This is Love

This is Love

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 18, 2005

Scripture: 1 John 4:7-21; Luke 2:8-20

“Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is Love; and the Love of God appeared among us, when God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” –Romans 13:8

Our text is not a traditional Christmas one; nevertheless it is the fullest statement of the spiritual and psychological substance of the event that the traditional texts narrate. In case the well-known narrative of the birth of the baby Jesus and the heroic love of his mother Mary and his stepfather Joseph has become by much repetition too familiar to stun us still, I have chosen this abstract statement of its meaning for our meditation today. This statement tells us that the event of Jesus’ birth reveals that God is Love, that divine love is perfect and casts out fear, that we reciprocate through loving friends and neighbors, and especially enemies, and that it is a good news of peace in a world of war. Today, I pray that we shall appreciate once again and at a deeper level than ever before this truth of the divine love, which is the beginning and end of our faith.

One of the memorable things of Christmas preaching for me is the number of times I have stood up to proclaim the prince of peace in the midst of war. I remember vividly when, as a young preacher in his early thirties, I faced thousands of people in Stanford Church on my first Christmas Eve there, while the tanks and troops of the 1973 Middle Eastern war were literally on the Shepherds’ Fields outside Bethlehem. What could the announcement of the arrival of the Prince of Peace mean in times like this, I asked, which are indeed all times in this world, if not a delusion and a refusal to see the world as it is? I shall return to this matter, because we are at war and the children of friends and acquaintances have been killed in Iraq. What might the remembrance of the event of the incarnation of the divine love in our mortal flesh mean for those who have been killed there, and their grieving families? How shall we deal with the presence of violence and death in the heart of the vulnerable, immortal and divine love?

The other memorable Christmas presence for me is precisely this divine love of which I speak, which comes to us in, with and under human love. On Friday I spoke briefly to a South African family, on the seats beside me at de Gaulle airport, waiting to board. The three of them were on the way from Durban, South Africa, to San Diego, to spend Christmas with a brother – human love going to extreme lengths to be together. We all do that sort of thing; Bill Baerg’s children for instance are here from Japan for the season, and we are about to hit the road again, this time for Oregon to be with the ones we love most. Human love going to extreme lengths to be together mirrors the divine love doing the very same thing, going to the extremest lengths, across the divine/human divide, to be together with us in the most intimate love of all, the love of the creator for the creature.

Let’s think briefly of the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus, the little child, by analogy with our own experience of little children. We have received a new grandson this year, and Bill and Erica Hurlbut a new son, so we have recent experience to remind us how a birth is an absolute declaration of divine love. How do we know that God is love? By the fact that our human love causes the creation of children and thus makes possible a special event and advent in our lives of the absolute love of God.

A second piece of reflection in this mode is how vulnerable and dependent children are. They demand from us care and protection, the spiritual and material gifts a Mommy and a Daddy give. They are a responsibility entrusted to us by the source of life. We must receive, accept and succor them. So it is with the divine; God does not force himself upon us as a great and powerful warrior, but entrusts himself to us as a dependent child, whom we choose to receive and cherish. This means that the divine power in the world is part and parcel of our human power, and that the core of our power is our ability to love, to say yes to the responsibility of love. The power of an entrusted child is greatest because is awakens in us the responsibility of caring love, which is the nature of the divine.

We all know intuitively, whether we have children of our own or not, that a large part of the secret satisfaction of life resides in that place where children and adults meet to serve each other. It is a nexus where love is potentially present with great intensity and satisfaction. It is a place of absolute demand and infinite succor, the place where love lives, where God appears.

Thus this birth of God reveals that God is love, and those who love are the ones who know God, and that Love is, despite appearances, the most powerful power in the world, most powerful because it creates us in the first place and then nurtures and develops us, until we become perfectly loving ourselves and merge again with God, the love from whom we came.

Having thought so far about the divine love by analogy with human love as exemplified in the birth of Jesus, we must go on to make the most important and most challenging point of all. It is that this one and only, concrete and unique, historical event, the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, is what gives symbolic substance to the analogy we have been drawing, and not vice versa. We know God is love not because all babies are lovable but because God humbled Himself to become a human baby and thus to declare His infinite love, His very nature as love. From that event there radiates into all human history, into every birth, the positive power of the creator’s love; we can see it in every birth because we have seen it in Jesus’ birth, the supreme beauty of the new creation.

This birth is not like any other birth, it is absolutely unparalleled. Here from the virgin womb of Mary issues once again, for only the second time ever, the power of creation, the love of the creator come to recreate the world, to enter its darkest corners of need and to bring the light of love and the joy of life. It is for this reason that we Christians see so much significance in the birth of any child; because we know from the birth of God in Jesus that God is love, every birth proclaims to us the birth of God, every birth is for us an instance of salvation and a pledge of peace; and when we see that we are seeing not a significance artificially added but the inner truth of things. That is what a birth really is, but only the living Jesus enables us to see that.

Thus I return to the matter of peace and war. We weep inwardly at the cruelty of war, the present loss of our service men and women, their maiming and suffering, and likewise over the 30000 other casualties in Iraq. I know that something like this will be the backdrop of every future Christmas of mine, as it has been of all the past ones, so I do not at this time blame but rather mourn the pathetic pride of our pathetic species, that learns nothing from history and cares nothing for the human life of strangers.

But what shall I say to those of my own nation who have given the lives of their children for the policy of our elected leaders? At my best times I see our service to the people of Iraq as an amazing exercise in love. If I take our current rhetoric at face value I hear the claim that we have offered the lives of our children and the resources of their healthcare and education for the salvation of people far away and virtually unknown to most of us. For their slim and outside chance at democracy we are willing to forgo our children’s education, healthcare and very lives. At Christmas I choose to interpret this as an instance of divine love. Whatever their leaders may have intended God sees the sacrifice of these young men and women under the rubric, “There is no greater love than to lay down ones life for a friend.” We have reached across the world to call strangers “friend,” we have given them our lives, and thus gone to great lengths to demonstrate the love of God that Christmas shows. Either that, or despair, and I cannot despair at Christmas, because Christmas celebrates the coming to me of my creator, and the dearest relationship of all my life. At Christmas I hear him speaking in the depth of my soul, ”Peace and goodwill to you and all the human race,” and that word is life and love to me, despite all the confusion and cruelty.

So, having said all that and offered all this interpretation I conclude that no interpretation can reach the core of Christmas. Life and joy and peace do not come from interpretations or explanations. Theory cannot create them. Life and joy and peace live only in relationships, and the bedrock of all our relationship is our relationship with God. God comes looking for us in Jesus, God humbles himself before us in Jesus, places himself all vulnerable in our arms as Jesus. To celebrate Christmas is simply to adore the baby and worship his precious name, and love him with all our heart, and give every gift as a symbolic re-presentation of his gift of himself to us, and to look for Jesus in the concrete moments of our relations this Christmas, and to believe his word of peace and goodwill, spoken uniquely to each one of us, in the deep place of the soul. This is Love; this is God!


Thanks for You All

Thanks for You All

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

November 27, 2005

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“I always thank God for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus…” –1 Corinthians 1:4

“And so I say to you all, ‘Be Alert!’” –Mark 13:36

Advent Sunday begins the new Christian year, and this year it falls on the Thanksgiving weekend. For that reason I want to begin with the Epistle text, ’I always thank God for you…” I just feel like saying thanks for and to you all, and to all the other people in my life, who make it so rich and good, thanks to God for you all, and thanks to you. At the beginning of a new year, it seems appropriate to take stock of what makes ones life rich and satisfying, and at the top of that list are the people who love one and whom one loves.

Our second text is the Advent theme from the Gospel, which warns us to be watchful, pay attention and stay awake. The warning traditionally occurs in the context of the judgment of God. “Be alert,” it says, “so that Jesus will not catch you doing something wrong when He returns to judge the world.” This image reminds me of my misspent youth, when on occasion we went out at night to steal fruit – yes I did that, and there was a lot of fruit to steal. We would always post a lookout, to warn us if the farmer or one of the hands appeared. In this case the thieves posted the lookout against the good guys; in the Gospel the good guys post the lookout against the thieves. In any case, I know this particular metaphoric context of keeping watch from my own experience, and I mention it because it is clearly not the only context in which an alert attention to what is going on is appropriate.

