not in Israel and we are not Israelites. The laws are tied to the land not to us and so they were never intended for application in our nation.

Next we have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:1-27)where we are told the town’s men want “to know” the messengers Lot’s taken in. A literal reading of “to know” does not mean sex. Even interpreting the text to refer to sex does not help since that makes the story about non-consensual sexual assault, not loving relations. The same can be said for the lesser-known story in Judges 19 (22-30) where men wanted “to know” a foreigner, but attacked and killed his concubine. These stories were intended to condemn sexual assault, not prohibit consensual relations of any type.

That’s it for the Old Testament, on to the New.  Romans 1:26-27 is used to attack both Gays and Lesbians. But verse 26 can be read to be about heterosexual women choosing to have relations with men in ways that Paul thought were unnatural. And verse 27 can be read to criticize rich males imposing non-consensual acts on male subordinates.

The last verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality are vice lists found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 where focus is placed on the terms “male prostitutes’ in 1 Corinthians and “sodomites” in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. But those terms are translations made through a modern homophobic lens. The King James Version does not use “male prostitutes,” it uses the word  “effeminate.” The King James Version does not use “sodomite,” it uses  the curious phrase “abusers of themselves with mankind.”  Paul wrote in Greek. The Greek word translated as “male prostitute” is malakas which means “softy.” The Greek word translated as “sodomite” is arseno-koites – a strange term some scholars think refers to the men exploiting others through non-consensual acts– in truth no one knows what it means making it unfair to claim it means homosexuality.

So, there you are fair readings of all seven purportedly anti-homosexual verses indicating none of them were intended to prohibit homosexuality in America in the twenty-first century.

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Touch the Untouchable – June 26

There in the Calm – June 19

A sermon based on 1 Kings1-15a (The Message)

