Perfection (Hebrews 7.23-28)

A few years ago, I watched a music video by a contemporary Christian group. The song was called “Flawless.” The striking thing about the video was a series of short video shots of people who were afflicted with various kinds of problems. Their afflictions were typed out in bold letters on the screen, and they included things like personality flaws, personal losses, health problems, and things like depression and anxiety. As the song progressed toward the refrain, “The cross has made you flawless,” the images were played again, and this time the letters spelling out their afflictions faded and were replaced by bold letters that spelled out the word, “Flawless.”
My reactions to the video were mixed. It was, on the one hand, quite touching. People from all walks of life and with all kinds of concerns and problems were equally upheld, supported, and comforted by a grace that includes all, not matter what. But, then, on the other hand, I wondered why we have to think of this grace in terms of being “flawless?” What is our obsession with flawlessness? It strikes me as an impossible and even inhuman standard to subject ourselves to. Why perfection? Why flawlessness? Wouldn’t it be better simply to accept that we are flawed people, and that God loves us anyway? That we can be whole and at least relatively happy, anyway?
Well, we come by it honestly. Our text from Hebrews this morning is consumed with the question of perfection. The problem with the Old Testament priesthood, we are told, was its imperfection. It was flawed in two ways: first, as I said last week, the priests were very much ordinary human beings, and that meant that they were flawed. And that meant that they had to offer sacrifices to compensate not only for the flaws of the people, but for their own flaws as well. And, second, the priests were mortal. That meant that they couldn’t continue to offer sacrifices forever, to cover the sins the people would commit in the future. They had to pass their priesthood on to another generation, and that of course offered opportunities for something to go wrong—perhaps the rituals would be incorrectly transmitted, or the system for training priests would break down, et cetera. So, the whole system of dealing with human flaws was fragile and imperfect. It was, in other words, flawed.
This is how the book of Hebrews draws a sharp contrast between the provisions of ancient Judaism to deal with the human condition and the way of Jesus. Jesus is a high priest for the people, but he is fundamentally different, of a different priestly order, than the priests of the Old Testament. He is perfect, in two ways that correspond to and correct the imperfections of the old priesthood. First, he himself is perfect, flawless, so that he doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for his own sins, but can offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the people. And, second, because of his resurrection, in which he defeats the power of death forever, his priesthood is not limited by his mortality. He can continue to intercede with God on behalf of a flawed people. And that means that our future sins are covered, too.
So, we are back to the music video. We can pictures ourselves on the screen, with words spelling out our problems crumbling or fading away and a new moniker appearing brightly over our heads: flawless. The flawless sacrifice has made us flawless.
But, as I said before, isn’t this a strange and unnecessarily burdensome way of characterizing our lives? Isn’t flawlessness an impossible and even inhuman standard? Why not simply accept that we are flawed? In fact, isn’t our particular combination of strengths and weaknesses, abilities and failures, characteristics and quirks, that make us who we are, and shouldn’t we learn to treasure ourselves and each other with all of those things included? Isn’t that what grace is?
The word in Greek that is translated “perfect,” actually has another meaning. It could be translated “complete” or “mature.” So, if we were to plug in this alternate meaning, it would not be a matter of Christ being a flawless sacrifice so that our flaws can be removed, but of Christ being a complete or mature sacrifice, one who is our pioneer and completer (not perfecter), one who leads the way not toward our perfection but toward our maturity, our complete humanity.
But what is maturity? I recently found a kind of long definition that borrows freely from unacknowledged sources, but that kind of gets it, I think: “Maturity is the ability to control anger and settle differences without violence or destruction. [Could use  a little of that, right now, correct?] Maturity is patience. It is the willingness to pass up immediate pleasure in favor of the long-term gain. Maturity is perseverance, the ability to sweat out a project or a situation in spite of heavy opposition and discouraging set-backs. Maturity is the capacity to face unpleasantness and frustration, discomfort and defeat, without complaint or collapse. Maturity is humility. It is being big enough to say, “I was wrong.” And, when right, the mature person need not experience the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so.”
Maturity is the ability to make a decision and stand by it. The immature spend their lives exploring endless possibilities; then they do nothing.
Maturity means dependability, keeping one’s word, coming through in a crisis. The immature are masters of the alibi. They are the confused and the disorganized. Their lives are a maze of broken promises, former friends, unfinished business, and good intentions that somehow never materialize.
Maturity is the art of living in peace with that which we cannot change, the courage to change that which should be changed — and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The last part of this definition is taken from a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, but he called it not “maturity” but “serenity.” In many ways, maturity is serenity, a spiritual practice of trusting God and having the faith and the courage to act on that trust. If Jesus was “perfect,” I think that is the kind of perfection he had. And if he leads us toward perfection, I think that is what perfection must look like.
As I grow older, I find that increasing age and experience can really help us make progress. But it certainly isn’t automatic, and there are many who are wise beyond their years. I recently ran across the story of a middle-aged Jewish woman reflecting on what it takes to sustain a marriage. She writes:
“In the years leading up to my debut in white satin, I avidly consumed reams of advice on the perfect marriage. Of course, since it was all largely irrelevant, it didn’t mean much to me, and didn’t quite penetrate.
Out of the multitude of tips, anecdotes and chronicles of suffering, I was left with but one ridiculous gem of information: Couples often fight about the toilet seat being left up.
Perhaps due to the surprising reactions to (what I thought was) an inconsequential matter, that little detail stuck with me for all those years.
And then, under the wedding canopy, I agreed to make this marriage work.
Admittedly immature, I was thrust suddenly into the uncharted territory of living, loving and accepting another human being—completely. I knew it would be tough, although I had no inkling of quite how tough. I knew it would be a challenge, demanding and draining, but ultimately gratifying.
I knew I couldn’t promise to make his needs my needs. That’s too grandiose a project for a slightly selfish young woman with the maturity of a girl. But oh, I wanted to reach that peak of marital bliss, that wonderful feeling of giving everything to the one you love. And I certainly didn’t want to be the one fighting over toilet seats.
So, I made a resolution. It was a small one, and I didn’t even tell my husband.
Whenever I left the bathroom, I left the toilet seat up.
And that small conscious act of putting his needs before my own made all the difference.”[1]
This is a beautiful picture of a flawed human being who, in small and humble ways, is learning to embody the kind of perfection, the only kind of perfection, toward which Jesus leads us. It is a perfection of maturity, a wisdom of forswearing the grandiose and the sweeping for the sake of the small, the quotidian, the simple. The perfection of leaving the lid up, we might call it. Or putting it down, I would add, if you are the man in a male-female relationship. This is the kind of maturity that accepts one’s own and others’ foibles and flaws, and in small ways seek to infuse grace into life. Jesus ate with those hated mega-sinners, the tax collectors. He accepted prostitutes and defended adulteresses. He welcomed children. He touched the diseased. These were all small gestures that were borne not out of perfect holiness but simple grace. They are not lofty standards, impossible demands that we could never meet, but the nearest possibilities, the most humane and sensible possibilities, for us today.
The day after another mass shooting; amid the sounds of yelling and accusing and paranoia on all sides; with hate and intolerance, with ongoing racism and sexism and all kinds of exploitation and abuse; with leaders and pundits focused on the workings of our economic machine while paying little attention to those it grinds down; with technology always racing ahead while leaving important questions of how to use it frightfully behind; we could use a little of the perfection of leaving the lid up. In other words, in a world that seems falling apart, day by day, perhaps the best and most powerful way we can hold it together is through small acts of kindness and grace—acts that won’t make the world new all at once, but that may be able to put it back to together, piece by piece.
Jesus is our pioneer, and our completer. Let us go on, then, toward complete humanity. Let us trust our creator and sustainer to make us whole—not perfect, not flawless, but whole enough that we might serve as living testimonies to grace. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.