I want to suggest that we might use the metaphor of watchfulness against thieves standing for attention to the signs of God’s coming in a different context and with a different force. The Day of Judgment might be unexpected, but so is the grace that breaks upon us now and then in the mean time, especially through our friends. So let us take “Be alert!” as a warning not to miss the coming of God in the friends God has given us to love. And so I respond joyfully to the Apostle’s opening of his first letter to Corinth; “Dear Corinthians” he says, “I give thanks for you all the time because you have in you the grace of God that Christ gives you, because you continually share it with me, and because that is a source of great joy to me.” In this sense, the Advent warning is a Thanksgiving reminder, to remember one another as friends gifted with grace, because in that capacity we are to one another little advents of the love of God. So the perhaps unexpected message of this Advent sermon is, “Be alert to the coming of Christ in the friends and family God gives us to love!” There will surely be a great, climactic coming, but in the mean time there are many little advents of divine grace in and through the people we call friends, the people we love, and most amazing, the people who love us.

This is a simple message to understand, but it requires a lot of alert attention to experience as real. I look out on this congregation and see people whom I love and who love me, and I remember how together we have supported and comforted each other on our walk as disciples of Jesus, how when one has been weak in faith others have been strong and held them up, how our prayers for one another have nourished us, how we have simply listened to each other and thereby given each others’ words meaning and significance. (In an important sense what we say does not make sense unless there is someone who makes sense out of it.) So I say with the Apostle, “I always thank God for you!” because you have so often made sense out of me.

Jesus tells us to be alert to the final advent of God, and I am interpreting that message in terms of the Apostle’s greeting of his congregation. Each one of them and all of them together are a part of the ongoing advent of God. (We shall return to the final advent later). Paul experiences divine grace in them, divine joy through them, human satisfaction because of them and human meaning in relationship with them. He frequently says that they are his pride and joy, which he looks forward to showing to God on the Day of Judgment. In this very passage he reminds them of that Day, “…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ (vs.8)” In Philippians 4:1 he calls them, “…my much loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my crown and my joy,” and in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes, “For what is our hope, or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” His satisfaction on that day will not be to say, this is what I made, or this is how much I accumulated, but rather these are my friends who allowed me to preach to them and who responded to those words and thus validated my life. Something like that is what I want to say to you today, my friends.

Ten days ago our friend Lucerne Beal died. She was a friend for many years and Rosemary and I found great blessing with her. We remember how lost she was when her husband Charles died; it was a great privilege for me to preach at his memorial service. Charles and Lucerne founded a hospital in Ivory Coast, West Africa, and worked continuously for the health and welfare of Africans. I considered them as two of the Lord’s most fruitful disciples in their generation. Who gets to found a hospital in one lifetime? I mention them here to remember them and to testify that I glimpsed the advent of Christ in them, even in the last years when they struggled hard without great success to bring to market medical devices invented by Charles, which might still make healthcare cheaper and more efficient. Rosemary and I saw Lucerne just ten days before she died, when we went to have dinner with her in Monterrey as we did from time to time after she moved from Menlo Park to Pacific Grove. She was on the mailing list of this service and attended the Bible study now and then. I mention her because I think I was alert to the advent of Christ in her life together with Charles. Today I give special thanks for them, because of the grace of God that was given them and to many others through them, especially to the thousands who to this day are served by their hospital.

Let me in conclusion say something about the big advent of God in judgment, the Day of the Lord, which was always in the Apostle’s mind. He expected it to come soon and much of his thinking was controlled by that eager expectation. So we must not let the little advents in this ongoing world cancel our Christian conviction that the present order of existence will not go on forever. Each one of us experiences three kinds of advent: a) our little advents, as I have been describing, b) the bigger advent of our own physical death where God comes to us more immediately than in the advents of this world, and c) finally the judgment at the end of this world’s duration. The first category requires alertness or we might miss it; the second and third categories cannot be missed.

The big advent seems most real and urgent to me when I contemplate the wrenching cruelty and heart-rending sadness of this suffering world, and feel the incongruity between this ravaged reality and the divine loving kindness that I experience in Jesus Christ, mediated so often through the loved ones of my little corner of the world. So I pray fervently and often, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In a sense that is my only prayer; I long for the Kingdom of God to come and thus put and end to our agony.

Let me close with a personal anecdote. In 1996 Rosemary and I went trekking in the Himalayas. We entered from Tibet on the east side of Mount Everest and climbed up beside the Kanshung Glacier to 16000 feet. On the way back we had to climb over a 17500-foot pass in a blizzard. It was a very strenuous hike! As we struggled on a Buddhist friend said to me that he was entirely at peace in the ordeal because he accepted what is and did not desire anything other than what is. I on the other hand, while of course I had to accept the present circumstances, was cheered and sustained by a hope and a vision of my room at the five star Yak and Yeti hotel in Katmandu, which every heavy step brought closer. A trivial illustration, but I think telling. We Christians live in hope of the Kingdom of God and as long as there is one of God’s beloved creatures not yet delivered from suffering, we accept the present only conditionally. We live for the big advent of the Kingdom, for that room with the big bathtub at the five star hotel.

So while we individually rejoice in all the little advents we experience with one another as this world trudges on, we look forward to ( think how often we say “I am looking forward to…”) the advent of the new Jerusalem, as described by John the Divine in Revelation 21:3-4. On that day, “He will dwell with them and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, for the former things have passed away.” This is God’s promise, this is our hope, and this is the joy of all three kinds of Advent!


The Importance of Risk

The Importance of Risk

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

November 13, 2005

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” –Matthew 25:29

I confess that I am fascinated by the difficult sayings of Jesus and I find this one especially gripping, because it seems to challenge the consensus that Jesus favors those who have not and tells those who have to give to them. In this saying, however, the message seems to be the reverse, “Take from those who have little so that they will have even less, and give to those who have much, so that they may have even more.
I find such paradoxes interesting because I believe they are the normal currency of spiritual wisdom. The points at which the realm of spirit impinges on our realm of ordinary logic are bound to be paradoxes because there we are trying to say the unsayable. As the divine is too great for our perception and interpretation to handle so the categories of our speaking about the divine are too small and what we try to say comes out as paradox. Now paradox is simply a fancy word for ‘surprise;’ a paradox is the expression of the unexpected, and there is no doubt that Jesus’ telling us that the rich must get richer and the poor poorer is a surprise to most of us, who think we understand the Gospel.

Let us pause here to appreciate this ordinary understanding of the Gospel before we go further into the paradox. I want to pause because I do not want to mislead you by my own interest in the difficult sayings. The Gospel rests on the easy ones, – easy to understand although not easy to perform, – like ‘love God and love your neighbor.’ You are right if you think the Jesus’ teaching is the teaching of love, which all of us understand immediately. And the Gospel is more than his teaching; it is the revelation of his person, the disclosure of who he is, the amazing announcement that God is man in him. Because of this fact of who he is, his teaching has unique authority; it is the Word of God, not the wisdom of a great teacher. So why should we be surprised if his word comes to us as a surprise, as a paradox?

We all know the Gospel, therefore, as the message of love from the mouth of God, and it is for that reason chiefly that we find it surprising that he should say that the rich must get richer and the poor poorer. Where is love in that? Is it not just an instance of the cynical realism that experienced people know to be the way of the world? I do not promise an answer to this question but I do invite you now to think it over with me in order to see what new insight we may gain from a. times the Bible exhorts us to “meditation on a paradox.