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 19, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Since Elliott means Elijah you know I like the prophet in our story, he’s kin. Our names mean “Yahweh is my God.” Which is pretty cool and very true. Elijah, the greatest prophet in the Bible and my family’s namesake, is portrayed on one of our huge stained-glass windows looking out over Main Street (the one on my left). The other fellow is David the greatest king in the Bible, he not only gets to look out over Main Street but gets to hold an instrument. My theory is Elijah has an instrument too, we just can’t see it, it’s a didgeridoo hidden behind him, and he plays it like all my namesakes who do, very well.
There’s actually IS something sort of hidden about Elijah that’s not in the portrait or likely in our usual recollection of him. As great a prophet as he was, as we just heard in our lesson, at one point Elijah lost his nerve. Remarkably the Bible records one of its greatest heroes unraveling, his courage and his resolve are gone. Most of us probably never think about that, but Elijah’s prophetic work halted when Jezebel responded to that work with threats to have Baal, her god of the storms hunt him down and kill him. This week’s powerful storm gives us a pretty good idea of why a person might get unnerved by the threat of a storm being hurled at them. It’s Elijah’s loss of nerve at such a threat that drives the lesson today.
Interestingly the lesson follows quick on the heels of Elijah’s great triumph in an altar lighting contest with Baal’s prophets to see whose god was really real. You may recall that in the contest Yahweh, the one God, shows up and not only lights the altar when Baal could not, but also brought a much-needed rain storm to end a drought when Baal could not end it. Baal, Jezebel’s purported god of storms, failed to show up at the contest or provide much needed rain, so Elijah and Yahweh carried the day. Sadly, Baal’s four-hundred-fifty prophets were slaughtered by the crowds as a consequence of Baal not being there. The humiliating defeat of her god Baal and Baal’s prophets is what caused Jezebel to threaten Elijah and rattle his nerves. She basically claimed she’d sic her storm god on him and she’d get even making sure Elijah was killed by the next day. These threats deflated Elijah’s sense of courage and confidence that he had just shown during the victorious contest of God over Baal, and of Elijah over Baal’s many prophets.
And actually, the threats Elijah got for doing God’s prophetic work did more than deflate his sense of courage and confidence, they sent him scurrying away and into a very dark place, both literally and figuratively. In modern times we could even say the lesson evidences signs that suggest Elijah was depressed. We can hear in the reading that he felt hopeless, empty and extremely tired. Elijah slept a lot and was not getting pleasure from anything. Elijah also showed signs of “escapist behavior,” running away and longing for death . . . even praying for it. Ironically Jezebel’s evil desire for Elijah’s death led Elijah to desire the same thing.
Feeling depressed and afraid of Baal and Jezebel, Elijah runs away far into the desert wilderness. When he is deep enough in, Elijah collapses in the shade of a broom tree and drifts off to sleep. Broom trees are very handy. They offer rare shade in Mideast deserts and their roots offer a source of food and their branches burn well and make good cooking coals for making bread. We can hear some of that reflected in the story when the angels appear to help Elijah as he experiences deep despair. Notably those angels didn’t do any super-duper magic beyond showing up like a good neighbor or church member to nurse Elijah with food, kind words and advice . . . and just being there.
Nourished and rested Elijah gained enough strength to get up and fast as he took a forty-day journey to the top of Mount Horeb where God was known to hang out. When Elijah finished the trek he crawled into a cave and collapsed. He escaped Jezebel and threats from her and her supposed god Baal. Elijah’s reason for running and seeking refuge and being depressed seems obvious. We can fairly assume God knows what’s going on from the angels, and the obvious, and God’s otherwise all knowingness. Nonetheless God wants Elijah to tell him and wakes him asking, “What are you doing here?” As we heard in the reading, Elijah pretty much tells God he’s worked his heart out for God with nothing to show for it, except people abandoning the faith, destroying places of faith and killing faithful prophets. Now Elijah claims he’s all that’s left and they’re trying to kill him too. Elijah does not mention he’s lost his nerve or fears Baal, but God knows.
God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain and watch God pass by. Then the things Baal is claimed to be god of occur, the unnerving threatening powers of earth, wind and fire pass by. But God’s not in them. The things Baal’s supposed to be the god of, have no god in them– at least not in the sense that God’s flinging their destructive power about to do bad to Elijah or anyone else. The message for Elijah is he does not need to worry about aimed “acts of God” by Baal who is no god at all.
Nature’s storms, quakes and fires are a part of creation and full of awe and wonder as we saw this past week. But their destruction is not and never has been purposefully targeted at humans by divine powers. Jezebel claimed her god Baal would do that. She lied. Baal could not even seek out a log to start it on fire. So, he could not intentionally harm Elijah – or us– with storms. No god does that. There is no god of storms in that respect so Baal, does not exist. Simply put, –and this is important to hear in light of the storms we just had– there is no divine power intentionally sent to hurt or destroy humankind in any kind of way. God doesn’t hurt humankind. Jezebel – and modern Pat Robertson type preachers for that matter– are wrong. God does not fling natural catastrophes about to hurt anyone. God does not manipulate earth, wind and fire to sic humanity– no god does. See the threat of Baal hurting Elijah is pish posh. It’s nonsense.
While God is not in punishing acts of nature, Elijah does find out where God is. The answer may be as much a surprise as learning Elijah was unnerved. Elijah (and we) learn that God is in what The Message paraphrase calls “a gentle and quiet whisper. “That phrasing is a pretty good translation of the Hebrew in the context of the story. God’s in the “gentle quiet whisper” that follows whatever earth, wind and fire-like disturbances we experience, whether human or natural in origin. God’s not speaking in threats, God’s speaking in the calm.
As I sat with this story for the past few weeks reading it, researching it, praying about it, I could not shake that message. The point of the story seems to pretty much be, God’s voice is not experienced in the unnerving swirling thunderous quaking threats of life, but in the angels sent to help us and in God’s gentle quiet whispers.
Once I got that message, I had to wrestle with it and put on my critical thinking cap and wonder, is that true? Has that been my experience? I don’t know about you all, but I’ve had some pretty unnerving events in my life. I’ve had a number of drivers nearly kill me. I’ve had life threatening hospital experiences. I’ve been shot at. I’ve had a knife pulled on me. I’ve found naked strangers in my house at night. I’ve received death threats (which I will talk about next week). I have even been in earthquakes, a fire, and very scary storms with hurricane level winds and flooding. I was unnerved by each of those happenings. I have to admit upon reflection that in those threats, like Elijah, I did not sense God in the them.
I did, however, call out to God in each unnerving event There’s a proverbial saying that there are “No atheists in foxholes, ” and each of my “foxhole” like events had me praying. But I did not hear God’s voice in the threat and turmoil. I heard it whispering in the silence that followed. I heard God when the storm passed– in the calm. See while there may be no atheists in foxholes, there is no voice of God in the unnerving causes that surround foxholes. God’s not in violence. God’s not in what unnerves us. God’s in stillness, God’s in peace.
GOD’S IN THE PROMISE OF STILLNESS AND PEACE. THAT’S THE KEY. The promise is why we call out to God in calamities. We pray to God in the proverbial foxholes of life. God is not there in the violence, but God IS there in the hopes and prayers and longings for peace–and in the gentle quiet whispers of peace. That presence in and after unnerving events is what calms our nerves and can set us right again, restore our sense of courage and confidence.
When Elijah heard the gentle and quiet whisper that was God, he calmed down, covered up and re-approached God who asked “NOW tell me what you are doing here?” Elijah’s answer did not change. But God’s response did. God basically told Elijah to get back to work . . . And most importantly Elijah was able to do so and did. His sense of courage and confidence was restored. Elijah figured out in our story what God showed him, that divine action does not occur as Jezebel threatened, and that the god Baal did not exist in any divine violent intent in nature. Because there is no such thing. See Baal did not exist. He could not hurt, let alone kill Elijah. In other words, Jezebel had no god on her side to kill for her, and therefore no god was out to sic, to get, Elijah.
The one God, Yahweh was out to love Elijah and tend to his well-being by sending angels to help while he was in despair, and by letting him know God was there. God was with him not causing the earth, wind or fire to get him, but in a gentle and quiet whisper. What was in that whisper? In my experience the whisper is very personal and different in each crisis–and at the end of the day it’s not the words so much as it is the very presence of the divine. Which, like Elijah, may not change our answers to God’s questions or the facts of our experience, except that we regain our nerve and courage to go on. Which Elijah did.
Life’s tasks did not get easier for Elijah and he did not give up doing God’s work, he just had his nerve to face it restored. Why? Because he realized that there is no form of divine violence in all of creation. Elijah learned, as we can, the good news that there is the hope of God’s peace in all unnerving events; that God will send angels to aid us; and in the silence and calm God’s there with gentle and quiet whispers to help us move on and do what needs to be done. God loves us and cares for our well-being and calls us to it all the time everywhere. This is the Truth and it is the Good news. AMEN.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

There in the Calm – June 19

God’s Not Fluffy – June 12

A sermon based on: John 16:12-15

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 12, 2022*

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today is Trinity Sunday. I try and explain the Trinity each year. In the odd way that my mind works the Trinity used to remind me of Fluffy the three-headed dog obstacle that Harry Potter and his friends have to overcome in The Sorcerer’s Stone. When I first started wrestling with the Trinity I found it to be a three-headed obstacle,  because it seemed a necessary belief and I could not understand it.  My goal today is to prove God’s not Fluffy–  that the idea of a Trinitarian God need not be a three headed obstacle we cannot warp our head around.