Please excuse the error

Readers of this blog may have seen an announcement that my installation at Eastminster would be this upcoming Sunday afternoon. Please excuse the error! I’m getting ahead of myself, it seems. In reality, the installation service will be at 4:00 on Sunday, November 4th.

Coming up Sunday, 10/28

We all enjoy the perfect cup of coffee or the perfect dessert, or the perfect glass of wine (or whatever your taste may be). And we admire the perfect play in our favorite sport, or the perfect line in a speech or a fictional dialogue. But what does “perfect” mean in these examples, and how harmful can perfection be when we use it as a standard to judge ourselves and others?

During Sunday’s sermon, we will consider the ideal of “perfection,” and think together about what it has to do with our faith in Jesus–or, rather, how our faith in Jesus changes the ideal itself.

Also on Sunday–don’t forget the pastor installation service at Eastminster at 4:00 p.m. My wife, the Rev. Michelle James, will be preaching. You won’t want to miss that!

The drive (Hebrews 5.1-10)

Hebrews 5.1-10
“The Drive”
Ordinary 29B/October 21, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
For about a year and a half, I used to travel up and down Interstate 75 several times a week between my home in Cincinnati, Ohio and the church I was serving as interim pastor in Dayton. It was an incredibly boring drive—a little over an hour but it often seemed like at least two or three.  One of the few highlights of the trip was a megachurch visible from the freeway, off to the right as I was driving north, just about exactly in the middle of nowhere.  The church building itself wasn’t much to look at, but in front of it, there was a truly enormous structure: a statue of Jesus at the edge of an artificial pond. I looked as if he were rising out of the waters of baptism, with his hands lifted high and a smile of victory on his face.
We locals called him “touchdown Jesus.”
I often mused over the meaning of this structure as I drove to church, but more often I wondered about the people who had made it. What were they trying to say about Jesus with this structure? What did they expect from this one who loomed over the freeway?  Obviously, this wasn’t a crucifix, and I assumed the choice of a smiling and victorious Jesus instead of a head-bowed, suffering one was deliberate and meant something, but what could it be? I never got very far toward answering these questions, but I remember being at a dinner party one evening and being asked by a Jewish woman about touchdown Jesus.  She was vaguely worried about him, I think, maybe scared of him, and it made me realize that a towering figure of Jesus with a broad smile on his face can recall a painfully exclusive Christian triumphalism as much as it can convey the joy of worship.
Now, it would be uncharitable for me to assume that these Christians along I-75 were trying to intimidate or exclude with their touchdown Jesus.  But I cannot help but think that it pointed to a somewhat superhuman and unreal picture of Jesus that circulates in our culture: a Jesus that towers above human limitations, a Jesus that is joyful and happy all the time, a Jesus who doesn’t suffer, a Jesus who is always nice, always confident, always a success.  A CEO Jesus, as one recent book title puts it—a Jesus who appeals to the values of a consumer-oriented culture.  Come to think of it, a consumable Jesus; a marketable Jesus.
In comparison with this, our passage from Hebrews this morning gives us a somewhat deflationary picture of Jesus, a Jesus who commands less attention and who is less easily marketed than touchdown Jesus.  In his saving ministry as recounted here, Jesus is compared to priests in the ancient Hebrew tradition, ordinary people who had to struggle with the same human weakness as all of us do.  There is a remarkable picture of priesthood in these verses, in fact.  The ancient Hebrew priest was not like a magician who waved his hands and said some mysterious words that harnessed the power of God.  Now, of course, that image of the priest would be easy to market!  People understandably flock to faith healers and other religious magicians: after all, who wouldn’t want access to instant answers to prayer?  Who wouldn’t want certainties and assured outcomes, even if the costs were high? But the ancient Hebrew priest wasn’t that sort—he really couldn’t offer that product. Rather, he was a person who struggled with his people; he was a person who doubted; he was someone who got angry and confused, who grew impatient and who at times blasphemed and lashed out at people and at God.  The priest was a human being, just a human being with no special powers.  The power of priesthood, in fact, was precisely in being just a human being, because it was the fact that he offered prayers as a person who was not exempt from suffering and sin, the fact that had to take more than words to the altar but had to take his very self and place it among the flames of cleansing, that made him a worthy priest.
Something else that is very much in vogue these days—marketable, even—is creativity. Now, I have to admit that I’m kind of a sucker for creativity. I wrote my doctoral thesis on a theologian who identified God with creativity, and so I have sustained an interest in it and have even read a few books about it. What I’ve learned so far, from books, but more importantly from my own experience, is that creativity is not what we may initially imagine when we hear the word. It isn’t something that comes automatically. It isn’t something that flows without thought from us, or without preparation.  I’ve admired athletes, especially basketball players, who are known for being creative in their play, but watching them do their work under the bright lights in the space of just a few ticks of a clock conceals the fact that those magical moves on the court have been rehearsed thousands of time in dark and lonely gyms, that the impetus to learn them was forged in the furnace of numerous failures, defeats, and pain.  Their creativity was not a quick, effortless outpouring:  it was a process, a long, hard, slog filled with pain and doubt.
What do we want from Jesus? What do we expect from him?  I’m convinced that we Americans have a hard time coming to terms with the Jesus of Scripture, in part because we are a people who are, in many ways, in the thrall of magic.  We watch television commercials filled with beautiful people with perfect teeth, we see images of streets filled with new and shiny cars and lined with beautiful homes with manicured lawns. If we don’t have that shiny, happy life now, we think that, somehow, we almost certainly will, as if by birthright: it’s part of the middle-class myth of endless mobility.  Everything is fixable; everything is makeable, achievable. 
I remember feeling like I had seen touchdown Jesus before as I drove up and down I-75 during those months.  He looked strangely familiar, for all his hyped up, oversized and larger than life charisma. Over time it came to me—his face was familiar to me because it was the face of all the action figures and movie stars and Disney characters that have flooded my world and framed my expectations since childhood, those magical characters who were all but frozen in their grandiosity, whose march upward through adversity was as sure and as doubtless as a Hollywood script.
And then I realized that touchdown Jesus was not, in fact, a humorous interruption in the middle of otherwise boring scenery. He actually fits in perfectly well with the featureless landscape. Touchdown Jesus is boring, at the of the day. He gives us a picture of a shiny, happy Jesus that just projects our own fantasies. Touchdown Jesus has the same face as any face you might see in Hollywood or on TV commercials or on someone’s carefully curated Facebook page—that empty smile that invites us to forget real life and believe the marketable lie that the good life is always happy, always a success.
The Bible takes us on a different journey.  The Jesus we find in Scripture is a creative Jesus, but not like the creativity of a magician or the mythic hero or the successful CEO. The creativity of Jesus perfects the creativity of the ordinary faithful human being, depicted here as a priest who stands humbly before God and humanity. By offering himself, by placing himself in the purifying fire in the service of God’s kingdom rather than human fantasies, Jesus creates a pathway through doubts and anxieties and pain and struggle and all those human things that have nothing in common with Hollywood because they aren’t mere foreground to some fantastic ending.  The creativity of Jesus creates by bringing into being a people who can find joy in ordinary human life, in life that culminates in a cross or at the altar. It is a creativity that creates by restoring people to the truly human, only now with the faith and the courage to accept it.
Well, but even though this Jesus is not a profitable commodity, this is a Jesus who can be consumed. In word and in sacrament he offers himself to us.  He’s here for us, for our benefit. But there’s this difference from the products on offer in a consumer-oriented culture. Someone once said that the fast food burger is the perfect capitalist product: the more you eat, the less you’re satisfied. In other words, we can consume and consume and never be fulfilled—instead, we only grow emptier, as empty as the fake smiles of the ads that pop up on our screens. But, we cannot consume this Jesus without becoming something different than we are. This Jesus is not a commodity to be owned, nor to be incorporated within our bodies or our lives in such a way that we can go on as before, only a little better. In lifting himself up to the altar of Golgotha to be consumed, accepting the cup of his destiny from God, Jesus created a new kind humanity; he unleashed a new way of being in the world.