Paradox is not the only recourse we have when we try to say the unsayable, to speak about God. In addition to paradox, Jesus showed us the way of poetry, and we are accustomed to call the form of his poetry, “parable.” Our saying occurs as a summary of the message of the parable and one of the possibilities we must entertain is that the saying is not from Jesus at all but from an early interpreter trying to tell his readers what the parable means. You see, one of the principles of parable interpretation these days is that they are “open-ended,” in the sense of leaving their message vague enough for us to figure out a meaning with reference to our own needs and not a public and eternal meaning. So one asks of the parable not primarily “What does it mean?” but rather, “ What is it saying to me in my present situation?”
So the meanings of the parable vary, as the meanings of a poem, depending on the reader, and one does not always have to give a prose account of what the poem means. This story from the history of Western music illustrates the point well I think: Robert Schumann, the 19th century German Romantic composer played one of his piano pieces to a chamber audience and when he had finished one of the hearers asked him what it meant. Schumann remained silent, apparently composing his prosaic answer, and then, without a word played the piece again. Just as music is its own untranslatable medium, so is poetry, so is parable. Only bureaucrats believe that there is a clearer prose translation for every human communication; only pedants think that wisdom has must be in sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Prose is too prosaic for some truths. Think of how many times the Bible exhorts us to “sing” to the lord, “make a loud noise,” “shout!”

So our hard saying might be a prosaic interpretation of the poetry of the parable of the talents, even though it takes the telltale form of paradox. Let us check this possibility by consulting the parable. I am going to risk a prosaic summary here for the sake of efficiency. The parable talks about the final judgment by means of the imagery of the world of fiduciary matters, things that one has to be involved with especially when one retires. We retirees know well the money manager who buries ones assets in some hole and expects gratitude because he or she had at least not lost anything for you. Such a one is marginally better than those who tell you how lucky you are to have lost only 5%, and so forth. Fewer of us know managers like the first two servants who doubled their investor’s money in a reasonable time, less that a lifetime at any rate, although some of us are blessed enough to find even those.

Now I think the parable means – let me remind you here that this meaning is derived from my circumstances, your meaning will be different – the parable means that risk is good. It favors the “high risk/high gain” approach to life. Let’s imagine two human types: One that expects to lose and so bends all efforts to prevent loss, clings to what he has, distrusts the world of give and take, distrusts most of his fellow human beings, and in the context of the last judgment, distrusts the graciousness of God. This type is without faith, without hope, without joy, and possibly also without love. And this type will lose everything in the end because across the board the rule of life and eternal life is, if I am not growing I am shrinking, and eventually instead of becoming great like God’s saints, I will shrivel up and disappear. Meanness and anxiety, the marks of this type are terminal afflictions.

The other type I think is the one recommended by Jesus in the parable, the “high risk / high gain” type who trusts the world’s give and take and lives generously. More and more I am convinced that generosity and grace are psychologically the same; we know grace as we give generously. I know that I need not tell you that because you already understand and live that way, but I want simply to celebrate the lifestyle by showing how it is rooted in the outrageous grace of Jesus himself.

Jesus is the creator come in the heart of the creation, so it stands to reason that his message is one of gratitude and generosity. As creator he gives us everything, literally, the whole universe along with our lives, eternal life along with our biological death. The divine love, agape, is defined by its generosity; it does not wait for reciprocity but showers even the unresponsive, it is inexhaustible, never ends, it risks everything, especially rejection, and gives all. Think only of rejection: the money manager who buried the funds entrusted to him in a hole did so because he feared rejection. “I know you are a hard man,” he says, by way of excuse, and the Master says, “You are quite right, that is how I am and so you should have risked, even just the small risk of a guaranteed rate CD with a gigantic bank.

So let us conclude: God wants us to risk. If we risk we gain, if we hoard we lose. Of course God does not advocate sheer recklessness, but never to have risked the assets entrusted to us is a recipe for utter loss. This command applies to all of life, our spiritual, intellectual, athletic, artistic talents, and any others. Some spiritual traditions speak of self-realization, and there is truth in that, if you do not place the emphasis on self to the exclusion of God, as if you could “do -it –yourself.” So I take our hard saying, not as a prescription but as a description of what happens when we behave like the first money manager in the parable. What do you think?


The Downward Ascent

The Downward Ascent

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

October 30, 2005

Scripture: Romans 1:16-17; 3; 22B-28; Matthew 7: 21-29

“He that is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” –Matthew 23:12

The message of our Gospel for today is quite straight – forward. It warns against haughtiness and arrogance in religious practice and religious communities, a situation that it summarizes by the word “hypocrite!” Its targets are those who do not practice what they preach, who lay heavy burdens of moral obligation on others but do not themselves share the struggle to bear those burdens. They do their good deeds for the sake of public recognition, of their wealth as well as their righteousness, and they wear the symbols of piety ostentatiously. (After our service two weeks ago Rosemary and I saw barely a block from here, a very big Jewish man with a very big prayer shawl, black and white with long fringes – “they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” [Phylacteries are little boxes in which are placed tiny scrolls of sacred law, and then are bound on the forehead and upper arm of the worshipper during prayers]). In those days more than today, a public piety could be very impressive and inspire awe and admiration. Jesus saw such people in his day and warned that they were hypocrites who “love the place of honor at feasts and the best seat in the synagogue, and salutations in the market place, and being called rabbi by men.”

To this situation Jesus says, “But you are not to be called rabbi because you have one teacher and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth for you have one father who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ,” and then follows the quotation at the head of this sermon, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; and whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. This whole passage (23:1-12) serves to introduce what are called the “Woes against the Pharisees,” which are perhaps the bitterest accusations hurled against anyone in the whole Bible, with the exception of that Psalm depicting God’s joy at the prospect that the babies of the infidel will have their little heads dashed to pulp against a stone.

Today political correctness forbids us from reading these woes as in any sense accurate or factual, as describing any member or class of Jesus’ own Jewish religious community. In historical fact there were no hypocrites, no arrogant flaneurs among those whom Jesus encountered in the synagogues and village squares of his time. These bitter accusations are the fictions of a sick anti-Semitism that arose in the Christian communities after the death of Jesus. Of course, this claim is nonsense, arrant nonsense. If there were not a large number of hypocrites and frauds, flamboyant or otherwise, in Jesus’ religious world he was not living in this world at all. The exaggeration of Jewish innocence then and now is of course a reactionary phenomenon, but to understand it cannot be to condone it, for the simple reason that it prevents us from understanding our own scriptures, which in the present passage teaches a precious lesson.

Those of you who know me will recognize this question. If you want to understand the spiritual message of scripture ask as your first question, “With whom do I identify in the cast of characters in this story?” I believe that all of us make the initial mistake of identifying with Jesus. He is the hero of the story, the one we care about, whose desires we share. We are not hypocrites! No way! We are with Jesus!

This matter of which characters in a story we identify with is central to the literary analysis of that story. We all know how unsatisfying it can be when reading a novel to find no character about whom we care, with whom we share feelings, for whom we desire a happy outcome. One of the signs of a bad novel is this absence of credible characters who engage our emotions. How much more powerful is this literary phenomenon when we are reading about Jesus? Of course we share his desires, want him to succeed, we identify with him. He is after all the Lord.

And so we make the morally and spiritually fatal mistake of joining Jesus in excoriating the hypocrites, his fellow Jewish hypocrites, when we should be joining the hypocrites and listening to Jesus with fear and trembling, excoriating us. Jesus is speaking to us, to me and to you, in our own present day alive and well hypocrisy. We however hear him speaking to distant hypocrites, long ago and far away, or to those of today who are just like them. Thus we deflect the light of his truth from our own guilty hearts onto those other truly guilty people. This is the scapegoat maneuver, which is a central part of our response mechanism. All human beings initially react by blaming others and only later as a result of teaching and grace, begin to take responsibility. Knowing this therefore let us try to imagine what here and now, a proper response to this passage might be.

Jesus tells us that any response must begin with humility. We must line up with the hypocrites and hear ourselves described in all our arrogance and self -love. We are those who are ostentatious in piety, in our case I daresay we mean our outspoken moral superiority to all those crooks and liars who are running the country right now. Our exaltation takes the form of elevation to the moral high ground. “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted,” says Jesus. So let’s settle for this interpretation, that Jesus wants us to be humble and that he wants us to take our fair share of responsibility and not shift all the blame to others…and then in conclusion see what we can make of it in our lives today.