I know I am not alone in grappling with the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Ghost making up one God-head can seem an impossible image. It was a concept I couldn’t subscribe to for the longest time.  While I still don’t consider it a necessary doctrine to believe in, my conceptual struggles ended when I learned that the original idea of the Trinity is NOT set out in the Bible. It began as a model for explaining how Christians believe in one God. Opponents of Christianity argued Christians were not monotheists since they believed in the Father and the Son, seemingly two gods. I have heard this multiple gods argument in my lifetime, it even came up in our Talking About God class last week.

To be fair the names we give to God can sound like we worship more than one God.  Which is why in the late second century Tertullian tried to explain the Oneness of God using three of the aspects of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.   The notion had been around, but he set it out in detail. Tertullian called them personas, we call them persons in English, which unfortunately misses a part of the second century Latin meaning Tertullian was illustrating. Back in the day Personas was a term for characters that actors portrayed by wearing masks on stage. An actor could be experienced in different ways depending on the nature of the role, what his mask–persona–  was. Think of it like the make-up someone like Dustin Hoffman might wear in different movies. For Little Big Man he appeared with old age make-up. For Hook he had a menacing fop pirate make-up thing going.  In Tootsie he wore make-up for the persona of a man pretending to be the persona of a woman.  One guy, Dustin Hoffman, in three very different roles. He’s always Dustin Hoffman, he was just experienced very differently as an old man, a pirate and a woman.  Perceiving a being in three roles is basically the gist of Tertullian’s model to show we experience One God in different named roles. Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In our church, except in Baptisms, we tend to refer to these roles in the gender-neutral terms, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.

The Bible may not use the term “Trinity” but it does mention these roles. And while Christians experience God performing those three roles in the Bible and in their lives, that does not make God different actors, it makes God one actor, in three roles.  In this way we can hear how the Trinity is not like Fluffy the three-headed dog. Rather God’s like a person with three roles. In other words, we experience God as a multifaceted being in different ways. God, of course, does not “act” in the sense of pretending to be a character in a theatrical play or movie, rather we experience God acting as God in creation.

In that sense the three personas of God are more like how we experience other humans over the course of a lifetime.  We have different roles in life. We can even simultaneously be experienced in multiple roles. In the same room we can be someone’s child, someone’s parent, and someone’s spouse. God is also experienced in different roles in the life of creation.  God creates, so the Spirit can be felt in all things. God relates, so through Christ we can know God. God contemplates so that the Creator knows in an instant how to remember and respond to all that is. In truth God is mostly incomprehensible to us. What God knows and considers and IS, is beyond us. But it helps us to understand our experiences of God if we can imagine God in terms we can put our heads around. The Trinity was a tool designed to try and do this.

We tend to make God in our image, even more so than God has made us in God’s image, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We can explain God being like us in some respects, at least metaphorically. Most people are experienced by others as someone in the background  moving or occupying space. Our physical self is experienced  distantly. But we can also be encountered by others close up in long- or short-term relationships where we engage on some personal level. Then there’s a part of us that shares thoughts with others, but most of our thoughts are not shared, they stay in our heads and we do things mostly only perceived by ourselves. We could sum all this up by saying in creation we can be experienced through physical, relational and mental presence; three very different, yet inter-related experiences of our beings on earth.

For example, most people in the world who experience me only just see or hear my physical being as I pass by them on a walk or driving down the road.  A few are lucky and get to encounter me in a relationship of some sort. Maybe I buy a pair of shoes from one, maybe I meet another at church. Still another I encounter much more closely like my beloved spouse and children. But even those who have long term relationships with me never get to fully know me, because while many thoughts are stated in our relationships with others all of our thoughts are not revealed, most of them stay in our heads inaccessible to others.

Like the model I just used to explain me as physical, relational and mental experiences in creation, we can understand the Trinity model as categories of how God is experienced. A model that can help us better comprehend God. And if the Trinity model does work for you that is okay. It may be heretical to some in the church, but neither Jesus nor the Bible mention the model or the doctrine it evolved into. The model of the Trinity does not matter in scripture or in the Jesus following.  Understanding that we are called to love God in creation, in ourselves and in others is what matters. The Trinity was just created as a way to help understand experiences of God.

There are a number of ways to consider Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit images – over the years I’ve mentioned a few.   Today let’s take the triad model of the physical, relational and mental aspects I just used to describe parts of me and apply those categories to God. Everyone experiences God in the physical world, whether they acknowledge it or not. Our senses take in a persona of God all day. Warm. Cold. Sun. Clouds. Rain. Trees. Flowers. Bees. Mountains. Lakes. Gardens. Birds. Animals.  Storms. Rainbows. Heartbeats. Breaths.  As far as you can see there is God. God’s spirit is incarnate in all that is.  The Bible often describes that Spirit as wind-like, blowing about and through all of creation. We can call this experience of God the Holy Spirit; it’s God acting incarnate in the world. As Psalm 19 in our invocation puts it “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” The Spirit can be understood as naming that part of God we encounter in day-to-day creation where we live and move and have our being.