For us, perhaps it is a matter of being simply sane, simply human, free from magical illusions and endless ambitions and expectations, and able to find joy in our limited, life-sized possibilities.  This is a humanity that we take in and take on as we listen to the word, as we commune at the table, as we are sent into the world as ordinary people, making friends and loving our families and serving our neighbors and living our lives.  Now, this is no I-75, no numbing wasteland loomed over by unrealistic fantasies.  This is a path with ups and downs and twists and turns—the journey of a real life.  There’s much to see as we travel this road, and much to do.  Let’s take the drive. I’m betting we’ll see the real Jesus along the way. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Coming up Sunday, 10/21

What do you expect from Jesus? It’s not a question we think about very much, I’m sure, but it’s an important one! From the very beginning of Christianity, there has been a temptation to think of Jesus as a super-human figure, and, as we grow more aware of our fragilities and limitations, the longing for a divine superhero becomes all the stronger. But what if the real power of Jesus is that he is like us in every respect? What if what makes Jesus a savior is that he is human, and knows what it is like to feel weak and vulnerable like we do? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews asks us to consider that possibility.
This Sunday, we will be looking at Hebrews 5:1-10, and we will talk not just about Jesus but about the Christian life as a journey toward full humanity. I hope you are able to join us.

The word alive (Hebrews 4.1-16)

Hebrews 4.1-16
“The Word Alive”
Ordinary 28B/October 14, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
What is the perfect vacation? A few years ago, in the wake of my Father’s death and my own bout with an illness, I was determined to have the perfect getaway. My Mother got the idea of using my Dad’s life insurance payout to take us on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Mediterranean, and it made me think, “Ok, this may actually have all the elements of a perfect vacation.” The sea? Check. Sunshine? Check. Sights of historical and cultural significance I had never seen before? Check. Something my kids could talk about when all their friends at school brag about their exotic summer vacations? Check. But above all, as with all planned vacations, I just wanted something to take me away. I wanted a break. I wanted to rest. And the Mediterranean conjured up images of lounging by the sea or sitting in a café sipping cappuccinos.
Well, I’m not sure how restful it was. My kids have memories of running to keep up with the schedule more than anything. Our trip was a cruise that departed from Barcelona, Spain, and sailed to two ports in Italy by way of the French Riviera. And, because we couldn’t imagine missing out on any of those places—when would we ever be back?— we booked shore excursions at each place. And they were long excursions. Each of them was a full day. We could have picked shorter options, of course, but why not try and see it all? And of course, even so, there was way too much to see, so our tour guides whisked us through streets and down alleyways with a constant buzz of too much information in our earphones about what we were seeing and where the next bathrooms were and where to get the best souvenirs. And so almost every evening we got back late for dinner and thoroughly exhausted. And all I wanted to do was rest.
TV commercials advertising vacation destinations work really hard at making them seem perfect, and perfectly relaxing. They hit us in the evening when we are tired, perhaps after a long day. They call to us with promises of ease, of simplicity, of rest. And it makes me think again, what exactly is the perfect vacation? What does it mean to “rest?”
The letter to the Hebrews talks a lot about rest. It was written, very likely, during a time of difficulty for Christians. They were probably suffering from the beginnings of some kind of persecution—certainly, some degree of social ostracism, as well as pressure to conform to a civil religion, focused on the sacredness of the emperor. Jesus had come preaching a message completely antithetical to the worship of imperial power, so being forced to conform was not something that they could abide. Their faith in Jesus and their safety in the empire were beginning to come into conflict with each other. They may themselves have been thinking about a getaway.
So, the writer reminds them of their forbears—the ancient Hebrews who wandered and trudged through desert sands for a generation, having fled from slavery in Egypt in hopes of a rest from their labors in a settled land of their own. But it was a rest that seemed never to come. And even when it did, we remember that there was, as they say, no rest for the weary—for they had to conquer the land’s inhabitants once they finally arrived, and then they had to keep vigil indefinitely in order to keep their society intact in the face of attacks by the kings of the region and by invading imperial powers, too.