Does this reading entail that we stop our witness for what we believe to be morally and spiritually right because we cannot maintain such a witness without implying we are better than others, that is, without the scapegoat maneuver? I must say that I hope not. If nobody dares to tell the emperor that he is naked we shall all be stripped bare in a relatively short time. Perhaps the fact that in Andersen’s story the revealer is a child is essential, and that we should here take into account that other teaching of Jesus about the priority of children as candidates for heaven. Can they be morally superior without expecting the status that goes with superiority? I hope so. And if they can speak the truth without polluting it with their own arrogance perhaps we can also. At least Jesus invites us to become as children and if he invites us it must at least be possible. So it seems we can occupy the moral high ground humbly, like a child.

This maneuver would be the opposite of the scapegoat maneuver, to point out responsibility even as we share in it, and it is possible only in the power of what I recently called “Outrageous Grace,” (beyond, “Amazing Grace”), the grace that makes keeps us innocent like a child. Its phenomenology is something like this: I declare my moral witness first by acknowledging the log in my own eye, and only after that do I turn to the splinter in the eyes of my neighbors, that is I make myself an example of what is wrong with us all, and of the pungency of God’s grace. I gladly accept that I am a sinner, living by grace alone. I look ruefully on the obvious inadequacy of my life and witness when viewed in the light of Christ’s purity, or even by simple comparison with other good people I know who do so much more honest good than I do; but I do not despair, that is, I do not give up for shame, because His grace holds me up day by day as gradually I become less of a hypocrite and more of a child of God. And I believe that He will exalt me in the end as I humble myself in the present under the simple truth of my sin and His grace.

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we honor Martin Luther to whom God revealed by exegesis of Scripture (to a Professor of the Old Testament) that the divine righteousness is not the moral demand before which we are all trembling hypocrites but the divine love in which we are all forgiven sinners and sons and daughters of heaven – the righteousness of God by which God makes us righteous.


Law and Grace

Law and Grace

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

October 2, 2005

Scripture: Philippians 3:4b-16; Matthew 21: 33-46

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” –Philippians 4:12

The texts for today demand that we take up the celebrated theme of Law and Gospel, once so central to the Reformation and still a guide to the essence of our faith. The OT reading is the Ten Commandments as recorded in Exodus (20:1-20) and our Epistle is an excerpt from the passage in which Paul reveals how he understood what he was doing when he turned from his life as an especially observant Jew to go “off course,” as it were, after Christ.

Theologians debate the extent to which Paul either left his ancestral faith, Judaism, and found new faith, Christianity, or merely modified his Jewish faith to accommodate the Messiah. These abstract names for faith stances – Judaism and Christianity – are anachronistic of course, nevertheless one must ask how seriously to take statements like, “…one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. ‘ What is he forgetting, if not his former life as a Jew, with all its law-dependent expectations?’

Before we go deeper into the theology of Law and Gospel let us fix the practical significance of the issue at stake. This reverses my usual order of sermonizing, putting the “so what?” cart before the “this is the truth” horse. The “so what” concerns the way religion based on law generates anxiety in the form of guilt and the fear of condemnation.
Legal religion in this form is, I believe, the default position for human beings; it is natural religion. Religion originates in a great fear generated by a great disorder and takes the initial form of a unanimous killing, which unites the group and thus brings order, and subsequently becomes the primal ritual, called sacrifice. Religious law governs the way the ritual must be done and the way the participants in it and its benefits must act. Idolatry and envy are the two pillars of this natural religion and that is one reason why the first command of the Decalogue is the prohibition on idolatry (Exodus 20:1) and the last command the interdict against envy (covetousness) (20:20).

We all know, as Paul himself says, that you cannot interdict envy and idolatry simply by saying, “Don’t do it.” Paul knows what every mother knows, that to say that is to cause the very act we wish to prevent (Romans 7:7- “I should not have known what it is to covet had the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”). We humans are perverse in that way. The more we prohibit things the more irresistible they become. We want most the things we can have least.

This situation generates great anxiety and great guilt, which in turn has great negative effects on the individual and society. The individual becomes insatiably ambitious and projects the imagined unworthiness of his/her own guilt onto others. Society becomes a texture of mutual blame and individual resentment.

Some, perhaps many, say that this is an erroneous reading of the human situation, arising out of the peculiarly doleful spirit of religion in general and the Christian religion in particular. I agree that we Christians are significantly afflicted with this gloomy expression of the primal anxiety, and I find churches to be frequently unhealthy spiritual environments because of guilt and its projections flying hither and thither among those who claim to love each other.
Last Sunday I spoke of how we Christians have done immense damage in the field of sexuality. That is but one, one very important sphere where our faith instead of freeing us from fear imprisons us in it and pollutes a great spring of joy that God intended for the refreshment of his human creatures. This Sunday I believe that the NT, in this wonderful confession by the Apostle Paul, shows us a way to go from anxiety and guilt to liberty.

Recently I picked up a book by Roger Rosenblatt an essayist for the Lehrer Newshour on PBS, titled, “Rules for Aging: resist normal impulses, live longer, attain perfection (New York: Harcourt 2000).” The opening lines of the book are: “Whatever you think matters- doesn’t. Follow this rule, and it will add decades to your life.” All analogies are imperfect, but let’s say for our present purposes the law-based life is one in which everything matters, and so I have always to be in control, especially of myself. The grace-based life says that everything matters but I can do very little about things because, thank God, I am not in control and can never be. Everything that matters is in the hands of God, so RELAX! Once we internalize this movement of faith we know the deepest grace of all, relief from anxiety. As we grow older, paradoxically we naturally worry less about control of things in this world and more about control in the next. This is especially absurd, but nevertheless real, because death is the final instance of not being in control and the fear of death haunts everyone, especially those who say that they do not fear it. I remember recently being moved to tears by Brahms’ “Ein deutches Requiem” because it so powerfully brought home to me what I keep saying I do not fear. The reality of death is unavoidably sad and desolating in the base section of the second movement, “Und alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” The music drags one down, one feels one is sinking, and then the flutes and reeds interrupt with a heavenly theme that lifts one up- and it all happens beyond ones control – law kills grace gives life.

Let us turn at last to the horse that pulls this cart of freedom and assurance in faith. Paul looks back on his life as a strictly observant Jew and compares it to the life he found by faith in Jesus Christ. By comparison a life of observance, within the context of an exalted lineage and a distinguished intellectual career is like a garbage heap. Current theologians do not want us to interpret this psychologically because that interpretation inevitably includes a strong criticism of Judaism and we are not to criticize Jewish religion.

Be that as it may, I think that Paul means his life as a Jew when he refers to “…forgetting what lies behind.” He does not claim already to have identified with Christ so much that he will undoubtedly rise with him; the uncertainty of faith has not been removed. Nevertheless he presses on, and mature Christians should do the same. Do what? Do this: Forget the religion of law, the law-based faith that generates anxiety and casts the shadow of death over us; forget it, get it out of your system, don’t let it stir up fear that if I do not keep to this or that rule, conviction, persuasion, you will be damned. Forget it and press on.

Where to? Somewhere vague and undefined, something wonderful: “…the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).”
Why should I be so rash and adventurous? Why should I risk letting go of all the religious certainties that have guided and comforted me for so long? Why let go? BECAUSE JESUS CHRIST HAS GRABBED HOLD OF ME! (3:12). Now all I have to do is stretch and stretch to grab hold of him! I CAN LET GO BECAUSE HE WILL NEVER LOOSEN HIS GRIP. There have been many times in my life when I seem to have lost touch with him, but he has never relaxed his grip on me. Therefore, nothing matters except that I “press on to make this faith in Christ my own, because Christ has made me his own (3:12).”