As a religious people we have found that we can have a personal relationship with God. As Christians we understand that we can relate to God through Christ. Christ is the name we give to how we acquire and maintain those relational experiences. We pray through Christ. We commune through Christ. We find that Christ, the part of God within humanity, helps us to not just see God or be moved by God as the Holy Spirit, but to also intentionally interact with God. Christ is the name we give to the means by which we relate to God in a personal way. For some it’s just once in a while, a more casual relationship. But we can also choose to have a deep relationship with God through Christ and it is very different than just seeing God out in creation. It’s transformative.

By letting God into our lives – through Christ– a dynamic relationship ensues. This includes, of course, relating to Christ in others, a good example of this is in Matthew 25 where helping those less fortunate is a relational  encounter with Christ. We meet God in the least amongst us by relating to Christ in them.  So, we can see the Spirit of God in creation, and Christ within relating to God. But the God in creation and to whom we relate through Christ is more than creation and more than the relating we experience.

God is also dynamic in other respects. We cannot even fathom all that God might think about or how God is love or how God responds and knows and pulls the universe toward creation and love and justice and shalom.  The book of Job indicates God’s doings in the universe and our experience of them are on so many levels a great mystery. After questioning God’s decision and hearing from God how great and miraculous and incomprehensible God’s actions are, Job’s response includes this remarkable sentence “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  God’s mind, what we might call in human terms, mental faculties, are far beyond what we can comprehend. Paul put it like this is 1 Corinthians “ now we see in a mirror dimly . . .now [we] know only in part . . .” (1 Cor 13: 9, 12).

In our lives, as omnipresent and powerful as God is we only experience a very small part of God. Some of it as Spirit. Some of it as Christ.  A little bit more as Creator. But there is much about God we do not know– kinda like the part of each other’s minds we can never know only trillions and trillions of times more expansive. There is a mind of God, we experience only a little of it, but we are aware of its existence. Given the great mystery that God truly is, and the dim mirror by which we see God’s image, it is no wonder that the Trinity model is hard for some of us to comprehend. God is hard to comprehend at any level.

The Trinity can be helpful. It’s a way to help us better understand our experiences God, even while knowing that ultimately God cannot be understood except (as Paul put it) only in part . . . and dimly.  The good news is that a part of what we can understand is that God’s Spirit blows through all of creation, that through Christ we can relate to all of God even though there is much of the Creator that we cannot know. And in the end no matter how much we understand or don’t understand, God in all roles loves us steadfastly and forever! And I say hallelujah and AMEN to that!

ENDNOTES

* based in part on a sermon I first wrote in 2010

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

God’s Not Fluffy – June 12

Everybody Wants to Love and Be Loved – June 5

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 5, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I was wondering what it would be like if Jesus’ return is like Pentecost and we all know beforehand? I laughed thinking people would probably want to know if it will be online so they can watch it at home, and some would come to church but want to leave early so they don’t have to talk to strangers. Others might ask questions like “Will the fire on my head make me bald?” “Will the wind muss my hair?” “Can we wear a hat?” “Can we pick what language we learn to speak?

I am guessing even back in the day; folks would have asked a lot of questions if they knew what was coming. Which may be why John the Baptist left if obscure in Luke (chapter 3) when he prophesied that someone more powerful than he was coming and he only said they’d baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Anyone who heard John the Baptist make that proclamation was likely baffled by what it meant.

We are lucky because we have the sequel to Luke that tells us at least what the spirit and fire looked like. The Book of Acts is the sequel where we find John’s prophesy fulfilled on Pentecost. But that fulfillment seems more baffling than the prophesy. As we heard, the Jesus Followers, in the chaos of the loss of their leader, are sequestered in a house in Jerusalem. They are suddenly startled on the morning of the Jewish holiday Pentecost by what sounded like a violent wind. Then something like tongues of fire appeared in the room and one of the tongues sat on each Jesus follower as they were filled with the Holy Spirit. The immediate consequence of all this was the Jesus Followers began to speak in a tongue foreigners could understand. When they went out on the street this amazed and baffled the Pentecost pilgrims that they encountered. Somehow pilgrims from nations far and wide could understand the Jesus followers, the tongues-like-fire gave them a tongue to speak to the world.

In the midst of this scene Peter steps forward and provides an explanation only half of which is set out in the Lectionary cutting. A short summary of Peter’s whole explanation is that they were witnessing Joel’s prophesy that in the end times all of humanity would equally experience God’s Spirit. Even those who were outcasts and dismissed by the culture would hear from God and speak for God. There would be signs in creation too, before “the Lord’s great and glorious day[; T]hen everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In the verses that follow our Lectionary lesson, among other things, Peter goes on to set out Biblical promises of a Messiah and then explains how Jesus fits the bill and how all the Jesus followers on the street that morning were witnesses to Jesus being raised up and that Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of God and they are supposed to let everyone know Jesus is Lord and Messiah.

Theologians and preachers pretty much agree that those reported happenings on Pentecost serve to mark the beginning of the early church. But theologians and preachers have debated for years what it all means. At one level it is fair to conclude it’s all a mystery full of wonder and awe. Which it is, and that is an okay approach. Mystery can be good and Holy. Another approach is to glean parabolic meaning, metaphors if you will. For instance, some themes in our lesson seem to overlap with creation motifs of wind and light and God’s fiery presence in the Bible. Each of which we can relate to the creation of the Church and God’s presence on Pentecost and the light Jesus meant us to be.