You might say, in fact, that the ancient Hebrews never got their promised rest. They never got peace in a promised land. Their getaway into the desert never became the dream holiday. Their hopes remained unfulfilled. I wonder, though, whether there isn’t an important spiritual lesson in their experience. The writer of Hebrews seems to think so. He reminds his readers at several places during the letter (or speech, as some scholars view it) that those who waited faithfully for God’s promises to them to be fulfilled waited all their lives, and at the end of their lives they died never having seen the fulfillment of the promise, never having experienced that rest that they longed for. This is the model of faithfulness we are given: perpetual deferment of our hopes, years of trudging through deserts without having even glimpsed the promised land—or, having glimpsed it or even lived in it, not knowing it as the fulfillment of promise but as the land that still promises, that points to a future which has all too evidently not arrived.
What is the perfect vacation, though? What is the perfect rest? Hebrews springs it on us in verse nine: there remains, we read, a “Sabbath rest for the people of God.” A Sabbath rest. Shabat. The Hebrew word for the rest that God enjoyed on the seventh day of creation. When God had finished the work, according to the old priestly tale in Genesis one, God rests in joyful contemplation of what has been done. The rest of God is possible because God has blessed the earth, and in the blessing, its creatures have been given the powers of self-regeneration. The world grows and flourishes. Creatures multiply, and sustain themselves, and are good. In Christian tradition, we say that the Sabbath rest of God also prefigures the Sabbath that awaits. It is the final rest in which God’s purposes have been completed and all the ambiguities and hardships, all the wilderness wanderings, are over and the all God’s creatures find themselves in the promised land. And then the Sabbath rest of God becomes the Sabbath rest for all creation. We are all embraced in the deep and primordial rest of God.
Well, ok, then. That sounds inviting, in a way, though perhaps a bit out of this world. Or, at least it doesn’t seem to match anything that we could ever hope to experience now. For now, we seem to be still standing in the middle of a desert, don’t we, with miles of stand stretching before us. Or maybe we are in the land that was promised to us, but there are Hittites, and Perizites, and Amorites all around us that aren’t going to give us rest. We are tempted, perhaps, to see rest as a metaphor for death. There was a song on the radio a few years ago that repeated a refrain: “I can’t slow down, I can’t hold back, though you know I wish I could.  ‘Cause there ain’t no rest for the wicked until we close our eyes for good.”  
Is that what rest is, though? Is that the perfect vacation? Is rest only possible when we stop—maybe when we die? If that is so, what does it say about life? Life is restless? Life is a mad scramble from start to finish? Life is drudgery, punctuated by illness, perhaps?
I want to suggest something different. God was no less alive on the seventh day than during the first six. God’s sabbath was not about God stopping being God. In fact, quite the opposite: we might even say that God didn’t really live until the Shabat. For it is in the Sabbath rest that God rejoices. It is in the Sabbath that God is free from the grind, the relentless rhythm of making and ordering and setting right. It is in the Sabbath that God is at one with what God has made, and it is as God and the creature are united that life reaches its highest pitch.
What I want to say is that, contrary to our economy of busy-ness, rest is the principal place for life. Rest doesn’t mean simply stopping work. It has nothing, in fact, to do with being idle or passive. Rest isn’t a kind of shut down. It’s not a place of emptiness and inactivity while our batteries recharge for work. Rest itself is our highest and best productivity. It is when we live in rest that we are free to be creative, free to love where we are and who we are because we are not captive to drudgery, not beholden to schedules and demands. Rest, in the Bible, is the principal model for justice; rest is equality; rest is peace. Rest is resisting the brutal and relentless meritocracy of our culture and refusing to subject ourselves or others to it. So that we can simply enjoy each other and ourselves as well. That’s something that is not just for evenings and weekends—that’s the stuff of life, possible at every moment.
The promised rest that Hebrews points toward is not about being silent or still, but it is joy in living. Yes, enjoying the seaside, or sipping cappuccinos. But also wondering at ancient buildings or climbing to the top of a hill to catch the view. And, also, holding a grandchild’s hand, and forming new relationships, and cooking an old favorite dish, and feeling the energy of life flowing through our bodies as we exercise or enjoy the cool Autumn air.  If we model it on the Biblical concept of rest, anyway, the perfect vacation may not be a getaway at all. It may simply a matter of enjoying the blessing of God in the middle of ordinary life. It may be a matter of resting in who we are.
What are we hoping for? What do we think awaits us at the end of our journey through the desert?