Crooks and Whores

Crooks and Whores

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 25, 2005

Scripture: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32

“Truly I say to you the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.” –Matthew 21:32

The key to an understanding of the teaching of Jesus is that it was so irksome to the good folk of his time that they had him crucified. It was the church people of his time that arranged his death and, within their frame of reference, they had good reason to do it. We church people do not kill those who tell moving stories and assure us that God loves us – as the current sentimental Jesus of the toothless church is portrayed. We do kill those who challenge the authenticity of our deepest convictions. Woe to anyone who says that white collar criminals and red lingerie ladies are nearer to the will of God than we are, because they know they are spiritually bereft, while we claim to be spiritually secure. They cry, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner,” while we say, “Lord, vindicate my righteousness, especially in the face of those shameless white collar criminals and politicians, and any other people like that.” (I confess that this saying of Jesus knocks me off my moral high ground above white collar crooks like Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Koslawski, both recently sentenced to long prison terms for corporate fraud, about whom I feel righteously indignant. Jesus warns me that they may be nearer the kingdom than I, and I fervently do not want to hear that. This is why I always follow the lectionary when I preach; it forces me to listen to texts I would otherwise avoid).

We must admit that Jesus gets our attention by telling us that when we are unwilling to change we are worse than crooks and whores. Point taken. And he alerts us to the fact that he was on occasion personally obnoxious; and we remember that the grace of God he revealed was not only amazing but also outrageous (cf. Matt. 20:1-16; Lk. 16:1-9). Please bear that in mind because what I am going to say will be obnoxious and outrageous to at least some of us- or I shall have failed.

So, what do I hear from Jesus today? I hear that those people whom I despise are nearer to God than I because they are able to recognize their need to change. They are not complacent; they are open to change, to radical change. And that is the theme I propose for this reconciliation reflection, the theme of change. Change has been of the essence of Christian faith since it first came from the lips of Jesus. Perfection in love was one of John Wesley’s pet themes; to this day we Methodist clergy have to aver upon ordination that we are going on to perfection. The definitive statement on perfection comes from St Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Greek theologian who was one of the architects of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and who said that since God is infinite and we are finite we shall never reach perfection in the sense of full union with God, so the journey itself is the perfection. We shall always have to be moving on deeper and deeper into the divine love, never resting permanently but only for a time, and never arriving. That is why Paul the Apostle says that faith, hope and love abide forever, because as creatures we shall ever only be related to our creator by faith and hope, and experience him in love. Life is a journey, eternal life is a journey, what St Bonaventure called the ”itinerarium mentis in deum,” the journey of the mind into God.

The change we focus on today is the change in the church’s theology of sex and gender that is taking place even as we speak. I think the period of the change of attitude towards gay and lesbian people in our church is well underway and approaching maturity, and now we must ask if and how the basic convictions of the faith are following suit. It is important for many and obvious reasons to square our deep convictions with our outer behavior, and it is important for gay people to know that they are our fellow Christians not by suffrage from us who are prepared out of love for them to bend the rules, but by full entitlement from the Christ himself.

So I have one point to make and three books to recommend. The point is that God has infinitely more light and truth to break forth for us from his revealing word, and that as we move on in the perfection of the journey into God, which is the true perfection of us creatures, we receive light and truth along the way. One of the latest great gifts of the divine grace, which remember Jesus tells us is not merely amazing but outrageous, is the gift of sexual and gender liberation, in which we are enabled to receive with joy freedom in sexuality and gender orientation. God now tells us that how people physically express their relationship with each other – vaginally, anally, orally- is not of determinative importance to the relationship itself. God does not favor the missionary position or sanction only one orifice. We are all the disciples of Jesus, all the children of God, however we choose to connect physically, and God wants us to cultivate and cherish relationships that are loving, generous and honest rather than worry about the physics of it.

This entails a massive change in the Christian theology of sex and gender. There is scarcely any field where the Christians have done more emotional, moral and spiritual damage than in the field of sexuality. Because of Christian teaching it has for many been impossible to enjoy sex without guilt, and the deep alternatives have been only the virgin or the whore. The third possibility of a joyous, innocent sexual practice has been excluded.

Let us look at some current examples of the catastrophic effect of Christian sex morals: Young men and women are pledging before their churches and parents, publicly promising to abstain from intercourse before marriage. The result of this practice to date is a huge increase in anal and oral sex, so that a bride comes to her wedding night with a virtuous vagina and two virtuoso alternatives. Christian pieosity thus ironically encourages gay sex practice. There is also an increase in unwanted pregnancies as people do not admit beforehand that they might have regular intercourse and are carried away in guilty ecstasy. Then consider the Roman Catholic priests’ dilemma, under a Christian teaching so hostile to sex that it glorifies lifelong abstinence and produces the saddest, most tragic results that we all read of daily.

Let’s focus specifically today on how we should regard church theology’s view of gay and lesbian sexuality. I suggest that we should regard the church’s hostility to it like the church’s view of slavery. Once not so long ago we endorsed slavery and backed the slave owner’s right to possess and use his property. Now there is surely no Christian theology that would endorse such a position, despite the fact that worldwide slavery is alive and well, encompassing something like 8 hundred thousand victims. This year John Noonan, a justice of the Federal Appeals Court of the Ninth Circuit and a Catholic layman published, ”A Church that Can and Cannot Change; The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (South Bend: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2005).” In it he points out how the Roman church, despite its iron clad moral bureaucracy finally condemned slavery in 1888, after every Christian nation had declared it illegal- the shepherd running to catch up with the sheep. Also this year Adam Hochschild, Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley (Author of “King Leopold’s Ghost”) published “Bury the Chains; Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin 2005) in which he points out how impossible the prospect of ending chattel slavery appeared in the 18th century when English evangelical Protestants, led by Thomas Clarkson and Granville Clark, and later by William Wilberforce, set out to end it. Virtually the whole economy of England depended on the famous triangular trade of trinkets from Bristol, slaves from Guinea, and sugar from the West Indies. Most of those huge palaces and country houses we tourists visit in England, were built on the bones of black men and women and their sumptuous gardens watered with slaves’ blood. The church supported this trade. Jonathan Edwards even as he preached to the Indians had a black slave to help him, and George Whitfield kept slaves to support his orphanage in Philadelphia, to mention only two heroes of our Methodist Evangelical tradition. John Wesley himself however was adamantly against it from the beginning and forever.

The third book I wish to refer to is by David S. Reynolds, called “John Brown Abolitionist; the Man who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights (New York: Knopf, 2005).” There is no time to say anything more, except that Brown was the first truly enlightened Christian in America. Thoreau called him a second Christ; Emerson called him the exemplar of the great American individual, and the Jim Crow historians after the War of the Rebellion called him a madman. Today, because of Reynolds’ work we know that he favored the real empowerment of the blacks and the emancipation of women, in the first half of nineteenth century. This book brings us to our own time. The War of the Rebellion emancipated the slaves but did not end slavery. Hurricane Katrina showed us in New Orleans that the fight for equal rights goes on; nevertheless I doubt there in a church that would dare to say that God wants black people to be an underclass, and by that token no church should dare to say that gay and lesbian people are to be a pariah class.

So when we read the sources of our revelation now, especially the Bible – we must read them in the same way as we do with reference to slavery. All that about slavery is passé, all that about women keeping quiet in church is passé, and all that about homosexuals being unacceptable to God is passé. The history of the moral teaching of the church shows this, and the Rev. John Robinson knew this when from the coast of Holland he waved the Pilgrims “Goodbye” as they set sail for a New England in North America in the year 1620, on the ship “Mayflower.” “Go boldly into the unknown,” he said (or should have said), “Look to the good future, because “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word!” Today we claim and exalt the new light and truth that has broken forth for us and illuminates our way into the truer sexuality of this next stage of our journey together deeper and deeper into the divine love.


Outrageous Grace

Outrageous Grace

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 18, 2005

Scripture: Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16

“Is your eye evil because I am good?” –Matthew 20:15

This is one of the more memorable of Jesus’ many memorable parables. It is especially memorable because it is an immoral story told to indicate what the kingdom of God is like. It is not the only such parable used by Jesus. We think immediately of the story of the unjust steward, who having been fired for defrauding his master defrauds him again and was praised by Jesus for his cunning and resourcefulness (Luke 16:1-9). What do we make of the fact that Jesus could tell stories whose moral logic is corrupt in order to tell us about the logic of God’s action?
The first thing to understand is that Jesus tells these parables not to give us moral guidance but to reveal the nature of God. By our parable Jesus is not teaching us that it is morally acceptable to take advantage of workers who bear the heat and burden of a twelve hour shift by paying workers who work only one hour the same wage, and when the all-day workers complain insists on the letter of the contract rather than acting in its spirit.