The creation story in Genesis like the first Pentecost begins with chaos. We are told right off the bat in Genesis that “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” We have discussed a number of times how “wind” in Hebrew is “Ruach,” a feminine word meaning Spirit. So, before Day One begins God’s windy Spirit is swirling about in the chaos of the cosmos as God readies the birth of creation. After the wind swept in, the next step is God speaking. The first thing spoken was, “Let there be light; and there was light.” Out of darkness, out of chaos, God’s Spirit and God’s Word create light and a brand-new day.

Until very recently in human history there were only two sources of light, celestial bodies and fire. We sort of get both in our lesson. At dawn in the midst of the chaos of the loss of Jesus, the Divine wind swirls about and heavenly sent fire like tongues shows up to light up the dark for a brand-new day, and a brand-new way. The tongues alight on the Jesus followers making them in essence human torches of God light. There was darkness and now there is light. There was chaos and now there is order and hope in the Way of the Messiah Jesus.

See, not only is the wind Ruach (the spirit of God) but God is the fire that that alights and ignites as it lights up the Jesus followers and the world. Just as God appears as the image of wind, God is also found in the image of fire in the Bible. In the Exodus story God often appears in fiery images. As a bush on fire, as fire on mountaintops and as a fiery pillar that leads the Hebrews out of the chaos of the wilderness. God appears as fire on the first day of the Church leading the Jesus followers out of the chaos of the loss of Jesus. But ever since Pentecost God is understood to also appear in us. To borrow Jesus’ assertion, now that he is gone, we are the light of the world baptized with spirit and with fire. Both of which are with us always, so we can bring the Breath of God into chaos and the Light of God into darkness so that others can experience God too.

The Pentecost story can be heard as a parable about the Church beginning as a new creation of God’s. We were, and are created, with the windy Holy Spirit and light of God and each follower of Jesus is baptized with that Spirit and with that fire getting a dose of that new creation. The point is we are alight with God as Jesus was before his Ascension and that we are to be like Jesus and bring God out into our community and to the ends of the world. The Pentecost story symbolizes that the Church and the followers of Jesus are equipped to do just that with language everyone understands!

But can we speak in the tongues of the world? Do we have the language to get the word out to the ends of world as Jesus commanded? The Pentecost story, of course, suggests that we do. Some of us may believe the Book of Acts’ account of the Jesus Followers all suddenly speaking foreign languages is literally true, some of us may not. But either way we can understand it’s a miracle that Jesus’ tiny little following after Pentecost speaks to the world in a language everybody can understand. Christians can be found literally speaking virtually all languages almost everywhere in the world. That’s a prophetic meaning.

There is also another parabolic meaning. We can understand Jesus’ teachings are what’s being spoken by the Jesus Followers. Those teachings are universally understood because they are in the language love. Everyone can speak it. Everyone can understand it. Everyone wants to love and be loved. One of my all-time favorite songs is about this. It’s by a wonderfully gifted singer songwriter, Ingrid Michelson. The song is simple and powerful like Jesus’ message. It’s called “Everybody” and you have likely heard it on the radio. That lively uplifting song includes these words: “everybody knows the love/ Everybody holds the love/Everybody folds for love/Everybody feels the love/Everybody steals the love/ Everybody heals with love . . . Just let the love love love begin/Everybody, everybody wants to love/ Everybody, everybody wants to be loved . . ./Just let the love love love begin.”

I not only love those lyrics I believe they are true, and I imagine they have always been true for humankind. We want to love and to be loved consequently we want to just let love begin. That first Pentecost represents the first day the Jesus Followers felt on fire with love sent by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Ignited by that fire they step outside and let it shine as a bright light in the community. They let love begin, because they wanted to love and be loved–and Jesus wanted them to love and be love. The people on the street were ready for it because they wanted to love and be love–because love is, and always will be, humankind’s universal language! It’s the language of God too of course. And it’s the language of Jesus and he taught to his followers. Since the first Pentecost, love has been the language of our faith.

Love is universally understood. May we speak it as much as we can. Because “Everybody, everybody wants to love/ Everybody, everybody wants to be loved.” AMEN!
ENDNOTES:
1. Ingrid Michelson wrote the song “Everybody.” It is a lovely song that can be purchased on Amazon music.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Ten Days After Jesus Left – May 29

A sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 29, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Last week I mentioned I would be adding humor back into the sermons. I kinda regret it. Do you know how hard to is to find Ascension of Christ jokes? Here’s all I’ve got. A Sunday School teacher read a picture book version of today’s Lectionary lesson to her class and asked if any of them had heard about the Ascension before. Tommy raised his hand and said “I’ve heard it during blue light specials.” Confused the teacher asked “What do you mean Tommy?” “The man on the microphone at K-mart always says ‘Ascension, Ascension K-Mart Shoppers, there’s a blue light special.’” Yeah, I didn’t think that’d get arise out of anyone. But I thought I’d lift it up anyway.

Thursday was the official day on the church calendar marking the Ascension of Christ. Every year it arrives forty days after Easter on a Thursday. Throughout church history it’s mostly been known as the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, but it is sometimes called Holy Thursday. A number of churches hold off until the Sunday that follows Holy Thursday to lift the event up, like we are today.