I mentioned earlier that the disappointment of Israel may contain an important spiritual lesson for us. Their wandering really never ended. Their hope was never satisfied. And I think the lesson is this: Life isn’t about the “goal,” the end-game. Life isn’t about working for the weekend. It’s not about reaching retirement, though I hope to do that, I’ll admit. Instead, life is about the rest that God gives now, in the moments of joy and peace that are woven into the fabric of creation. Life is about experiencing freedom now; life is about achieving justice now; life is about the pleasure of good relationships, relationships of equality and solidarity, that we form as we journey together—today. The word of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a living word because it holds before us the possibility of life in the face of one who welcomes children, who shows compassion toward the sick, who eats with sinners and who practices forgiveness That’s life at its best. That’s the rest we need, and the rest we can have, even as we walk—even as we work. The question is, do we open ourselves to it? Do we let God’s rest into our busy hours? Are we free enough from the demands we place on ourselves and others place on us, to grasp and hold onto the Sabbath of God? In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Upcoming on Sunday, 10/14

I was always taught that Sunday is a day of rest. It is hardly that anymore, for many of us, but God’s expectation that we experience rest has not changed. But what is “rest?” We often think of it simply as doing nothing or at least avoiding a lot things. This Sunday, focusing on Hebrews chapter four, I’m going to suggest something different: rest isn’t the interruption of our busy lives–it is the best and most important thing in our lives. Rest doesn’t mean inactivity–rather, it means being secure in the grace and love of God. Here’s a snippet from my upcoming sermon:

“Rest itself is our highest and best productivity. It is when we are free to be creative, free to love where we are and who we are because we are not captive to drudgery, not beholden to schedules and demands. Rest, in the Bible, is the principal model for justice; rest is equality; rest is peace. Rest is resisting the brutal and relentless meritocracy of our culture and refusing to subject ourselves or others to it. So that we can simply enjoy each other and ourselves as well.”

Hope to see you in church!