Rather, and this is the second thing to say, Jesus uses this parable to describe the radical graciousness of God’s grace, the outrageousness of the divine love, a love that surpasses human understanding at every level, logical, aesthetic and moral. By these parables Jesus communicates the outrageousness of our Father’s love for us, that is, he reveals the nature of God rather than endorses our human sense of justice. This is the lesson Jesus gives us today, so let us hear it, understand it, believe it and act on it.

I assume we have by now heard it and so may move on to try to understand it. An understanding must come to terms first with the deep human expectation that life is just, that good people prosper and bad people suffer, that virtue succeeds and vice fails. I imagine there have been many sermons recently trying to come to terms with the uneasiness, even outrage, felt by people stricken by the hurricane, drowned in their beds, stripped of their belongings. Why does God allow such things to happen?

I am sure some sermons answered that the inhabitants of New Orleans and the surrounding territory have been like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah greater sinners than the rest of us and so deserve this divine visitation. There are preachers who say that HIV/Aids is a punishment from God for immoral living, and those who said that the 9/11 catastrophe was brought on by sins like feminism, liberalism, and homosexuality. Such thinking has deep roots in the Bible, but not in the teaching of Jesus. Listen to our parable! It says that God does not reward us according to our deserts but according to His outrageous grace.

This is not a complete account of the divine providence. Jesus still holds to the traditional notion that we cannot sin against God with impunity, that we must all account for our lives before the judgment throne of God. So what does our parable have to say to that? Simply this: that God’s morality is not the same as ours, or more precisely, we understand the divine morality only very imperfectly.

The heart of our misunderstanding is that we think God’s morality is like ours based on a strict law of exchange, a system of quid pro quo, of equal actions and reactions, which entails a deep attachment to the idea of equality or fairness. Here are some examples: One of the more destructive features of Communist society was that people resented those who rose above or went ahead of the group. There are several metaphors for this phenomenon, the nail that sticks up is pounded down, or, crabs in a box pull back down any of their fellow crabs that begin to succeed in the climb out of the box. Jesus corrects this view of God’s morality, which was taught by Moses. God does not deal with us by the morality of exchange, but rather by the generosity of grace. If God were to deal with us according to human justice we would long ago have perished.

In our Gospel passage this tit for tat mode of human justice is represented by the saying I have taken as our text, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The evil eye is the envious eye that mourns at the good fortune of the other, that resents the beautiful, and the strong and the successful, and perhaps most of all the fortunate, or in our Christian language, the blessed and the graced. In our parable the eleventh hour workers get a break, receive a gift. They are humbled by the boss’s generosity, struck dumb by his kindness, blessed by his love. The 12-hour group feels that this generosity cheapens their wage, they are chagrined that they did not sign up for more, and above all they are deeply unhappy at the happiness of the others. What matters most to them is their advantage relative to the others, the fact that they should be better off than they. They cannot appreciate the absolute gain of all because they want the relative gain of some, that is, themselves. “It is not sufficient for me to succeed; my friend has also to fail.”

I need not say more about this whole group of shameful and unworthy feelings that have at one time or another afflicted us all. We have all resented even feared the gifts of another, and we all know that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to begin to leave resentment behind and begin genuinely to feel joy in the goodness, beauty and truth of the other, and especially in his or her blessed success. If you deny that you have ever felt this way I think you need to think again with a bit more honesty. There is nothing to fear, because our parable repeats what the whole N T says repeatedly, that God is love and that love casts out fear.

I called this sermon “Outrageous Grace.” Amazing Grace is a well-known term for God’s way with us, and it is accurate as far as it goes, but it does not go all the way. Grace all the way is outrageous grace. Grace all the way affronts our sense of justice and undercuts our human structure of morality. And for good reason. Think of the historical instances when human justice was taken with radical seriousness. Egalitarian movements like Communism made the natural indignation about injustice the central, guiding principle of human society, and look what it has wrought: the cruelest, most murderous, least gentle societies in all of human history.

In conclusion let us look again at the parable. An employer violates the natural order of justice by paying an equal wage for unequal work. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like that. When God acts He does not act according to the deepest instinct of human justice, the quid pro quo of fairness. God is unfair. That is the glorious truth of God that Jesus brings. God is unfair.

And thank God that God is unfair because if God dealt with us fairly, according to our own principle of exchange, no one of us would survive. The 12-hour workers who demand their just deserts know nothing. They do not know that their just deserts are divine anger and retribution, that their wages are in any case a gift and not a well-earned reward, that true humanity rejoices not in receiving what it deserves but in knowing and experiencing the outrageous generosity of a divine lover who pours on all our ugly self-serving the one thing we do not and cannot deserve, the joyous gift of his divine love. Our joy is to receive what we do not deserve. Indeed, the whole calculus of deserving, the structure of exchange is out of place here. God loves us, our divine lover loves us, and in that is all the fullness of satisfaction we can contain. After all, even we, incarcerated in this fallen and depraved world, even we know that love cannot be deserved, it’s just not like that. Love does not live in the world of quid pro quo, love is not a contract; it is rather a wonder and a miracle. Even the prisoners in the penitentiary of this world can know that if they pay attention.
How much more we Christians to whom Jesus reveals the nature of the kingship of God! Remember this parable is not an example of how to conduct business in this world. It is rather a revelation of how God our Father does business in the eternal realm where we enter or refuse the kingdom of God. Imagine going to hell insisting like the 12-hour workers that the divine grace be just and fair.

In my last sermon I wondered aloud why church people are so often so mean, so exclusionary, so cruel. I did not give any answers to my question, and I still cannot give any; however, church people are usually very proper and just, fair-minded and orderly, so God help the wretch who finds outrageous grace. Perhaps that is the direction in which to search for answers. The very moral rectitude of such people makes them cruel. Secondly, there might be understanding to be found in the fact, patent on every page of the gospels, that Jesus was an outrageous character who took church people (he called them Pharisees) seriously only as examples of who God was not, how not to act, and of those who would not enter God’s kingdom. Clearly for Jesus God deals with us outrageously. That I think is why Jesus says that crooks and whores go into the kingdom before church people (Matthew 21:31). We are church people so let us be doubly careful to include a little outrageousness in our lives.


The Debt of Love

The Debt of Love

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 4, 2005

Scripture: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” –Romans 13:8

Our theme today is authority and governance within the Christian community. This may not seem a very interesting topic but recent events in New Orleans have shown us once again how vital the matter of governance is for human life, and how serious its failure can be. Negligent governors are clearly responsible for a large measure of the death and destruction that is taking place there. Unwise, indeed criminally irresponsible, policy decisions at all levels of government left the city unprotected against natural disasters that were well-known threats, and government response was shamefully lackadaisical. The responses of the foreign press are interesting; one British source said that there was reluctance in Britain to take emotional account of our suffering because while people respond warmly to another’s need they are embarrassed to witness another’s shame. The world is ashamed of us, and our government is only slowly and reluctantly realizing what there is to be ashamed of. The principals seemed reluctant to interrupt their vacations, and painfully slow to express any sympathy for the poor who bear the brunt of the suffering. Imagine if New Orleans had been wiped out like this by a terrorist bomb, how our leaders would be fulminating against the perpetrators and preparing to invade another foreign land, preparing perhaps to send the Louisiana National Guard to Teheran.

Enough of that! We are appalled and ashamed enough as it is. The Apostle Paul tells us in this chapter 13 of Romans to obey the government and pay all our taxes. He wrote this before the Roman Empire made Christians underclass trash and began sporadic legal and systematic persecution of the Church, before the emperor Nero had torched the poor section of Rome to clear a space urban gentrification, then burned Christians on stakes set up along the great highways for perpetrating his crime. Thus the poor paid twice; they were rendered homeless and then executed en mass for destroying their own homes. (It is disappointing to note how little attitudes have changed down the millennia). When Paul wrote this he could still be proud of being a Roman citizen and could still appeal to Caesar’s justice in Rome for protection against Jewish persecution in Jerusalem.