Jesus’ physical body is said to have gone up on that first Holy Thursday and has been on the right-hand side of God in heaven ever since. For a poor, itinerant, executed criminal of the state that’s quite an accomplishment. And boy was it a scandalous claim to make in the First Century Roman Empire, especially since in Jesus’ day and age ascension stories were reserved for noteworthy people considered deified, like an emperor– or those approved by God, like a prophet. It was not a story to tell about poor executed criminals. For Christians Jesus, of course, is both deified and divinely approved and noteworthy– so the story works out well for us, but it was counterculture at the time. Just as Caesar’s titles “Lord,” “Prince of Peace” and “Savior” were given to Jesus by His followers, the ascension genre story used to glorify the elite in the culture was also co-opted by them.

And the version Christians told was (and still is) a very compelling story. After Jesus’ life on the edge touting how all humans matter to God and how all of them ought to matter to his followers, His life ended with extreme suffering through a torturous humiliating death as a criminal. Jesus was thrown away by Rome for promoting love. But God had other plans. Jesus was not just rescued and raised from that discard to live again, but was also raised to heaven to be by God’s side. In forty days, Jesus moved from degradation and death under Rome’s thumb to resurrection on earth and then exaltation into heaven by God’s own hand. Being lifted up like that was the ultimate in glorification back then, and remains so.

The Ascension marks the transition of Jesus physically leading his Jesus Following, to spiritually leading it. Next week Pentecost marks the start of His spiritual leadership, when the Spirit he sent ignited a fire in Jesus Followers that has been burning ever since. There are, though, ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost that mark the Jesus Following’s own transition. After Jesus moved from earth to heaven, His followers had to figure out how to move heaven to earth. During those ten days we are told the men and women in the Jesus Following met and prayed and prepared.

Their efforts bore fruit. On Pentecost they were blessed with the Spirit Jesus sent to lead the church onward. To get there they needed to be prepared for continuing on His Way without the physical singular person Jesus they knew before Easter, or even the resurrected singular person Jesus they knew immediately after Easter. The Followers of Jesus needed time to figure out that He could be experienced as more than just exalted beside God, but exalted in their very own beingness, inside in their hearts and community– and outside in their hands and feet and voices. That transition was critical to the survival of Jesus’ Way and the Jesus Following.

Christianity could not have gone forward without the realization and acceptance that – post-Ascension– those following Jesus were tasked together and alone with being human re-incarnations of Jesus though their words and deeds. They needed to figure out Jesus can and will live on in his followers. The buy-in to Jesus’ Way is striving to make that so. The transition to that way of being for his followers made all the difference. Instead of Jesus being a one man show, following him and his Way, since the Ascension it has become a billions of men and women show following Him and His ways. And the efforts to be Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in action by those billions of men and women have made a great difference in the world– and despite what we might hear– a good and Holy difference.

And it is sad that nowadays in the West the word “Christianity” beyond the walls of churches often brings to mind images of not so good and holy differences. People have used the name of Christianity to create and support cultural unwellness and oppression and its pinned on Christianity as a whole. It’s fair to criticize Christians and churches that don’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and it’s fair to hold them accountable for misbehavior that treats humans as if they do not matter. Its’ NOT fair to let instances of misbehaving Christians overwhelm notions about the faith, as if that’s mostly what Christians do and what Christianity is about. What many critics fail to realize is the irony that the standards they use to criticize misbehaving Christians are Christian standards.

Those standards have always been the heart of Jesus’ Way. But they have not always been cultural standards in the West. It’s Christian influence over time that’s given Western culture the sense of the value for all human life and individual well-being. Humans matter in Christianity. They matter secularly now too. The heart of Christianity has become pervasive in Western culture. It is now common sense that misconduct occurs when humans are treated as if they do not matter. That was not the Western cultural ethos when Jesus was born.

The sanctity of life was not applicable in the Roman Empire beyond the ruling elite and those in its supporting institutions. Human beings not in that elite circle were thought to be, and treated as, expendable, even disposable for entertainment and expediency. They did not matter much. See, the sense of respect for all human life was not a thing in the West two thousand years ago. Women, children and slaves were literally considered property, not fully equal people. They had nowhere near the value of the elite at the time– to God they matter much, but not to the Roman Empire.

That was the hard cruel reality of the world Rome ruled, the world that Jesus was born into. Jewish ethics and morality that valued creation and all human life and taught love neighbors and to not kill and to provide a just world existed for sure, but was limited in practice and belief to a very small portion of the population in the Roman Empire. None of that was Western Europe’s general way of thinking and being and behaving. It was, of course, very much Jesus’ Way and he emphasized and lived out those Jewish teachings in his words and in his deeds. He created an egalitarian sect of Judaism by acting and teaching in a Way that emphasized inclusivity and loving God and others and seeking justice and loving kindness and believing everyone mattered much. Jews, Gentiles, Slave, Free, Men, Women, Rich, Poor, Sick, Imprisoned, Strangers and the Least in the culture all mattered–equally. Creation mattered too, sparrows and lilies of the field were tended to by God. In short, that “all world mattered and was to be treated as mattering” was front and center for Jesus and on Jesus’ Way.

Eventually Jesus’ Followers understood that after His ascension they needed to continue to make it front and center and to continue to act and teach like Jesus did. The story handed down to us is that it took ten days so that by Pentecost the Jesus Followers were on fire for Jesus’ now Spirit led Way. And the Way spread. One thing the Jesus Following did differently than other forms of Judaism was allow Gentiles to easily join. Initiation Rites of circumcision, cleanliness and food limitations were made optional and replaced with baptism and communion. This allowed Gentiles to more easily join a religion that honored all them regardless of their status treating everyone as equal and mattering in a culture that took the opposite approach. This was very attractive to those the culture did not honor. The Jesus Following grew in relatively short order. Consequently, the notion that non-elites were loved took off in Western Europe and influenced Western culture more and more. So much so that a good and Holy difference Jesus’ Way made was its influence on the value of human life and individual well-being.