The long route (Hebrews 1.1, 2.5-12)

Hebrews 1.1, 2.5-12   
“The Long Route”
Ordinary 27B/World Communion Sunday 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
Back when we lived in a little village north of Cincinnati called Glendale, we were too close to the elementary school for our kids to be able to ride the bus.  Most days that worked out fine, especially in the fall and the late Spring, when the weather was beautiful in Southwestern Ohio.  The little village we lived in was very picturesque and filled with beautiful homes and lots of old trees.  Sometimes, we would make our little trek as a family, complete with both parents and our youngest in a stroller.  We could walk along the wide sidewalks that lined the streets, or we could cut through a pathway that put us back onto the road just a block or two from the school.  So, we faced a choice every morning:  take the shortcut, or the more scenic, longer route?  Our middle child, interestingly, often had strong opinions about that, and most often she preferred the longer route.  “What do you think, [child’s name], should we take the shortcut today?”  “No, daddy, let’s talk the long-cut.” So, in no great hurry, we took the “long cut.” (I think that she imagined that it would make her school day shorter!).
But of course, taking the long cut isn’t always easy.  Especially when you enlarge the scale a little bit, and time gets scarce. Especially where I live now! I find that I am often in a hurry, and sometimes I have to get back home in Michigan to pick up a kid for practice or a game or to rush off to somewhere else for a meeting. And there is construction in lots of places, and, in some places, there are trains and bridges!  No matter where we are going, it seems like to we are almost always in a hurry to get there. The clock is always ticking, and we can feel the minutes dribble away.  When time passes quickly, or when we feel it passing quickly, we experience anxiety, and with it the need for quick relief. So, of course, it’s our second nature to want to take the shortcut.
But there are some problems with shortcuts.  For us, back on our walking paths in the village of Glendale, Ohio, they were the low-hanging branches that would slap our unwary faces, and there was that one place along the pathway that was just a little too steep for comfort.
But the bigger problem with shortcuts is that often they don’t really get us where we want to go.  That is because not all journeys take place according to two-dimensional maps with easily marked destinations.  Sometimes there really is no shortcut (Is there a shortcut to character? To happiness? To peace?) and so trying to take it, trying to grasp the quick fix, trying quickly to change the situation that is causing us the worry, backfires.  Pretty often, in fact, the situation isn’t really what’s causing the worry, anyway. Often, what’s causing the worry is our own worrisome responses to our situations, our own fears and anxieties about them, fueled by our unrealistic expectations that we can fully manage or control our lives.
There is no doubt that the long cut, or the long route, is the harder one during stressful times. But it may be the only one that will get us through. Our New Testament passage from the letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus taking the long cut.  The language that is used is that of being made “perfect” (mature) through suffering.  Now, the notion of being made perfect through suffering is troubling and potentially problematic, especially considering the realities of abuse that many people live through.  We Christians need to be very careful about how we talk about suffering and its value. But suffering here need not mean physical or even emotional trauma. There’s nothing particularly helpful or praiseworthy about suffering in this sense. But the root idea behind the word “suffering” doesn’t mean just that—rather, “suffering” is simply being acted upon, being not completely in charge, being at the mercy of some things we cannot control, at least to some extent.  You’ve perhaps heard the expression, “so-and-so does not suffer fools?”  It means, “so-and-so does not tolerate having to listen to, to be affected by, foolish words and thoughts.” This is the most basic meaning of “suffering” that I want to lift up here.  Jesus suffered primarily by acknowledging that he was not in control, by submitting his will to God’s will. He had to suffer someone else’s power and influence.  He didn’t control his situation. This is how, according to Hebrews, he “learned obedience.”  This is how he became perfect, or mature.
Here again, we need to be careful, though. There is nothing particularly great about not being in control, either—especially if that means that we are the mercy of another, perhaps a more powerful person who does not have our best interest at heart. Suffering in this sense means being violated, and being violated has nothing in common with the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to, because the kind of discipleship that Jesus calls us to involves rejoicing in the power that God’s spirit gives us to do good. Jesus calls us not to be doormats, nor to keep silent when we are violated. Jesus calls us to be bold, active, striving to create a better world, and filled with confidence and joy.
And, yet, there is a more general sense of suffering, in the sense of not being in control, that is part of becoming a mature person, isn’t there?  It is a matter, in part, of learning how not to get what we want immediately.  It is a matter of being able to defer gratification, as we sometimes say.  It is a matter of learning to live happily and purposively when things are up in the air, when conclusions and results are not yet clear.  And we likely know from experience that these skills are valuable because they tend to keep us from making snap judgments; they keep us from plunging ahead when it would be wiser to wait.
And there is another problem with shortcuts. The shortcut is also a major source of conflict.  In our worry or fear, we try to take too much into our own hands. We try to turn our uncertainties into certainties by force, and we find ourselves trying to force issues that others, in their worry, or fear, are trying to force in a different direction. Force meets force. And this, of course, is how violence can escalate, and we can become embroiled in a process that is brutal and harmful.
It would be tempting, considering these dangers, to adopt the opposite attitude: one of passivity.  It is tempting sometimes to simply throw up our hands, despairing of the immensity of the forces that are working on behalf of injustice, or else cynically denouncing all attempts to change things as if they were a fool’s errand.  It’s the response of saying that gun violence or climate change or drug abuse or drop out rates or poverty or sexual misconduct by powerful men are so deeply rooted in our society (or perhaps in human nature itself) that we will never resolve them, so why bother trying? Passivity is a shortcut because it is a way of withdrawing from the situations that cause us worry, that prick our conscience, or trouble our souls.  Passivity seeks instant relief not by seeking rashly to change a situation, but by casting that situation in bronze, treating it as somehow “natural,” and refusing to acknowledge the possibility, and the necessity, of change. Passivity is the sweet indulgence of giving up.
So what is the better way? If violence and passivity are equally unhelpful, is there some attitude that we can adopt that is better, and that is more in sync with the teaching and example of Jesus?
On world communion Sunday, we often stress the importance of peacemaking. Peacemaking is the long route. It lies not in between violence and passivity, but is, in fact, a whole different path, and it is much harder than both, with steeper inclines.  It requires activity rather than passivity. It requires taking steps that are difficult, and sometimes uphill. It requires listening to those who disagree with you.  It means finding ways to acknowledge their legitimate interests, and not becoming defensive when confronted with them.  It means acknowledging, and treasuring, the dignity of those who seem at first to have nothing in common with you at all.  As embattled as we are in this country right now, it has probably never been more tempting to look for a quicker, easier route than peacemaking: it is so tempting just to dismiss those who are on the other side, if you will, and think of them as either so bad that they must be controlled or so impervious to reason and sentiment that we should just write them off and do nothing to make anything different. And, just because it is so easy to succumb to those temptations, it has probably never been more important to slow down, to take the long route to life, and recognize the humanity of those who are journeying alongside us.