We cannot endorse him unequivocally here because we live post-Nero, and we know that at best the state gives us an uneasy, but nevertheless vital order, but is always capable of gross neglect, cruel persecution and even systematic mass murder. The Nazi-collaborating, mainly Protestant, clergy of the Third Reich, quoted Romans 13 relentlessly to encourage support of the Nazi state. We Christians now know that obedience to Christ demands a dialectical attitude to the state, a “yes but…” stance, and that was why I resisted the flying of the flag of the USA over the Woodside Church in my day, an arrangement that changed the very day I left.

We cannot endorse Paul unequivocally, in this way, because we know too much about the nature and practice of the state, and it seems Paul too realized that the state is a brittle reed not to be leaned on too heavily, even though we pay for it and use it, an institution to which we say a soft and tentative “Yes” and a loud and emphatic “No!” He had seen how the state working by law had murdered Jesus, crucified God’s Christ, and exalted raw power over humble love. He knew that the government was made up mostly of self-serving liars, cruel hypocrites and cold psychopaths. Therefore the true debt we owe is not tax to the state but love to one another in emulation of Jesus. In his death Jesus reveals that the truth of human relations is not law but love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:10).” The state works by law, Christ works by love. The state takes, and may or may not give in return, Jesus gives, and gives. Therefore, Paul sums up, “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (13:14).”

We hear and understand what Paul is saying, and we know how impossible it is to realize, how much of a miracle the mutual love of a community that needs no law is, and at this point our Gospel passage becomes relevant. Matthew 18:15-20 is about church governance and polity, and it reflects more the needs of a developing community than the teaching of a wandering holy man and his twelve disciples. To interpret this passage aright we must put it in its historical context, which is the early church trying to get organized, trying to set up a procedure for dealing with the divisiveness of diversity. Who decides who is right in disputed matters? Matthews church sets up in this passage a procedure for resolving disputes: first try to resolve the matter privately, then take it to the elders of the church before witnesses and then if there is no reconciliation expel the recalcitrant ones. Up to this point it is just a practical procedure for peaceful co-existence, but the logic moves on. Whatever the church decides on earth is ratified in heaven, because whenever two or three come together in Christ’s name, he himself is there and their decision is Christ’s decision.
This is the fatal step into idolatry, the self-idolization of the Church. The church claims the authority of Christ for its pragmatic rulings, and expulsion under these circumstances is condemnation to Hell. This sort of self-understanding is what separates me personally from the churches of Rome and Constantinople, despite the fact that I find most of their doctrine impeccable, and hugely more consistent than our Protestant meanderings.

But having said that one must admit that the reality of mutual love in the Christian community is a very rare event, and that avoidance of self-idolization does not effect mutual love. I experienced Protestant congregations as on the whole the cruelest, least loving places I was ever in, despite the loving individuals I met there. It seemed to me that the average congregation exemplifies the opposite of the principle of emergence. The whole is always less than the sum of its parts. Let two or more individually loving church people come together in a committee and it is not Jesus Christ whom one encounters in their midst, but his opposite. We have all been part of this weird anomaly, that the more we speak of love the less we show of it…. at least in church communities. For that reason I am more and more reluctant to advise people to join churches. Rather go, I say, to some large cathedral where you can worship Christ without having to encounter at close hand the Church Christians.

I do not say this to blame anyone, or rather, I emphatically include myself in the class of those to be blamed, and so must conclude this sermon at a loss. I do not know why church congregations are so lacking in love, why they beat each other up with the strictures of law and moral blackmail, why they are so unforgiving, why they claim so much for their own authority, as if when two of them get together Jesus and not simple gossip is between them.

Let me try to stop my loss somewhat by quoting another text from Matthew, which I believe is much nearer to the mind of Jesus than the authority- mad text set for today in 18:15-20. In 23:8-12, part of an attack by Jesus on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he says,” But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one father who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”


Spiritual Patience

Spiritual Patience

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

July 17, 2005

Scripture: Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

“But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it with patience.” –Romans 8:25

Both our readings for today might be seen as lessons in patience and warnings against impatience. The parable told by Jesus calls us to wait until the final judgment before we judge one another – when, of course, the judging will be done not by us but by God, – and Paul tells us to endure our current trials and tribulations in a spirit not of frustration but of hope. The patience in question here is spiritual patience, that is, “big picture” patience, as distinct from the “small picture” patience we all need when we deal with each other day by day. In military terms it is strategic rather than tactical patience. “Big picture” patience encompasses the human condition and the whole world; it is part of the long-term grand strategy of human life. Its opposite, impatience, usually appears as a “righteous indignation” aimed at “those others” who continually mess up the larger canvass of life. Spiritual impatience frets because the picture of the human condition has so many reds and blacks in its composition, so much blood and willful blindness, and wants to take decisive action now to repaint the portrait of humanity in happier colors. Jesus and his apostle Paul warn against this spiritual impatience for very good reason. History shows that it is the single most fruitful cause of cruelty, manipulation and mayhem.

Jesus tells us to leave the weeds growing amongst the wheat because if we try to pull them up before harvest time we shall damage too much of the good crop. And in any case we are not competent to judge, not then, at the end, and certainly not now, before the end; and in any case judgment is the work of God and the angels.
Paul tells us to endure our present sufferings patiently because we have a good and realistic hope that they will end with our victory. The whole universe, he says, groans with us under the present circumstances, and together we are all waiting for the time when the truth will emerge victorious, and we with it.

These are basic teachings of Jesus as well as obvious rules of simple prudence. It is prudent to be patient. The AA prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr is a classic statement of this holy prudence: “God give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That wisdom is the wisdom of prudence, which is a form of patience.

Let us now apply this lesson of Jesus and the Apostle to our present circumstances. Last Friday Doonesbury had the effete journalist Hedley interview a terrorist with a red sack over his head. “Why do you do it Mr. al-Jarazz?” he asks. “Not for the reasons you might expect,” al-Jarazz replies. “Not to expel foreign invaders from Arab lands, not to avenge the deaths of thousands of our men, women and children at American hands, not even for the heavenly rewards I shall receive, but simply because being an evildoer I hate freedom!” “So it’s true!” exclaims Hedley.

The mind that believes this to be the real motivation of the Iraq insurgents and other terrorists is of course dangerously naïve, and is appropriately satirized in the comic strip. It is, however, the reason given from time to time by the deep thinkers in our current administration, beginning from the top, and it is of course risible. It is plausibly a symptom of a common religious way of thinking by means of absolute distinctions. I well remember Sen. McCain’s response to the question why they hate us, “Because we are good and they are evil.”
Setting aside for the moment the delusion of McCain’s claim, by our parable for today Jesus explicitly forbids acting on the basis of such judgments. You might believe you know who are the weeds but you are not to act to uproot them. Many, perhaps most of those who support this kind of absolutist political analysis are zealous Christians, and our administration does not discourage the notion that they are acting for Christ against evildoers, pulling up the weeds so that the wheat may grow better. We, of course are the wheat, and they are the weeds.

So we set out proactively to extirpate the evildoers abroad, and defensively to protect the homeland. Through a series of policy decisions that can only be described as delusional, a word a NYT editorial used to describe the President’s recent speech on staying the course in Iraq, we are now paying 2 billion a week in money and a hundred plus in lives Iraq. Worldwide terrorist acts are at their highest rate ever! It cannot be doubted that our activity in Iraq is achieving the opposite of what our policy intends. We are causing a high level of recruitment and training of terrorists, while last week the Washington budget makers greatly reduced the money available for protection of urban mass transit, and the congress distributes security money on the old pork barrel principle and not according to the objective needs of security.

So while we are agreed that the number one threat is a nuclear device in an urban area our ports do not have technology to sniff out nuclear material in containers, we do not adequately inspect the 6 million containers that come in every year, and there is no money to move ahead to meet those needs, because we are spending too much to create terrorists in Iraq. Instead of going after real weapons of mass destruction patiently, we are wasting our young blood and old treasure on a fool’s errand that began as a chase after bogus wmds and now is a just a fool’s errand per se, while our enemies grow cannier and more motivated.