It’s taken far longer than we’d like, and there have been many setbacks, and we have a long ways to go, but as a rule all human life and well-being is valued much, much more now in the West than it was in Jesus’ Day. While some (far too many) still treat other’s lives as not mattering, as even expendable; the culture ethos, the pervasive higher standard we are held to, does not. That standard is deeply rooted in Jesus’ Way and was carried forward and spread about by his followers and eventually incorporated into Western culture. That standard is what critics of misbehaving Christians turn to and lift up. It is what both secular and religious critics of misbehaving nations, armies, political leaders and citizens now turn to and lift up.

It’s even a part of our visceral heartbreaking frustration with the continued horrors of shooting massacres in the news this past week. The nation as a whole wants them to stop, we value the lives of those lost in malls and schools and elsewhere. We want our leaders to do what needs to be done. That they won’t do it is not a failing of the people or Judeo-Christian standards. It is a failing of our leaders to enforce the Judeo-Christian standards long ago made secular– standards to value lives and well-being over monied interests; standards to value lives and well-being over the costs of fixing the problem. We are upset at the events because lives and well-being are not mattering over whether this person or that will lose an election. Our nation’s leaders are sacrificing children and neighbors to the ways of the gods of power and money, rather than sacrificing power and money to the way of the God of love. God’s way is that lives matter far more than power and money. Elite politicians have long had issues with this. Our nation’s history is littered with lives they sacrifice and instances where they have not measured up to the basic standards of valuing humans lives and well-being. We the people have a history of breaking through the hurdles and horrors they put us through and eventually holding them to that standard. Again, it takes far too long, but there is hope that the standard will and does win out– as long as we keep holding them to it.

The Judeo-Christian standard that humans lives and well-being matter, is more than the rule we measure behavior by. It put Christians in action and led to Christians creating caring places like hospitals, orphanages and other organized help for the poor and sick on a scale not seen in the West before Jesus. Over time they also led to universities and writings for the study of science, medicine, philosophy and laws aimed at well-being. Which in turn eventually led to the secular culture providing such places of care and study and laws on a magnitude unthinkable before Christianity influenced the culture to do it. Christianity’s positive influence on the value of humans saturates the West now. Human rights, as we know them, are deeply rooted in Christianity– whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And yes sadly and very tragically there have been Christians, past and present, who propound inhumane, unjust and unloving ideas. There have been atrocities committed in the name of Jesus and by those claiming divine backing for ungodly ideas, including wars, slavery, racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. But every single one of those atrocities have been judged wrong – and challenged as such– in the West by long ago adopted and widespread Judeo-Christian standards. It is no accident that Judeo-Christian communities and clergy have led or helped lead challenges in every civil rights movement in this nation’s history. And it’s no accident that every one of them has made great strides, because this nation cannot escape its founding on Judeo-Christian Standards which by 1776 had become so ingrained in the West they were not just deeply religious ideas, but also deeply secular notions.

The self-evident truths held by our forebearers that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights are inescapably rooted in the Bible and Jesus’ Paul’s and the early Church’s teachings. And scholars and politicians and voters and agnostics and atheists and the Western culture as a whole have been influenced by them for the betterment of all. The catalyst was Jesus teaching his Way to his followers; and then his followers figuring out after his Ascension how to continue with Jesus’ Spirit infused in all they do. The result of their effort was Pentecost, the day the Spirit ignited Jesus followers on fire with Love. Today marks the day that Jesus left it to His followers to start that effort and figure it out before Pentecost. AMEN.

Happy Ascension of Christ Sunday!

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Ten Days After Jesus Left – May 29

The Ten Days After Jesus Left – May 29

The Choice for World Peace – May 22

A sermon based on John 14:23-29

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 22, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

As we continue to try and adjust the service back to normal I thought I’d warn you today that in the weeks ahead I plan to reintroduce humor in the sermons as we adjust the timing. It shouldn’t surprise most of you that a goodly portion of the humor will include puns. I’ve already had some folks urge me to do impressions instead. Which is fine but, the only impression I do well is John Wayne singing Christmas Carols . . . so that’ll have to wait.  Today’s message is about peace. Most peace puns we’ve probably all heard. Like, what did the scientist get when she put green legumes in a centrifuge? Whirled peas.  But, last night Nancy helped me find a new one, when I asked if I could have a little peace and quiet while I cooked dinner, she took the battery out of the smoke detector. Just be happy I did not tell the joke where I ask, If you had a choice between world peace or Jeff Bezos’s money, what color would your Lamborghini be?

And actually, that last joke,  I snuck in. It’s not really a pun, but it helps segue into the lesson which refers to the peace Jesus left and gave us. That peace is a Way to God’s shalom, God’s peace which means well-being for all.  My Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines peace as “more that the lack of war [it] points to full societal and personal well-being coupled with righteousness and possible only as a gift of God.” In the Gospel of John Jesus is considered from Chapter One onward as the very incarnation of God in creation from day one onward.  So, this peace for all, Shalom, is the gift Jesus gives, it’s what he left us all a treasure map to . . . Peace on earth good will to all.