As we remember Jesus, both as we contemplate the Word and as we gather around the table in just a few moments, perhaps we can learn a little about how to make our own way through our own long routes to peace.  Let’s take a little time. Let’s not be in too much of a hurry, for once. Let’s take a breath, enjoy the scenery, acknowledge that we are not in control of the destination, nor the pathway. Should we take the shortcut, today?  “No, friends, let’s take the long cut.” Isn’t that the route that Jesus walked? In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

Upcoming on Sunday, 10/7

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday! Each time we celebrate communion, we remember that we are part of a global church, gathered from every time and place before God. But, once a year, we lift up that global context for special attention. On Sunday, I’m going to be talking about Christian discipleship as a habit of taking the “long route.” We forego the kinds of short-cuts in our lives that would impatiently impose our will and force things to work as we would have them work. Instead, we choose the slower, more patient way, acknowledging that we aren’t always in control; that we live our best lives in company with others, and that living with them means adjusting to their needs, even if that slows us down.
                I believe that the habit of taking the “long route” not only makes our lives fuller and more enjoyable—it can also help communities and societies flourish in a globally interconnected world in which no one succeeds without attending to the interests and concerns of others. The Christian habit of taking the long route, in other words, can contribute to global peacemaking. It’s how we can keep our relationships strong, both in our own community and around the world.

                I hope to see you Sunday!

Salted with fire (Mark 9.38-50)