I believe that the present tragedy in which we are involved, and I use the term precisely to describe a sort of madness that the gods give to those they intend to destroy, is due in large part to a Christian misreading of Christ, especially the kind of teaching in our parable. Our Christian leaders want to uproot tyranny abroad and plant democracy, they want to bring freedom to the peoples of the Middle East, and they are making a gargantuan sacrifice of our lives and resources to do it. They are uprooting the weeds of tyranny so that the wheat of liberty may grow, and they have no regard for the warning of Jesus against such zeal. The result will be dire; Jesus does not usually get it wrong.

Now I don’t want to be caught doing the things I preach against, trying to read politics as a clash of opposites, making the wagers of this foolish war evildoers, weeds that I want to uproot. So far as I am human I do want to do that; so far as I am prudent, prudent enough to listen to Jesus, I am content to offer criticism as my contribution to the communal pot of wisdom in the hope that our nation will sooner or later become wise again. And of course it will. Perhaps 9/11 caused a temporary madness, a spiritual panic? Perhaps it caused us to overreact and set out to change the world when we should simply have acted prudently and patiently to save ourselves. It’s that “changing the world” desire that is so dangerous. There has not been a tyrant in history who did not believe that, regrettably, he had to kill people x or class y in order to make the whole rest of the world safe. What would Jesus say? “Leave the weeds to grow, defend yourself as you have to, and do not be too ambitious. Trust in God.”

I have been talking strategically, in terms of the big picture, and criticizing policies that are too ambitious, that desire too much. Let me bring our reflections to the tactical level so that we may in conclusion see the issue up close. I bet there is not one of us here that is not struggling with one or more chronic afflictions. Only Chet knows how many pills I take each day, and I daresay in that I am not different from most of you. We endure our afflictions patiently and humbly, while we take every legal and rational measure to alleviate our symptoms or even cure them. The latter happens less and less as we get older. We just manage patiently. The world as a whole is like that; its afflictions are chronic, and if we try too hard to cure the disease we kill the patient. Jesus’ parable recognizes that, and blesses our condition.

And this brings me to our Pauline passage on patience and hope in the throes of this patient endurance. I try to live in the supernaturally grounded hope Paul sets forth here, and I hope you will too. “I consider the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God…For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Rom. 8:18-25).”


True Simplicity

True Simplicity

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

July 3, 2005

Scripture: Romans 7:15-25; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-35

“I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babes.” –Matthew 11:25

We need to know certain fundamental things if we are to live successfully. In order to find these fundamental things we resort to teachers whom we believe have this knowledge and are able to pass it on to us efficiently and effectively. We here in this chapel believe that Jesus is such a teacher and so we listen to him on the subject of the important things. We are surprised to hear him say that God has hidden these things from the wise and disclosed them to the simple. What could this mean?

Simply it means that when Jesus says, “Come to me…” we listen, believe what we hear, and go to him, and in that moment we are smarter than a genius and cleverer than that well-known rocket scientist. Children know directly what is going on when their mothers or fathers say, “Come here!” They do not always obey the command but they know they are refusing a direct command and do not confuse the issue. Sophisticated adults, on the other hand, suspend reaction and insert critical filters between the speaker and themselves, and if they have been the beneficiaries of an expensive education, are able to obfuscate so effectively that they can appear – to themselves and others – to be obeying, while in fact they are disobeying. This is the essential skill of the politician in a democracy, and thus the slithery back and forth way through the portals of power. Harry Truman, whom I quoted last time, is good for another pearl of wisdom this time. He used to advise, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

In the biblical tradition true teaching about the way to live is called Wisdom. Many took Jesus to be such a teacher of wisdom. I guess in our context he would have been called a professor or a rabbi (as he was in his own time), essentially a teacher of the truth about nature and human life, about morality and aesthetics. He knows what is truly good, truly beautiful and truly authentic, and he passes this knowledge on to others.

It is very difficult to find such a teacher. Today we are flooded with wisdom that is not wise, truth that is not true and beauty that is plain ugly. We are mummified in a bandage wrap of lies. If I knew where a true teacher of the truth was to be found I would go there in haste, I would revere the ground he/she stood upon, and I would sit at his/her feet listening humbly. But where shall wisdom be found?

That is an old question from the biblical tradition. The great poem of Job includes a particularly dramatic passage in chapter 28:12-28 that begins, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” ( and continues) “… Man does not know the way to it and it is not found in the land of the living…It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed for its price…Whence then comes wisdom? And where is the place of understanding? God understands the way to it, and he knows its place…and He said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” ‘Fear of the Lord’ here means acknowledgement of the absolute priority of God in our lives, and it is appropriately linked with repentance, the turning away from evil. When we turn to God and away from evil we make the wisest move we can possibly make, and that move potentially begins a life of wisdom, which is the only satisfying life for a human being.
With this in mind let us look again at our passage for today. In the first part (vs.16-19) Jesus compares us to sulky children who cannot be persuaded to join in the game. “We piped and you would not dance, we mourned and you would not weep (17-18).” Happy games or sad, you simply would not play with us. John the Baptist was sad and stern, Jesus is mild and joyful, but neither is good enough for you.

Who are John and Jesus in this context? They are manifestations of the divine wisdom, and whether sad or glad that wisdom is always in the right, always the one thing needful for human life. So we are not surprised when Jesus adopts the rhetoric of biblical wisdom and calls, “Come to me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am meek and lowly of heart and you shall find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light (vs.28-29).” Compare this with Proverbs 8:1; 4-5, “Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice?’ To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the sons of men. O simple ones learn prudence; O foolish men, pay attention. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right.” In this context John the Baptist is the last prophet of the wise word, and Jesus is that word itself. His call to us is the call of the divine wisdom itself, and when we heed his call we enter into a world of profound simplicity where the yoke of God’s demands is easy and the burden of sharing God’s work is light.

Why are the yoke of truth easy and the burden of truth light? Because it is the innermost reality of our own being, that is, under this yoke we bear not somebody else’s needs and wants but our very own, we serve not an alien command but the natural imperative of our own true self. We turn away from evil, which is all those things, people, ideas and attitudes that drag us hither and yon, and fracture the wholeness of the heart, and we turn to God, who holds the secret of who we really are. This relentless regard for the living God, absolute and exclusive in its form and dynamics, is the first principle of wisdom, and once we know that and act on it, the profoundest truth becomes for us as simple as a baby’s sucking at the mother’s breast. “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babies!”

I am reading a marvelous book this week called “Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, orig. 1948, this edition 2001).” The author, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote these luminous chapters in 1936-37 for a home based seminar organized by his friends and held at his sister’s home in Florence. He was by then a fugitive from the Nazis whom he had opposed publicly, to the extent of editing an anti-Nazi newspaper in Vienna until his friend and patron Chancellor Dolfuss was murdered by the Nazis. It is marvelous that such luminous spiritual wisdom flowed from this exhausted and persecuted man. He made it to the US eventually and became a professor of philosophy at Fordham University in NYC where he had a long and fruitful career.

One of the most helpful chapters in the book is titled ‘True Simplicity’ and I want to share some of its subheadings with you: “Simplicity contrasts with disunity; Simplicity contrasts with psychological convolutedness; Simplicity does not mistake complexity for profundity; Stupidity is not spiritual simplicity; True Simplicity comes only from single-hearted devotion to God; Christ is the principle of true simplicity; Plain honesty contributes to true simplicity; God alone must have primacy; We must offer everything to God; We must thank God for all things; We must view all things with the eyes of faith; Faith enables us to see the hierarchy of values more clearly; We must conform our life to that hierarchy.” These are some of the topics dealt with under the heading, “True Simplicity.”

I said earlier that if I found a true teacher I would go far to sit at his feet. Von Hildebrand is a true teacher, so rush all the way to you laptop and order the book from Amazon or wherever. Read, mark and inwardly digest it, and be transformed in Christ. That’s my current gift to you, and I think, unworthy and inadequate as I am, I am one of your spiritual teachers. The best I can do is point beyond myself, as I hope I always do, to the wisdom of this wonderful book, and to Jesus who is the wisdom of God incarnate.

True simplicity is to pay attention, hear Christ’s call, and go to him.