Jesus’ teachings indicate that the way to that peace, God’s peace,  is providing love (desiring and working toward well-being) and justice (giving what is due, which is well-being). To put it another way, God’s peace requires heavenly choices by humans to love and end injustices. Those are critical choices – not just for grads but for all of us. We can choose to act toward world peace or not.  Two extreme examples of choosing not to,  are Jeff Bezos’s money choices and President Putin’s power choices. The heart of the Bezos joke is the strong cultural push to choose the world’s way of idolizing power and money and objects like fancy cars over idolizing God–who’s way is world peace.

Every time we choose personal prosperity or power, over world peace we reject the peace Jesus left and gave us. It’s easy to tell because Jesus’ peace is not of this world, Jeff Bezos’s money IS of this world, Vladimir Putin’s power IS of this world.  Obviously the chances of getting to literally choose between instant world peace and instant billions of dollars or power to rule a nation is not very likely to come our way. But over the course of our lifetimes, we do get to choose between the peace and good will for all Jesus offers and the paths primarily for self alone which the world offers.

The Gospel stories are about choices between God’s Way that Jesus chooses and takes and teaches and leaves behind,  and Caesar’s way that Herod and Pilate and Judas and sinners choose and take.  One of those ways leads to more and more of heaven breaking into the world, the other leads to more and more of the world breaking. God vs Caesar. Jesus’ Way vs Worldly ways. And clearly in our culture you can take the worldly way and be looked up to and admired and legitimized. But the worldly way does not give the peace that Jesus does because the worldly way is not about peace that provides well-being to all. It’s about well-being for self or tribe while Love the desire for the well-being of others, takes a back seat. Justice– providing what is due– is put off for all but you. So, peace takes a back seat too. Heaven does not break in taking Caesar’s route.

Jeff Bezos is an example. He has a hoard of wealth – in the neighborhood of two hundred billion dollars. That’s so much wealth he could choose to use it for all manner of heavenly purposes on a massive scale. He does not have to. But he could. To use Jesus’ examples in Matthew 25, he could choose to empty a large percentage of his coffers to tend to Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers,  imprisoned and other least among us.  If he did that more of heaven would break in, peace would be closer too, because so many more would have well-being. Of course, Jeff Bezos acting toward their well-being would couple righteousness with it. Righteousness is doing what’s right and maintaining right relationships all of which Mr. Bezos would be doing with the Christ within all those he’d help.  It’s not criminal for Mr. Bezos to choose to do as he does with his money. It’s also not heavenly or peace-full.

President Putin is a worse example, while it is criminal to a lot of us for him to do as he has been doing warring in Ukraine, in his country it’s legal. Some in our country even think it’s legal. President Putin is a modern example of someone acting like Caesar. He has hordes of power that he uses for himself and his tribe to the exclusion and detriment of many. He has used it to intentionally cause terrible and unspeakable things to the people of Ukraine and Russia. He has so much power he could choose to use it for all manner of heavenly purposes on massive scales. To use Jesus’ examples in Matthew 25, instead of warring or hoarding or ignoring he could choose to tend to Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers,  imprisoned and other least among us.   If Mr. Putin did that, more of heaven would break in, peace would be closer too, because so many more would have well-being.  Of course, President Putin acting toward their well-being would couple righteousness with it. Righteousness is doing what’s right and maintaining right relationships all of which President Putin would be doing with the Christ within all those he helps.

I have given two extreme examples of modern men in the news behaving of this world with choices the world allows them to make. Even as I speak they make those worldly choices. Power and money choices that help themselves and their tribe above all others–and hurts others and the world or lets them be hurt.  If we were in their shoes what color of Lamborghini or chateau or yacht or rocket or missile would we choose? Or would we choose something not of this world, but of heaven and so tend to Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers,  imprisoned and other least among us?  That’s the gist of question asked over and over and over again in the gospels. One leads to peace of Christ, one does not.

And that’s the question asked of people like us by Jesus. Jesus was not teaching or preaching to the likes of the Jeff Bezoses or Vladimir Putins of the world, the Caesar-like people of his or our day.  The Caesars have a proven track record of not listening to Holy teachings or following paths toward world peace.  They follow the ways of the world, not the ways of God. It gets them what they want, not what God wants.

Jesus was teaching and preaching to the non-Caesars, the vast majority of folks, the yous and me s of the world.  Jesus was– and still is– trying to get us to not idolize and aim to be like the Caesars, the Putins, the Bezos of this world. Indeed, he taught us and showed us to do more than not idolize them.   He was and still is trying to get us to idolize God and aim to be like God incarnate– Christ– in ways that we use the power and wealth and resources we have from God for peace on earth good will to all.  It’s not to be used for peace on earth good will to only us and ours. It’s not to be hoarded ignoring other’s needs. That’s Caesar’s way, that’ the way of this world.  It’s supposed to be peace on earth good will to all. That’s literally Jesus’ way, not the way of the world. Jesus does not give as the world gives and we are not supposed to either. Material wealth is not supposed to be our goal – the wealth of well-being for all, peace is supposed to be the goal.

Doing for us and ours alone is not the means– doing for others what we want done for ourselves is the means.  It’s called the Golden rule because it’s the sign of heavenly riches. Jesus’ Way doesn’t involve hoarding,  it involves generous giving.   Jesus’ way doesn’t involve oppression or injustice or unloving conduct of any kind, nor does it involve ignoring such conduct.  Jesus’ way requires action, love in action. It’s about justice being sought, and kindness being loved on our humble walks with God. That way that Jesus left gives us peace not of this world. May we all work toward it and seek it every day of our lives. May our choices be peace-full.  AMEN.

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