Mark 9.38-50
“Salted with fire”
Ordinary 26B/September 30, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
This past summer, we spent a couple of weeks on vacation in Florida. It’s not an exotic place for us—I was born there, my parents grew up there, and I have three brothers who have hardly lived anywhere else. So, because of those connections, we have been accustomed to the long drive down I-75. The thing about driving to Florida very often is that you sort of get used to the seeing some of the same sights, and you also tend to notice things that are new along the way.
The last couple of times we’ve made the trip, I’ve noticed a proliferation of billboards of a certain type. They have a “1-800” number prominently displayed on them, along with a provocative religious message. “Why did Jesus create you? 1-800…”; “Where will you spend eternity? Heaven, or Hell? 1-800…” Or, and this one is my personal favorite (I want to say I saw it somewhere in Tennessee), “Turn or burn. 1-800…”
Theologian Thomas Altizer is certainly correct when he writes that no major religion has been as obsessed with the theme of judgment as Christianity has been, and that references to judgment as a kind of fire are almost unique to the New Testament among all the world’s holy books. So, while we might want to disavow these pesky billboards—while we might be embarrassed by them, or might be quick to point out their offensiveness or even to laugh at them—they are not totally out of sync with the gospels, and especially with passages of Scripture like our gospel reading for today.
But we need to take it slow. If we want to understand what Jesus meant by “judgment,” we have to set aside for the moment roughly two thousand years of speculation by theologians, preachers, and commentators who have given us their own ideas that may actually have little to do with what Jesus was intending when he talked about judgment—and, yes, fire.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ words in the middle of our passage sound a harsh note. There are references to plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand if these very useful parts of our bodies cause us to fall into sin. As gruesome as it is, we are told that that is a better alternative than finding oneself engulfed in the flames of hell.
Just a side note here, since we’re talking about “plucking one’s eye out.” It has always been very common for men, in particular, to blame their lust and the behavior it produces on the women who are its objects—”she’s asking for it by the way she dresses,” for example. All the restrictions on women’s clothing in many cultures come from this logic. It’s a view that’s very flattering to men, actually. But notice here where the problem really lies. According to Jesus, it lies with the eye, not with what the eye sees. No comfort here is given for blaming the victim, and there is no hint that the problem of lust would be cured if only women would dress more modestly, or would present themselves differently, or whatever. Rather, the guilt falls squarely on the person who thinks the thought or does the deed. If you want to avoid the flames of judgment, it doesn’t do any good to try and control the behavior or the appearance of others: they’re not the problem. See to yourself.
Still, though, the measures that Jesus recommends are hard to take. And the threat that seems to be lurking here seems even worse. Hellfire, forever? How can that be, when the God we believe in is a loving and compassionate God? And I want to mention something once more that is bound to heighten our confusion. Even though we Christians are in the habit of thinking of thinking of the God we find in the Old Testament as harsh and vindictive and the God that Jesus proclaims as loving and merciful, it is only in the New Testament that God’s judgment is so terribly absolute and final. There is no “hell” in the Old Testament: that’s a New Testament idea!
So what is Jesus talking about? As I mentioned earlier, we have to set aside for a moment everything that subsequent Christian history, from Sunday school teachers to TV preachers to famous theologians, has said about hell if we want to understand what Jesus meant by it. The word for “hell” in this passage is “Gehenna”—an Aramaic word that referred to a specific place, a hillside where trash and refuse were burned outside the city of Jerusalem. That in itself doesn’t tell us much, except that, clearly, Jesus is using a metaphor here. He’s not saying literally that there are some people who because of their sins will be thrown down the hill into this burning trash pit. No—he’s saying that there’s something about that scene that is important for understanding a danger that lurks just over our horizon. Gehenna is not supposed to inspire speculation about some forever state—but, instead, it is supposed to point to a burning possibility that all but touches us, whose heat we can feel, right now, as if we were standing by the hillside, in the bright glare of the flames.
I suggest that there is a reason why the New Testament is so focused on hell: it is because it is so focused on a radically new life that has arrived in Jesus. The life of compassion; the way of nonviolent resistance to injustice; loving the enemy; reaching out beyond the comfortable confines of one’s own ethnicity: all of this is so radically new that it not only provides incredible hope for a better life but at the same time it lands on our ears like a serious blow to all that we have known before. And so, the contrast between this new life that comes to us in Jesus and the old life that we have lived in the past is so sharp that it divides the present moment in two. Right now, we find ourselves poised, balanced, on a fulcrum, on a point, as if we might fall either way. The gospel is like a sword that cuts a path between a past that has no future, and a future that radically breaks from the past. Which way will we go?
Here I want to be as plain as I can be. “Judgment,” when Jesus talks about it, does not mean a place with literal flames—that’s to take the metaphor much too literally, and therefore to trivialize it. In reality, judgment means something far more consequential for how we live our lives now. To believe in judgment is to believe in a God who calls us to a life that is different, and better, than the life we already have. To believe in judgment is to believe that God calls us to embrace a future that is different, and better, than our past. To believe in judgment is to recognize that I must make a break, that my past is dead and gone, in a certain way destined for the trash heap, and that the old habits and the old ways, though I may remember them fondly and though I may have learned a lot from them, have to give way, now, to something else. To borrow a way of putting it from my favorite sign along I-75, we must make a turn, for our past is about to burn.
On June 4, 1783, at the market square of a French village of Annonay, not far from Paris, a smoky bonfire on a raised platform was fed by wet straw and old wool rags. Tethered above, straining its lines, was a huge taffeta bag 33 feet in diameter. In the presence of “a respectable assembly and a great many other people,” as someone described it, and accompanied by great cheering, the balloon was cut from its moorings and set free to rise majestically into the noon sky. Six thousand feet into the air it went — the first public ascent of a balloon, the first step in the history of human flight. It was as if the past, those eons of human time in which flight was impossible, was burning up with that bonfire that lifted the balloon. But you know what happened? The taffeta balloon settled again to earth several miles away in a field, where it was promptly attacked by pitchfork-waving locals and torn to pieces as an instrument of evil![1]  
This is why Jesus says we must all be salted with fire. It’s an odd way of putting it—but the point, I think, is clear: all of us are subject to the flames because the comfortable past that we have known passes away. But the image of fire is not supposed to conjure up fears of being tormented or punished for our sins. The image of fire is meant as a promise. “All will be salted with fire” means that none of us is left out of God’s great, ongoing work of salvation because to be judged is to be saved. To be judged is not to be left to one’s own brokenness. To be judged is not to be set aside and forgotten. The good news is that all will be salted with fire. All are subject to a future that will change us. The warning is simply that we can hold ourselves back, that we can keep ourselves fastened to the ground—we can refuse, and cling to the past. We can attack the future with pitchforks and try to tear it up as if it were an instrument of evil. But that does mean that God ever gives up on us, nor that God ever gives up on Christ’s church. The fire burns. The balloon rises again.
When we confess our sin together in worship, it is not about wallowing in our guilt, but about recognizing that we are still in the middle of the great turning, the great transition toward the kingdom of God. We confess that the fire burns and that we can feel its heat. When we confess our sin, we have, as Jesus puts it, salt in ourselves. We attune ourselves to the new reality that is happening in our lives. We learn to see the taffeta balloon and the flame that sets it to flight, not as a threat or a danger that might come down on us and crush us, not as something that will destroy us or torment us, but as a promise that will lift us up.
In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

[1] Today in the Word, July 15, 1993.